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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 15, 2009

Roche Starts to Manage Things

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Posted by Derek

So is Roche already flexing its muscles now that the acquisition of Genentech is complete? Reports are this morning that Genentech's CEO, Arthur Levinson, is moving aside for Roche's Pascal Soriot, and several other top executives are leaving as well.

This does not seem like the way to reassure the Genentech folks that Roche is going to leave them in peace, to put it gently. And the sorts of comments that are out there in the press reports can't be helping, either. As that Bloomberg story has it:

The changes begin the company’s transformation to a team- oriented culture from one that supports individual scientific enterprise, said Stephen Burrill, a venture capitalist who invests in biotechnology companies.

He says that like individual scientific enterprise is a bad thing. Update: out of context, perhaps? See the comments section.)

And if that's indeed what made Genentech what it is, then you'd think we need more of it, because (remember) it's a very successful company indeed. I'm always wary of people talking about "team-oriented culture", too. That sounds too much like HR-speak for comfort. And while drug discovery necessarily has to be done by large teams of people, it's the individuals who come up with the ideas. And it's the individuals that push their ideas forward, sometimes in the face of opposition from other individuals who think that they're completely wrong.

That's how new things get tried, and how we sort out what works and what doesn't. Too often, a lot of talk about "team culture" can be the sign of an organization that doesn't value initiative as much as it should. You don't want a bunch of people shouting at each other all the time and refusing to work together, true - but you don't want a situation where no one can do anything without everyone joining hands. A lot of really good ideas don't seem like good ideas to everyone at the time.

So I can't say that I'm happy to read today's news. We'll see what it really means. If Roche themselves start talking about changing Genentech's culture, then all bets are off.

Update: "It will never work because if we owned all of Genentech we would kill it"

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Bay Area Chemist on April 15, 2009 10:54 AM writes...

As a SF Bay Area biotech employee, I couldn't be happier that Roche is making moves to squash the culture at Genentech. Genentech seems to be the closest thing to a universally respected research organization around. The leadership over there has legitimate scientific and business credibility. These are the folks who might be able to dig up funding in our depressed economic climate. If Roche wants to encourage them to branch out on their own by changing the way they do business at Genentech, I say great. We might actually see some new businesses out here, which would hopefully mean more jobs for all the recently laid-off scientist in the area.

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2. SFBayDude on April 15, 2009 11:05 AM writes...

Perhaps. It's worth remembering that when Roche bought Syntex, it's first comment to the assembled masses, trying to calm their fears, was "Think of us first as your bankers." Yep, that's what they said. Bankers. Really reassuring to the science types. I guess you don't really need them to get much value out of a pharmaceutical company, though, right? After all, it's the bankers who get paid the big bucks, and the bankers who know which projects merit capital. That's why Roche was so successful and Genentech wasn't--Roche was run by bankers and Genentech was run by scientists. How does one say Roche-Genentech in German? The Genentech is silent.

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3. CMC Guy on April 15, 2009 11:08 AM writes...

According to Merck chief strategy officer Merv Turner it seems the Scientists are the problem

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4. Alf on April 15, 2009 11:13 AM writes...

I share your concern about the overuse of the term "team" in describing scientific and company progress. Not because teams are not important, they obviously are critical for drug discovery, but rather it suggest that individual contributions are somehow less important. If you look at most scientific breakthroughs they are the result of amazing individual inspiration or effort often in the face of dogma or opposition. Sometimes "teams" will latch on to conventional ideas because they are simpler for the team and management to understand and embrace.

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5. Anonymous Coward on April 15, 2009 11:29 AM writes...


I think that Steve Burrill's quote is taken out of context. In the rest of the article he acknowledges that something is dying in South City, and he isn't happy about it -- except that he now has a nice new talent pool to pick from for his startups.

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6. John Galt on April 15, 2009 12:13 PM writes...

I think Mr. Burrill meant that the "team-oriented culture" was the bad thing.
He better have - since as a VC it is his job to look for individual scientific enterprise.

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7. Smiler on April 15, 2009 12:17 PM writes...

Team vs. Individual? Individual can mean egotist who shouts the loudest and takes the credit for the 'teams' hard work. A gadfly that moves on leaving others to finish or take the stick for the bad idea. Time to drop the romantic vision and start working with your colleagues?

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8. Tyrosine on April 15, 2009 1:43 PM writes...

From what little I know of Stephen Burrill, I believe he supports individual scientific enterprise over "big-pharma teamwork". Afterall, he is a VC that has invested hundreds of millions, if not a billion behind scientist-created scientific enterprises that exploit big-pharma's weaknesses.

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9. anon on April 15, 2009 2:56 PM writes...

I'm guessing the antibody types at Genentech will be safe.....

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10. Sci Fy on April 15, 2009 4:43 PM writes...

It's all going to China and India. You guys just don't get how worthless you are. Unless the US govt mandates R&D stays on these shores, it will leave.

Expensive scientists interfere with executive enrichment. Every company that cuts US operations immediately gives the executives bonuses.

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11. Anon on April 16, 2009 7:38 AM writes...


Do you mean the folks who work on antibodies, or those who manifest an antibody response to the presence of the Roche "teams are everything even if they don't produce anything" people in South SF?

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12. anon on April 16, 2009 1:08 PM writes...

Other Anon,

I mean I wouldn't want to be a small molecule person at Genentech these days.

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13. Iridium on April 17, 2009 1:24 PM writes...

Oddly, Genentech has a large number of job postings up right now on various career sites and their own, including positions for small molecule people. However, with Roche stepping into the managerial roles, it is difficult to interpret what these job postings signal.

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14. Anonymous on April 19, 2009 6:02 PM writes...

I believe that the message is clear that the two research organisations (Roche vs. Genentech) remain separate. It will be interesting though to see who gets the more of the research budget.

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15. GNE SMDD guy on April 20, 2009 1:42 AM writes...

Regarding Genentech Job Postings; if they're listed they're real, I've got one open right now, so don't be shy y'all.

I'd rather be a small molecule person at Genentech these days than at ... you fill in the rest.

The 'managerial roles' Roche is filling are pretty remote, for now, from research including small molecules.

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16. JustMe on April 21, 2009 1:17 PM writes...

Anyone know anything about Pascal Soriot?
Has he met with Genentech employees yet?

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