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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

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April 7, 2011

What's Really Killing Pharma

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Posted by Derek

Update: link fixed!

Anthony Nicholls over at OpenEye really unburdens himself here, in a post that I recommend to anyone in the business (or anyone who wants to see what some of our problems are). Some highlights:

I have come to believe (and I admit that this is only a theory) that as more and more of pharma’s budget was funneled into advertising and direct marketing to both the general public and to doctors themselves, the path to the top in pharma ceased to be via the lab bench and instead was by way of Madison Avenue. . .

. . .I want to end with one of my favorite management insanities- the push within big pharma to remake themselves in the image of biotechs—the reasoning being that biotechs “get things done” and are more productive. Leaving aside the fact that over its history, biotech as a whole has mostly lost money (with only two years of profit in the last twenty-five), I wonder if it occurs to upper management that the principal difference between big pharma and biotech is simply much less upper management. If they are truly serious about making pharma like biotech, then upper management should simply resign. I’m confident that one step would do wonders for innovation.

There's a lot of good stuff in there, on management fads, dealing with the scientific staff, bean-counting, and more. Regular readers of this blog (and its comments section) will find a lot of their opinions reflected, for sure. . .

Comments (88) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Drug Industry History


COMMENTS

1. FormerWindPharmer on April 7, 2011 1:30 PM writes...

This is simply the best precis of the pharma industry as it stands today that I have ever read! He mentions the GSK CEO Witty a few times. The problem there is not that Witty is a bad CEO, I think he's quite good, rather it's the guys he inherited who run R&D, namely Vallance & Slaoui. As many have said on this forum, these guys are a catastrophic mix of arrogance and ignorance and when Witty wises up to them, it will be too late!

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2. -=GimP=- on April 7, 2011 1:37 PM writes...

This is one of the most honest pieces I have read in months and manages to include half a dozen REAL reasons why Pharma is failing. Required reading and I hope the author keeps his promise to follow up on Outsourcing.

DEREK: such pieces are your forte...?

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3. Agilist on April 7, 2011 1:41 PM writes...

Dear FormerWindPharmer, the usual clatrap cheer-leading those who like to blame pharma woes on "fads". Sorry you lost your job at GSK but don't blame Patrick & Moncef for your situation, perhaps you would have benefitted from some six sigma training yourself. As for Moncef's and Patrick's competence: each of them has probably forgotten more about drug discovery than you, or all the other contributors to this forum, will ever know!

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4. Nick K on April 7, 2011 2:10 PM writes...

Agilist: How many successful drugs have Slaoui and Vallance discovered? I'm genuinely curious to know.

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5. Brett on April 7, 2011 2:12 PM writes...

Good essay. That said, if the Pharma Business were more like Hollywood, you'd have about a million lawsuits a year, and your firms would be loaded with attorneys.

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6. Anonymous on April 7, 2011 2:13 PM writes...

With regards to the marketing aspect of pharma taking over, if you search on any job hunting website you will find that the pharma sales positions outnumber scientist positions by a huge number.

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7. HelicalZz on April 7, 2011 2:14 PM writes...

Really? He doesn't even understand the role of a CEO for a large public company, which is more about external relationships and capital allocation than operations, which is a COO or Presidents focus. Nice to have a 'theory', but whether big pharma changed its R&D vs. SG&A ratios isn't all that hard to come by.

Yeah, it is annoying when pharma wants to 'be more like biotech'. But circularly, since pharma has long been profitable, and biotech only recently so, isn't that an argument for the benefits of 'more' upper management. I don't quite get the 'don't be that way, but here's how' point. Pharma likes biotech because it does two things, 1) it allows them to capitalize (rather than expense) R&D via acquisition, and 2) it allows them to diversify R&D risk. Maybe one problem with pharma is too many scientists that don't appreciate business fundamentals.

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8. BixBoy on April 7, 2011 2:21 PM writes...

Derek, really fine piece you've highlighted to us all! The part about IT and how it's dealt with at Big Pharma has real resonance for me. The IT function at most big pharma is considered a consumable like electricity and has suffered particularly badly from outsourcing. It is also run by the very worst examples of empty suits who excel in the very "fads" (Agile, six and lean sigma, ad nauseum) that Anthony Nichols rightly decries. We now also have to suffer a lot of windbags talking about open innovation and the "Pistoia Alliance". This amounts to said Windbags trying to claim credit for work done at the NCBI, EBI, etc, etc. This scenario is true across big pharma.

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9. Gippy on April 7, 2011 2:22 PM writes...

Whats really killing Pharma?
Whats really killing Manufacturing?
Whats really killing Energy?
Whats really killing EVERYTHING PERTAINING TO A PHYSICAL ECONOMY?

Answer: The Financial Parasites as Usual

Go examine the owners of the Federal Reserve system and examine the last names of the individuals. Takes about an hour.

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10. CancerBio on April 7, 2011 2:22 PM writes...

"Define the vision, get and keep the right people..."
I could not agree more. I've heard on more occasion than one of research department heads/directors having to cut good talent because of bad management decisions. These companies are too top heavy (non-scientific MBAs). I've since divested my large-cap pharmaceutical investments; I don't see how these companies will stay at the top if they don't have good science pushing them up.

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11. Tt on April 7, 2011 2:24 PM writes...

Dearest "agilist",
You are, hands down, then funniest troll on this blog. Keep up the funny commentary.

As for the post, it is excellent. I'm an employee of big pharma and will definitely concur that all of the described maladies exist. For example, while six sigma works great in a factory, it stinks at discovery. Please let me know when someone discovers a drug because of some shiny new management wonder tool. The most productive teams I've observed are the ones where management is hands off due to disinterest. My philosophy is to just keep good results quiet until I have it developed to the point where it's more difficult for management to mess up. Personally, I'm fed up with the whole business as described by Nicholls and will jump ship the first chance I get. I know that I'm not the only big pharma grunt who feels this way, so expect the talent drain out of big pharma to continue.

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12. Agilist on April 7, 2011 2:27 PM writes...

Well said HelicalZz! As for how many drugs did X or Y discover? An absurd question: How many applications did Bill Gates write? Drug development, like software development, is a TEAM effort and Patrick and Moncef are team players! As for their scientific expertise, check out "Patrick Vallance" on PubMed!

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13. Hap on April 7, 2011 2:29 PM writes...

4: I don't know, but they seem to have found the secret to making 3/4 of a billion dollars disappear. If that isn't a drug, it certainly stimulates the desire for some, at least among their company's investors, and the laid-off.

8: Has biotech become recently profitable (other than through buyouts from big pharma)? Second, how does buying biotech allow you to diversify risk? You can do lots more research as a company than as many biotechs - you have the infrastructure and experience in particular areas that no small biotech is likely to have, and the so the money you spend on internal R+D goes to R+D, not building up the same (or rather, smaller and less effective versions) infrastructure lots of times. Biotech allows you to work your people harder, with less expectation of security, and thus enhances your productivity, but that gravy train probably won't last - at some point, people will see the writing on the wall and leave to find careers where they can actually do something besides work (if, of course, they ever do exist). The ability to put R+D in a different column helps the accountants, and maybe to con your investors, but if it doesn't help you get more drugs (which wouldn't be something small pharma is that good at doing), then it seems counterproductive.

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14. Gippy on April 7, 2011 2:32 PM writes...

Pharma likes Biotech because The Stupid Taxpayer subsidizes Biotech. Just another socialize losses, privatize profits scheme.

You scientists suffer from extreme myopia. According to you geniuses, every industry besides the fantastic Financial "Industry" in this so-called nation is filled with incompetents at the level of management. What a coincidence, huh?

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15. JeffC on April 7, 2011 2:40 PM writes...

Agilist. Man you are funny. Prior to joining GSK, Paddy had 6 months at Wellcome working on NOS inhibitors that didn't work. That's it. He came to GSK from an academic position at UCL with no expertise in drug discovery. Which is exactly why he's so far out of his depth. Oh and Bill Gates actually started Microsoft by writing code for BASIC which eventually led to MS-DOS. So even though I'm not a fan of his software, the guy did actually write it. Vallance has never ever discovered a preclinical candidate let alone a drug. GSK doesn't have too many people left who have discovered drugs. Even the entire team who invented Tykerb left long ago. Anthony Nicholls's piece is pretty much stop on sadly.

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16. zendudest on April 7, 2011 2:46 PM writes...

Agilist wrote: " As for their scientific expertise, check out "Patrick Vallance" on PubMed!"

I did--I find 231 papers and an H-number of 69...not bad but not exceptional--more of less what you would expect of a Full Professor at any first-rate Department of Pharmacology. Some nice papers in Lancet and Circulation but I don't see any from the 'big three' (Science, Nature, Cell).

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17. Nick K on April 7, 2011 2:52 PM writes...

Agilist: Just to repeat my question: in how many clinical candidates (successful or otherwise) have Vallance and Slaoui participated? All I want is a straight answer, which you've failed to give.

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18. BixBoy on April 7, 2011 3:03 PM writes...

Don't hold your breath, Nick K.

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19. Hap on April 7, 2011 3:05 PM writes...

I thought that lots of people in drug development hadn't come up with clinical candidates, though - is V/S's clinical candidate count a reasonable measure of their scientific expertise?

At what point does management in pharma actually become responsible for drug company outcomes? If the answer is "never", well, that might be part of the problem.

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20. DrSnowboard on April 7, 2011 3:22 PM writes...

Agilist: thanks for making me laugh out loud..really

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21. Nick K on April 7, 2011 3:25 PM writes...

Hap: All I want from Agilist is some evidence for his assertion that Vallance and Slaoui have "forgotten more about drug discovery than any of the contributors to this blog will ever know". And, to answer Bixboy, I'm not holding my breath.

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22. Hap on April 7, 2011 3:51 PM writes...

I'm not thinking that either the justification of the assertion or a straight answer is going to happen. I'd just prefer to nail them for the right reasons.

What's with the GSK puppets? Does GSK just inspire such loyalty from their employees or trolls, or does it have the most thin-skinned management or self-destructive PR department in recent memory? If they ever hire again, maybe they'll use the puppets in an ad campaign: "If we can inspire trolls such as these, just imagine how we inspire our employees."

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23. MolecularGeek on April 7, 2011 3:56 PM writes...

Agreed, the original post is spot on. The more problematic question is "Who in a position to fix things will read it?"

And Gippy (#14), actually most of us would say that financial industry is filled with incompetents as well (I suspect). A successful, well-run industry shouldn't need a government-funded bailout to avoid crashing the national economy from their liquidity crunch. When the financial gurus come up with a rational scheme for assigning present value to high risk ventures that doesn't reduce to "stop selling drugs and start selling hamburgers" maybe things will improve. I'm not holding my breath, though.

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24. MolecularGeek on April 7, 2011 3:58 PM writes...

Agreed, the original post is spot on. The more problematic question is "Who in a position to fix things will read it?"

And Gippy (#14), actually most of us would say that financial industry is filled with incompetents as well (I suspect). A successful, well-run industry shouldn't need a government-funded bailout to avoid crashing the national economy from their liquidity crunch. When the financial gurus come up with a rational scheme for assigning present value to high risk ventures that doesn't reduce to "stop selling drugs and start selling hamburgers" maybe things will improve. I'm not holding my breath, though.

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25. johnD on April 7, 2011 4:00 PM writes...

JeffC

Uh, sorry, but while Bill Gates and Paul Allen did write a BASIC OS for the Altair computer, they bought DOS from another Seattle Company. They didn't write it, but can claim to refine it and market it to IBM. But, they clearly did know what they were doing in relation to computer OS's.

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26. Beckenham on April 7, 2011 4:00 PM writes...

Senior management at GSK is certainly thin-skinned. Some years ago, one manager brave (or foolhardy) enough to argue in a reasonable and measured manner with Slaoui was told afterwards by her VP that her days were numbered. And, guess what, she was promptly given the package!

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27. MolecularGeek on April 7, 2011 4:01 PM writes...

Agreed, the original post is spot on. The more problematic question is "Who in a position to fix things will read it?"

And Gippy (#14), actually most of us would say that financial industry is filled with incompetents as well (I suspect). A successful, well-run industry shouldn't need a government-funded bailout to avoid crashing the national economy from their liquidity crunch. When the financial gurus come up with a rational scheme for assigning present value to high risk ventures that doesn't reduce to "stop selling drugs and start selling hamburgers" maybe things will improve. I'm not holding my breath, though.

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28. pete on April 7, 2011 5:04 PM writes...

Great read -- my heart beat a little faster in assent.

One remark regarding the article: While I'd agree that ridiculous oceans of cash were spent targeting protein kinases, I really can't be so quick to dismiss the enterprise. It's yielded compounds that are clinically valuable -- and others whose clinical value may grow as we figure out how to administer them more selectively.

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29. Doug on April 7, 2011 5:05 PM writes...

'f they are truly serious about making pharma like biotech, then upper management should simply resign. I’m confident that one step would do wonders for innovation.'

This dude is channeling Dilbert's last couple of days 'dead boss hand puppet' bit...

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30. pete on April 7, 2011 5:07 PM writes...

Great read -- my heart beat a little faster in assent.

One remark regarding the article: While I'd agree that ridiculous oceans of cash were spent targeting protein kinases, I really can't be so quick to dismiss the enterprise. It's yielded compounds that are clinically valuable -- and others whose clinical value may grow as we figure out how to administer them more selectively (i.e, avoid systemic dosing).

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31. Rick on April 7, 2011 5:33 PM writes...

There is so much to chew on in this article! No one has mentioned Nicholls' discussion of the negative impact of the Bayh Dole act on biomedical innovation. BD was intended to boost innovation by providing new financial incentives to academic researchers, but it ended up turning academic tech transfer offices into profit centers and creating new barriers to communication within and between the academic and inustry research communities. I'm not saying that BD is responsible for everything bad that happened, far from it, but it does provide many valuable lessons in how switching from a product focus (where profits follow) to a profit focus (where products follow) had the unintended consequence of damaging drug discovery productivity.

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32. Anonymous on April 7, 2011 8:53 PM writes...

It's pretty good article. But still, big pharma R&D (even in the glory days) didn't always crank out winners.

Still need a good sales team to polish some turds and maintain cash flow.

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33. luvyurnmr on April 7, 2011 9:34 PM writes...

Oh, Wow! I'm so glad someone finally said it. I'm not surprised it was Anthony Nicholls.
ROCS rocks!

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34. chris on April 8, 2011 1:37 AM writes...

Anthony Nicholls offers an insightful analysis which will make interesting reading for everyone in the Pharma industry.
I know a number of senior management regularly read "In the Pipeline" and I suspect this entry will be uncomfortable reading but unfortunately will be forgotten by tomorrow.

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35. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on April 8, 2011 6:56 AM writes...

As someone who spends a lot of time sloggng through Phase 3 trials thinking "Why the F are we doing this?" I have to wonder how much drug discovery one stupid decision in the design or management of a big trial costs.

Of course Phase 3 is when upper management takes ongoing interest in development so maybe there's a connection. In addition to too much upper management in bigger corporations I feel that there is a huge difference between development in companies that do vs. do not have products already on the market. Once a company starts marketing the amount of "we gotta do it this way because of the market" crap goes way up, often to the detriment of figuring out how to best use the drug.

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36. anonymous on April 8, 2011 7:04 AM writes...

A major problem is that Pharma puts way too much emphasis on team work. Individual rewards and competition between co-workers is seen as a bad thing and it actually what Pharma needs.

Team work "corporate values" are simply introduced to cover lazy and incompetent people.

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37. Pete on April 8, 2011 7:27 AM writes...

This is an exceptionally fine rant from Ant! I have heard coordinating Pharma R&D likened to steering an oil tanker.

R&D Management (originally trained as scientists) are not blameless in Pharma's death by a thousand cuts as they pursue measurability at the cost of relevance. The imposition of manufacturing models on the process of Drug Discovery in the complete absence of evidence of tangible benefits is another area of concern. I would tolerate some inefficiency in Discovery if it meant a better validated target and a relevant disease model.

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38. AR on April 8, 2011 8:58 AM writes...

Anonymous #36
I've first hand witnessed the use of competition metrics between employees. It didn't work out so well, at least not within a large biological assay group. What happened was the employee 'competitors' tended to keep troubleshooting methods secret, tended to hog instruments, focused on meeting management metrics instead of drug science which doesn't metric well, and, of course, the found the blame game useful.

Perhaps these issues could have been resolved, but, unfortunately, the program was initiated just before R&D downsizing. There was no apparent correlation of which 'competitors'were let go and which were retained, except the ratio of those let go tended to favor the over 50 year old PhD possessing years of experience. Natch.

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39. Cellbio on April 8, 2011 9:16 AM writes...

Agree with AR. I worked in a first rate company with incredible teamwork that all changed when it was claimed we did not weed out poor performers or reward excellence. This move coincided with McKinsey's war for talent non-sense and the "love-everything-about-Jack-Welch" era. The company has failed ever since, even with billions to spend. And as AR pointed to, it got real ugly around lay-off time. Came down to being a good political operator, not good scientist. The correlation that was obvious was those that agreed with the bosses above were retained.

The competition is unmet medical need, not the chemist or biologist down the hall. Go see if you can help them.

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40. chris on April 8, 2011 9:47 AM writes...

I agree with AR and Cellbio there is no need to try and build competition between colleagues, the challenges are so great that you need the best input from multiple scientists to hope to succeed. I've never met a chemist who didn't hope that the compound they made would be the next development candidate but they all recognise that they are building on the work of others.

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41. partial agonist on April 8, 2011 9:51 AM writes...

Back when I was in big pharma, I remember the first time I rolled my eyes (we all did) at overmanagement. They held a big videoconference, with most of us at our site in a large auditorium, without any advance discussion about what was the reason for the videoconference.

It turned out that they were rolling out our company's two or three sentence "mission statement" which apparently the big shots in suits had been having countless meetings for months, if not years, flying all ove the world from place to place and haggling over every single word and punctuation mark.

In the end it was just a bunch of classic management gobblydegook: "...we will use cutting edge technologies to address unmet medical needs..." blah blah blah.

To think that they had wasted so much time, effort, energy, and dollars on such a stupid little thing was maddening to all of the scientists. But I'm sure that the suits were happy with it and gave themseleves nice raises.

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42. RB Woodweird on April 8, 2011 10:43 AM writes...

1. Re the suggestion that a chemist would be better off if they paid more attention to six sigma instead of bellyaching: You have to understand that the principles of things like six sigma are part of a scientist's everyday thinking. It is painful and insulting to a scientist when some suit comes into their place of employment and says Good news, everyone! We're all going to learn how to measure stuff and do stuff based on those measurements! Group hug!

2. Don't bring Gates into this discussion. Here would be drug distribution and discovery under a Microsoft version of pharma: Microsoft comes out with a statin, lets CVS sell it at a nice low profitable cost, say $10 with the provision that Microsoft gets paid $10 every time CVS sells any statin. Pfizer comes along with a new statin of their own, but CVS won't sell it because they will have to pay Microsoft $10 per sale on top of whatever Pfizer charges. Plus, if CVS sells Pfizer statins, that might make Microsoft mad. Microsoft might increase the price to CVS and drop the price they charge Walgreens. So no new statins come onto the market.

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43. MoMo on April 8, 2011 12:18 PM writes...

Gates already has had his hands in Pharma funding the Medicines for Malaria Venture among others and recently with Nimbus and both have done substantial work, hiring only the best/experienced scientists with nary a policy wonk/MBA/lawyer/sales or clueless exec among them.

He may be cut-throat in the software business but he certainly keeps the best and brightest employed, unlike the Big Pharma model. I wish he could invest more of his time into this problem.

Bill Gates , If you are reading this, show us a sign, any sign, that you can help the World in the drug discovery sector. We will all be waiting anxiously..... to get back to work.

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44. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on April 8, 2011 1:50 PM writes...

Go easy on Agilist, he's just trying to keep his job at BigPharma. Upper management reads these blogs and Agilist just needs to make his quota of b@ll licking this week. That's the secret to career success in this day and age. It's what they need to teach you in graduate school.

Management needs to hire productive workers so some of them can take credit for the success of the scientists. It's easier to take credit for someone else's acheivement if that person is not around to contradict your story, so they have to be shown the door sometime. Then, just hire a fresh 20-something overacheiver and repeat the process until you are VP or CEO. It's all politics and politics is theatre. Just recycle the script over and over, but change the actors and settings. It's like when Hollywood makes movies or sitcoms.

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45. Favin on April 8, 2011 4:29 PM writes...

@44 said "Bill Gates , If you are reading this, show us a sign, any sign, that you can help the World in the drug discovery sector. We will all be waiting anxiously..... to get back to work. "


Bill Gates is an incompetent that hinders the progress of his own field. He uses oligarch type business practices and good old "General Electric" style DC lobbying to hinder the development of any competitors in his business.

No competitors = lame products (easily verifiable for Microsoft).

Ever wonder why Apple is his only real competitor given the barrier to entry is relatively low in programming?

It's like there were only two automobile companies. There's at least one PC in almost every home for God's sake!

Bill Gates = plutocrat.

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46. Anon345 on April 8, 2011 5:10 PM writes...

Most "entrepreneurial" biotechs are run by R&D CEOs.