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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: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 19, 2011

GSK and McLaren: Two Different Worlds

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Posted by Derek

Is it just me, or is this sort of. . .baffling?

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) today announced that it has formed a long term strategic partnership with McLaren Group. The partnership, which will run initially until 2016, brings together two UK companies focused on innovation and high-tech research.

Well, yes, I suppose it does. But one of them makes drugs, and the other runs Formula I races. When you get down to the details, such as they are, you find this sort of thing:

A new state of the art learning facility will also be built as part of the agreement, focused on developing UK engineering skills and processes. Called the 'McLaren GSK Centre for Applied Performance', it will be located at McLaren’s Headquarters in Woking and open in 2013. Employees from both organisations and business partners will be able to use the facility to share ideas and collaborate on joint working projects.

Whatever those might be. I could sit back and make catty remarks for another paragraph or two - it's a temptation - but here's what's behind that impulse: while it's true that both companies are engaged in using technology, they're doing it in very different ways and to different ends. A racing company is working with very fast cars. The general principles of building very fast cars, though, are already known, and the question now is how to make them just a bit faster than the other people's. Testing any ideas and techniques that are developed is also relatively straightforward - you have static testing rigs, you have test tracks, you have numerous Formula I races every year, and all of these things give you direct feedback about just how well you're doing. I'm sure that the McLaren people are quite good at taking these results and turning things around quickly - thus all the talk in the press release about their fast, dynamic decision making.

But the drug discovery process is quite different. If we start out trying to make a Whateverase 3A inhibitor for Disease X, there is no assurance at all that such a compound can exist. There's usually not even as much assurance as you'd like that such a compound will do for Disease X what you think that it'll do - witness the clinical failure rates. And the process of finding, developing, and testing such a compound takes years - given all the problems that have to be solved, and the necessity of human trials, it cannot help but take years. The McLaren people are not faced with a ten-to-fifteen year wait before they can get a single car into a single race, and once there, do 90% of their cars fail to complete the course at all?

Let me try for a wider explanation, because this is all coming very close to what I'll call the Andy Grove Fallacy. The single biggest difference between the two types of R&D is this: McLaren is trying to optimize a technology that was discovered and developed by humans. GSK is trying to optimize against one that was not. Really, really not human, not done with human motives or with human understanding in mind. Living systems, I believe, are the only such technology we've ever encountered, and it's something to see. Billions of years of evolutionary tinkering have lead to something so complex and so strange that it can make the highest human-designed technology look like something built with sticks. To give Andy Grove a tiny break, the devices we've built in the IT industry (and the software used to run them) are the closest approximations, but they're really not very close, because we made them, and what human ingenuity can make, human ingenuity can understand. The body-temperature water-based molecular nanotechnology that's running us (and every other living thing on the planet) is something else again. And it comes with no documentation at all, other than what we can puzzle out ourselves, a process still very much incomplete.

So no, I don't think that a company that races cars can help GSK out all that much with the fundamental problems of its business. But I haven't seen that state-of-the-art learning facility, which will be ready in only a couple of years. We'll check back in and see how things are going.

Comments (38) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. petros on September 19, 2011 9:52 AM writes...

Or does some very senior GSK exec have an obsession with F1?

RBS' failed CEO threw loads of the bank's money at sponsoring his interests!

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2. anchor on September 19, 2011 9:55 AM writes...

Seems like desperate situation calls for desperate measures. Who is is heading McLaren Group? And, what is their claim to success? Your race car analogy is pefect.

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3. Thinkning on September 19, 2011 9:57 AM writes...

What if GSK wants to apply McLaren know-how not to drug discovery, but to drug manufacturing? I agree with Derek's points, but the overlap between manufacturing and racing precision gets to be a bit stronger.

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4. anchor on September 19, 2011 9:57 AM writes...

Seems like desperate situation calls for desperate measures. Who is is heading McLaren Group? And, what is their claim to success? Your race car analogy is pefect.

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5. anonymous on September 19, 2011 9:57 AM writes...

@1 Andrew Witty

I was told when I interviewed at GSK a while back.

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6. Thinkning on September 19, 2011 9:58 AM writes...

What if GSK wants to apply McLaren know-how not to drug discovery, but to drug manufacturing? I agree with Derek's points, but the overlap between manufacturing and racing precision gets to be a bit stronger.

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7. johnnyboy on September 19, 2011 10:01 AM writes...

Indeed, this sounds like some CEO's vanity project, backed up by crapload of preposterous semi-coherent rationalizations. I like GSK even less now than I did before.

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8. Jeff on September 19, 2011 10:03 AM writes...

To be fair Derek, Witty hasn't said that it's directed at research as such and seems to be indicating that it will be more directed towards manufacturing and commercial. So I don't expect many people in research to go down to Mclaren. Actually, the most amusing part was watching Ron Dennis (Mclaren CEO) talking about teaching GSK a thing or two largely around mindset. Sure that sounds like complete nonsense but bear in mind how F1 works. It's dominated by small independent teams that often do technical deals with large car companies. For the last 40 years F1 has been absolutely dominated by these teams. More amusingly, lots of big companies have come in with their massive budgets and commecial mindset and been blown away eg Toyota (1bn-ish spent, no races won), BMW, Honda etc etc. So perhaps these smaller organisations might actually be able to teach bigger companies a few tricks. Doubt it'll be in R&D but outside of that it might work or at least prove useful. We shall see.

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9. Innovorich on September 19, 2011 10:20 AM writes...

@8 - well that's fine but Mclaren don't really manufacture anything on the scale that GSK do. Mclaren build very unique, high-quality products. At the manufacturing end, GSK produce millions of the same little things and put them in packets!

I can sort of understand the small-company culture thing. Although, knowing a Mclaren employee very closely as I do, they're a bit more big-company than you're making out.

No - I call BS!

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10. Anon@ GSK on September 19, 2011 10:24 AM writes...

@1 - no doubt Andrew gets to ride in a fast car
Derek - baffling to people in GSK as well at least at first, but if you read further in the press release (see cut and paste below), you'll see that it's not (for now at least) aimed at discovery, but rather at manufacturing and clincial trial process, and consumer health inventory and pricing. That said, the best we can do is hope that this deal doesn't get extended to discovery, though I can imagine the delight that MS and PV would have at the installation of a "Formula 1 Mission Control" at GSK House to monitor DPU output

"GSK Manufacturing supplies medicines and products to patients and customers across the world from more than 2,000 production lines in 80 factories. A strategic programme is currently being evaluated to apply McLaren's engineering and technical expertise to GSK's manufacturing processes. For example, during a racing season, each Formula 1 team can only use a maximum of eight engines across 20 races. McLaren has therefore developed a unique system of modelling every working component within the car to provide intelligence that can predict potential fatigue and failure. It is believed that the application of McLaren's approach, technology and processes could lead to improvements in GSK's production line performance, reducing the number of breakdowns and improving cost and customer service.

GSK's R&D organisation is examining whether the application of McLaren's expertise and technology could help drive improvements in clinical research processes by speeding up trial design and allowing for real time patient monitoring and treatment adjustment. McLaren has developed a system which allows team members to remotely monitor every aspect of the car's performance during a race using wireless technology. This enables the team to make regular minor adjustments every few minutes to avoid having to make significant time-consuming interventions. Working with McLaren, GSK will explore the possibility of reapplying this expertise to human studies.

GSK's Consumer Healthcare business, which markets brands such as Lucozade, Panadol and Sensodyne, will work with McLaren's successful Formula 1 “Mission Control" the unit which analyses the team's performance and directs decision making to drivers during a Grand Prix - to construct a similar facility at the company's London Headquarters. This will enable faster responses to competitor activity and customer needs and inform decision making around inventory management, pricing, and retailer stocking. Analytical and performance management tools developed by McLaren will also be used to improve GSK's ability to make faster decisions around longer term investment allocations for new Consumer product development and innovations."

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11. Henry's cat on September 19, 2011 10:48 AM writes...

I'm sure this news will leave a warm fuzzy feeling in the bellies of the people that Glaxo jettisioned in the recent past. What a load of sloblock.

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12. Anonymous on September 19, 2011 10:56 AM writes...

This is something I would have predicted as coming from a Kindler-era Pfizer, not GSK.

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13. Thomas McEntee on September 19, 2011 11:30 AM writes...

GSK does science with a little bit of engineering and McLaren does engineering with a tad of science. Engineering in the plants is one of the least of pharma's problems unless you're talking about devising plants that use no human labor.

Science = Reasoned study of phenomena, aimed at discovery of enduring principles among elements of physical (phenomenal) world by employing formal techniques, e.g., scientific method.

Engineering = Goal-oriented process of designing and making tools and systems to exploit natural phenomena for human use

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14. Steve on September 19, 2011 11:31 AM writes...

BS it may be, but it's the kind of BS that gets picked up by all the big newspapers (because it doesn't involve much in the way of difficult sciency stuff. There, it is noticed by certain less-well-informed investors who's reaction is "wow what a great job they're doing by thinking like this".

Result, share price goes up and those at the top of GSK all do well out of it with sweet FA really changing.

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15. Pete on September 19, 2011 11:42 AM writes...

F1 is an industry and a highly regulated on at that. However, I'm not sure that GSK is doing itself any favors by associating itself with an industry like F1. Such a shame that F1 has done away with the tobacco sponsorship because a car advertising cigarettes and drugs would send out a really powerful message.

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16. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on September 19, 2011 12:14 PM writes...

If I had to guess, this entire concept was suggested by a McKinsey consultant who was applauded for "thinking outside the box".

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17. Hardcore on September 19, 2011 12:35 PM writes...

It's really too bad you can't insert images on this site. I'm itching to post a formula I car outfitted with a wet-lab.

My guess is, as said above, this is the brain-child of some consultant to provide executives with 'something to say' at shareholder meetings.

It will dissolve quietly at some point.

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18. drsnowboard on September 19, 2011 12:54 PM writes...

well, it'll make GSK folk more popular, especially around British GP time. I'd have thought the brand association was worth the money - anything to make those dull cashcow healthcare brands sexy and exciting to the general public. Not sure "lucozade" sponsorship would have the same kudos as "Red Bull" - most UK folk of a certain age associate it with throwing up as a child...rather than as an adult on TVR's

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19. Anonymous on September 19, 2011 3:22 PM writes...

Low probability?

It is very fustrating to see rational awareness of the limitations of science thrown out the window. The sense of 'just do it', 'nothing is impossible', 'keep battling' is pervasive; just pick your favorite management consulting firm.

But, perhaps there is another side?

Take a step back and ask how we decide what to fund in Pharma. Do we only fund directions that have an 80% probability of success? What about 40%, how about 5%? Now we are getting closer to the realm of where Pharma works.

What is the probability that this juxtaposition of F1 and drug manufacturing will have some payoff? I bet it is more than 5%.

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20. Philip on September 19, 2011 3:55 PM writes...

"Living systems, I believe, are the only such technology we've ever encountered, and it's something to see."

I agree living systems are the most complex we have studied. I disagree that they "are the only such technology we've ever encountered". Ask any geologist about earthquake prediction.

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21. Jensen & Lewis on September 19, 2011 4:06 PM writes...

We asked if GSK could see if they can quickly develop a red-bull antagonist.

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22. rhodium on September 19, 2011 4:13 PM writes...

I would have thought a better partner in the, broadly defined, transportation business would be White Star Lines.

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23. Canageek on September 19, 2011 4:38 PM writes...

....Am I really the only one whom thought of the obvious comment about 'Aren't performance enhancing drugs illegal in F1 racing?'

No? Too bad a joke? I'll just go sit over here then.

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24. watcher on September 19, 2011 6:58 PM writes...

Remember: these are the same people who did the Sirtris deal. No one has been held accountable for that fiasco; no one will be held accountable for this one.

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25. jamjel on September 19, 2011 10:33 PM writes...

How could anyone continue to dispute the reality of corporate personhood given such a display of an obvious mid-life crisis?

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26. Iskra on September 20, 2011 2:32 AM writes...

The cynical comments are to be expected but once again your contributors are over-analysing the situation so one expects the usual canards about the pervasive influence of some evil "Consulting" firm, insert the name of your least favourite one here, a diversionary tactic to deflect attention from some sort of "bad" news, a publicity stunt, what ever you like. Alas, we live in the age of the conspiracy theory where the simplest explanations are often rejected in favour of some more fanciful scenarios. If those commenting cared to read the piece carefully, they would see that this McLaren collaboration is aimed at manufacturing and distribution, not R&D. Andrew has repeatedly made the point that the drug discovery is a creative process that cannot be industrialised like an assembly plant, his whole strategy is to re-create the drug discovery paradigm of former times where highly motivated scientists can operate in small, agile groups. This represents a reversal of the big R&D silos characteristic of the industry in the late 90's and early 2000's. However, Andrew is keen to garner expertise from outside the industry and he understands very well that Big Pharma has much to learn as well as to teach the wider world. This type of cross-fertilisation with another Great British success story, McLaren, has much to recommend it. Many of the successful captains of one industry sector regularly express their admiration for those of another, a case in point is Bill Gates's stated admiration of GSK. I think Andrew is to be widely applauded for embarking on this initiative, in this as in many other aspects, he displays the essentials of good leadership in that he is not afraid to move beyond his comfort zone and to engage with the wider industrial base.

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27. KissTheChemist on September 20, 2011 3:01 AM writes...

Iskra, if collaboration with a company skilled in efficient manufacturing and distribution is such a good idea, I'm sure there are plenty of examples out there. Andrew just happens to chose a Formula One team, one of his personal passions?! Coincidence? Maybe it is, but maybe not. And why does this need a pricey new building to happen in ? You will admit this is a smack in the face for anyone ex-pharma would lost their job for "economic" reasons.

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28. KissTheChemist on September 20, 2011 3:04 AM writes...

Iskra, if collaboration with a company skilled in efficient manufacturing and distribution is such a good idea, I'm sure there are plenty of examples out there. Andrew just happens to chose a Formula One team, one of his personal passions?! Coincidence? Maybe it is, but maybe not. And why does this need a pricey new building to happen in ? You will admit this is a smack in the face for anyone ex-pharma would lost their job for "economic" reasons.

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29. Sundowner on September 20, 2011 3:08 AM writes...

GSK should try partnering with Lockheed (now Lockheed-Martin). Kelly Johnson and his team did awesome things 50 years ago, designing planes that cannot be made anymore. Imagine the synergies there !!! The only problem is the aeronautic industry is not the pharma industry, but I am sure they will find a rational

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30. Jose on September 20, 2011 4:13 AM writes...

"If I had to guess, this entire concept was suggested by a McKinsey consultant who was applauded for "thinking outside the box"."

Ding! ding! David for the win!

Even for manufacturing, the synergies are nothing short of minimal, sorry kids.

And Iskra, I have personally observed nearly identical "strategic plans" implemented at different companies after BCG was consulted.... nothing good ever came out of that, let me tell you.

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31. Iridium on September 20, 2011 6:21 AM writes...

Could it be that just that they see doping in sport as the last profitable ooportunity for pharma companies?

Certainly there is money there.....

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32. Ed on September 20, 2011 8:45 AM writes...

Maybe Pfizer should team up with a video game company:

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33. johnnyboy on September 20, 2011 9:28 AM writes...

Agilist is back ! It's Iskra now, is it ? Glad to see you're still on the payroll.
I'm sure you have a ready answer for why GSK chose McLaren as a "Great British success story" to associate itself with - I mean, why not other success stories, like, I don't know, BP maybe ? Or Tesco ? How about HP sauce or Marmite ?
Any of the lame rationalizations to justify the association with McLaren could have been said of all these companies - however none of them has the glamour oomph of Formula 1 racing. This is so transparently a publicity stunt that anyone defending it with a straight face is either delusional or a paid shill.

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34. Anonymous on September 20, 2011 9:49 AM writes...


"If those commenting cared to read the piece carefully, they would see that this McLaren collaboration is aimed at manufacturing and distribution, not R&D."

Would make more sense if this collaboration was in marketing, the true core 'competency' (ahem) of both GSK and F1.

If I was picking either a first-tier manufacturing or first-tier distribution firm to learn from, F1 isn't anywhere on the short list. Perhaps a collaboration with Wal*Mart didn't have the same cachet.

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35. Hap on September 20, 2011 9:51 AM writes...

Marketing for consumer products might make sense - I have no idea why anyone would care what brand of car is the official car sponsor for the Buckeyes, but apparently someone does and is willing to pay for it, so maybe it'll work for consumer products as well.

As a way to improve processes, though, it seems brain-dead - they don't use the same science, have few of the same constraints, and need different forms of manufacturing to get to their products (piecemeal and hand-tooled products with limited cost limitations for F1 versus cost-limited mass manufacturing or medium-scale manufacturing for GSK). Ideas are where you can find them, but it doesn't mean that watching Desperate Housewives all day is more likely to lead to the next blockbuster than reading med chem literature.

I'll take the "under" for a 5% probability that this leads to anything other than GSK executives getting to meet F1 drivers and maybe get some autographs and items. It might, at best, yield some business fads that GSK could have found more cheaply by reading the current mass-market business literature.

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36. Nick K on September 20, 2011 2:03 PM writes...

Iskra: Why have you changed your name from Agilist? Please keep on posting, we all need a laugh...

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37. TomBaker on September 20, 2011 8:16 PM writes...

Does this mean all of us doing research down here in New Zealand - in Bruce McLaren's birthplace, no less - will now be recipients of GSK's funding largesse...?

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38. TomBaker on September 20, 2011 8:42 PM writes...

Collaborations between different industries are all very well, but too often these are just an exercise in mutual self-gratification. GSK shouldn't need to partner with McLaren to remember how to get its scientists to work in 'small agile groups' - if anything, such 'cross-fertilization' between 'captains of industry' (now that's an unpleasant image) will result in more expensive, overly-managerialized 'paradigms'.
Just look to your own laboratory history, GSK - leave out the pointless consultant-fuelled cliche-ridden nonsense.

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