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Panel Detail

Plenary: Is the biopharma industry fit for the future?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
12:55 PM - 1:55 PM
GH-Ballroom II-IV


Mark Alles, President and Chief Operating Officer, Celgene Corporation
James Geraghty, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Third Rock Ventures
Joanna Horobin, Chief Medical Officer, Verastem, Inc.
Brad Margus, CEO, Exigence Neurosciences
Mark Murcko, Lecturer, Department of Biological Engineering, MIT; Senior Vice President of Strategy, Schrodinger; Principal, Disruptive Biomedical, LLC


Kate Rawson, Senior Editor, Prevision Policy LLC

Investment capital is up, mergers and acquisitions are back, and the combination of better technology and better science has led to an explosion of new biopharma ventures all over the country. The question now is whether the biopharma industry stands to benefit from this convergence of positive trends.

Public approval for the industry has fallen in recent years, as the delivery of groundbreaking cures has slowed. It's time "to step back and evaluate the overall health of the industry and find out what's working and what's not," said moderator Kate Rawson, senior editor at Prevision Policy LLC.

Mark Alles, president and chief operating officer of Celgene Corporation, was quick to emphasize that the industry "is in a window of scientific revolution and biological understanding." Among investors, he said, there seems to be a greater willingness to take risks that likely arises from the great leaps science has made in recent years. "The world understands better the biopharma model," he said, meaning that investors know that there's a risk/reward scenario in the industry.

Nevertheless, attempts to attract capital investment cannot override biopharma's primary function. "If we do well by the patients, we'll do good by our business," said Joanna Horobin, chief medical officer at Verastem Inc., stating a theme echoed by all the panelists. "I see a real change in the relationship between the industry and the patient," she continued. "We're really seeing the patient voice come in to [biopharma's efforts]."

James Geraghty, the entrepreneur-in-residence at Third Rock Ventures, agreed. To continue the industry's recent investment upswing, "focus on the patient is central." He reminded the audience that it wasn't so long ago that biopharma had a lower public approval rating than tobacco - a trend he and others on the panel attributed to the industry haven chosen to work more for the investor than for the patient. "In the last couple of years, the industry has refound that interest in the health and the lives of patient and their families," he said.

Still, for Brad Margus, the CEO of Exigence Neurosciences whose two sons have an extremely rare genetic disease, the pace of development is far too slow. "The science right now is really exciting, but I'm still constantly frustrated with the speed of things," he said. "We have to figure out a way to make things move faster." Not only would accelerating the R&D process help grow investment, but also it would help the industry's public image.

On the topic of improvement, Mark Murcko, a lecturer in the department of biological engineering at MIT, a senior vice president at Schrodinger, and a principal at Disruptive Biomedical LLC, was blunt. "We need to get 10 times better," he said. "We have to drain the swamps of ignorance and stupidity [in the industry]. And we need to stop fixating on IQ. The people who make progress are the ones who have the right culture and exhibit the right behaviors; they're not the smartest or those who went to the best schools."

Highlighting her own experience, Horobin said that the key to building a company with the right culture that can lead to real progress - and more investment - is to maintain that entrepreneurial spirit for as long as possible. "We cannot smother smaller companies [through acquisition or partnership]," she said. "They need to be able to take risks, which is always the challenge in larger organizations."

From his own experience talking with successful businesses, Murcko said he has identified a set of behaviors that all the good ones exhibit: resiliency, adaptation, and communication. "We need to find ways that put our precious research dollars behind organizations that exhibit those behaviors," he said.

Yet he also acknowledged that there are still far too many bottlenecks in the R&D pipeline that scare away investors and slow down lifesaving cures. "There are half a dozen places in R&D that create bottlenecks," he said. His solution is bringing in outside consultant teams "that can come in and help an organization solve a problem."

Horodin also lamented the waste associated with bottlenecks, many of which she attributed to an outmoded testing paradigm that only produces redundancy. The industry needs to clear away these useless tests to create greater efficiency. They also need to constantly battle against continuation bias - something that plagues even the best organizations. "We all suffer from continuation bias because we want to believe," she said.

In the end, said Alles, the key to the industry's future is what it has always been. "Innovation is the answer," he said. "If we want to share information, we have to produce the innovation. If we don't have the innovation, it will just make what we want a lot harder."