Big Pharma and risk acceptance for true innovation

The development of new drugs is always risky. The more innovative an approach is the higher are the risks. For a real breakthrough in an unmet clinical need, high risk acceptance is needed.

Pekka Simula 24.01.2019

I recently met a Big Pharma representative who held an intriguing role. Her task was to encourage the R&D teams in her huge global organization to take more risks!

With my Finnish perspective this reminded me of Nokia and its rapid fall from its years as the leading mobile phone giant. Researchers have suggested that one of Nokia’s biggest problems in its days of glory was that it became generally risk averse. Management was overly confident in Nokia’s position as a leader, which promoted a culture that discouraged risk-taking. Individual employees would not gain much by taking on innovative high-risk projects whereas failure could jeopardize their career development.

Maybe the senior management of this Big Pharma had read something on Nokia. I considered the ‘Risk Promotion Manager’ position (which wasn’t her real title) highly innovative per se, and very welcome too. I would actually claim that several Big Pharma companies suffer from the Nokia syndrome. They have strong products often protected by good IPR; they invest heavily in R&D; they promise that their future breakthroughs will change the way people live. But if you look at their pipelines: Aren’t they just repeating what they have done successfully for the past 50 years and not realizing how dramatically the world has changed?

The development of new drugs is always risky. The more innovative an approach is the higher are the risks. This has guided the entire industry toward a Me-Too thinking (not to be confused with #metoo). As soon as a novel drug is shown to work, other companies will follow and try to develop a similar drug, even based on the same molecular target. This will no doubt reduce the risks of a drug development program. And such a Me-Too drug will almost certainly not result in a breakthrough in an unmet clinical need.

When truly innovative drug candidates are presented to those Big Pharma companies, by leading academic researchers or startups looking for funding, there’s usually one or two people who really get it. They will get excited and try to sell the idea within their organization. And then the Big Pharma evaluation committee – who really get the risk-averse corporate culture – will consider the risks. There are many, no doubt; nothing is easier than pointing out risks in a drug development project. Eventually that Big Pharma will then decide that while the project is highly exciting there are some doubts since the technology hasn’t yet been proven in the clinic.

Fortunately, there are also truly innovative Big Pharma companies who understand that they must re-invent themselves frequently to remain successful. Those who are willing to accept risks of the unknown as long as the scientific background is robust and there is a real patient need. Those who, optimally, even promote risk acceptance as the only way to truly change the world.

While I have recently had the pleasure of meeting several innovative Big Pharma’s I have so far only met one Risk Promotion Manager… I look forward to meeting more!

Herantis Pharma develops drugs that are based on groundbreaking scientific research. Such development is always associated with risks of the unknown – and with the potential to dramatically improve the lives of patients.