The Psychic Blogger: Pfizer to Pay Academics to Find Uses for Molecules

The headline for the story in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Rockoff said it all: Pfizer to Pay Academics to Find Uses for Molecules.

Rather than have their own researchers take a crack at it, Pfizer is spending $22.5M to have researchers at the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis review approximately 500 Pfizer molecules to see if they can be used for other purposes than those for which were either approved, or are in current research for a different use, or failed in clinical trials.

Pfizer has the distinction of being the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, and recently completed a mammoth acquisition of pharmaceutical giant Wyeth in Fall 2009. To put the outlay of $22.5M in perspective, Pfizer earned $2.03 billion in the most recent fiscal quarter on revenues of about $16.75 billion.

While the move for Pfizer sounds innovative, it’s a tactic already used by some venture capital firms, who have forged relationships with both researchers and other drug companies to review interesting compounds, many of which have been approved for other uses. And as noted in [Business Models] The End of Biotech?, academia and places like SRI, International [Disclosure: SRI is a client] are places where the best, most cost effective research looks like it’s done, rather than in pharma or biotech companies. Pfizer is simply taking a page from an earlier post where it was suggested that research is one of the areas that does not appear to be a strength of large pharma companies if you define success as dollars spent and products brought to market as the two key factors.

The next shoe to drop, assuming that Pfizer wants to experiment with “speed and decisiveness” – in other words, nimbleness – is to outsource some of the early stage development work. And the best people to do that work? Either any number of  biotech organizations (where nimbleness is still a practiced art) or the type of virtual, early stage development teams described in Facts – and Fiction – of the Effective Use of Virtual Teams.

Pharma companies do an effective job in many aspects, including manufacturing, sales, and general commercialization. Creativity, scrappiness and being nimble – elements important in research and early stage development – just don’t appear to be some of them.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.