Internal and external motivation and the GSK big-bonuses-for-a-successful-drug initiative

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The story in the Times of London about GSK’s new strategy for incentivizing its R&D teams by rewarding millions (yes millions) of dollars to deserving members of the team that gets a drug to approval has provoked a flurry of responses.   You can see posts from Derek Lowe, John LaMattina, and David Shaywitz that do a nice job of summarizing why this seems like a really bad idea in a lot of ways.  I don’t want to restate their arguments, other than to agree wholeheartedly that rewarding the lucky scientists will overall disincentivize researchers, will be difficult to administer fairly especially given the collaborative nature of biomedical research and the long, long timeframe for a drug to be approved, will have a great likelihood of upsetting and causing hard feelings in employees, and also misses the point that motivation is hardly what’s lacking in R&D these days.

I’d like to touch on that last point with respect to what I feel is particularly worrisome in this:  the complete externalization of motivation on the part of scientists, and the downstream consequences for ethical behavior and human health.  A recent survey commissioned by the Law Firm of Labaton Sucharow suggests that ethical standards on Wall Street are troubling.  About a quarter of respondents had observed or had firsthand knowledge of misconduct at their companies, and about a quarter also admitted they would engage in insider trading to make $10 Million if they thought they could get away with it.  If these GSK-type bonuses become the standard in BioPharma R&D, will we see a rise in unethical behavior on the part of scientists?  And could that lead to endangerment of human health, with clinical trials performed on compounds that are pushed farther than they should be because the R&D team is looking ahead to the possible prize?

I remember a mentor at Merck asking me after my first year how I liked my bonus.  I responded enthusiastically.  He nodded, smiled a  little and said, “Enjoy the feeling.  Because next year it won’t be the same.  It’ll just be something you expect.”  And he was right.  We talk about the perks of working for BioPharma, but there’s actually a cost to being in an environment that provides the kinds of lavish benefits we get in industry.  It can cause the personal source of motivation to shift from internal to external rewards.  Ultimately, for people who are creative, I think the best work is done when internal motivators are a strong part of the driving force–something Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive.  It’s why I think games work so well as a tool for getting things done.  They tap into internal motivating factors.  After all, no one (other than World of Warcraft Gold Farmers and the like) spends hours playing a game because they’re being paid to. We should not be trying to make an engaging, exciting pursuit like research into just something we do because it pays the bills.

Dealing with disruption: publishing houses and drug development

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

I currently have about ten books strewn about my apartment, in various stages of being read.  Many I’ve been working through, on and off, for over a year.  And something that people keep asking me as they look around is, why don’t I just get a Kindle?  Part of the reason is that I’m cheap.  Also, I get a lot of my books from the library, and I get real pleasure from walking to the neighborhood library, checking out books, holding them and leafing through them, wandering up and down the aisles and also paying fines.  Lots of fines.  Which is okay, because the libraries need all the help they can get.  Although in counterpoint to that, a recent article from the Seattle Times described how in many ways libraries are still popular, even among younger people.

But I know that one day, probably pretty soon, I’ll succumb like a largemouth bass to the glowing lure of an electronic reader.  It makes too much sense.  I can still go the library, but it may be just for ideas of what I can purchase, or at least obtain electronically through the library’s ebook collection.  This is the literary world that the internet has enabled.  And it’s making life very difficult for the publishing houses.

When we talk about the changes technology enables, we know it’s messy.  There are disruptions, and there are often winners and losers.  Not because anyone is out to get anyone else, but just because environments select and support specific traits, and when those environments change, many of those traits no longer are adaptive.  We don’t have woolly mammoths because a combination of human hunting and warming climates most likely did them in; their environment changed.  The book publishing industry is in the middle of change due to new and different ways of marketing books, and to the rise of ebooks versus physical copies.

I’ve written before in this blog about drug development and how it can find parallels in other industries, and a recent article in WIRED really resonated.  Let me put down some quotes from the article, and see if they sound familiar:

“…awarding huge contracts for books that may not even be written yet creates tremendous risk.”  and “Predicting the success or failure of any given book is impossible.”  Hmm, replace books with “pre-clinical/early clinical stage drugs” and this is a familiar complaint by pharma.

“The publishing houses stay afloat only because the megahits pay for the flops, and there’s generally enough left over for profits.”  Yep, sounds familiar as a business plan.

“In the long term, what publishers have to fear the most may not be Amazon but an idea it has helped engender–that the only truly necessary players in the game are the author and the reader.”  To me, this speaks to the changing dynamic of drug development, where patient groups are using new internet tools to become more active players in the drug development process.

“The recently announced merger of the two biggest of the Big Six, Random House and Penguin, is widely seen as a move to build an entity that can stand up to Amazon’s market power.”  Now where have I seen mergers done as a business ploy before?

Drugs are not just like ebooks (although my post earlier this week did look at the concept of drugs as information). But drug development faces the same crisis of old ways of doing business not being sufficient to tackle new challenges brought about by changing environments.  In the case of drug development, the disruption is coming from the challenge of creating new, more effective drugs despite increasing regulatory requirements.  Can drug development learn anything from the problems the publishing houses are facing?

Unfortunately, as can be seen by the quotes above, so far the publishing industry doesn’t appear to have any new, magic bullet solutions that can teach the pharma business about dealing with disruption to old business models.   I suppose the key lesson, which many pharma and biotech already seem to be taking, is that adaptability is going to be a necessary component of business strategy moving forward.  Another possible lesson is that book publishers are having to ask what they’re really good at, and seeing how that can be adapted to a new world where authors have more power because they have new ways of reaching the reader.  Publishers are touting that they can provide the added value of savvy marketing and crackerjack editing to make themselves attractive to authors.  Even though we talk about social media as removing the need for traditional marketing, successful marketing is a skill however it’s accomplished, and a skill most authors don’t have and many don’t want to learn.

Pharma can similarly look at what they do best–clinical trials, sales and marketing–and possibly move out of the discovery part of things altogether.  It would be a radical change, but ignoring changing external factors and keeping the same business practices is unlikely to work in the long run.

Interestingly, in publishing I think the big winners when the dust settles might be…libraries!  While people want to buy books online, they still like to leaf through them.  You see the same phenomenon, by the way, with places like Best Buy.  People like to go see the physical item before hunching over their smartphone and doing one-click shopping.

This is leading to many bookstores becoming the de facto showroom for Amazon, and subsequently going out of business.  And when there are no neighborhood bookstores, people may turn even more to their local libraries.  There, they can not only see and leaf through books, but also talk to a friendly librarian without guilt and get recommendations.  One of the many things librarians excel at is navigating information and matching you up with the right book.  I wonder if we might eventually see librarians working on a partial commission basis, with you “tipping” them via Square or some other form of electronic money.  If we can download a song on impulse for 99 cents, wouldn’t we be willing to grant our librarians at least that much for helping us find the perfect novel?

Getting patients back to normal

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Inspired in part by this column from David Shaywitz

Here is a story I had the privilege to hear from Fred Modell, one of the founders of the Jeffrey Modell Foundation (check them out; they’re a great group):  Fred was at their annual picnic, where they host kids with immune system defects.  Fred walked by two early teenage girls, and as he passed by he heard one of them asking the other, “You really kissed a boy?”  Which seems like a common enough thing for two teenage girls to be talking about.

Only in this case it wasn’t.  If your immune system doesn’t function like most everyone else’s, then kissing a boy is not just part of growing up.  It can be dangerous to your health. It’s something  about which you have to think hard, and try your best to understand the implications, and you need to be careful, cautious and measured.  Everything your first kiss really shouldn’t be.

For these girls, though, because of groups like the Modell Foundation and the treatments they’ve helped pioneer and support, these girls could experience the spontaneity of an event that so many kids take for granted.  And they could feel normal, like their friends in school. Continue reading

3D printers, DIY Bio, French bistros and one possible future path for drug development

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

The Long Tail is Everywhere There’s Information

Several years ago I happened upon Chris Anderson’s great book The Long Tail.  He wrote about the amazing changes that were taking place in commerce because of the digitization and electronic dissemination of information.  Mix incredibly cheap (essentially free) data storage with the Internet and reasonable bandwidth, throw in the power of search and individual customization algorithms, and suddenly business models no longer had to rely on bulk consumption and the generation of popular hits.

The first industries to feel the change were in entertainment:  music, movies, books, where having a physical copy was once necessary to enjoy Madonna, Star Wars, or Carl Hiaasen’s latest thriller.  Digitization turned that upside down.  It became clear that what we’re really paying for is information, and it’s a lot harder for the entertainment industry (or any industry) to keep control over the dissemination of information than when they sold that information packaged in shiny plastic discs.

Anderson also described how in this digital world, and aided by the powers of personalized search, niche markets could not only survive but thrive.  Once, something like Tuvan Throat Singing was a niche musical form that you might have heard of on a trip to Siberia, but you’d have had no luck finding a CD at your local Tower Records (remember them?).  Now, you can not only find several tracks from iTunes or Amazon, you’ll also get suggestions for what else you might like based on your fondness for overtone singing.  Since it costs Amazon basically nothing to store the music and associated information, they can afford to have it available for the 20 people who might want to buy it.  Tally that up across all the niches in the world and it’s a hefty sum.

This is pretty neat.  But it’s still uncertain how the business of entertainment will shake out financially and logistically among the producers, distributors and promoters.  I’m not real fond of chaos like that in my professional life, and for a long time felt secure that my job–drug development scientist–was not in danger of becoming part of a long tail phenomenon.  Only now I’m not so sure. Continue reading