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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


The New Architecture of Biomedical Research

Dr. Denis says she does not push too far. “It’s hard to be terrifically assertive,” she says. “The best contacts come from the individual scientists themselves. You not only have to convince your own scientists this is something they want to do, you have to convince the scientists and businesspeople at company X. If the scientists get along, we businesspeople follow. It’s just details after that. We don’t have a finished product, and the company has to make a substantial investment to take it forward. That’s a lot easier if there’s a mutual respect.”

One aspect of partnering with independent labs that is difficult for many established companies is maintaining a generous information exchange and publication policy. Paul Herrling, head of corporate research at Novartis in Basel, Switzerland, says this is crucial. “In a science culture, you only get information if you give information. My view is it pays a lot to be liberal. You always get more back than you give because the rest of the scientific community is much bigger than you. Scientists will talk anyway, so you might as well leverage it and get something in return.”

Scientists at the independent laboratories are accustomed to talking frequently and candidly with their colleagues and competitors at other institutions around the world. Much of this communication is informal, and is an integral part of a culture where the goal has always been publications, not profits. Now, NIH leaders say they would like to formalize that exchange of ideas to better align research efforts in academia, independent labs, industry, and government.

“If you look at the distribution of academic and research institutes, these centers of excellence, it maps very well to NCI’s map of cancer centers,” says Andrew C. von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute. “There’s a very significant alignment of basic research and our strategic initiative. We have to devote adequate resources so [the cancer centers and independent institutes] don’t get an unfunded mandate. We also have to provide a bioinformatics infrastructure.

“In return for that, there has to be better horizontal integration between them,” he says. “We’re providing more resources; in return, they have to give back to the community.”

Dr. von Eschenbach has set the NCI a challenge goal to eliminate the suffering and death due to cancer by 2015, and he is counting on the collaboration of the independent research institutes. “This is not a goal to eliminate cancer, although that may happen someday, but we may have enough knowledge to eliminate the burden of the disease,” he says. “It will only come about with a seamless interaction between government, industry, and academia.”

Back at the Salk, collaboration is simply a way of life. Indeed, the very structure of the labs — and certainly the culture created by Jonas Salk and nurtured over the years — was designed to facilitate collaboration within the institute.

Over the past year, publications by Salk faculty have highlighted discoveries in cancer, AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and other critical illnesses. Sydney Brenner, a distinguished member of the Salk faculty, shared the Nobel Prize with John E. Sulston from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and H. Robert Horvitz from MIT for their contributions toward discoveries about how genes regulate organ growth and the process of programmed cell death. And Dr. Evans shared two major prizes with Pierre Chambon, honorary director of the Institut de Génétique et de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire in Strasbourg, France, for their work in discovering nuclear hormone receptors, revealing their structure and function, and defining their central role in human physiology.

“The quality of science here at the Salk is spectacular, and the environment is wonderful,” says Dr. Richard Murphy. “Every Friday afternoon, we have a faculty lunch, with sandwiches. The guy who would never miss that is Francis Crick, at 86 years old, and Brenner is the same way. These guys have the ability to ask the big questions.”

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  1. Lawrence M. Fisher, “How Strategic Alliances Work in Biotech,” s+b, First Quarter 1996; Click here.
  2. Lawrence M. Fisher, “Post-Merger Integration: How Novartis Became No. 1,” s+b, Second Quarter 1998; Click here.
  3. Lawrence M. Fisher, “The Rocky Road from Startup to Big-Time Player: Biogen’s Triumph Against the Odds,” s+b, Third Quarter 1997; Click here.
  4. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:
  5. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
  6. Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research:
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