R&D merry-go-round

What R&D leadership swapping means for pharma companies

An exodus of pharma R&D leaders to small biotechs and start-ups over the last year reflects a new phase in the ecosystem’s churn of talent. But it’s not all loss for the pharmas. The transition is expected to help them access innovation by improving the quality and number of in-licensing opportunities.

This year, 25 senior leaders in R&D from 17 different pharma companies have departed to take CEO or other senior management positions at smaller biotechs. Eighteen of those execs joined companies that were founded or raised a series A round in the last three years.

In contrast, only one has gone in the reverse direction. Hal Barron left biotech Calico Life Sciences LLC, where he was President of R&D, to join GlaxoSmithKline plc in January as CSO and President, R&D. Barron had held the Calico position since 2013; previously he headed up global product development at Roche.

The pattern reverses the trend during the last two decades when the flow of R&D leaders more commonly went into pharmas from biotechs or academia.

The change is largely due to the rich funding environment for new companies, which provides attractive resources for translating new technologies into products and delving back into the science.

Pharma leaders who are making the leap told BioCentury the hands-on access to research was a key part of the decision.

“In pharma, you rise up. You have the opportunity to take on greater and greater leadership roles and build organizations; those are wonderful opportunities. But it also starts to take you further and further away from the actual studies, the science and the direct interactions with the treating physicians,” Daniel Chen told BioCentury.

Chen was previously VP and global head of cancer immunotherapy development at the

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