How the role of the R&D leader in Life Sciences is changing

14 Jul 2020

How the role of the R&D leader in Life Sciences is changing

What kind of leader is needed to help Life Sciences companies collaborate, innovate and develop lifesaving and market-leading therapies?

Given rapid shifts in the regulatory environment, the opportunities and risks presented by a changing data landscape, and the ever-present pressure to reduce time-to-market, R&D leaders are being challenged and stretched like never before and there is a demand for and incredibly diverse skillset.

Data is the big challenge

One of the “game changing” strategies for R&D leaders is to find ways to exploit big data in order to drive value-based pricing and market access. Access to the sector’s data is driving partnerships with tech companies, who are offering their expertise in data analytics, machine learning and cloud computing to Life Sciences companies seeking to create synergies and unlock value.

Examples include Oxford Biomedica’s R&D collaboration with Microsoft, using the cloud and machine learning to improve gene and cell therapy development and manufacturing. Sanofi and Google’s virtual innovation lab aims to enable more personalised approaches to treatment, accelerate the discovery of new therapies and improve patient outcomes.

While such partnerships are promising, the Life Sciences sector is still one of the least digitally mature private-sector industries.

The Life Sciences sector is still one of the least digitally mature private-sector industries.

This means that their R&D leaders are facing a steep learning curve in areas such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, design thinking and deciding which IT and software platforms to invest in.

More specialist knowledge required fast

The Odgers Berndtson Life Sciences Practice has advised numerous senior leaders in the sector on the necessity to build new technological skills and data literacy into their organisations through training and recruitment. Among other things, R&D organisations will need a more specialised workforce in the lab that is able to coordinate with automation and AI experts.

At the moment, university programmes are not providing all the skills future Life Sciences researchers need in order to prepare for the prominent role of AI in the sector.

As a result, pharmaceutical firms are increasingly recruiting from the tech industry and facing stiff competition for information technology and analytical talent.

To meet these challenges, Silvia Eggenweiler advises, “R&D leaders need to embrace the impact of tech on their industry, foster digital literacy on their teams and create opportunities for fruitful exchanges between clinical experts and technical teams.”

Don’t wait to innovate

In addition, R&D leaders are being called on to lead organizations that are ever more agile and innovative to enhance speed, efficiency, ingenuity and impact on their operating model.

Fostering agility and innovation is a challenge for any company but is particularly challenging for pharmaceutical giants. Innovation thrives in small groups of creative scientists and technologists when they aren’t encumbered by too much bureaucracy and management oversight. As the Harvard Business Review noted, “front-line scientists and technologists will generally cohere into small working groups and attack challenges entrepreneurially on their own if given the opportunity.”

The key is to run a company’s R&D arm like a small entrepreneurial firm inside a bigger firm.

“The key, therefore,” according to Veronika Ulbort, “is to run a company’s R&D arm like a small entrepreneurial firm inside a bigger firm.” One example of this approach is to implement a relatively flat reporting structure and avoid laboratory micro-management.

Hard science, soft skills

Finally, the Odgers Berndtson Life Sciences Practice has observed that, increasingly, while technical and scientific expertise remains important, R&D leaders are also expected to manage through shifts in the way the industry operates, e.g. building and driving “non-traditional” partnerships and alliances and adjusting to a rapidly changing regulatory, payer and competitive landscape.

This level of mental dexterity requires leaders to demonstrate agility and resilience alongside excellent communication, networking and people skills.

This level of mental dexterity requires leaders to demonstrate agility and resilience alongside excellent communication, networking and people skills.

R&D leaders need to develop an adaptive mind-set and continually hone their soft skills in order to lead their organizations effectively. “Soft skills such as an ability to communicate and negotiate effectively are necessary for creating the external relationships and partnerships that an R&D organization needs to succeed.” concludes Hubert Lindenblatt.

Added together, this is a tall order. But the challenges related to making an R&D organisation more data analytics savvy, entrepreneurial and collaborative with external partners is also an exciting opportunity for R&D leaders and the whole Life Sciences sector.

There’s a clear opportunity to reimagine what’s possible, question current organisational structures and forge new partnerships that will fundamentally change the drug and device development paradigm.