Innovation at Pfizer

Aug 01, 2011

Getty Images: John Foxx (Background image)
Innovation is the issue of the moment in Big Pharma, with a fierce debate raging about whether the capacity to "do it" is waning, as companies grow bigger and seek new opportunities around a platform of portfolio diversification. To obtain some answers, Pharm Exec Editor-in-Chief William Looney took this question up with the biggest of Big Pharma—Pfizer—in a wide ranging interview with Executive Vice President Kristin Peck, who holds a dual leadership portfolio focused on serving as the company's chief innovation officer as well as business development strategist. Peck outlines what Pfizer is doing to transform the "art of invention" into executable innovations, with new products and services that address the needs of a changing customer base. Her biggest challenge? Convincing both colleagues and the world outside that innovation is not something serendipitous and ad hoc but a deliberate process that is tightly managed, forward-looking, complex, partner-driven—and risky. True innovation poses a challenge to the organization, but it must be embraced without fear, because as traditional commercial boundaries fray, there is no alternative.

William Looney: In addition to coordinating the business development function at Pfizer you are responsible for "innovative business model activities." This latter assignment is not a defined role in most other biopharmaceutical companies, at least at the executive-leadership level. What makes you different?

Kristin Peck: I occupy a position that is in some ways unique to the industry. On business development, we have deep roots in all of the Business Units (BUs) and work closely with their management to identify and assess opportunities around acquisitions, divestitures, and licensing, as well as leveraging the equity partnering capabilities of our in-house venture capital operation that is also part of my group. The innovation part is not an add-on but complements business development by creating new pathways in which these partnerships with external players can take root. We try to answer the question: "Where are the new or untapped opportunities for partnering that will put us in that 'blue ocean' position where we are out in front of the competition?"

In contrast to the BUs, we look at everything in the context of the entire company—the "Pfizer Inc." perspective, you might call it. But we are not the sole source and outlet for innovation initiatives. Each BU has a mandate to work here as well. Where we lead is in looking at truly disruptive innovation, which we define as substantial "game changers" that carry an impact on the whole company. This big-picture space has become more important as Pfizer has grown through some sizeable acquisitions. The rationale is that a BU might walk away from a disruptive idea because it might not be aligned with its strategy or hurt its quarterly returns. In contrast, our job is to say that is not a reason in itself to avoid working on a project. Instead, we try to champion ideas that cross BU lines and could benefit Pfizer Inc. Someone in an organization with more than 100,000 employees has to be thinking about that.

To do that and maintain trust with the BUs, we must collaborate. I also emphasize that I do not run a "skunk works" or serve as an ivory-towered think tank. We are firmly embedded in all key parts of the business. Much of my day is spent on teams geared to building trust. Trust is the currency of our goodwill account with the business. It's a transaction that has to work both ways.

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