In Praise of Independence: Q&A with Roche's Dan Zabrowski - Pharmaceutical Executive


In Praise of Independence: Q&A with Roche's Dan Zabrowski
Roche has always gone its own way: investing in biologics, championing personalized medicine, and checking its ego at the door when doing deals. Now that the rest of Big Pharma has caught on, can a new generation of leaders keep the Swiss giant ahead of its time?

Pharmaceutical Executive

It's the Friday before Christmas, and Roche's US headquarters in Nutley, NJ, looks deserted. The employees have flown. A bitter-cold wind batters the chain link fence that surrounds this sprawling campus of featureless buildings that house everything from a manufacturing plant to research labs to executive suites. At the high-security checkpoint that serves as the single entrance, the guards are all business.

Inside the near-empty administration building, Zabrowski wraps up a long phone call to Roche's home base in Switzerland, where it's 5:00 P.M. on the last working day of 2007. He's wearing a colorful funny tie, and his backpack is parked by his desk. He's clearly doing the corporate thing with a twinkle in his blue eye. Born and raised in the Midwest, he now lives with his wife and three sons in Basel, that bastion of old Europe, and still makes time to do the AIDS Ride from Boston to New York.

Zabrowski's a molecular chemist, not an MBA or lawyer, and his career path to business-development honcho hasn't been typical. He started out at Searle, testing serotonin-receptor antagonists for GI diseases, and continued more or less straight down the pipeline to become the global head of regulatory affairs at Roche. He spent five years shepherding compounds from Phase III to their judgment day at FDA and its global equivalents, racking up an enviable string of successes: Avastin for solid tumors; the osteoporosis drug Boniva (ibandronate); Rituxan for rheumatoid arthritis and lymphoma; Pegasys (peginterferon alfa 2a) for hepatitis B and C, and the Xenical-to-Alli (orlistat) partnership with Glaxo.

I ask Zabrowski about the rumor that heads of deals have the highest turnover rate in pharma. He laughs. "I just got here," he says. "So I hope I'm not already one of those statistics." Then he turns serious. "Roche really doesn't have a lot of turnover, period," he says. "In business development, we have a very talented group that love the work they do, and love making deals. They're also very stable—people tend to like working at Roche."

But isn't the pressure to close the deal overwhelming? After all, Roche has inked about 100 partnerships. "I'm used to pressure," he says. "I come from the regulatory world, where FDA approval of the product you're working on can impact the shareholders by 10 or 15 percent. That's pressure.

"Our core strategy is innovation," he continues. "And we understand that with innovation comes a need for risk taking, and with risk taking sometimes comes failure. But this is not a finger-pointing culture—instead we ask, 'What did you learn for next time?'"


At Roche, business development is divided into four appealingly Neanderthal-sounding functions: "want, find, get, manage."

Pharma is rife with misbegotten deals where M&A and R&D end up pointing fingers at each other for going off strategy. So "want" requires signoff at the top with input from all sides.

Zabrowski's R&D experience is a big plus: "At every one of our meetings, I spend 30 minutes to an hour getting an early read from my R&D colleagues about the opportunities we are looking," he says. "We have to be in sync—otherwise we'd bring in products that the company doesn't embrace."


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