|Vitae’s executive team talks about innovation in drug discovery on The In Vivo Blog
One of the best things about having time to sit down with a company's
executive team and discuss matters such as pipeline and business strategy at
leisure is the chance to intersperse more philosophical questions that address
how a company views itself and the work environment it tries to
In meeting a few weeks ago with the executive team at Vitae
Pharmaceuticals near Philadelphia for a
profile in "The Pink Sheet," I got more information than I could process on
the firm's structure-based
drug design process, the genesis of its proprietary Contour
technology platform and its plans for pipeline assets in
indications such as chronic kidney disease and acute coronary
But as I spoke with CEO Jeff Hatfield, CFO
Tina Fiumenero and Chief Scientific Officer Richard Gregg, all of whom came to
the clinical-stage company from Bristol-Myers Squibb, I wanted to ask about the
best environment for innovation in drug discovery and
what precisely the term "biotech" even means in 2013, if such a definition can
be nailed down.
|Vitae Pharmaceuticals CEO Jeff
As Hatfield explained that he brought in Gregg after
initial CSO and company co-founder John Baldwin retired, he noted both the depth
of Gregg's Rolodex and the fact that he had led discovery in all areas at
Bristol. Therapeutic agnosticism is important for a company that wants to go
where its technology takes it. Hearing Gregg talk about Vitae's quicker,
streamlined decision-making and its speed in drug discovery against challenging
targets, I posed the question: "Coming from big pharma, would you say it's
necessary to leave big pharma if you want to innovate in drug
Gregg's response to the somewhat loaded question
is a bit on the cautious side, but still interesting.
|Vitae CSO Richard
"I think that one
does not have to leave big pharma but it is easier [to innovate] in a biotech
environment. It’s not that big pharma can’t [do it] but with a lot of the
bureaucracy and decision-making processes, they make it difficult to be truly
innovative there. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it’s easier in
biotech," he said.
Hatfield then elaborated on the innovation topic: "I
think there’s an awful lot to the culture and environment that people work in
... I don’t think the scientific talent is different in either direction - I
don’t think it’s better in big pharma, I don’t think it’s worse in big pharma.
What is really different is the culture that exists between a large
organization, whether it’s in pharmaceuticals or manufacturing Twinkies,
it doesn’t matter, big organizations have an organizational behavior, a culture,
that by necessity is more structured, more controlled, and in a small
organization, that’s much less the issue."
Culture is a big part of what
defines biotech, in 2013 as in 1999, the CEO added. But does Vitae, with its
focus on small-molecule drugs for primary-care indications, really fit the
definition of biotech?
"Everybody has a slightly different definition of
biotech," Hatfield said. "Yes, we do view ourselves as biotech, because we are
innovative and I think that's a better essence of what biotech is supposed to
represent, not whether it is small molecule or large molecule. It's pursuit of
innovation to make a difference in the world."
But, besides its
technology, what makes a company like Vitae innovative? Hatfield thinks getting
buy-in from the ground-floor level R&D team is a good place to start. In
other words, innovation comes from motivation, which may stem partly from
"When we were getting this company going [it was founded
in 2002, and Hatfield signed on as chief in 2004], I asked a group of bench
scientists to define the culture. I said ‘tell me the environment you want to
work in.’ And so they did, and it was not management-driven in the slightest
bit. They came up with five principles of what they wanted the focus to be," he
Those five tenets selected by the bench scientists themselves
in 2006 as the company's modus operandi? Not surprisingly, the first was
innovation - to create rather than copy. Next, they wanted to be evaluated on
the basis of success, not the amount of activity, on helping to produce the
right compound, rather than just a lot of compounds.
As Gregg alluded to,
a third important value for the R&D team was quick decision-making, which
the group called "sense of urgency." The scientists made clear they didn't want
to hear about committees being organized to ponder the latest idea. They also
wanted a teamwork-driven environment in which the chemists and biologists
communicate directly and trouble-shoot together.
Finally, easier said
than done, they wanted a fun place to work. Which is about as easily defined as
what biotech means in 2013. But on the other four measures, the results to date
suggest that Vitae may be living up to its own chosen values. Whether that
proves to be a lucrative formula remains to be determined.