Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Billion Here, A Billion There, Pretty Soon You’re Talking Real Money

Last week I attended a Finance Committee Meeting at MassBio: “’The Billion Dollar Molecule’ Revisited.” Not surprisingly, it was a sellout, given the panel of Josh Boger, Rich Aldrich and Roger Tung. The purpose was to take a look back at where Vertex has come over the 17 years since the book first came out. Timing is everything. The panel followed closely on the heels of the approval of INCIVEK™ (telaprevir) for Hepatitis C two days prior.

It was a modified “fireside chat” format, which I normally don’t like, but worked extremely well. My good friend, John Hallinan, moderated with aplomb, and in this very informal setting, the conversation flowed effortlessly. There were some very interesting insights and stories, and, since the place was crawling with Vertex employees and alumni, some inside jokes. Before the event, as I thanked John for inviting me, he exhorted me to participate. Me? Not ask a question? Guess he doesn’t know me as well as I thought.

Well, there’s nothing like a good straight man. Rich made the point early in the discussion that of all the elements contributing to Vertex’s success, the team was the most important. (Music to my ears.) Later, when the discussion had turned to innovation, Roger proposed that part of the Vertex success story was due to the small team in the early days, and that big organizations don’t innovate well. Josh later pushed back on that statement, citing Google and Apple as two of the most innovative companies in the world, with clearly big teams. The answer, as with most things, probably lies somewhere in the middle. I am occasionally asked to join boards of directors of various organizations. While flattering, my standard response is to find out how big the board is. More than about 6 or 7 is, in my mind, a recipe for inaction and interminable meetings. On the other hand, I agree with Roger that a lot can be accomplished in a small sub-committee. My guess is that Apple and Google are not innovating by soliciting the opinions of the entirety of their respective employee bases, and that innovation is taking place in small, matrixed, cross functional teams.

When it was finally my turn, I asked the group what their advice would be to the current incarnation of Vertex at about 1,700 employees, particularly with respect to innovation. They did not offer any particular instructions, but Josh offered an observation on what I thought was a brilliant policy at Vertex. Of the many creative and innovative aspects of the culture at Vertex, Josh said that every one, every one, of the 250-person sales force were interviewed by someone in the research organization before they were hired, and once hired, were assigned a “research buddy.”

As I’ve blogged before, all roles in a technology company are technology roles. OK, there may be a few exceptions, but think about it. If you’re in HR and don’t recognize the unique nature of the research staff and work to create a culture that supports it, or if you’re a finance person who’s never heard the term “third party payor,” or a marketing person who doesn’t understand how to say nice things about the product within the regulatory limits imposed on the industry, you’re going to have a problem.

Recognizing and acting on the importance of everyone in a technology organization being on board is ingenious. It is imperative that your sales people know enough about the technology to be able to sell it to sophisticated medical professionals. They don’t need to be experts, but do need to know enough to speak intelligently. Equally importantly, they need to know when they are out of their depth, and have a resource they can count on to get them back to safe waters.

As perhaps the most sports illiterate person on the planet, I’ve never been good at sports analogies. I understand that a baseball team in Boston beat one from New York in the World Series a few years ago, and apparently it was quite the big deal. OK, it’s not quite that bad… One sports writer at the time made the observation that after practice or a game, each of the players on the Yankees got into their cars and left the stadium. At Fenway, many team members went together, in the same car, to go have a beer or otherwise spend time together. That’s what is meant by a team, and was attributed, in no small measure, to the Red Sox’ win that year. So don’t underestimate the value of putting the right team together, and, particularly for technology companies, filling the ranks with team members who understand the underpinnings of the product.

Oh, and as for the one sport that I do follow, go Bruins!

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