Deborah Dunsire spent much of her career rising through the ranks of Novartis, the Swiss biopharma giant, before becoming CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, a developer of cancer drugs. Dunsire is now chief executive of XTuit, a small biotech company based in the suburbs of Boston. Dunsire joined the company, focused on cancer and fibrotic diseases, in May 2017.

Research Breakthroughs are Unscriptable

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This interview is from our CEOs on Innovation report, in the Fall 2017 issue of Innovation Leader magazine.

To some degree, there’s a magic to discovery-oriented research that you can’t script. That’s one of the things that makes it more difficult in larger companies. As you get larger, you need more predictability.

There’s a bigger investment, so there’s more oversight, and more big company processes that are necessary. In all of that, it makes it harder for people to pursue a random path, or take advantage of an insight that came when they were working on something different, because there are corporate goals attached to everything, and milestones, and people expecting outputs on those milestones.

What is the answer in a bigger organization? Making sure that the scientists are connected to the external world is just so critical, to refresh and challenge their thinking. That may mean collaborative partnerships with smaller companies, or with academia. But it really is a critical leavening. You want meetings and collaborations, where you’re really working with another party. At Millennium, our R&D organization was working with Wade Harper’s lab at Harvard. They were coming at the science from different directions. Each one was able to stimulate the other, and it was a very productive partnership.

What’s the Culture of the Research Organization?

One of the most critical things for a CEO is to have that right Chief Scientific Officer—somebody who has been a successful researcher, but also has the softer skill set to be able to mentor other scientific talent–and the openness of mind to be able to reach out beyond their organization. You need to be able to work with your CSO…Working with Joe Bolen, my CSO at Millennium, we would debate quite fiercely how we were deploying the resources between nearer-term and longer-term.

One of the things that was also helpful to me as a leader of the organization was [spending time in the research organization.] I would go and sit and chat with the scientists about what they were doing, because you never know if somebody is managing the information you get. I wanted them to share successes and failures.

XTuit CEO Deborah Dunsire

XTuit CEO Deborah Dunsire

It’s challenging for research organizations, because their timelines are long. [The CEO has] to be able to engage with them, and share the progress, and be a vocal advocate for the research organization with the rest of the company. One of the things we’d do was have the CSO talk to the sales force about the research. That motivated the sales force, and the research organization felt respected, that they weren’t buried in the basement slaving away.

The larger the organization, the more important it is for the CEO to know who the next level of leaders are in research — not just the top ones — and what culture is really being created there. Is it personal aggrandizement, and fiefdoms? How are we recognizing the scientists? The CEO paying attention to that is impactful.