A new year and a New start – leaving the Pistoia Alliance Board of Directors

I hope I can say 2014 is a New Start.

Due to my increase in time contributed to working on rare diseases through Jonah’s Just Begun, the Hereditary Neuropathy Foundation and Hannah’s Hope Fund my “free time” has taken a bit of a squeeze. In addition when combined with the 3 NIH grants I am on as PI at CDD and the several additional NIH grants on TB research I will contribute to in 2014 (with collaborators at Rutgers University and John’s Hopkins University), I needed to urgently rethink some of my present and future commitments.  And so in December I resigned from  the Board of Directors of the Pistoia Alliance.

The Pistoia Alliance is a precompetitive initiative aimed at lowering the barriers to R&D innovation. I had been on the board for two years representing CDD.  I can honestly say that I use this in the loosest terms, I really went in there to do whatever was in the best interests of the group and put CDD second. It was not something I had sought out and it was foisted upon me. I did not use the Pistoia Alliance as some opportunity to boost my personal brand, or use the interactions I made to sell more product. Far from it, I can honestly say membership of the Pistoia Alliance resulted in zero sales for CDD as far as I know.  Initially I found the experience volunteering very interesting and useful but can that be classed as a return on Investment? Being at the same table as representatives from major pharmaceutical companies and software companies may have raised CDD’s visibility (at the cost of membership) but its hard to say or predict whether that will ever payoff. I do think one of the most valuable assets were the letters of support for grants we had written, especially as it became harder for pharma’s to provide such letters in recent years.  In concrete terms being in the Pistoia Alliance lead to development of the Open Drug Discovery Teams mobile app (outside of CDD and with Alex Clark in 2012) from one of their ice breaker social events at the Royal Society of Chemistry. And over the past year or so we developed a mobile app strategy at the Pistoia Alliance. I think this was something a few of the board members at the time felt was very important. We could see the increasing use of mobile devices and apps and at the same time there were a few really useful chemistry and biology apps. A big challenge we noted was accessing apps and providing the infrastructure to use apps in secure industrial environments. Towards the end I saw and experienced all that is less desirable  in the pharmaceutical industry (in my opinion) and I had left behind over a decade ago.

I experienced the continuous desire to hold many meetings without delivering anything. I saw protectionism (not willing to do anything that might actually make progress) and those who could talk at length but not actually do anything when it came to having to deliver. I confess to being  very impatient and the opportunity to be on the Pistoia Alliance board made me see how pharmas are really in a hole. Even with pharmaceutical members involved in the mobile apps team, no one company was actually willing to push the agenda for mobile apps for R&D in their workplace, from what I could tell. Is this because they still see the desktop computing environment as the dominant platform or are they just following the trend of big pharma being a decade behind when it comes to computing/ software? Or is it because they were more concerned with looking out for their own job / career as big pharma continues to shake up.

Don’t get me wrong, the Pistoia Alliance is a great concept in theory, bring different constituents together and get them to volunteer time and resources to develop tools / software that many will need (and in a few cases put out RFPs). Thereby cutting costs (by avoiding duplication) and possibly ensuring standards for the tools developed. In theory its also meant to help the informatics companies involved because they can build products the industry wants. In my experience we got a single free CDD app onto the appstore (TB Mobile) but that’s about all we saw from membership, that and the letters of support. We saw some involvement in HELM which was another initiative and something that may be useful to CDD one day. But precompetitive organizations need to deliver something of value for the considerable amounts of money invested so that many groups benefit and not just a handful. And that takes good ideas and people willing and able to drive the projects. Ultimately such groups become professional organizations, akin to companies. I sense that is the direction the Pistoia Alliance will go, as they hire more full and part time people in operating roles. In essence the board members’ roles are just to provide direction and ideas. But the quality of a precompetitive initiative rests with the quality of the board and their influence.

I am sad to leave the Pistoia Alliance, but honestly I think its time for someone else to come in with fresh ideas and hopefully more time on their hands (and patience) to actively participate. If there is one recommendation I would make its that there should be a limited time that directors can serve on the board – say 2 years, and that anyone serving as a board member should actively deliver.  In addition, board membership should cycle around more companies so its not always the same core group making decisions for themselves. I am sure I will be in the background watching what the Pistoia Alliance does in the future with interest.





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  1. FormerGSK says:

    Hi Sean,
    I read your post with great interest. Your summary of the pharmaceutical industry in the third paragraph is right on the money, the line:
    I experienced the continuous desire to hold many meetings without delivering anything
    says it all.

    The Pistoia Alliance could and should deliver tangible benefits but my suspicion from the start was that it would be hijacked by empty suits and self-serving careerists. I’m afraid that your piece has confirmed my suspicions. A real pity! Good luck for the future and thanks for such an honest appraisal.

  2. Pistoia Alliance says:

    The Pistoia Alliance is always sorry to lose a member but is always pleased to keep in touch with old members for one never knows when a new opportunity for renewed collaboration – and indeed for renewed membership – may occur. And this is certainly the case with Collaborative Drug Discovery which has decided not to renew its membership of the Pistoia Alliance in 2014. CDD were one of the earliest members of the Pistoia Alliance and recently their representative Sean Ekins has been serving on the Board of Directors.

    The Pistoia Alliance would like to say a big “thank you” to CDD and indeed a very special “thank you” to Sean Ekins. Sean has expended much energy to help the Pistoia Alliance – by his participation on the board, by his project leadership and in particular by his individual advice and coaching which benefited many Pistoia Alliance colleagues and has been very much appreciated. In particular, Sean’s ability to encourage a different approach to inspire innovation in life sciences R&D and his willingness to challenge thinking that is less than rigorous has been most helpful to the development of the Pistoia Alliance.

    Sean, we do very much hope that you and CDD will keep in touch with the Pistoia Alliance and that opportunities will arise where we can work together again!

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