By focusing on life-threatening illnesses, the company has achieved steady growth, despite a tiny marketing effort. “All the large companies have thousands of reps,” says Gilead CEO Dr. John Martin. “Our HIV U.S. sales force is less than 100 people.” Gilead’s strategy reaps both financial rewards–$3.5 billion in profits last year–and good karma. Its Access Program helps deliver low-cost HIV drugs to 97 countries, and a nonprofit foundation has given $8 million for HIV education, prevention, and treatment. In the pipeline: a less toxic and more effective drug for hepatitis C.
How did Gilead Sciences arrive at its strategy of targeting unmet needs for critical, life-threatening conditions such as HIV and respiratory disease?
Of course companies like to work in areas where they have the expertise and can build market share. We have a different model in that we don’t build a lot of internal infrastructure. We tend to work with different organizations around the world for the company’s success. We’ve worked a lot with national health organizations, the NIH in the U.S. as well as European health researchers. Governments do a lot of work to better understand drugs, and governments also put out guidelines that say what they need. This has helped us come up with products to treat diseases that aren’t adequately treated.
How did you manage to develop such a wide stable of successful drugs in a relatively short time frame?
That’s a question we get all the time–the FDA approves 20 new drugs each year, and we’ve had nine drugs approved in the last 11 years, yet our R&D budget is just 0.2 % of the R&D budget worldwide. One way we’ve done that is by hiring experts. Many of the people we hire have more than a decade of experience and have international scientific reputations. They’e like a team of professional athletes.
The other way is to collaborate broadly with experts around the world. For example, by far the majority of our manufacturing is done with fine chemical manufacturers overseas. That’s what they specialize in and have an expertise in.
Can you describe the activities of the Access program and your other social responsibility efforts?
I don’t know if we call it social responsibility. That makes it sound like we have to do it but we don’t want to do it. I use pretty simple words I guess. The Access program is just something that is very natural for us because it fits what we want to do, which is take care of unmet medical needs.
In 125 countries, including in Africa, Asia and South America, we offer our drugs at a discount and work with partners to distribute them. Initially we provided drugs at no profit. Then we did an experiment where we licensed and transferred our technology to Indian generics manufacturers. That works pretty well and they do make a profit.
We also have Advancing Access, a program in the U.S. for patients that don’t have coverage. The doc can call an 800 number, register, give that patient a card and they can get that patient a prescription for Hepatitis or HIV drugs. There are two types of medical need: one is coming up with new drugs and the other medical need is having access to them.
Correction: This article originally referred to John Martin as the founder of Gilead Sciences. Michael Riordan founded the company and ran it for 10 years.