Fast Company named GSK one of the world’s “Most Innovative Companies” for its distinctive approach to building an R&D pipeline focused on the science of the immune system, fueled by genetic evidence, and deploying the latest technology, including CRISPR and AI, to select targets. That’s important because data shows that starting with genetic evidence means a medicine—or a vaccine—will be twice as likely to succeed and could have a profound impact on improving human health.
In a Fast Company podcast series focusing on science, technology, and innovation, Dr. Hal Barron, GSK’s chief scientific officer, discussed this breakthrough approach. In this edited interview from that series, Barron, who is responsible for research and development at GSK, reveals how the innovations he cares most about are not limited to science and technology.
People might think innovation and pharma is measured only in an output—the vaccine, the medicine. But increasingly, the innovation in pharma is also the process itself. You’ve worked in pharma for about 25 years. How do you think about innovation in your role?
Hal Barron: Innovation is incredibly important in our industry. But one of the most important lessons I’ve seen for being an innovative company is first having a vision that’s incredibly inspiring—one that is going to last for a long period of time.
You also need to make sure that you have focused on the right technology—the one that’s really going to transform your industry. At GSK, we’ve highlighted how important culture is in innovation, having an integrated culture where, in addition to having outstanding people, we take lessons out of playbooks that I’ve learned from various mentors and managers. The first lesson is the importance of embracing smart risk—not fearing failure. It’s not actually taking the decision that’s most likely going to turn out safe, but one that might be bold and smart—not always correct, but smart.
With so many things you could address in healthcare, how do you prioritize? Do you tackle the hard things first?
As much as the science and technology are incredibly complicated, to some extent, building the necessary culture that enables you to focus so you can deliver innovation is even harder. Truly great companies know how to focus.
Collaboration is key for you as a leader. What do you look for in a great partnership externally?
Having a culture that’s open-minded to innovation from the outside and that’s able to tap into this vast network of academics, other small companies, and even sometimes big pharma companies to collaborate, is key. I think the most important piece of a collaboration, frankly, is head-spinning talent—where you look at the people in the company and you just say, “Wow! Okay, wow.”
How do you identify the people and organizations you want to work with?
The idea of being able to collaborate with regular people across the globe to put all of our information together—to try to help us figure out why we get sick so that we can hopefully intervene—that’s the kind of vision that is so exciting. It’s not just doctors telling patients or academics telling people. It’s patients and people getting together with companies to try to figure out how to optimize their health. It’s the beginning of this transformative process of how to discover and develop drugs and include people in the process.
To learn more about this innovative approach to medicine, listen to the Creativity Equation podcast series, here.