Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Innovation at Genentech:Focus on a long run

Genentech is a South San Francisco-based biotech company enjoying a long history of developing revolutionary drugs, such as cancer fighter Avastin. In FORTUNE magazine's latest Top 100 Companies to Work For list, Genentech ranks No.7. Being able to bring about important scientific breakthroughs and to maintain a nurturing working environment at the same time is no accident in Genentech. There is an organizational answer to how the company keeps innovation flowing so well.

Among all of its innovation-friendly features, I consider Genentech’s postdoc program as a unique approach. Genentech’s research department includes about 1,100 researchers, scientists and postdocs. Notably, Genentech is the only pharmaceutical company to offer a postdoctoral program, where up to 120 Ph.D. holders are awarded fellowships for four years. Fellowships are strongly encouraged to pursue projects of interests in addition to work towards the company’s goal. Besides developing therapies for unmet medical needs, the company puts an explicit emphasis on conducting fundamental research.

This creates a win-win situation. For postdoc fellows, by collaborating with Genentech scientists, they receive rigorous scientific training in a supportive environment and have constantly published papers in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. For the company, as Genentech’s head of research put it, “The postdoc program keeps a constant flux of young people with different backgrounds and technologies moving through Genentech. This keeps the real innovative, entrepreneurial, creative spirit around Genentech research.” As a result, Genentech's scientists have secured approximately 7,400 current, non-expired patents worldwide and have about 6,250 patent applications pending worldwide.

As we’ve talked about in class, innovation is seen as a structured process in Genentech. First, they create this postdoctoral program to attract a high-quality talent pool, allowing talents meet and ideas thrive. Second, they encourage fundamental research in an inspired, purposeful, and resource-rich environment. The keywords here are “fundamental research” and “purposeful.” These two concepts don’t conflict. Although the beauty of fundamental research lies in the fact that no one knows where the research will exactly lead to before actually getting there, it doesn’t mean fundamental research is done without a purpose. There is a purpose, but not an immediate one. By upgrading the existing scientific toolkit, fundamental research could later apply to potential products. While the idea of Design Thinking typifies problem-solving-oriented innovation process, Genentech’s approach is like a long-term investment.

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