July 28, 2021
W.L. Mellon Speaker Series: Amit K. Sachdev Sees a Clear Path for Innovation
Amit Sachdev (BS ’90), Executive Vice President, Chief Patient Officer, and the Chief of Staff to the CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, spoke on March 31, 2021, as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series at the Tepper School of Business.
After 14 years in various executive leadership roles at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Sachdev is very familiar with the erratic nature of innovation. While he has watched the biotech company experience ten-fold growth and launch five novel medicines, including a breakthrough therapy for cystic fibrosis, he is well aware that such innovation takes time and patience and always comes at a financial investment.
The Time and Toll of Innovating
“When you're in a cure market, the best cure wins,” said Sachdev. “There's nothing for second place.” For the life-threatening lung disease cystic fibrosis, the best treatment in the cure market is Vertex’s latest medicine — the first triple-combination therapy with the potential to treat 90 percent of patients with the disease’s most common mutation. Inventing this life-saving treatment required decades of research following the discovery of the gene for cystic fibrosis in 1989. It also required ample funding.
“It is very hard to imagine what it takes to have capital investment over 20 years with $4–$7 billion in losses before you can deliver the first compound and then sustain that into second and third-generation medicines,” said Sachdev. “It is precarious and so you have to have multiple approaches, multiple shots on goal, multiple therapeutic approaches, multiple compounds, and you have to assume a high failure rate.”
The time and financial investment is clearly worthwhile, not only from the standpoint of cystic fibrosis patients whose lives have been saved, but for the larger biotech industry. “The medicine provides benefits that go well beyond one function,” Sachdev said. “It requires a full investment in the medical innovation ecosystem that includes funding to support early programs and support pricing models for rare and orphan drugs. If you don't support that then you're not going to have innovation in the [biotech] space.”
The Diversity Requirement for Strong Innovation
Sachdev is also adamant that diversity is a great catalyst for innovation and this means involving diverse individuals at all levels throughout the company, including its C-suite.
“Diversity and inclusion are not only part of what we do as a company in terms of the footprint of our employees, but also in terms of the communities we're trying to reach with our medicines,” he said. “It's not lost on us that, as we move from cystic fibrosis — which had origins in the UK, Ireland, and similar parts of the world in terms of ethnicity — we're now moving to diseases, including sickle cell anemia, which affect different populations and that requires us to serve both well.”
Sachdev also points out that in biotech, diversity can mean infusing the space with educational and vocational backgrounds that encompass more than science and R&D. In particular, he would like to see more MBAs enter the field to tackle areas that go beyond business and market research.
“You need to be skilled in data sciences and analytics to be effective, to ask the right questions of our core data sciences experts,” he says, adding that Tepper’s MBA is highly compatible with this approach. “We have a whole team of people who do natural language processing, computer science, and data analytics and they need to be linked to the business opportunities that provide the projects that then lead to the insights and the work that then deliver the benefits, whether it be in research, development, or commercial. So we've brought in that lens and we've opened the aperture and now we’re seeing a much broader role for MBAs in all parts of our business.”