Lilly’s Lechleiter wants to erase the phrase: ‘You guys are tough to work with’

University research and pharmaceutical employees need to replace distrust and disdain with collaboration if Indiana is to preserve and expand its place in the top tier of life sciences communities. Eli Lilly CEO Dr. John Lechleiter stressed culture change in a presentation Tuesday in Indianapolis.

Who would have expected a pharma executive to call for culture change to preserve competitive advantage?

Dr. John Lechleiter, CEO of Eli Lilly and Company (XNYS:LLY), challenged everyone — pharma employees, university leaders, legislators — to focus on collaboration as one of three critical steps to preserve Indiana’s place in the top tier of life sciences communities.

“Our state’s success has raised the stakes for all of us, and we have tied our economic future to continued leadership in life sciences,” he said in Indianapolis Tuesday.

For Indiana to maintain a strong position in life sciences and compete effectively nationally, Lechleiter stressed three points. Find and keep good people and get more support from the government are pretty standard goals for business development. It was Lechleiter’s focus on culture change that made his comments surprising.

He described the current working relationship between universities and industry as silos of distrust and disdain.

“In this time of escalating costs and declining funding for research, and the growing complexity of life science research itself, we need productive and focused collaboration between companies and academia,” Lechleiter said. “In my view, the prime function of Indiana’s great research universities is to assist with tech transfer, to bring products and to the society to which they owe their existence.”

He called businesspeople to task on the lack of collaboration as well. He said that a new measure of an employee’s accomplishments at Lilly would be how many collaborations the person fostered within the state.

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“We engage far too little in meaningful ways with universities in our own state,” he said. “Within a year, I don’t want anybody in the state to say, ‘You guys are hard to work with.'”

Lechleiter described a project Lilly worked on with Medtronic as a great example of the benefits of collaboration between groups that don’t usually cross paths.

“The project involved putting probes into people’s brains and targeting medical therapy with these medical probes,” he said. “I realized that these two companies think of the brain in very different ways and what would happen if their best neuroscience person was working in a lab next to our best neuroscience person?”

“Our researcher would say, ‘I’ve got this great therapy but I don’t know how to get through the blood brain barrier.’ Medtronic’s scientist would say, ‘Here is a big plumbing and wiring diagram and I can go anywhere.'”

Lechleiter named predictable process for licensing and tenure policies that encourage intellectual property development and industry partnerships as two changes that universities should make.

He drew his recommendations from a Battelle report that outlined a 10-year strategy for the state and his conversations with other pharma and academic leaders.

Lechleiter said his thoughts on this were also influenced by Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco. She listed four steps to changing relations between the two groups, with two changing the attitude of mistrust and creating a space for interaction between the two groups.

Lechleiter mentioned a proposal from gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence for creating an executive innovation network for business and academic leaders as one way to create this environment. He also said that the government shouldn’t pursue a social agenda that discourages people from coming to Indiana.

For Lilly’s part in all this, Lechleiter said the company would continue to bring outside investments to Indiana and actively support research. He stressed the need for a major research institution in Indiana.

He also said he would make healthy changes within his own organization to facilitate the exchange of ideas between Lilly and Indiana University, Purdue University and Notre Dame University.

“We can do much more without either group losing sight of their respective missions,” he said. “There is a tremendous opportunity to meet in the middle.”