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Pharma's Future Leaders -- Or Its Pallbearers

Given the challenges facing Big Pharma -- expiring patents, waning drug pipelines, the imploding blockbuster model, and increasing political pressure on its marketing practices -- it's hard not to wonder sometimes just who in their right minds would want to lead its giant but fragile companies over the next decade or two.

Laying pharma to rest?Pharmaceutical Executive has an answer in its recent feature "45 Under 45: The Change Generation," which purports to identify pharma/biotech executives "most likely to be lightning-struck" as "emerging pharma leaders." The leading example -- although not one of the 45 himself, oddly enough -- is 44-year-old Andrew Witty, the recently minted CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (who PharmExec still can't help but gush over as "articulate, inspiring and witty," although it attributes those observations to unnamed "people at Glaxo").

Of course, it's too early to know whether Witty or any of these 45 other men and women will be "lightning-struck" -- much less whether that might turn well or not. (Schering-Plough CEO Fred Hassan has indeed looked a little electrically charged recently, though not in a good way.) But it's an interesting list nonetheless, not least because only 12 of the 45 hail from biotech -- and that's by a generous count. Given the conventional wisdom that the future of the drug industry lies with innovative, biology-focused companies, that seems an odd choice at best.

Pharmalot's Ed Silverman has already noted that neither Lilly nor Schering are represented on the list, but they're not the only major companies who lack up-and-comers by PharmExec's reckoning: Execs at Bayer, Amgen and Gilead Sciences all failed to make the cut as well. (Gilead is another unusual omission, since it's on the verge of displacing Amgen as the world's second-largest biotech by market cap -- surely someone's got game down in Foster City.) By contrast, J&J, Merck, Glaxo, Genentech, Novartis, Shire -- not to mention much smaller outfits such as Ovation and Cubist -- must be brimming with talent, given their multiple appearances on the list. (Merck alone takes five slots, raising the question of exactly what all those sharp mid-level executives have been up to recently.)

For more insight, check out PharmExec's crack 24-member judging panel. More than half hang their hats at consulting or PR firms, who of course have no reason whatsoever to curry favor with potential clients. Of the nine members who actually work in the industry, three just happen to hail from... Glaxo, Shire and Ovation.

Image by Flickr user Phil Scoville, CC 2.0

David Hamilton

David Hamilton is the assistant managing editor of CNET News. He has been writing and editing business and tech coverage for about two decades -- the majority of that at the Wall Street Journal in both Tokyo and San Francisco. He is a two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club award and has written for numerous magazines and blogs, including Slate, Science, VentureBeat, CBS Interactive's BNET, California Lawyer and the New Republic.

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