Erectile dysfunction is not a condition that Merck & Co. wants to treat. Why? For Kenneth Frazier, executive chairman of the pharmaceutical conglomerate, ED does not correspond to the severity of diseases like cancer, HIV or Ebola. When he was CEO of Merck, Frazier chose to focus Merck’s research budget on lower-cost, higher-impact solutions against the world’s deadliest viruses.
His decision reflected what he saw as Merck’s commitment to scientific excellence, translating science into impactful medicine, and valuing patient equity. As a leader of the company, Frazier asked himself a question he believes every great leader should ask: “Why would a group of very intelligent people with free will choose to follow me? ” His response to 2022 fast company Most Innovative Companies Summit: “Because I adopt the values that my company already has.”
Shortly after Ebola hit much of West Africa, Merck developed Ervebo, one of the first vaccines against the deadly virus. With its lack of profitability but strong ability to solve a humanitarian crisis, Merck’s Ebola vaccine demonstrates the value-based leadership that Frazier stands for.
Frazier also confronts tensions between technology and the life sciences, but finds “radical collaboration” – or “sharing [of] ideas and values in traditional sectors of industry” — as the future. To bridge the gap between the tech mentality of “quickly move and break things” and the clinical prudence of developing treatments for diseases, companies must innovate cautiously and ensure public trust.
During a one-on-one discussion at the summit on Tuesday, Frazier, who is also president of Health Insurance Initiatives at General Catalyst, also highlighted how a smaller frame can spur the creativity needed for innovation. Having had experience in both a multinational conglomerate and a small startup, Frazier sees the downsides of a large, bureaucratic establishment, and is excited about the ability to inspire scientists to innovate in a slowly changing industry. . The secret: “Give them peace and quiet to develop the drug.”
Frazier reaffirms that some of the companies spun off from General Catalyst are adapting effective solutions to a fractured healthcare system.
“I think the fact that we can do this with economies of scale will allow us to develop business models that will be really helpful in getting this access to people,” he said. Cityblock Health, for example, goes beyond physical solutions to bring quality healthcare to people by reducing unit healthcare costs.
Balance is Frazier’s goal. Balance within careful innovation is key, he said: “It’s really important to be responsible in how we innovate to avoid unintended consequences.” This means avoiding biases and assumptions and other potential pitfalls that could tip the scales. “It’s a balance between speed and quality,” he said.