AsianScientist (Feb. 11, 2016) – While academics and industry players are now increasingly encouraged to interact, few people can claim to have the extensive experience across nearly all biomedical sectors that Dr. Tadataka “Tachi” Yamada has. In the course of his diverse career, he has effortlessly worn multiple hats, in roles that at times appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.
A clinician by training, he wrote and edited the definitive Textbook of Gastroenterology, now into its fifth edition. Tachi, as he prefers to be called, then subsequently made a successful switch to industry, where he was widely credited for changing the fortunes of the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
He then spent five years at the helm of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, managing a sizable US$9 billion budget, before moving back to Japan and taking on the role of Takeda’s chief medical & scientific officer at the age of 65. Not bad for someone who did his undergraduate degree in history.
“I went from having a small lab with four or five people to managing 500 faculty members to an R&D organization of 15,000 people. Each step was a progressively larger step; at my last appointment at the Gates Foundation, the work we were doing had the potential to impact billions of lives,” Yamada remarked. “Regardless of the scale, my goal in each of the organizations I’ve worked for has been the same: to relieve human suffering.”
Indeed, it was the opportunity to make medicines that motivated Yamada to leave academia and join SmithKline Beecham, the ninth largest pharmaceutical company at the time.
“I had been invited to join the board of directors of SmithKline Beecham while I was still the chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan,” Yamada told Asian Scientist Magazine.
“I thought, if I joined a company like SmithKline Beecham, I could spend all my time engaged in science and research, and make medicines to address real medical needs at the same time. So when they asked me to join their company, I joined them without hesitation.”
Not long after his appointment, however, Yamada faced considerable challenges. Following a failed attempt in 1998, SmithKline Beecham was on the verge of merger with fellow industry giant Glaxo in 2000, itself hot on the heels of a merger with Wellcome in 1995. The merger created the world’s largest drug company, with a combined market capitalization of US$189 billion, pharmaceutical sales of US$20.9 billion and an R&D budget of US$4 billion.
As head of R&D at the newly formed GSK, Yamada had the unenviable task of reorganizing the 15,000-strong workforce and building up the company’s dwindling pipe- line. To make matters worse, patents on blockbuster drugs such as Paxil were soon to expire. Undaunted, Yamada instead saw the immense potential of a dramatically restructured company.
“This was not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “It’s a once-in-forever opportunity.”
Helping the big think small
One of the first things Yamada set about doing seemed counter-intuitive at the time. Rather than rely on economies of scale arising from centralized R&D activities, he broke up the world’s largest drug company into smaller units that operated more like agile biotech companies.
“Most pharmaceutical companies at the time were organized by functional lines: discovery research, development research, preclinical development, regulatory affairs and so on. And yet projects are organized across these functional lines. Because of that, it’s sometimes very difficult to provide the timely resourcing for these projects because the functional lines have their own priorities,” Yamada explained.
“What I did was to turn the organization on its head, giving control to multidisciplinary groups organized by disease such as asthma, cancer and diabetes. Capped at 400 people per group, these smaller units could move more quickly and make their own decisions, helping to make the lines of accountability much more visible.”
However, the drastic restructuring exercise also led to a degree of organizational chaos, particularly in the beginning. In 2002, three leading scientists and several high-level research executives quit the company. Two years into the merger, Yamada had little to show, with only six drugs reaching Phase II trials. Worse still, share prices had fallen to a five year low.
Thankfully, Yamada had the support of GSK CEO Dr. Jean-Pierre Garnier who had agreed to give him three years to prove himself. Eventually, their gamble paid off, and by the end of his tenure, Yamada had managed to double the company’s pipeline of drugs from 50 to 97.
In recognition of his contributions to the British-based GSK, Yamada was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2007.
Giving back through the Gates Foundation
Despite GSK’s success, Yamada had begun to question the role of big pharma in global health by the time he approached the mandatory retirement age.
“At the time I thought that there were positive things that we could do at GSK to help the poorest people in the world, as opposed to making them pay more money. So we set up a special laboratory that only made medicines for malaria and tuberculosis in collaboration with the Gates Foundation,” Yamada recalled.
“After some time, the CEO of the Foundation approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you come and join us and make these medicines and vaccines in our Foundation?’ It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
At the Gates Foundation, Yamada was responsible for over US$9 billion in grant money. During his five year tenure, he saw the development and launch of a meningitis vaccine, helped to eradicate polio in India, and partnered with organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on tools to prevent HIV infection.
“Our work focused on applying technology-based solutions to address the problem of health equity in the world. Our great objective was to reduce the mortality of children, and the most cost efficient health solutions were of course medicines and vaccines,” Yamada said.
In his capacity as the president of the Global Health Program, Yamada witnessed the suffering faced by people in the developing world first hand, an experience which left a deep impression on him.
“You don’t realize how much inequity there is in the world until you actually experience it,” he said. “When you go to places in India and Africa, you see that what people have to face is simply tragic. The idea that you can do something about it, that through the work you do every day you can relieve some of that suffering, is very gratifying.”
Keeping a promise
Yamada served the Gates Foundation for exactly five years, just as he had promised co-founder Mr. Bill Gates when he first joined. At age 65, he joined Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Japan’s largest drug company, in part to keep another promise that he had made.
“One of the things I had promised my father when I left Japan as a 15-year-old boy was that I would do something meaningful in Japan one day. I was afraid that if I didn’t leave the Foundation when I did that I wouldn’t have the time to be able to do that,” Yamada shared.
Transformation is common thread running through his roles at the various organizations he has been involved in, and Takeda is no exception. A company with more than 230 years of history behind it, Yamada joined at a time where the new CEO Mr. Yasuchika Hasegawa was actively turning Takeda from a Japanese company into a global pharmaceutical player.
The first non-member of the Takeda family to take the role, Hasegawa made English the operating language and persevered with the unpopular move to include more non-Japanese leadership at the highest levels.
“Today, three quarters of our employees are non-Japanese and there are now three non-Japanese board members on a nine person board of directors,” Yamada said.
“The company has undergone a very big transformation at the leadership level, and at the same time, weathered the loss of some of its most important patented products. Now, we have a whole new pipeline and tremendous room in front of us to grow. It’s a very exciting period.”
Ever mindful of the need to make a social and not just an economic impact, Yamada has pushed the development of Takeda’s vaccine division.
“I think vaccines are the best health solution of all. For an inexpensive single intervention, you can have a lifelong protection against disease. Most other medicine has to do with mitigating the worst complications of an illness. If you prevent illness altogether, you obviously have a huge impact on improving life and reducing cost,” Yamada stressed.
“If you think today of diseases such as Ebola and the risk they present to the world, it’s going to be a vaccine that makes a difference and prevent them from becoming a global disaster. I think that vaccines are a very important way in which pharmaceuticals can meet their responsibilities to address the health problems of the world.”
Asia’s rising star
Part of Takeda’s success can be attributed to a commitment to emerging markets, particularly those in Asia. President and chief operating officer Mr. Christophe Weber has set the goal of helping emerging markets reach 25 percent of the company’s sales by 2017.
“For a long time, Japan has been a successful model at the high priced proprietary pharmaceutical space, while the Indian industry has been a model for low-priced generic pharmaceuticals and vaccines for the past 25 years. There are many Asian countries in between these two extremes, of which I believe China will become a global player before too long.”
While recognizing that obstacles still remain, notably the lack of translation from basic science to commercial applications, Yamada is confident that Asia will eventually succeed. “Asia is going to be a global player in the pharmaceutical space, it’s just a matter of time,” he concluded.
This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, April 2015.
Photo: Tachi Yamada.
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