The Science of Innovation at Gilead

How Gilead general manager Ed Gudaitis has helped guide major shifts in the pharmaceutical industry

The Balm of Gilead is a said to be a salve that could heal any wound—physical or spiritual. And while worldwide biotechnology company Gilead Sciences has been unable to create that scarce biblical cure-all (from which it derived its name and ethos), the company is searching for new ways to improve the lives of others. Whether it’s creating new methods for treating HIV and hepatitis C, or working to evolve how medical professionals approach oncology, Gilead is dedicated to advancing care for the betterment of everyone that the company reaches.

Founded in 1987, the global company expanded into Canada in 2005. There, Ed Gudaitis serves as the general manager for the country’s operating affiliate, Gilead Sciences Canada, Inc. Gudaitis was no stranger to the biopharma industry, having worked for global health-care company Hoffmann-La Roche for 13 years. There are not many general managers of biopharma companies in Canada (according to Gudaitis, “there are approximately 40 innovative biopharma companies in the country”), so this rare opportunity, as well as being able to build something from the ground up, was exciting. “I always say to people at Gilead that this is a chance for you to bring to life those ideas that you have always thought about but did not have the chance to implement,” Gudaitis says.

Today Gudaitis is ultimately responsible for all the success and failures of the Canadian affiliate. On any one day, Gudaitis could be looking at overall business performance—how Gilead’s business units are operating, how various support functions are operating—or he could spend his time leading and developing his leadership team. “My role is about leading the organization, setting the pace for what the culture looks like, and setting a tone that differentiates the company,” he says.

5 Questions
with Ed Gudaitis

What does innovation mean to your company?
It’s the core of our therapeutic offerings. It’s the core of how we have to operate—intentionally lean but with global reach. Innovation is the foundation of who we are and what we have to be to continue to be successful.

Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
One that continues to drive the company is its support of differentiated therapeutics in areas of high, unmet medical need. Unless the project addresses a need or does it in a very unique way, we do not pursue it.

How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
By constantly asking, “How can we do this differently next time?” Not to look at blame but to look at how to do it better, faster, and more effectively. We keep that in mind with everything we do.

How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
It doesn’t have to be invented in your backyard anymore. In the biopharma industry, innovation is based less in-house and is now focused on partnering and working with smaller companies or academic institutions to find exciting products.

How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
Give employees the freedom to realize that innovation doesn’t have to be a large-scale mega project. Innovation can happen every day. A thousand people asking questions 200 times a year will lead to major innovation rather than some roll-the-dice, send-a-man-to-the-moon type of project.

But what really sets Gilead apart from others in biopharma is its deep understanding of the science itself. Knowledge of molecules, chemistry, and the compounds that Gilead creates is expected from the top down. Knowing one’s science has also allowed Gudaitis to challenge his team’s assumptions. “If the team is proposing to do x, I understand the product and the therapeutic area like they do, so I can challenge the idea’s validity and push them,” Gudaitis says. “That’s the difference here: you’re expected to know the details that matter.”

Gilead Sciences Canada also stands out because of its size. Although it has revenue pushing $500 million, it is intentionally lean, with only 85 employees. This is done not only to keep the company agile but also to create a tension that allows it to focus on the things that matter most. “By staying small, it helps retain a clarity so that we’re focused on the things that matter and make the most impact,” Gudaitis explains. And if there’s ever any doubt about a decision, Gudaitis and Gilead return to a simple question: “Is it right for the patient?”

One way that Gilead has been helping patients around the world is through its breakthrough work in treating the hepatitis C virus (HCV). “We don’t fill our pipeline with me-too products,” Gudaitis says. “We look for innovative products.”

In the past, HCV treatment was a 48-week interferon treatment that was administered through injection. The treatment would only work on 50 percent of cases, with patients experiencing intense flu-like symptoms as a side effect. Gilead’s solution, however, is an all-oral therapy that takes 8–12 weeks using only one pill a day, with no intense side effects. Additionally, Gilead’s treatment has been proven effective in up to 97 percent of patients.

“We’ve always had the mind-set that we’ll out-innovate ourselves and make ourselves obsolete before someone else does.”

Even before it introduced its HCV solution, Gilead made a name for itself with a portfolio of foundational compounds that treat HIV. “HIV is the cornerstone of our company,” Gudaitis says, “but we’ve always had the mind-set that we’ll out-innovate ourselves and make ourselves obsolete before someone else does.” So Gilead is bringing new compounds to market in HIV and is even exploring ways to potentially cure HIV, as well as looking for ways to revolutionize oncology treatment.

The challenge now for Gudaitis and Gilead is how to control its growth while remaining its intentionally lean self. Globally, Gilead is a large, ubiquitous company but with less than a quarter of the employees its peers hold. For Gudaitis, that means instilling the tenets of expert managers and dedicated entrepreneurs into each of his employees while staying dedicated to the patients and science that got the company to where it is. “We’re never satisfied with just great treatments,” Gudaitis says. “We have to explore as far as the science can take us.”