Merck’s New Research Chief Says to Team: ‘Get Back on the Horse’


Merck & Co., Inc.’s (NYSE:MRK) new research chief says that a lull in productivity over the past few years has withered employee morale, according to Reuters, which reported on the story Tuesday morning that the company has experienced an “eight-year drought” with no important new medicines developed in that time period. The company is the second largest drugmaker in the U.S., but its employees have been so rattled by what has seemed like wave after wave of failed or rejected drugs that the company’s research has floundered, almost as though the research team (which has been considered legendary within the industry) is experiencing a self-esteem issue.

“What’s missing may be less the absence of a specific capability than it is a loss of espirit,” said the company’s new Research Laboratories President Roger Perlmutter, “the various unfortunate occurrences caused people to lose the sense of joie de vivre. They lost the sense that they could make a real difference.” Perlmutter spoke with Reuters as part of an interview at the JP Morgan & Chase healthcare conference.

Merck’s Chief Executive Officer, Kenneth Frazier, called upon Perlmutter after the 60 year-old retired from Amgen, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMGN), where he had also been head of research. Frazier was familiar with Perlmutter, who had worked for Merck for four years prior to taking the job with Amgen; previously, he had had overseen Merck’s basic research and preclinical development.

“Much of what I need to do is reinstill in the organization the sense of competence, of vigor, of thoroughness and the willingness to take real risks in order to achieve something great,” Perlmutter continued. He also mentioned that part of his inspiration for returning to the company was his memory of Merck’s talented chemists and emphasis on breakthrough medicines, Reuters reports.

Merck has a laundry list of “firsts” in medicine: the company developed the first statin, the first ACE inhibitor blood-pressure drug, and the first measles vaccine. But that’s changed in recent years, and Perlmutter is taking the helm at an incredibly challenging time; Merck’s last innovative medicines, the Gardasil vaccine for HPV and a new kind of diabetes drug called Januvia, won approval in 2006, seven years ago now.

But Perlmutter remains optimistic. “It’s not an overnight thing, but people are developing a certain bounce to their step that was missing before, an actual sense that they can achieve something.”