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Lilly CEO calls for life sciences research institute

October 23, 2012

John Lechleiter, the CEO of drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co., is calling for the creation of a "world-class" research institute in Indianapolis to bring together scientists from universities and corporations to develop new medical therapies and companies.

Lechleiter, in a Tuesday morning speech before a summit sponsored by Indianapolis-based life sciences group BioCrossroads, said Lilly would commit an unspecified amount of money to sponsor research at the new institute, as well as allowing its scientists to participate in collaborations at the institute.

“I sort of see it as the kettle on the stove. It’s boiling, it’s just brimming over with ideas,” Lechleiter said of the research institute he has in mind, which he compared to the Broad Institute in Massachusetts or the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

The research institute idea, which Lechleiter hopes gets launched by state, university and corporate leaders within the next year, was part of a broader charge he gave leaders in Indiana to redouble their efforts to grow life sciences businesses here.

“On one hand, we can be content with the progress we’ve made, and continue to follow the same path that got us this far. My prediction is that this will produce diminishing returns over time,” Lechleiter said in a ballroom at the Westin hotel downtown. “Or we can make a course correction based on a sober assessment of our strengths and shortcomings and those of the competition we face.”

To do that, Indiana needs to train and attract talented life sciences workers, Lechlieter said, which will require improvements in Indiana’s K-12 education, greater access to vocational training, investments in mass transit and an inclusive policy environment.

He also called for the state government to “re-engage” with the life sciences, echoing many industry criticisms of the Indiana 21st Century Research & Technology Fund for pulling back from biotech and medical device firms.

“To date,” Lechleiter said, “[state government] has been largely cheering from the sidelines.”

Lechleiter said the state’s research universities need to be more entrepreneurial in order to support the state’s life sciences industry, with more faculty pursuing and being rewarded for pursuing the practical applications of their research.

“This is what we see today in San Francisco, in Boston, in San Diego, but not here—or at least not nearly as much as we should,” Lechleiter said.

Lechleiter also called out Lilly’s shortcomings. While Lilly has greatly increased the amount of research it does via partnerships with other companies, Lechleiter said the company is doing “far too little” with universities in Indiana.

“We’re in a target-rich environment that we’re not making full advantage of,” he said in an interview after his speech.

Indianapolis-based Lilly does spend $1 billion annually with 1,300 vendors in Indiana. But Lechleiter said he’s not aiming for more fee-for-service relationships, but rather creating collaborations with outside scientists.

The institute he has in mind would try to bring together faculty from Indiana University, Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame and even out of state to work with scientists from Lilly and other commercial enterprises.

Their research collaborations would be “outcome-driven,” Lechleiter said, pushing toward new medicines, medical procedures or enterprises.

Lechleiter said the institute would have “liberalized intellectual property policies,” as well as sponsorships for funding. He also suggested that ideas generated by Lilly scientists that Lilly decides not to fund could be taken to the institute to be developed into independent products or companies.

Lilly also will hire in the next year a new employee to seek out alliances with Indiana’s universities, and Lechleiter said the company would create an internal scorecard to measure how many new in-state alliances it is forming each year.

“Within a year, I don’t want anybody within the state to say to Lilly, ‘You guys are hard to work with,’” Lechleiter said.

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