Executive Interview Series - Youssef Bennani

Youssef L. Bennani, Ph.D., is currently Site Head and Vice President of Research & Development at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where he leads research efforts at the company’s Laval, Quebec R&D site. He previously served as Vice President of Drug Innovation (Integrated Discovery Chemistry and DMPK) at Vertex in Cambridge, MA for seven years. Over the past 20 years, he successfully led several research programs in therapeutic areas such as neurology, metabolism, immunology, infection [bacterial, viral and fungal], and oncology, delivering more than 25 new molecular entities reaching various stages of the drug development and commercialization process.

To date, he has communicated over 125 publications and is an inventor on more than 50 patents. His education consists of a Doctorate degree (Ph.D.) in chemistry from the UniversitÉ de MontrÉal, and post-doctoral studies at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California; as well as an Executive MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management in Chicago, Illinois.

Youssef is the author of Drug Discovery in the Next Decade: Innovation Needed ASAP, the article that inspired this exchange.

Industry Relations
In your article Drug Discovery in the Next Decade: Innovation Needed ASAP you state four rules for developing an innovative culture. Where have you seen the best examples of this culture grow: when senior executives foster innovation through their management practices or when individual scientists put forth ideas that stray from the norm?

Youssef
I believe that innovation happens when senior management, operational management and scientists come together with a similar mission.  The "top down" approach has been trotted out to no avail, whereas the "bottoms up" approach is not powerful enough to be influential when and where it matters. I have seen excellent ideas from all levels, and the ones that move the needle, in general, require contributions and buy-in from everyone. The four behavioral buckets, cited in the article, "asking powerful questions", "seek the outliers", "accept defeat" and "populate astutely" are guidelines of various aspects to watch for in the quest for an innovative culture - add your favorite spices and enjoy!

Industry Relations
When the process to discover and develop drugs is measured in years and not months, how do you effectively assess the innovation (and output) of the various teams that are all working to create new drugs? Is assessment an ongoing process, or does one need to step back and assess the teams at less frequent intervals?

Youssef
Yes indeed, so long as the projected outcome is an innovative product (not a me-too), one can measure the process periodically.  Innovation occurs, or should occur, along the way to a new outcome.  In general, "periodic" innovations or "sub-goal" innovations will make the process a faster and less expensive one.  So, all innovations matter, as long as they contribute to the ultimate goal.

Industry Relations
Please describe the attributes of your ideal team for innovation in drug discovery: how large or small would it be, would there be a team leader, what attributes are must haves and what skills could the team potentially lack and still succeed?

Youssef
An ideal team in a drug discovery project requires a zealous leader, with experience, commitment and savvy that both attracts and drives others. The team size is not a fixed asset, it should be flexible to involve more or less people from various functions as need be, but requires a core set of tenants: one resident disease biology expert; one excellent senior synthetic chemist (good synthetic chemists are not shy to delve into more complex chemistry, thus creating new chemical space); a pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics scientist; a toxicologist (early enough in a program); and a program manager with good reach to all functions necessary for the project's success (early preclinical, clinical research, formulations and CMC etc.).  I would like to add that teams need to include a couple of "drug hunters", as nebulous as the definition of such might be, "you know them when you have them on your team."

Industry Relations
Much has been written about innovative teams, and you describe elements of an ideal team above. What non-scientific skills (soft skills) do you see as necessities in order for the team to function well? Do all members need to possess these skills, or can different skills be expressed by different team members?

Youssef
To qualify a team's outcome as innovative, naturally "labels" the team as innovative.  This may or may not be true, as sometimes, the innovative component is the effort of one team member.  In my opinion, an innovative team must display several key behaviors that result in several innovative components as displayed by the new product or process. Managing the project's lifetime in an innovative way, requires a high degree of soft skills.  I believe some of the qualities mentioned above do apply across the board:

a) "Asking powerful questions", a process of continuous challenge of the status quo with data, perspectives and plans.

b) "Seek the outliers", this is to do with both people, but also data and unforeseen information.

c)  "Accept defeat", giving up on a non-productive path, early enough, without completely forgetting about it.

d) "Populate astutely", this is the most important component of team building and functioning.  It does not mean everybody on the team needs to be the same or agree, but complementarity matters.

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Image of Youssef Bennani
Credit: ACS