Pfizer is an iconic company that has innovated for a long time. One of the first pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., it was founded in Brooklyn in 1849, and supplied medicines to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Most of the penicillin that went ashore with Allied forces on D-Day came from Pfizer’s Brooklyn facility, where the development of deep-tank fermentation began.
Eileen Cheigh Nakamura, WG’96, majored in healthcare management at Wharton, with a strong interest in finance. Eileen has worked at Pfizer for 24 years in multiple finance and operations roles.
What has been your experience at Pfizer?
I joined Pfizer because it was a company that contributes to society by discovering new medicines. As a Wharton alum, I wanted the things I worked on to mean something and to make my family proud. I liked that I was in the business, not consulting to the business.
I currently lead the Business Assessment team. We deep-dive into development programs for new medicines and vaccines from a business perspective. Usually, the candidates are from outside of Pfizer. My team evaluates whether the candidate makes a good investment opportunity and asks questions like:
- “What kind of future medicine will it become?”
- “Is it aligned with our growth strategy?”
- “Does it set a new standard of care?”
- “What are the competitive dynamics?”
My team is also responsible for forecasting sales.
What’s different about how pharma companies value opportunities?
While there is certainly a financial aspect to evaluating a drug development investment, we start the story with patients and understanding disease prevalence to size the market. Would we treat all forms of the disease or only moderate or severe forms of it? Does it affect adults or children, and what would be the treatment regimen? There are nuances such as whether the treatment will be a chronic medication taken for years, or a cure or vaccine taken just once.
It is something like a funnel to get to a market share and estimate the volume, potential price and projected revenues. We are an independent team — separate from Business Development, which leads the transaction and negotiation with external partners, and the Research and Development team, which discovers and develops the medicine. This enables us to have more objectivity in building investment cases and supporting decisions.
Pfizer prices medicine by balancing access, affordability and ability to invest in the discovery of future cures. The cost that patients pay for medicines is ultimately set by governments and insurers. We advocate for patients’ having the ability to use our medicines at a cost they can afford.
How has Pfizer innovated to contribute medical solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Pfizer’s most prominent effort is a partnership with a German biotech company called BioNTech in 2018 to develop a flu vaccine using mRNA technology. This gave us a running start to get a mRNA vaccine program for COVID-19 underway.
In four months, we moved from preclinical to human studies with the goal of having a vaccine available to immunize patients by this Fall 2020.
This technology injects small sections of mRNA (or messenger RNA) contained in tiny lipid “nanoparticles” that transport the vaccine into the body. The RNA sequence codes for antigens that are very much like the coronavirus mimic an infection and trigger an immune response or the production of antibodies. It’s innovative, but also risky since there are not yet any approved mRNA-based vaccines available to patients.
Can you talk about Pfizer’s innovation in how it shares information and partners with others?
Early in this crisis, Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, published a five- point plan. In it, he explained that Pfizer would take five actions to help scientists and companies move the process forward to address the COVID-19 crisis. Pfizer would be:
- Sharing tools and insights: Pfizer would make available the vital tools it develops on an open-source platform to the broader scientific
- Marshalling people: Pfizer has created a team of its leading virologists, biologists, chemists, clinicians, epidemiologists, vaccine experts and pharmaceutical scientists to focus on this
- Applying drug development expertise: Some biotech firms lack experience in late-stage development and navigating the complex regulatory Pfizer is committed to sharing clinical development and regulatory support.
- Offering manufacturing capabilities: Once a therapy or vaccine is approved, it will need to be rapidly scaled and deployed around the world to put an end to this Pfizer has global vaccine manufacturing scale.
- Improving future rapid response: Pfizer built a cross- industry, rapid-response team of scientists, clinicians and technicians able to move into action immediately when future epidemics
Since publishing this plan, we received over 400 partnership requests from academic institutions, biotech companies and our peers.
What about innovation in processes?
Working in parallel, Pfizer and BioNTech are developing a vaccine and preparing to bring it to patients before confirming whether it will work.
For example, we are:
- Setting up commercial-scale manufacturing
- Building out a network for distribution
- Talking to organizations in preparation for the vaccine’s potential availability
This takes a significant commitment of resources and capabilities.
How have you innovated in your team’s work?
As a team, the pandemic has brought us closer. We’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know one another on a more personal level. We still conduct business meetings globally, participate in industry conferences, and hire and onboard new colleagues.
It hasn’t been easy, but we continue to be a hardworking, team despite the challenges of additional responsibilities and personal stress, like home-schooling, relocating to a new location, or caring for elderly parents.
As a company, we continue to manufacture the medicines that patients need, continue the critical development of pipeline assets of new medicines, and rapidly advance COVID-19 vaccine development.
What did you learn at Wharton that has helped you in your work?
One thing that’s stayed with me happened during my first week of school in a marketing strategy class. I thought this class would be about product positioning and branding. But our professor, George Day, had us running pro forma profit and loss statements and calculating returns on investment. He took a very value-driven approach to marketing and told us we have strategic choices to make. The analytics around decision making is something I still use today.