Dennis Gillings started Quintiles in 1982 out of his statistical consulting and data management service work. Today, it is a $1.8 billion leading global provider of contract research and a range of other services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and healthcare industries.
He spoke to Subir Roy on a recent visit to open a new data centre for the company in Bangalore. Excerpts:
You are British born, read in Cambridge and are an advisor to Scottish Enterprise, but you have done your work in the US. How is the American environment more innovative?
It's funny. I also sit on the international advisory council of Singapore and we've been discussing this exact point. In the US, there is this attitude towards taking risk, particularly in the Silicon Valley, where there is a whole notion, what's the next idea, what can we invest in, let's take the risk, put the risk money behind good people that can push the idea.
I think in the UK, there is a more cautious approach because it is relatively risk free to attract a multinational company that then set up a facility.
But to start a Google or a Netscape, I think to some extent, though not on the same scale, to start a Quintiles is a much more risk-oriented thing because these businesses didn't previously exist. It was a new idea.
Quintiles began at the intersection of pharma and statistics. India has a capability in statistics and conventional pharma. So if Quintiles were to start a second generation business anywhere it should do so in India.
I just spoke to all our employees. One of the things I said was that it is almost like a homecoming. Because we started in the statistical data management arena and are now building it here on a global scale.
There is a lot of data management that goes on but it is all different processes. What I am trying to do is cut out all the differences when they should be similar.
Would it be a sort of a platform, agnostic to as many proprietorial things as possible, almost anybody being able to latch onto it with just a little bit of customisation .
I think you've hit the nail on the head. We collect data all over the world which we want to image directly to India. If it is electronically entered in a doctor's practice it would come that way.
But most of the time doctors all over the world will use pencil and paper so it will come imaged that way. So that's the starting point.
We now want the same process -- from wherever in the world it comes, and whatever medical arena it comes -- to turn out the database that's locked and sent to the FDA.
Remember there's a huge amount of terminology involved, so we have to get all that in a standardised fashion.
What sort of time horizon do you have in mind?
I think we are about 50 or 60 per cent already there in India, forgetting the platform. At the moment each customer is represented with its idiosyncrasy.
So once we have completed that, then we have got to go through the standardisation process and then sell that back to the customer.
The global pharma business, faced with shortening drug pipelines and the need to quickly discover new molecules, is seeking to cut costs. How does this impact your global business?
Those changes are very positive to our business because I think it is going to mean more outsourcing and more attention by each pharma company to the core parts that make them earn their money -- by choosing the right drug.
We provide the data to enable a pharma company to take the right decision on new molecules.
In this new scenario, how do you see Quintiles' business emerging in the next couple of years?
I think, from a process point of view, the newness is what I keep calling "global scale". Instead of hundreds of pharma companies doing it, there will be three of four providers doing it globally.
So that process standardisation will go on and we will be part of that process.
In your business, what is the ratio between conventional pharma and biotechnology and how to you see it changing?
In our business it is about three to one, conventional 75. If you go back it was nine or 10 to one. I would imagine it would close to 60:40 over the next five years because there is a lot of capital in the biotechnology industry.
But one caveat. If big pharma buys biotech, that won't change the proportion. It will just mean that that biotech piece gets subsumed under the big pharma piece.
Is it right to say that the statistical component of discovering something new in biotechnology is far bigger than in conventional chemistry?
Bio-informatics has a role but the clinical data is massive, all the regulatory submissions are massive, like a whole truckload. With the emphasis on drug safety there is enormous amounts of laboratory data, detailed information.
Remember the next generation is going to be genetic data, which is just beginning. So the amount of clinical data as we get into the next decade with genetic information is going to mushroom considerably, probably multiply by 10.
What are the regulatory changes you would be looking for in India, which will be good for you, good for India?
I think it would be good if phase one trials were totally freed up. We do the first introduction in man at sophisticated sites. We have one in London known as Guy's Drug Research, part of Guy's hospital.
We own the company but it is physically in the hospital complex. We emulate all the same procedures as Guy's hospital.
You need very skilled people. You don't want to kill patients when you first give a new drug to them. If that can be done then I would really enjoy partnering with a major medical centre in India to build a phase one unit along the lines of our Guy's Drug Research.
Then the skills -- finding out if this new drug is worthy of trying to test further -- would be present in India and I think would be a companion to the Indian pharmaceutical and biotechnology development.
Foreign companies not being able to do this here will harm India because the expertise lies in foreign hands. Singapore is coming to me asking me to start a phase one unit because they want the information transfer.
They know it is necessary for them to build their industry and I think that's the right approach. The present approach is overly protective as I don't see how the Indian companies will get a particular advantage.
How do you see Quintiles' future in India?
We are here to stay. I see the global processing as a very important part of our company but I also see the clinical trials and the pharma bio part being somewhat separate and more a vehicle to help the India pharmaceutical companies reach the same platform as the rest of the world.
But the data part I see as a global platform for all the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. I imagine in the long run we will create a separate company out of all our data and IT pieces because it will be a company that will serve the globe.
The rest will serve foreign companies coming to India and also as an expertise platform to enable Indian companies to emulate them.
When you hive-off the data based part of the business and when you list it, I do hope you will list it in India too.
We would be very interested in that. It will obviously depend on the success of what we are doing, it is not a foregone conclusion.
If it was successful then I think it would truly be a separate company because it would have a global platform. So it would obviously make a lot of sense naturally to list that in India.I certainly have that as a goal and I know Ferzaan (engineer, Quintiles India head) does because we've spoken about it.