Should a drug company spend billions trying to innovate…or simply shop around for good ideas?

By Clifton Leaf
February 27, 2017

My Fortune colleague Sy Mukherjee has a fascinating interview with Allergan CEO Brent Saunders that went up over the weekend. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here.

Saunders has been at the forefront of the serial acquisitions and licensing game—and he’s candid about why, in his view, big pharma is better suited to shop for new drugs on the outside rather than try to develop them in-house. “I would say that [drug development] has historically relied on an open science type of approach to innovation,” Saunders says. “But over the course of time, they also built a tremendous and pricey fixed infrastructure to try to discover their own drug candidates. And I think the data would show that, while amazing discoveries have been brought forward for patients in in these large discovery labs, over an extended period of time, they have not been a good investment.”

You may have the most talented and best-funded drug developers on the payroll, he says, but a single pool of talent DNA is going to produce a similar line of product over time. “No one company can corner in or create a monopoly on the best thinking that’s out there,” says Saunders. “And so if we’ve built the lab and we invested a billion dollars in discovering medicines, we can only do what we could in the four walls of our village. But if we if we walk outside of that, we’re fishing in an ocean versus a pond for innovation.”

Some of you out there may think of that as an abdication of the old pharma claim to wonder drug alchemy, surrendering the throne of in-house innovation. But Saunders seems to be interested only in surrendering the old business model, which has been increasingly hard to make work. Bristol’s recent setbacks on the cancer immunotherapy front and Merck and Lilly’s frustrations in drug development for Alzheimer’s are cases in point.

Check out the full interview here.

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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