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Jan Lundberg: The long view of R&D at Eli Lilly

jan lundberg

Like sports, R&D requires team spirit, commitment, and a long view says Dr. Jan Lundberg, Lilly executive vice president for science and technology, and president of Lilly Research Laboratories.

Dr. Jan Lundberg’s online bios and YouTube videos portray a steely pharmaceutical executive whose idea of fun is a 90 km ski race. It’s all true. But so is the assessment of Dr. Jon Lundberg, a former PhD student of Dr. Jan Lundberg, whose similar name has led to years of misunderstandings and jokes. Jon Lundberg confirms that Jan Lundberg is competitive in work and sports: “But not in an aggressive way. In a positive, joyful way.”

A joy for science – as well as hockey skills that earned a scholarship – took Jan Lundberg to Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, USA for his undergraduate education. Lundberg credits this experience as critical to his leadership strategy at Lilly Research Laboratories. “Like hockey,” he says, “for R&D you need team spirit. You have to get people with different backgrounds and skills to work together. You need stars and team players and you need to engage with people to create a win-win situation for everybody.”

A clinical research beginning

Before industry, Lundberg was a highly cited pharmacology professor at Karolinska Institute where his research included studying nitric oxide (NO) signaling in the cardiovascular system during sepsis. Dr. Jon Lundberg was a student in Dr. Jan Lundberg’s laboratory and continues to research NO and asthma at Karolinska.

“At the time, the research group found by accident that exhaled NO levels are higher in people with asthma,” says Jon Lundberg. “They were measuring people in the lab and found that people with allergies had higher NO levels.” The commercialization opportunity was obvious, says Jon Lundberg. “Here was a noninvasive way to measure airway inflammation in a single breath.” After first competing with another Karolinska laboratory, the groups joined forces to found Aerocrine, which sells a device to measure exhaled NO.

Jan Lundberg was a remarkable mentor, says Jon Lundberg. At a critical meeting of laboratory representatives from the competing Karolinska laboratories on commercializing their discoveries,

“Jan Lundberg let people like me, an inexperienced student, be at this important discussion,” says Jon Lundberg. “His major strength as a supervisor was giving us an enormous amount of trust with full support.”

Jan Lundberg returns the compliment by saying that the connection to Karolinska University Hospital, including to excellent medical students such as “the one with almost the same name as me,” strengthened his commitment to clinically meaningful work. “My driving force was always using basic science for the benefit of patients,” he says. His consulting work for pharmaceutical companies paved the way for a move to industry.

A long-term strategy for industry R&D

Lundberg joined Astra before the merger to AstraZeneca, eventually becoming global head of discovery research. Then, in 2010, he moved to Eli Lilly, saying “they offered a broader role in both discovery and also development.” In addition, says Lundberg, “The leadership is a good fit. John Lechleiter, the CEO and board chairman is a scientist himself, so he has a unique understanding of R&D and the need for long-term research efforts for sustainable new medicine deliveries.”

At Eli Lilly, Lundberg describes his role as overseeing the entire value chain from developing new medicines through global clinical trials. Because he has a background in basic and clinical research and business, Lundberg is comfortable with partners from biotech, pharma, venture capital, and increasingly, academia. For example, Lilly’s Open Innovation Drug Discovery program is a crowdsourcing approach that invites researchers to submit compounds they are studying to Lilly scientists, who have access to high-throughput instruments for quickly evaluating the biology of the compounds. Scientists gain new data and Lilly gains new partnering opportunities. Lundberg says the connection to basic research – “where science innovations are breaking” – helps create an exciting global work environment for the 7000 employees at Lilly Research Laboratories.

Eli Lilly is pursuing a variety of therapeutic solutions, including for diabetes and cancer and in the complex area of neurodegenerative diseases, which has been challenging for Lilly and other firms. Lundberg says autoimmunity is an emerging area for Lilly R&D. Many therapeutic mechanisms are considered, he says: “small molecules, peptide hormones, antibodies, and antibody-drug conjugates.”

And about that 90 km ski race, the Vasaloppet. Lundberg says his participation is an analogy to his view of R&D. “It has ups and downs,” he says, “so to succeed, you have to train, persevere and have the right equipment, but more than anything you have to have the right attitude and winning instincts. About halfway, you might want to give up, but if you continue, nothing is more rewarding than overcoming challenges and generating something that is of value to patients.”

Jan Lundberg

Position: Lilly Executive Vice President for science and technology, President of Lilly Research Laboratories.

Lives in: Indianapolis, USA. Dr. Lundberg is a U.S. resident but still maintains his Swedish citizenship.

Education: University of Gothenburg Medical School, Karolinska Institute, PhD

Professional career: Professor Department of Pharmacology, Karolinska institute 1992-1995,cofounder Aerocrine AB, head preclinical research Astra AB, 1996-1999, global head discovery research AstraZeneca 1999-2009, Executive Vice President, Science and Technology, and President, Lilly Research Laboratories 2010-current.