Early in his career as a veterinarian, with a few years of clinical practice under his belt, Edward J. Robb had a job interview with a veterinary pharmaceutical company. When asked why he wanted to go into product development, he gave a standard interview response, something non-committal about how interesting the job sounded.
“And (the interviewer) looked at me and said, ‘You’re wrong,’ ” says Robb, DVM, MS.
What did the prospective employer say his answer should have been? Robb paraphrases: “This is one of the few aspects in veterinary medicine where you can tackle projects that are bigger than one person can ever effect.”
That simple statement made sense to the young veterinarian. He soon launched a career in which he has overseen the development of dozens of animal-health products, including Naxcel. And today, as vice president of research and development for Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. in St. Joseph, Mo., Robb leads more than 200 team members, all working on new pharmaceutical and biological products under the motto “Value Through Innovation.”
“New vaccines and pharmaceuticals can change how we practice, and when that happens it makes an old way of doing things obsolete, or creates a new way to solve problems,” Robb says.
He never lost sight of the throwaway statement from the long-ago interview.
“In traditional veterinary medicine, you practice alone or in a small group and when you close that door in the exam room it’s just you and the client,” he says. But in research and product development environments, “The projects we take on can take up to 200 people-years of effort. You can have an impact on the profession that you could not have as a clinician.”
Robb, 54, first grew interested in research shortly after graduating from Cornell University’s veterinary college in 1981 and going to work at a veterinary practice in northern New York.
His clients were mostly farmers who worked on similar land, grew the same types of crops, raised the same varieties of cattle and received the same medical interventions and management from their veterinarian. But the same treatment didn’t produce the same results. Some dairy farms were very productive. Others, seemingly identical, struggled.
Learning a skill like a better surgical technique, Robb soon realized, wouldn’t have much of an impact on a farm’s fortunes. “It made me start looking away from just the individual animal and more toward the population effects,” he says.
When he and his wife, Susan, bought their first computer, an Apple II, he started noodling around on nutritional programs that could be broadly applied. But he knew that in a small, traditional early ’80s practice, he
couldn’t develop the expertise to create the kind of program he wanted. He went back to school, becoming a resident in clinical nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school, eventually earning a master’s degree in veterinary epidemiology and becoming a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
Open-Minded and Inquisitive
That early dual background perfectly positioned Robb for a career in research, says Curtis Miller, Ph.D., a retired Upjohn executive who hired Robb as a product development manager around 1990. Robb had a clinician’s understanding of animals and a researcher’s grasp of statistics and research methods.
What’s equally important, Miller says, “He’s open-minded, inquisitive. He had no ownership of (an idea); he wanted to find what worked.”
Miller says he was excited to hire Robb because, a generation ago, it was difficult to find veterinarians with an interest in and an aptitude for research. The problem that has gotten worse, Robb says. Too many potential researchers aren’t getting the structured academic training they need.
“Veterinarians today graduate with significant debt,” he says. “For a young veterinarian, or even an older one, to go back to school to obtain a masters’ or Ph.D. can be very difficult.”
Also, some government programs that used to provide training have shrunk or disappeared, eliminating another research path.
Veterinarians who get the right training and don’t mind moving to rural America will find huge opportunities, Robb says. Today, researchers are likely to be working in immunology, developing biopharmaceuticals and improved biologics, or working on genomics of pathogens that may cause animal or zoonotic diseases. In addition, they may be investigating responses to potential drugs. They may be working with a government regulator one day, speaking with an academic expert the next and ending the day working with a patent attorney or molecular biologist.
“Veterinarians have a pivotal role in research because our training provides a perspective of the whole animal,” Robb says. “This interface adds value on teams with physiologists, molecular biologists and chemists.”
What’s the next blockbuster development? Robb can’t, or won’t, say. Instead, he likes to quote his Wayne Gretzky theory of research. (Yes, the hockey great.)
“I may not be quoting him exactly, but what he may have said is, ‘The ability to score goals is not skating to where the puck currently is, it’s moving to where the puck is going to be.’ That’s what we have to keep in mind. Where’s the puck going to be? What will pet owners, producers and veterinarians need in 2020?”
A pharmaceutical product can take five to seven years or longer to go from inception to testing to government approval to market. Researchers must stay focused not just on where the science and market is today, but anticipate technologies, regulations, competition, challenges and health threats a decade down the road.
“How do we deliver the innovation that can create value for veterinarians, owners, farmers and the industry? How do we get those game changers?” Robb says. “That’s what keeps me up at night and drives our research culture.”
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News.