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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Longevity lessons

The secret to corporate longevity isn’t growth, it’s survival

Darwin tree


What’s the secret of corporate longevity? Why do some life sciences firms last for centuries while many survive only a few years? It’s a question that I’m often asked by the leaders of life sciences companies, especially when they confront the sort of existential challenges currently facing many biotechs in the US.


In truth, several answers emerge from my research. As with human beings, there is no single elixir of eternal life. But one surprising and very practically relevant answer is revealed in the fascinating parallels between the longevity of business organisations and that of biological organisms. Please hear me out while I share it with you.

Eat less, live longer
Biogerontology is the study of the biological nature of ageing. One of its founding fathers was Clive McCay, a professor of animal husbandry who, quite rightly, has been called a man before his time. McCay made many contributions to science but he’s best known for his work in the 1930s on calorific restriction. As told in Andrew Steele’s excellent book Ageless, McCay discovered that rats with restricted diets lived much longer and healthier lives than those given ample food. Later, scientists discovered the gene- expression mechanism behind this. Without going into detail, the body responds to a shortage of food by prioritising staying alive over growth and reproduction. This trait is obviously useful in demanding times, allowing animals to live to breed another day. Consequently, this ability to cut back in times of famine has evolved in many different animal species.

We’re still standing
How are McCay’s hungry rats relevant to the longevity of life sciences companies? I read about the dietary restriction theory of ageing many years ago. Along with a million other bits of scientific trivia, it has remained hidden and unused in the recesses of my brain since then.
Its applicability to business didn’t occur to me until much more recently, I was interviewing senior business leaders from industry-leading companies about how they explained their firms’ long-term success. All of the companies in my sample were over a century old and had survived numerous recessions and profound market changes. To paraphrase one of those leaders, ‘we’re only still standing because we haven’t died yet’. What he meant was that while most people focus on longevity being the result of growth during the good times, it’s just as much about surviving the tough times. Those long- lived firms we admire so much are still around because they know how to get through the tough times that come around in the business world, just as droughts and famine do in the natural world. When I heard this, dietary restriction popped up from my memory and waved at me.

Healthy choices
The work of McCay’s followers revealed that the ability of most animals to make choices about which metabolic processes to favour and which to disfavour, when calories are in short supply, has evolved. As I talked to the leaders of long-lived companies, it became clear that their firms’ analogous abilities had evolved. They described to me how challenging times demanded cost-cutting but the secret was to know what to cut and what not to. They talked of being able to ‘cut the fat without eating into muscle’. The conclusion of my research was that it is the ability of business organisations to respond to famine that keeps them alive, because only companies that can do this are there to grow when the good times return.

Commonalities, not metaphors
It would be easy to read across from biology to business and think this was just an interesting analogy. That would be a mistake. These parallels are not figurative, they are literal. We now understand biological survival in tough times in terms of the metabolic processes, proteins and gene expression involved. We can understand business survival in exactly the same way, in terms of the processes needed to make wise choices during tough times. Organisms owe their survival capabilities to metabolic processes dictated by proteomes and genomes. Similarly, business processes are underpinned by a firm’s capabileome (its set of capabilities) and the microfoundations that allow it to express those capabilities. I’ve written more about ‘organisational ‘omics’ elsewhere. Email me if you would like to know more.

But to be absolutely clear, these two survival mechanisms – biological and business – are not simply analogous to each other, they are the same mechanism in different contexts.

Learning to survive
The practical, real-world implication of all this is that life sciences firms earn their longevity by evolving. Other firms can also choose to do that, by developing the ability to make wise choices during tough times and adding to their capabileome the capabilities for differentiating fat from muscle, separating what’s needed to survive from what isn’t. As the current attrition rates of US biotechs shows us, this is easier said than done. It involves understanding the organisational ‘omics that support those capabilities. Our industry’s geriatrics have learned this. Other firms can too.

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at brian.smith@pragmedic.com

23rd September 2022

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