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Novo Nordisk awakens its ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Biopharm emerges from troubled times to hit ‘solid growth’, says executive vice president Ludovic Helfgott

Ludovic Helfgott

Novo Nordisk’s Biopharm is showing solid growth after a stuttering start, and its new leader believes a ‘sleeping beauty’ has been awoken.

But Ludovic Helfgott (pictured above), who was prised from AstraZeneca ten months ago, says no single magic spell has transformed the unit’s fortunes. Establishing a business unit with separation and autonomy from its parent, along with energising dedicated scientific and commercial teams, are the real-world elements of a turnaround that has witnessed Biopharm emerge from a troubling 2017 and flat 2018 to solid growth in 2019, which will be confirmed with official figures later in the year.

The company is now projecting long-term improvements across its two main areas of haemophilia and growth hormone disorders, with confidence radiating into all quarters of its business.

“The reason we are doing so well is that the fundamentals of the business are healthy – the growth is balanced across the business,” said Helfgott, executive vice president and head of Biopharm.

“We have growth across all the lines we have; new products as well as new versions of existing products. It tells me it is not a play of chance. If you have one big winner and the rest is down, you could argue that you have been lucky, but that is not the case here.”

Helfgott added that the critical changes were kick-started by Novo Nordisk chief executive officer Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, who created a separate business unit for Biopharm. The next phases were to enrich the pipeline with acquisitions and partnerships, including a headline deal with blue-bird bio for next generation gene editing that could lead to a potential cure for haemophilia A patients.

Front-line morale boost

But being on the technology fast track, buying big, boosting market competitiveness and launches are not enough, insisted Helfgott, who identified strong, committed scientific and commercial teams as vital components of Biopharm’s recovery.

“It has been an enjoyable ride since I joined in April 2019,” he said. “The big thing I’ve started working on with the science and commercial teams is that you cannot turn things around just by acquisition. There is no doubt that any good pharma company should be looking at the external growth to fill the pipeline, but it is an exaggeration to think that you will succeed by doing this alone.

“I am convinced that, with the science background we have, we can have balanced growth with internal and external innovation. The creation of a fully fledged business unit with dedicated resources by definition increases focus, delivery and execution which, in turn, boosts front-line morale and concentrates research.

“We have fantastic teams – top scientists and sales teams that are in sync with their market. They understand their clinicians and patients and meet their needs in a way that is only possible because they are living with them day-to-day and are very close to them. This is a big reason why we are starting to turn around this business.”

Helfgott stressed the potential: “It is a sleeping beauty. We now have the tools to turn a healthy business unit into a leading one in the rare endocrine and rare blood disorders field because we have access to this great science and teams in the field that have connections to physicians and investigators like nobody else.”

His confidence is underpinned by more launches being inked into the Biopharm calendar, along with recent European approval for a bolus delivery system for its NovoSeven haemophilia product.

“For years physicians were asking us for NovoSeven to be used in bolus pumps to deliver the drug for the long run,” said Helfgott.

“It’s not rocket science but it has a huge impact on the way physicians practice; some 23 years after registration of the product we have been able to deliver a new mode of administration. We have listened to the physicians and that shows the strength of our field teams which, combined with strong science, can really do wonders.”

Competition is real life

Haemophilia is a crowded market and Roche’s success with Hemlibra has squeezed margins across this sector of pharma.

“Competition is real life,” added Helfgott. “Erosion and exposure to new therapies are also real life. It is just something you have to accept. Our focus is on accelerating our scientific R&D and prioritising three or four things that will make a difference. Our big products have competition and that’s fine. Patients need the best, full stop.

“However, our task will be to launch products at increased speed to counter that erosion and over the past few years our launches have been somewhat staggered. I would love to accelerate the speed at which we launch our new drugs and their indications as that is the only way we can compensate – it is very basic in pharma and we need to be better at it.”

But he believes that a culture of scientific curiosity and listening to physicians and patients has strengthened Biopharm’s offering.

“Curiosity gives you a real sense of where you want to go, then you can narrow your focus,” he added. “But if you do that too quickly you are inhibiting, censoring and pauperising your thought processes, which is why we were maybe in a more difficult situation three to five years ago.

"Without an internal engine of research, you are also putting too much stress on your business development unit and by being so hung on it you might make wrong choices. It is by going internal and external in the meantime that you can be serene and remain cold-blooded and cool-headed.”

A clear indication of the strategy and a wider ambition is the bluebird bio collaboration to address factor VIII-clotting factor deficiency using ‘outstanding science’ which, he highlighted, matches the potential from existing platforms within Novo Nordisk.

Science at full speed

“Gene therapy is a revolution with the long-term potential of getting into the cell to remove the faulty DNA that would really cure patients for life,” said Helfgott. “That is a complete new paradigm in science and that is what we are very enthusiastic about. This is not going to happen tomorrow but the potential is very exciting and the long-term perspective is clear in our heads.

“The small revolution we are also running in Novo Nordisk is to realise that we have many platforms at our disposal. We have a long, well established protein peptide design and a great antibody platform design.

"We also have a stem cell platform, gene editing, an exquisite oral platforms and we believe that if we use this range of tools we can completely change the picture in terms of our internal science. If you look at this, you can understand why I am so convinced that our future success can be driven by internal and external elements.

“Business development is always required and is part of what any pharma company should be doing, but understanding that we possess a breadth of advanced technologies and top scientists is how we are going to make a difference in the very difficult area of rare diseases.

“Our future is governed by science and we are embracing that at full speed.”

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

20th February 2020

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

20th February 2020

From: Research

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