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Interview with Roch Doliveux, UCB

Why is patient-centricity placed at the heart of UCB? Jacky Law asked UCB’s CEO to explain his company’s philosophy

Roch DoliveuxI really believe the industry is at an inflection point, driven by patent expiries and a dramatic decrease in R&D productivity. That is compounded by external pressures on budgets, pricing, healthcare reforms and public opinion in the US, for example. This whole set of issues is putting huge pressure on the business model and every company has to find its own way of moving forward.

Ageing populations are creating a new set of medical demands. There are large unmet needs in diseases of the brain, neurology disorders, oncology and metabolic disorders, none of which is being properly addressed today. Other dimensions to all of this concern the huge opportunities presented by the discovery of the genome and the new approach to the discovery of medicines that is emerging from that.

UCB has had to face this inflection point before other companies because we have been through most of our patent expiries already. Plus, we have the advantage of a stable shareholder base, as the company is family-controlled, which allows us to look for answers not only in the short term, but also in the long term.

So, what is our answer? I am not saying this is the answer; it may not apply to other companies. But the UCB answer has been to learn from successful companies in consumer-facing industries. Our consumer is the patient and, while there are some different characteristics, such as the patient not always being the decision maker, the patient is becoming increasingly informed. By focusing on the patient, you are also addressing genuine and severe unmet needs. If you really focus on the patient, this leads to a clear differentiation of your products so that they have impact on the most severe diseases and the biggest issues that patients have to overcome.

Roch Doliveux, UCB, on patient centricity in the pharmaceutical industry


Everything derives from that. Patient-centricity is really nothing more than putting the patient at the heart of everything we do. And I mean everything that we do. Nor do we call our customers 'patients'. They are people who live with severe diseases. If we put people at the centre and do that well, everything else follows. If we address their medical needs, if we help them and make a difference to their lives, market share follows, profits follow, shareholder returns follow. That is why we start with that.

Also, we had strengths to build on. The notion of anchoring capabilities was already there. Companies are like people; you build on your strengths. And we had good fertile ground to move into patient-centricity. This key driver of the new business model suits us.

Patient-centricity manifests in everything we do, from research to manufacturing, to support functions, to communication. Everyone and everything starts with patient-centricity: the way we market our products, how we allocate resources, it is always with that in mind. We ask how we can make a difference to the lives of patients. It is not something we declared; it is something that has built over time.

We stated this approach publicly for the first time when we joined forces with Celltech in 2004 and needed to clarify where we were going. But it is a never-ending process. As long as there are patients suffering, we need to find answers. It is not just thinking about people in a charitable way. We want to make a difference. Crohn's and Me [UCB partners with] is one manifestation of our approach. Crohn's advocates make a difference to people's lives.

Another example that shows how patient-centricity can function is the discovery of anti-sclerostin. The discovery of anti-sclerostin started from a rare disease that occurs among a very small population of South Africans. They have a condition whereby they build bone. They are a big and sturdy people who do not have bone fractures. We looked at that population and identified the gene defect and the protein coded by that gene. We then developed the antibody which can help people who lose bone. We mimic the gene defect and apply reverse engineering to build quality bone. The whole process started with people. We didn't start with charts, thinking through receptors or mapping genes. We started with people.

When you think of Apple being a great innovator or BMW in the car industry, or Cisco, there is a pattern of always combining great technology and great customer intimacy. We want to understand all aspects of people, from their genes to their behaviours, to knowing about the other diseases they suffer from and then understand how you bring that back into the research process. It is embedded in our research thinking. We bring people that deal with diseases into our labs but I would say it is more to foster a sense of urgency than to trigger the big turning point in the discovery of new treatments.

This is very different to the old approach. Take schizophrenia. The old business model of pharma had been to find a drug by making rats schizophrenic. I am a veterinary surgeon by background. I don't remember schizophrenia being a big issue in rats. The whole thinking forced the creation of an artificial disease, but do rats display the same traits as humans? I don't think so. The whole approach we once had in our industry has come to an end.

UCB is focused on the neurology and immunology therapy areas. We have just launched three new medicines: Cimzia for rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease; Vimpat for epilepsy and Neupro for Parkinson's disease and Restless Leg Syndrome. The launches are rightly recognised as successful so the key for us is to continue on that path and strengthen the pipeline. We had four new drugs licensed in 2008. The year 2010 was an impressive one for pipeline progress because all our products developed, including new ones coming into the pipeline. We are gradually rebuilding our late-stage pipeline with epratuzumab, a Lupus treatment, and we have a new epilepsy drug moving into phase III. Towards the end of 2010, we announced the anti-sclerostin product was moving faster than we thought. Results from phase IIb will come in the second half of 2011. The late stage pipeline is starting to build up again.

Let's talk about joint working and what is important for pharmaceutical companies to work together successfully. Collaboration is about forming alliances with people who have strengths that complement our strengths. We have been able to blend internal and external collaborations and build innovative partnerships with smaller companies in order to get access to newer products. In our discovery organisation, we have literally hundreds of partnerships with small start-ups, university departments and so on. Science is now so complex that no company can harness everything on its own. The notion behind our partnerships is always to ask what we are good at and then build on that. Anything we need to complement that core approach, we go and get it, where it exists. With anti-sclerostin, for example, we had no bone disease expertise in our development organisation, hence we made a partnership with Amgen. And through our immunology research, we found compounds that had application in oncology. So we put them with Wilex, which is an oncology biotech company, and can get them back when they have been taken to proof of concept. We've also done a deal with Synosia Therapeutics, which is focused on Parkinson's disease. We took a stake giving us access to some of their pipeline products while leaving them to manage themselves, thereby building on their strengths.

Though Keppra is now off patent in the US and going off patent in the EU in 2011, it will still be a significant product for many years to come because we are launching in Japan, we still have significant growth in the large emerging markets and even though it is generic in the US, we still sell there because established patients don't want to switch from one brand to another.

UCB sold off some of its businesses in emerging markets to GlaxoSmithKline. Now, we basically have three areas that are key for us: the US, Europe, and the large emerging markets of China, Korea, India, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, plus Japan. We sold our businesses in smaller countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in the Middle East and Africa. A company our size can't do everything. We are a mid-size company and we must focus on the essence of what we do.

Roch Doliveux, UCB, on company growth and patient centricity

We have made some cutbacks in the past few years. Now, growth will be driven by new products such as Cimizia, Vimpat and Neupro for many years to come; plus, the late-stage products are also expected to come in. Our largest  patent expiries – the trigger to make big changes - were going to occur (and did occur) in 2008 (Zyrtec US) and 2009 (Keppra US).The first measure we took to ensure long-term growth was to transform completely from a diversified chemical group into a pure high-end biopharma company specialising in neurology and immunology. That was done between 2004 and 2006 by divesting all non-pharma businesses and acquiring Celltech and Schwarz Pharma. What we've done is create a new company out of three different entities. This is different from usual acquisitions, two-thirds of which fail. The figures suggest ours is a success. Take Cimzia, for example, which is a much bigger product now than either the market, or we, thought when we bought Celltech. It is the same with Vimpat. Peak sales were once €350m; now, estimates are at least €1.2bn.

We put the companies together by building on each other's strengths. There are now 8,000 people in UCB and less than one third (and I am part of that third) were here seven years ago. Two-thirds of the people are new or had a Celltech or Schwarz payslip. Of the executive committee, only I was there seven years ago. I had just joined. On the Board, only four people were there seven years ago. The amount of change has been radical. The good news is that we are now starting to reap the benefits with the new launches and what is in the pipeline. All the discovery work is bearing fruit.

I have a positive view of the R&D prospects in the UK. We are one of the top investors in R&D there. Early on, we recognised that Slough was home to an important centre of excellence for Celltech, so we decided to beef up our discovery capability for the long-term. In effect, UCB has doubled its R&D investment in the UK since 2004.

Roch Doliveux, UCB, on patient centricity's effect on marketing

The beauty of focusing on severe diseases is that we can compete with the biggest pharma companies in the world and match them because there are less specialists. When you visit a specialist twice a month, a mid-size company can compete. In most countries, we no longer have primary care reps and we don't intend to create such a force, so when we do need them, we partner with big pharma.

Being patient-centric and really thinking about people is both an enabler and a huge pressure. The enabler is that it unleashes energy when you say you are making a difference in people's lives, but it is also a pressure. If you are genuinely customer-centric, if you care about individuals, it is a big responsibility. Vimpat treats a subset of epilepsy, partial onset seizures. One in three patients has this refractory type of seizure. If you provide a new medicine for that, every patient who still has these seizures is one too many. That is our aspiration. The real winning starts with the science and then the key is just getting the payers, prescribers and, in the US, the patient, to know that this is available. It is not necessarily just us who promotes our products; it is also others. If the science is out, it is out.

I think my best decision as CEO has been to create a truly patient-centric company, because medicines are always about people.


•    A Doctor in Veterinarian Medicine from Maisons-Alfort (France), Roch Doliveux is also Laureate of the Faculty of Medicine, Créteil, and holds an MBA from INSEAD (France) with distinction.

•    He joined the pharmaceutical industry early in his career, first at Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis) in Switzerland, Peru and France. Then he held various positions at Schering-Plough Corporation, including president of Schering-Plough International. Next, he moved to the Pierre Fabre group as chief executive officer of Pierre Fabre Pharmaceuticals.

•    Roch Doliveux joined UCB in October 2003 as director general of the Pharma Sector and deputy chairman of the executive committee. He became CEO and chairman of the executive Committee of UCB Group on January 1, 2005.

•    He is a member of the board of directors of UCB, a member of the board of Stryker Corporation, a US listed company, as well as a member of the board of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which is a public-private partnership between the European Union and EFPIA, WELBIO (Walloon Excellence in Life sciences and Biotechnology), the INSEAD International Council, Science & Business Innovation board and the Caring Entrepreneurship Fund (King Baudouin Foundation).


The Interviewer
Jacky Law
is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical industry

To comment on this article, email

9th March 2011

From: Research, Sales



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