The industry vet and current company group chairman of Janssen EMEA gives his views on the past, present and future of the pharma industry

Describe your current role.

I’m the company group chairman of Janssen EMEA, responsible for the business across the entire region.

What drives your passion for healthcare?

My passion started long before my career. My dad was a physician – when I was growing up, I spent a fair amount of time in his clinic. Sometimes I would have a chat with his colleagues and patients, it was through those conversations that I started to understand the difference medical professionals  and healthcare companies make to the lives of others.

Just the fact that my dad was somebody who helped people get better inspired me to eventually pursue a career in healthcare. I didn’t end up becoming a doctor myself because I was never that good at chemistry or physics (also I had a fear of needles!), but I took a different direction aiming to achieve the same goal – to make people’s lives better. And that goal still drives me today.  

Your career in the industry now spans 30 years. What do you see as pharma’s greatest accomplishments over this time?

Healthcare has advanced so much in the last few decades, so you can appreciate that it’s very  difficult (and also unfair) to just choose a few accomplishments and call them ‘the greatest’.

I feel fortunate having experienced a time in pharma during which we have turned HIV from a death sentence to a chronic disease and have been able to cure hepatitis C. I am also excited that we are slowly yet steadily starting to win the fight against cancer. In addition, I’m particularly enthused by how the pharma industry has been embracing technology and using it to connect us with patients and those around them. When I first started out in my career, the internet wasn’t widely used and things like apps and digital monitoring devices were definitely not available. Now I think we are making great strides in integrating and collaborating with other industries – such as tech companies and start-ups – to bring the best solutions to the table for our patients and the stakeholders we work with.

What are the key challenges facing the industry in Europe?

I believe the biggest challenge we face is the necessity to change the healthcare model to a value-based one across all stakeholders. That will require  a lot of collaboration and open minds from everyone but I feel that the current model has reached  its limitations.

Another challenge of course has to be the amount of data we have access to nowadays and how we make sense of it and use it in a way that truly helps us make great, informed decisions while respecting the privacy of our patients.

I read a Forbes article recently which stated that there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, and that pace is by no means slowing down. However, without a way to access, analyse and manage data, they are meaningless.

How can pharma best navigate these challenges?

As mentioned before, first and foremost through collaboration. We can’t possibly do it alone. While we, the pharma companies, are the experts when it comes to finding ways to treat and manage diseases, we need a helping hand to navigate us through the world of ‘big data’.

That’s why we partner with people who know how to do just that. Take one of our latest collaborations – ‘Big Data For Better Outcomes (BD4BO)’ – as an example. Partnering with the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI2), we want to improve how we collect and use health data and engage patients to become more active data owners.  

What do you think could have the most impact on improving R&D success rates?

How medicines are developed has changed drastically compared to 50 years ago, as we’re starting to use artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, machine learning and deep learning throughout the  R&D journey.

I think if governments and institutions take a leap of faith and accept the fact that we’re doing R&D differently (and smarter) these days, they’d be able to adjust regulatory and legal frameworks into ones that are more reflective of the latest processes – in my opinion that would be one way to help improve R&D success rates.

From a pharma perspective, what are the greatest opportunities for improving public health?

I think it is to get the public involved, especially young people. In this day and age when almost everyone has a voice with the help of social media, it’s a great opportunity for us to really listen to the people we serve and those around them; to understand what they need and what we can do to meet those needs.

Personally I am very optimistic about the millennial generation who seem generally more open to getting engaged in bigger societal causes, such as public health and sustainability. I went to a European Health Parliament (EHP) meeting recently, as I was invited to take part in a live panel discussion to discuss how we make health and innovation a priority for Europe. Supported by healthcare leaders, institutions and  governments from across Europe, EHP provides a platform for young professionals and students (with a mix of diverse backgrounds) to come together and brainstorm ideas and solutions that would help shape the future of healthcare in Europe. The ultimate goal is that their proposals are implemented by the European Commission, or a national government, as a possible legislative proposal.

After my panel discussion, I joined the closing ceremony and had a chance to speak with some of the young people who were involved. It was really encouraging to see their enthusiasm and I was incredibly impressed by the output they shared during the debate. They’re certainly one of our greatest assets for improving tomorrow’s public health.

Is the industry focused enough on the patient?

I don’t think we can ever say we focus ‘enough’ on the patient, as there is always something more we can do. Our population is ageing and more and more people are living with chronic diseases. Patient needs evolve all the time  as a result, and what worked yesterday might not  work tomorrow.

But the patient has become an increasingly important partner for us when it comes to developing new medicines. We actively involve them early on in the process, and through social media their voice is being heard much louder and more frequently than ever. And rightfully so – who is better placed to talk about diseases or medical conditions than those who live with them every day?

I think as long as we keep in mind that change is the only constant, reminding ourselves to always listen to our patients and adjust our approach accordingly, I’d say we’re doing a good job serving our patients and those around them.  

Are there any disadvantages to embedding a truly patient-centric culture?

I wouldn’t say there are disadvantages, but in addition to the patients, we must also consider all the parties who are involved – the payers, the governments, the regulators, the healthcare professionals, etc. It’s a balancing act.

Patient voices must be heard and their opinions must be taken into consideration when we make our decisions. But how we merge their needs with the needs of all the other stakeholders is what I think we should all work towards.

What keeps you awake at night?

Despite all the progress we have made in modern medicine, there remains so much more to do. Our founder, Dr Paul Janssen, had this famous phrase “the patients are waiting” – it is still true today. For example, as an industry we continue to struggle to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease – one of the biggest threats to our society.

The demand for healthcare has never been higher. I am proud of what we have collectively achieved, but when I look around at people who are close to me, I see so much more that needs to be done and I am sure that everyone can relate to this.

Our industry is struggling with its reputation, but I represent a group of thousands of colleagues who get up every morning to really try make a difference for patients; more importantly, they are proud of what they do. To be honest, it often bothers me that they do not get the appreciation for the work they do every day.

What are your passions outside of work?

I am quite a sporty person, and I enjoy a broad range of sports – from running, cycling, swimming, to skiing, tennis, and golf. I am a big believer in having a good work-life balance and I always encourage people to make the time to do the things they enjoy. I think this is so important because it helps you unwind and keep a clear head. Your body and mind are the best pieces of equipment you will ever own, so you had better take really good care of them.

If you could invite anyone (alive or dead) over for dinner, who would it be and why? 

I’m a huge Beatles fan and I’d love to have dinner with John Lennon! I love his music, of course, but it’s his naivety and creativity combined with his wicked sense of humor that I find most inspiring and fascinating – he genuinely tried to make the world a better place. I always remind myself that I need to have 7% rebellion and keep challenging the status quo, it keeps me grounded in reality.