With two advanced degrees in chemistry, Erik Janssen, 52, might be expected to be among the researchers in the labs at UCB Pharma, the Brussels-based drug company where he is a vice president. But instead he leads the company’s efforts to find partners who can make technology and data a more common part of health care for patients with chronic neurodegenerative diseases, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The avid mountain biker and father of two teenagers came to the Stanford Executive Program in 2018 to learn how to better innovate within a large and complex organization.
At the top of your CV is a favorite quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Why is that significant to you?
It resonates because I always want to learn and see what’s happening out there, how the world is changing. I have a very broad set of interests. I also believe there’s power in connecting and learning from others.
You say UCB is looking to develop drugs and therapies that are more holistic and will lead to better outcomes for patients. In your mind, what are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of that goal?
In the field of neurology, where we’re looking into drugs for epilepsy and Parkinson’s — diseases that have a big impact on the lives of patients — the biggest obstacle is that current treatments are only symptomatic treatments. With current medicines, the only thing we can offer someone with epilepsy is to reduce the hyperactivity of the brain to try to prevent seizures. But that’s pure symptomatology. It’s the same with Parkinson’s. You intervene at a late stage, and it’s not curing patients or changing their underlying disease. The challenge now is to develop and create new insights so we can offer solutions to these patients before they get symptomatic. That fundamental shift from symptomatic to disease modification is where the future for these diseases are. That’s a huge challenge.
One important factor in meeting that challenge, you say, is the “power of partnerships.” Explain.
This is very complex. You need people who are experts in science, and you need to find patients who want to work with you. You need the government supporting you by saying that preventing diseases is more important than spending money on symptomatic treatments. You need to find tech companies that can help you in using digital technology and devices to screen and identify these patients much earlier on. So, you need multiple stakeholders to solve this situation. We, as a pharma company, can translate science into drugs, but that’s only a small part of this. If we want to fundamentally change healthcare and how patients will be treated, we need to have multiple partnerships to make this happen. My area of expertise is bringing those worlds together.
You lead the company’s PRISM (Patient Relevant Innovative Solutions Mission) strategy. What’s its goal?
It’s a mouthful, but my team’s role is to seek that intersection between technology and science. For epilepsy and other neurological diseases, how can we benefit from everything that’s happening out there. From the Internet of Things to AI — how could all these opportunities that derive from the technological revolution benefit patients? And that is key. We’re not approaching this solely looking for a benefit for UCB. Instead, we’re exploring how this technology could support patients and what our role could be in driving this. UCB develops the drug, and I’m seeking partners to work together and improve the outcome for patients who are living with these diseases.
Tech is becoming an important part of medical care, and you’ve spotlighted innovations such as a device to track the wearer’s vital signs. What are other ways that tech can help?
At the moment, a patient goes to see their doctor, the physician gathers information, fills out an electronic health record, and prescribes a drug. But what if we had so much information about the patient’s profile and conditions that algorithms could make choices to offer the best possibility for success by getting the right drug to the right patient? Another important element, especially for these chronic diseases, is that there is no objective measure. An epilepsy patient, for example, goes to a neurologist every three months or six months and the doctor asks how things are going. It’s all based on perception. As a consequence, patients don’t like to go to physicians, because they don’t feel heard. They only go for the repeat prescriptions they need and don’t feel the physician understands what the real problems are.
And collecting data is the key to all that?
If we can provide tools such as wearable technology that will capture these symptoms automatically, patients can have a much richer dialogue with their doctors. Engaged patients tend to have better outcomes, and the physicians are provided accurate, tangible information about a patient’s symptoms, which enables them to support patients better than they’re currently doing. I really believe the future is in technology that can identify diseases before they materialize. That’s an aspirational vision, but many people, myself included, think this could be possible.
Got an example?
Seizure detection is a big problem because of unpredictability. You don’t know when it might happen. So you might not be able to drive a car or go to work. So how can we help with seizure prediction? What if we could work with companies and develop solutions so that the patient would get a warning? That is the future, and a great example of the convergence of science and technology.
And understanding humans at a genetic level makes all that possible?
Yes. Genetics. Bionics. And it’s not just genetic factors, but also environmental and behavioral data. There are so many triggers at points in your life that can cause these diseases. So we need to find the causality between each of these elements. All of these things need to be better understood, but that is coming. That will happen.
You’ve mentioned before that UCB developed a best-selling epilepsy drug “by accident” in 1993. What in UCB corporate culture allowed that accident to happen?
It’s a culture of innovation. I know the people who invented it. They said there was a lot of resistance when they came with their proposal. But the reaction was, “OK, guys, this is not our core business, but if you’re right and it has potential, you get the space to prove it. Come with more evidence and we’ll consider backing it.” That sort of internal entrepreneurship is highly valued in the organization. That’s why I like to work with UCB. As long as you adhere to the company’s vision that we want to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people living with severe conditions, there’s a lot of freedom to operate and find solutions.
You’ve said UCB is open and transparent in sharing its data. Are there commercial risks in doing that?
We don’t just give it to anybody, but we ensure that the right people get access to do more research. It’s a fundamental question. In the future, data will be a commodity. If you don’t share it, someone will do it for you. So it’s better to be transparent and open and share the data so others can help us. There might be things you discover in your data or by combining multiple data sets that are important to know. In the long run, companies that can personalize treatments for patients will succeed. Pharma doesn’t have a great reputation, so if we want to be a relevant partner in the future, we need to change our behavior. And that starts with transparency.
You list biking, photography, and reading among your personal passions. If you had to choose only one of those, which would it be and why?
If had to choose, I’d choose mountain biking. For me, a moment on the bike at 7 a.m, with the sun rising, the forest is waking up, you’re so close to nature you’re part of a different universe. During working hours, I travel and connect with all these technologies that are shaping the world. It feels like a balance to be close to nature and have time to reflect.
You read a lot of biographies. Any you’ve read lately that stand out?
I’ve been listening to a podcast on Nelson Mandela, called “Conversations With Myself.” It interested me because I didn’t know what to think about him. I had mixed feelings. People see him as a hero, but I wanted to understand why people see him that way. I wanted to understand his motivation, who inspired him, not necessarily what he has done but who he was and how he thought. He was such a good listener, so compassionate, and so humble. I never thought that of him. I thought he was more of a warrior type of person. But he was humble and listened, with a huge sense of justice and doing right for the people.
Any particular professors, books, classes, or experiences at SEP that influenced the way you do your job?
The first one that stood out was Jesper B. Sorensen, a professor of organizational behavior. He talked in a simple way about value creation and value delivery. That was great for me. Another one was Bill Barnett, who can create a simple message on a very complex theme, and tie it all together. Another was Charles A. O’Reilly, coauthor [with Michael L. Tushman] of Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma. Pharma is very complex. You have clinical development, research, distribution — they all have their own rules and processes. How do you bring innovation which is transversal? I was struggling with how can we be a more effective partner with other companies, and learn from them and work together. I brought that back to our organization.
Photos courtesy of Erik Janssen