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Manufacture Business Practice, Small Molecules, Trends & Forecasts

Eye on the Prize

How did you get into the pharmaceutical industry?

I trained as a pharmacist and then did a PhD in pharmacology – specifically in neuroscience. Getting into the industry was largely by chance. I was hoping for a career in academia, but I saw that Ciba-Geigy was looking for a post doc researcher in the same area as my PhD – cerebellar ischemia – so I decided to apply.

And you ended up staying in the industry?

Yes. If you would have told me when I joined that I’d stay for more than 25 years and eventually end up in ophthalmology, I would not have believed you. My plan was to stay for two years and then go back to academia and become a professor. Clearly that didn’t happen, but that’s no bad thing! I very much enjoyed my time in research at Ciba-Geigy. We had very good people and excellent collaborations with academia. And we certainly had more funds than you have in academia; I was able to publish a lot. I stayed for nearly eight years in research and then moved into clinical.

What prompted that switch?

I had come to a point where I felt I wanted to do something different. I had been involved in clinical development programs and found it interesting. After all, that’s why you join the pharmaceutical industry: to bring medication to patients for unserved medical needs.

It is great to have a good scientific hypothesis, but until you have proven it, you really have nothing!

What have you learnt about bringing drugs to market?

One thing you quickly learn is that it is great to have a good scientific hypothesis, but until you have proven it, you really have nothing! For example, back in the 1990s, we had a program directed at stroke. The theory was that the blocking of excitatory amino acid receptors could be a valid target. We were able to develop a compound that exactly matched the physiochemical properties, the receptor specificity, and the potency at the receptor. From a theoretical point of view it was ideal… but it didn’t work.

I’ve also learnt that, if a drug fails, it’s best that it fails early. You don’t want to bring something all the way to Phase III trials, only to find out that it doesn’t work.

How did you apply those early lessons?

The next clinical program I took on was focused on chronic neurodegenerative diseases - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was our lead indication because it is a very fast-progressing disease. Until we did this study, survival was the main outcome measure for ALS, but obviously survival is not a good measure for early-stage trials.

We came up with an idea of using a functional outcome scale instead, using each patient as his or her own control. We first recorded the functional scale over two or three months without treatment, and then started treatment and measured again. This gave us the power to do a study with fewer patients and a shorter duration. This is now a standard design for ALS trials, so although we didn’t manage to release an ALS medication onto the market, it was a big achievement nevertheless.

At what point did you move to ophthalmology?

I went into ophthalmology in 2005. One of my colleagues moved within the company from neuroscience to the ophthalmology business unit and asked if I would like to join. It was a difficult decision because I didn’t know much about ophthalmology, but I knew that person very well. I trusted him and knew I liked working with him. He offered me a position in project management that I couldn’t resist.

What is your management style?

If you really want to know you should probably ask my direct reports! But I can tell you what I aim for: to give my people as much autonomy as possible, which is helped by the relatively flat decision structure that we have at Novartis. Of course, empowerment also comes with accountability. I try to personally select the key people whenever possible, so that I know I can trust them to run the show.

How do you motivate your team to gain success?

I think autonomy goes a long way. But giving as much positive feedback as possible is also vital. Recognize success, recognize good performance and recognize achievements. I can give a recent example: I have been working a lot over the past few years in Japan – the development team there has been working extra hard and has been very successful. So when I was at a conference in Tokyo, I took the whole development team out for dinner, thanked them in person for their work and gave them a little gift – not much, really, but such gestures can count for a lot. It’s not only about giving people an extra bonus – although we do that as well – but also showing that you acknowledge good performance and success.

Dirk was originally interviewed for The Ophthalmologist (

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