At the Copenhagen Life Science Summit 2018, Jan van de Winkel, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the international biotech company Genmab A/S, held an inspiring presentation about building an innovative powerhouse. After the presentation, I sad down with him to talk about Genmab, himself and his advise for life science students. 


Thank you for a great presentation here at the CLSS 2018. We are curious to know what it is like to be a CEO when you have a background in life science?

I think it actually helps, because biotech is about both having an eye for the details, as well as for the broader picture. The fact that I was the CSO for the first eleven years helps, because I also learned a lot about the business in those years, and it actually gives a better, clearer, and more transparent way to understand the business and think about the next steps.


How does Genmab stay in touch with the scientific community and collaborate with academia?

We are organizing a lot of lectures and symposiums, next month we will open up a new R&D facility in Utrecht. Before the official opening, we have already organized an international symposium earlier this week with amazing speakers, as a clear signal that we want to communicate with the outside world and attract people from academic institutes, to really help us think about how we can address treatment of diseases in a better way. So we are very actively working together with academia. Furthermore, as a global company, we have great interactions with different teams in Denmark, the Netherlands and the US as well as academic interactions across Europe and the US. These academic interactions are always focused on certain disease targets or certain scientific approaches. So we are already involved in a lot of collaborations, and we will in fact intensify our efforts for collaboration in the coming time.


What have been the biggest challenges for Genmab in the company’s relatively short existence?

The challenge is that you are developing drugs over a 10-year time frame and sometimes the market does not give companies that time. Events occur in the market; economic crises or other crises, which then can make it very difficult for a company to recapitalize. In the early days Genmab needed a number of funding rounds, but sometimes funding was not available due to the macroeconomic situation. So the biggest challenge was to ensure continued market support to help develop the products and ultimately the company. Like any other industry, it is all about the products in the end. The challenge with biotech products is that it takes such a long time to develop them, so what you need is a very strong business plan, which gives the business clear direction and focus. Obviously there needs to be flexibility in that business plan, because things do change over time, especially in an industry such as ours with long development timelines. So for Genmab, we have recognized that we need to be well capitalized at all times, so that the business is independent of the market. Right now the company is in a state where it is sustainably profitable with a growing income stream, so from here we can build a stronger and better company. To create this situation has sometimes been challenging during the past decade.”


As you said, Genmab is now very well-funded, but how did Genmab avoid getting acquired by a bigger player during the company’s early years?

I think it is a combination of being very focused on our future development and very clear in our communication that our aim is to build an independent strong biotech company. I think it helps to ensure you are well capitalized, so as a company you are less vulnerable to potential takeover attempts especially during the early years. The best defense for a takeover is a high share price and Genmab’s stock did really well. We have been very clear and transparent on the fact that we want to create an independent business. There are not many hostile takeovers in our industry. Usually companies are acquired when they have signalled that there may be better prospects for the company by being part of a bigger entity.

I believe that we can build far more substantial value by staying independent as an innovation powerhouse, that is what our strength is. I do not see a scenario where Genmab has thousands of employees, I see a scenario where the company has maybe several hundred very talented employees. Our motto is: keep the brains inside and hands outside of the company. What we mean by that is that we can outsource some of the operational tasks, but keep the knowledge and the strategy – the intellectual part – inside the company. A good example is the deal we have with Janssen [Janssen Pharmaceuticals obtained the exclusive global rights to commercialize daratumumab from Genmab in 2012]. Janssen is the military machine for development and commercialization, and they do that really well – I have the deepest respect for how they execute the development of daratumumab and commercialization of the drug. The Genmab team is not set up to do that, but I am very proud of the fact that we created the molecule.

This is also our future strategy: To have manufacturing and large clinical trials carried out by CROs [Contract Research Organisations] and other organisations under our guidance. I can see a scenario where we would have a number of preferred relationships with partners we know really well. With CROs and CMOs [Contract Manufacturing Organisations] so we have solid relationships with them and really get to know the employees from those companies that we work with. So we create real relationships as you would with colleagues in the same company. We have 16 partnerships, 6 with pharma companies and 10 biotech company partners. Our aim is to be a preferred partner, that is, to be a partner of choice for companies because we create such good working relationships in our interactions. That is how I see a future for our industry. That we are connected and partnered so that biotech and academia can build on ideas and processes together.


To remain an innovative powerhouse, Genmab will…

Focus on what we are really good at and connect with the outside world. For example on academic groups for access to scientific knowledge and partners for manufacturing of kilograms of antibody, and for help in running clinical trials (CROs). Then our own employees can concentrate on specific critical work and strategy. We will be the connector, we will be the spider in the web basically.


What advice would you give to your younger self?

To young Jan as a student; believe in yourself, follow your heart, and focus on where you can make a difference. That is what every student should do – life is too short, and I think people should focus on areas where they truly make a difference. Also, keep believing in yourself, you can do much more than you think at times. And once you believe in yourself and follow your heart, you will have a great future.


With high expectations from stakeholders, patients, etc. how do you handle the pressure and stress?

Of course there is a level of stress, but I don’t feel it has much of an impact on me. I create more energy from my work than I actually put into it. I believe that if you can say that, you are in very good shape. I relax at the weekends by swimming and I would love to be able to do that more often. Swimming benefits all the muscles in your body and it has this repetitive aspect, which allows me to think and relax, whilst also keeping my my body in shape. Hard work comes with the job, and by now I am used to it. If I were not able to handle it, then I would not do it and as I said, I still generate a lot more energy from my work than I put into it, and that makes me able to keep going and be energized about the future.


What did we not ask you, that you would like to tell the people who read the Synapse Magazine?

Bite into life science! Life Science is the most exciting sector I can think of, and right now, you are entering it at the right time. There are so many exciting developments for example with immunotherapy and biotechnology. The link between the biotech industry and information technology will catalyze revolutions in the future. So focus on this fantastic area and try to make this world a better place, by contributing to it.

This article written by Sven Hollmann (Team Member of Synapse 2018) and featured in the 6th edition of Synapse Release. You can find the full issue here

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