Jesús Sobrino was appointed general manager of UCB Iberia in 2010, at the same time the pharma market began to seriously contract in Spain. Sobrino discusses adapting to these changes through an increased focus on regional stakeholders and the use of risk-sharing agreements with hospitals to demonstrate the company’s commitment to Spain.
You were appointed general manager in 2010, around the same time the market began to contract. What was the market positioning and perception of UCB in Spain then?
I was appointed at the same time as the country’s first Royal Decree, when many cost-containment measures were put in place and conditions were generally difficult. Two more Royal Decrees were then created over the next three years. Thus, the past four years have been very difficult for UCB and the pharma business in general, with a 30 percent reduction in health expenditure. As such, UCB has been investing in talent and development within the company. We are fully convinced that even in difficult moments you have to invest in your people, and try to implement innovative projects and activities to be more successful in the market.
What has been your strategy for innovation in Spain over the last three years?
We have been very much focused in CNS and immunology, with an emphasis on Parkinson’s disease using our flagship product Neupro®. We have been positioning this product as the best alternative for Parkinson’s patients. In 2013, Neupro® grew 11.6 percent, and our top line in 2013 amounted to €20 million. UCB has also been focusing on epilepsy; we launched Vimpat® six years ago, which we have been positioning as the first add-on alternative in epilepsy management. In 2013, Vimpat®’s top line sales totaled €14 million or more than 24 percent growth. Our third flagship product, Cimzia® for rheumatoid arthritis, is expecting new indications to be approved in September 2014. UCB Spain launched Cimzia® in 2010, at the beginning of the crisis, and in 2013 we closed the product with a top line of €11.3 million, or 60 percent growth. Despite the difficult times for UCB, we have been very keen to have positioned the company in two different therapeutic areas with great potential. These drugs can really provide added value to the patient, which has been recognized by the entire healthcare community and regulators. These innovative drugs come to have a really positive impact in the quality of life of thousands of persons who live with severe diseases and therefore in the quality of life of their relatives and care givers.
Is the success of these products despite the difficult times is a result of a specific need in the Spanish marketplace, or is it UCB’s work in engaging stakeholders?
Engaging with the right stakeholders is absolutely critical for UCB. For example, when Cimzia® came to the market, the perception of this drug was as a “me-too”, since products like Humira® were already in the market, but the truth was that Cimzia® was a really innovation regarding existing drugs at that moment . Our focus at that time was to interact with the right stakeholders, since we were not so familiar with the health authorities at the regional level, or the payers at the hospital level. Consequently, we built up a market access team to start interacting with the right people at the national and regional levels. Market access has been very important for us in the last three years, and we have done a tremendous job to gain presence and awareness of our products’ cost effectiveness and added value. Payers undoubtedly have unmet needs, this moved UCB to build a partnering relationship to help them in creating value to their decisions. I am proud to say that UCB is perceived as a partner rather than a supplier in several regions. Secondly, we need to have the right people and to develop our team. I am proud to say that we have been developing and exporting our people in Iberia to other areas of the world like Brazil or the UK, which from a cultural perspective is difficult to do from southern European countries. We also have Iberian employees in Brussels, and we have focused strongly on internal promotion.
What is your partnership strategy for the Iberian strategy?
In terms of business development, we try to interact with different companies to maximize our assets. We work with different companies to find ways to partner to grow other assets in the organization and that we do not actively promote. We try to interact in partnerships with different stakeholders at the national and regional levels along with universities. Last year, UCB created a Chair on translational medicine in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Madrid, and this partnership has created opportunities to build up different kind of educational and investigational projects.
There is often a social stigma attached to mental illnesses. How is UCB changing that trend?
In Spain and Portugal, there is still a huge stigma for epilepsy. UCB has created several campaigns in recent years. For example, for three years in a row UCB has worked with hundreds of schools in Spain to reach thousands of children with the support of neurologists. We went to these schools specifically to provide some training to explain to children what epilepsy is. We are very proud of this campaign since we have reached more than 13.000 students in Spain so far.
Regulations in the US and even emerging markets have prevented pharmaceutical companies from filling their historical and traditional role in education with doctors and stakeholders. How do you sense this in the Iberian Peninsula?
Indeed, the pharmaceutical sector does not have the same resources that it used to in the past. Therefore we cannot engage in the breadth of activity as in previous times, and so we have to be more efficient. Essentially, we have to choose activities that improve health professionals’ ability to give the best possible treatment to patients.
What is the significance of UCB Iberia in relation to the entire organization?
In 2013, Iberia represented 14 percent of European sales and four percent of worldwide sales. This is an impressive figure given the crises in both Spain and Portugal. We are very proud of that, and Iberia is well recognized in the UCB community as a region facing difficulties while still being able to capitalize on innovation, teamwork and talent.
How do you want UCB Iberia to be perceived by your counterparts, other stakeholders and competitors, in the short to medium term?
I want the image of UCB Iberia to be focused on our patients and providing added value in every activity in which we engage. Secondly, I would like UCB to be perceived as a very solid company in its therapeutic areas. We are perceived as a company focused on growing markets that are very important and limited for patients, and also I would love to see UCB continuing to focus on putting new compounds on the market to provide solutions for unmet needs. We are expecting Phase III results from some very interesting compounds for diseases like lupus, epilepsy and osteoporosis by 2015 and beyond.
On a broader note, the game has changed completely in recent years. Two years ago, people in this company did not understand that interacting with the managing director, medical director or finance director of a hospital and other regional stakeholders was needed it. So companies like UCB need to listen to them and take them into account as a serious partner. New technologies are also critical: multichannel, innovation, social media, and risk-sharing agreements with health authorities. In 2013, UCB established 15 different risk-sharing agreements with hospitals and regional health authorities in regions like Extremadura and Catalonia. UCB was the first company in Spain to put these kinds of agreements in place in Rheumatology, following a simple scheme which make easy its implementation without increasing the work load of clinicians, which send a very positive message to the health authorities regarding where UCB needs to be. Our final aim is that the most innovative drugs will be available to patients as soon as possible, and at the same time we want to help the sustainability of the health system in Spain and Portugal with these innovative agreements.
And for you?
I would like to contribute to maintain the feeling of trust and commitment we have in the company, and that our people believe in our current UCB’s medicines and in the next generation of medicines to come. I want to see all UCB Iberia colleagues ready to embrace new ways of working, new ways of communication. As a mid-sized biopharma multinational, we can be very flexible and agile engaging through e-peer-to-peers, webinars, multichannel, social media different stakeholders. People need to understand that this is not the future, this is the present.
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