Seizing the Opportunity in Europe

05 July 2019

Julian Upton / Pharmaceutical Executive

Bruno Wohlschlegel is a recognized leader with a wealth of strategic and operational achievements. His track record includes launch experience, marketing, business transformation from primary care to oncology, leadership of local and regional operations, as well as global responsibilities in executive leadership teams.

Following his studies in chemistry and drug development, Wohlschlegel began his pharma career in in 1996 when he joined Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany as a sales rep. Rising through the ranks at Merck KGaA, his subsequent roles included Head of Marketing, Oncology, and Director of the Oncology Business Unit. From 2014–2017, he served as the company’s Managing Director of Portugal. In October last year, he took up the position as the Head of Europe, Merck KGaA, Healthcare.

Wohlschlegel spoke to Pharm Exec to outline the highlights of his career and to discuss how his vision for Europe is focused on drawing strength from the region’s diversity to advance collaboration and progress.

Pharm Exec: Can you briefly outline some of the key developments you’ve seen in your career?

Bruno WohlschelgelBruno Wohlschlegel: We’ve seen more and more innovation during my career. With innovation comes a stronger focus on each new drug, providing stronger differentiation and more benefit, compared with the current standard. If you look for example at colorectal cancer, when I began my career in the mid-1990s, there were just two treatments available and the median overall survival rate was 12–15 months. Today, we have a variety of different chemical and biological entities and the median overall survival rate has increased to 2–3 years plus. Back in the 1980s, I worked with multiple sclerosis patients and there was no treatment option. Nowadays, a MS patient can develop his life in certain cases very close-to-normal life. All the progress over the last 20 years, such as the individualization of therapy, has continued to motivate my journey in the industry.

You spent three years leading Merck KGaA Portugal. What kind of lessons did you learn there?

One of the lessons, which I had already started to learn before I took the role, of course, is that people, regardless of their culture, are intrinsically attracted and motivated by the purpose of what they do. By leveraging that purpose, we were able to redefine how we can maximize the positive outcome of our therapeutic offerings in the Portuguese market. This led to strong development in oncology, where we were able to implement, for example, a nationwide landscape for biomarker testing that benefitted a lot of patients and also helped our business. Also, we helped to push an educational effort around fertility, which was an issue for many couples in Portugal. This was a purpose-driven approach that also helped to develop the business, but foremost it was to ensure that women in Portugal were aware of the fertility issues they might have. To achieve this, we relied on very good teamwork internally, with collaboration between the commercial and medical functions and national and local teams.

What have been your key priorities since becoming Merck Healthcare’s Head of Europe?

In the short term, of course, we are focused on the launches that are ongoing across Europe. We launched new drugs for neurology and oncology diseases 18 months ago. Regarding our drug in neurology, I would like to remind that the Multiple Sclerosis disease is one of the world’s most common neurological disorders. We are pleased to offer patients and clinicians a new approach to managing this disease. Many countries in Europe are still in launch mode, so maximizing the impact of those launches is a priority. In terms of our established portfolio, there is a lot of potential to further develop that because of the increasing need for healthcare in Europe and the aging society in the region.

If I look at the mid- to long-term perspective, we are focused on three areas. The first is Europe as a growth market. We grew our business in Europe last year and plan to do this in the next few years as well, both with our launches and by using the full potential of our established portfolio in all indications. The second area is diversity; we believe the diversity we have in Europe, in terms of culture and healthcare systems, is a rich basis from which we can learn, and we are actively using diversity to ensure that ideas that are created in one place can travel through and can be leveraged across the region. Third, Europe is a perfect innovation hub. It has 32 different markets of different sizes, and this presents an ideal environment model to pilot business models or approaches that explore and develop therapeutic areas, and we will be using this more actively going forward.

I want to see Europe as a dynamic model for us on how to shape organizations and how to foster talent, embracing diversity and an intrinsically motivated group of colleagues. We want to bring in young people from different disciplines; we want to see talent coming in and staying with us. We want to see Europe growing and leveraging the potential of innovation in healthcare for the good of people and society and, of course, in a way that is good for our business.

There are obstacles associated with Europe’s diversity too. How do you navigate the varying systems, data policies, and approaches to healthcare?

I wouldn’t call them obstacles but hurdles, and with hurdles you can lower them over time. And there are many benefits. We have one Europe-wide system to approve drugs, for example, which is extremely helpful and we strongly support it. Also, we very much support the great initiative from the European Union to harmonize healthcare technology assessment across the region; this will help to foster quality, collaboration, and robustness across the continent and will also help to avoid any duplication of efforts. There are language issues, but there is the common language of English that unites our leaders and managers. I think the opportunities outweigh the hurdles. A lot of opportunities come from leveraging the common idea of European healthcare.

How is technology changing the way you do research and business in Europe? Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is focused on becoming a ‘holistic science & technology company’ — what does that entail?

With Europe’s aging society and the pressures on healthcare systems, there is a strong initiative to use technology to come up with alternative approaches. We have to push the technology to do with better, faster and more efficiently. This means using digitalization to speed up our drug development, to model our targets and our potential active ingredients, and to produce more data to enable the design of clinical trials. There are also very interesting developments in remote patient monitoring technology. The three pillars of Merck KGaA’s business are Healthcare, Life Science and Performance Materials, and if you combine those efforts, we are in a unique position to bring together science and technology in innovative areas such as fight against counterfeiting drugs. We will continue to combine the different disciplines we have to find new solutions going forward.

We are also focused on making sure our teams are able to use new technology in their day-to-day business. We have programs ongoing to facilitate the use of technology in the day to day working environment. In this, diversity is also an active driver of change. A workforce that is diverse not only in terms of gender or cultural background but also in terms of different skills and capabilities is one of the best change agents we have. Europe is one of the best places to be to pilot new ways to collaborate.

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