Janssen ANZ boss puts ‘skin in the game’

By Megan Brodie 8 months ago | In Companies, People
  • 8 months ago
Janssen ANZ Managing Director Urs Voegeli

26 June 2023

Urs Vögeli says when he arrived in Australia seven months ago to head up Janssen’s ANZ pharmaceutical business, he was shocked at how far behind Australia was when compared with the European markets he had been working in.

“I travelled back in time when I moved here,” the Swiss national tells MedNews. “The biggest change between the markets that I had worked in – Germany, Switzerland, and Austria – was the lag. Australia is one of the last countries in the OECD to access new innovations for patients, and that’s super challenging and frustrating.

“I’m launching products now that I brought to market five years ago in Germany. In the beginning, that was a shock but when you dig deeper and try to understand why, it’s kind of shocking.”

Credit: novasoma photography.

Vögeli has 17 years of experience in the European pharmaceutical industry under his belt, most of it with Janssen, yet this did not prepare him for the challenges that confront so many companies, not least Janssen given it has the largest share of the PBS by value yet has struggled to secure funding for some of its recent innovations.

Yet Vögeli is also fortunate in that his arrival coincides with the first review of Australia’s health technology assessment (HTA) processes in 30 years, this company leader finding himself in the hot seat at a pivotal opportunity for change – and he does not intend to let it pass without throwing everything at it.

“I don’t want to look back and tell myself that we missed out, that we were not focused enough, or did not invest enough in driving that change,” he says. “It’s such a unique opportunity and if we don’t get it right now, we will not get it right for decades.”

A pipeline of innovation

While being in Australia for the HTA Review is perhaps a mixed blessing for Vögeli given the importance of the review, his arrival at a time when the company’s pipeline is paying huge dividends, bulging with exciting therapies that have the potential to offer significant benefits for patients is a positive, Vögeli describing the products as “like science fiction”.

I want Janssen to be a solution provider,’ says Vögeli.

But he says in looking to value such innovation, Australia has been too focused on “the pill and not the outcome”, describing its HTA processes as “a bit clunky and not really fit for purpose”. He sees reforming the system as everyone’s responsibility and that all stakeholders “need to have skin in the game”.

“I never want to be in a position where I blame the government or the PBAC for not doing the job. As long as we blame each other, we won’t find good solutions, and I want Janssen to be a solution provider, to have skin in the game, to think creatively about our contribution to a solution.

“When I look at our pipeline, which is all about precision medicines, cell and gene therapies, it’s amazing, but it’s also hugely complex, very individualised, and of course it’s not cheap. So we have to ask ourselves how we can discuss society’s ‘willingness to pay’ and how we get to a society where health is a big priority.

“At the same time, we need to ask ourselves how to make this financially more sustainable. As a company that is a 100 per cent about innovation, we are convinced of the value of our medicines. Shouldn’t we, in the future, have a system where reimbursement is more about the outcome than the pill?”

Grandparents inspire career move

Vögeli’s entry into the pharmaceutical industry was somewhat serendipitous. After initially completing a business degree, he worked in consulting before deciding he wanted to do more than give advice. He was considering a number of options in different industries when Pfizer offered him a job in Switzerland.

At the time, his beloved grandparents had both been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and, with Pfizer touting its neuroscience pipeline including an investigational therapy targeting Alzheimer’s, Vögeli made a snap decision to accept its offer.

“I’ve never regretted that decision,” he says. “Since I joined this industry in 2006, I have worked with the most amazing people; so many interesting, passionate people. I literally learn new things every day.”

After several years with Pfizer then BMS in a range of business and marketing roles, rival company Janssen offered Vögeli a job in Germany heading up its marketing function. Having already decided he wanted to be a country managing director and therefore needed more country experience, Vögeli accepted.

“In Germany, we launched incredible products every year, which was just super exciting but a very steep learning curve,” he says. “I realised then I’m at my best in situations where my learning curve is steep, where I feel overwhelmed, where 10 times a day I think, why me? How can I do that?”

Urs and Heidi Vögeli enjoy the Sydney life.

In late 2019, Vögeli achieved his goal when he was promoted to Janssen Switzerland Managing Director, although his love of a challenge was put to the test when Covid hit shortly after. After the pandemic stabilised, he moved with his family to Sydney last year, now dealing with new challenges in the form of leading a large organisation with a pipeline of complex new products coming to market and multiple external challenges.

Already he has restructured the business to have a stronger focus on developing talent and delivering for patients, saying he now has “the most talented team I’ve ever worked together with”, encouraged by their energy and determination.

“People think you always have to get it right, but you actually don’t,” he says of leading large companies. “My answer to that is, don’t make yourself too important – try to stay very humble. I try to be a learner and surround myself with people who are, in many ways, better than me.

“And don’t do decision-making in isolation. Create and install a culture where people are really free and safe to speak up, to share their feedback, to tell you very bluntly what they think, what we should do and what we shouldn’t. Of course at the end of the day, sometimes it’s on me to make the final call as to what we’re going to do, but having the right culture is key.”

How we value health innovation

With his sights now set firmly on the HTA Review as Australia’s strongest hope for improving timely access for patients to innovative therapies and likely to be what most defines his time here in Australia, at the heart of the matter is the willingness of Australians to pay for those who need access to life-saving and life-extending therapies, says Vögeli.

“Just like the National Medicines Policy states, we believe that Australia should strive to be in the top five OECD nations for timely access to medicines.

“Willingness to pay is a societal question and a bit of a paradox because when you’re healthy, you don’t want to think too much about health. You want to enjoy your life, but you never know when you’re going to be hit with a disease or when one of your loved ones is, and then you’re really in need and you want the thing that works.

“That’s why we’re working hard and are very hopeful about the HTA reform, which is clearly a heavy lift, but that’s the number one priority.”

MedNews 2023

Leave a Reply