2020 brought many lessons about our industry, our people, the patients we serve, and myself. It reaffirmed things we already knew and encouraged great reflection on how we are changing and must continue to change. Never has a single year made it so clear that keeping patients at the center of what we do is not just a mission, it is a purpose and driver of all our actions. Our industry can accomplish what may have been thought impossible when we rise together to rally against a global challenge and focus on improving people’s health now and in the future.
In this unpredictable year full of disruption and challenge, I learned how we at UCB can be better health innovators, better business leaders, and better colleagues. Like many, 2020 tested so many long-held beliefs and practices of how we work, how we think about our health, and how we help others. The lessons I have learned – the power of collaboration, the value of resilience, the need to take time to recharge even in a crisis, the importance of the patients we serve in all that we do – have never felt more urgent and more salient this year and beyond.
In a World Where the Likelihood of Becoming a Patient is Higher than Ever, It’s Never Been More Important to Keep Patients as Our Reason for Being
In a global pandemic, the difference between health and sickness can challenge us in an instant. While everyone faces increased health risks, people who are already living with the complexities of severe and rare diseases have more challenges than ever before. Questions about access to care, economic challenges, and increased health vulnerabilities added new anxieties for people already facing life-altering, severe diseases.
Amidst world-altering events, I learned that we have to do more than what we have done in the past.
- It is not enough to create and deliver medicines that change people’s lives: in 2020, many of our patients faced not just a health crisis, but an economic one as well, with lost income, increased levels of food and housing insecurity and difficulty paying for treatment. We took actions to support patients, including for example expanding our Patient Assistance Programs to help eligible patients with uninterrupted access to their medicines at no cost.
- To support people facing economic and health disadvantages, we launched the global UCB Community Health Fund focused on understanding and reducing the medium and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable populations’ physical, mental, and social well-being.
- Even with disruptions to clinical trial protocol due to the pandemic, we cannot stop innovating. We advanced our pipeline of potential solutions for severe diseases, and after a brief pause at the beginning of the crisis we were able to quickly reengage clinical trials with new protocols designed in the interest of patient safety.
As a company, we often ask ourselves how we can create value for patients. I am proud of how our team continues to do so in the face of the greatest health crisis of any of our lifetimes. While each of us will come out of this crisis changed by the experience, it has only reaffirmed the importance of keeping patients at the heart of everything we do.
We Can Be More Effective, Together
As a single company, we can accomplish great things, but through strategic collaboration with others, we can exponentially accelerate and benefit patients. We formed alliances across healthcare, technology, and digital industries to accelerate the pace of innovation and help more people, faster.
- We were proud to join our industry peers through the COVID R&D Alliance, including joining the COMMUNITY Platform Trial, in order to help speed the development of potential therapies, novel antibodies and anti-viral therapies for COVID-19.
- Our scientists worked with the Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease to identify crystal structures of SARS-CoV-2 proteins to support the development of treatments and vaccines.
- We acquired Handl Therapeutics BV, a rapidly growing and transformative gene therapy company based in Belgium and began a new collaboration with Lacerta Therapeutics, a Florida-based clinical stage gene therapy company to rapidly accelerate UCB’s ambition in gene therapy.
- UCB employees volunteered time in medicinal chemistry, computer aided drug discovery, and IT to contribute new drug design ideas in addition to prioritizing more than 13,000 crowdsourced submissions aiming to find solutions to the COVID pandemic.
- As a company, UCB made contributions to organizations working on the front lines of the COVID-19 relief efforts, with more than $1 million contributed around the world to a wide range of organizations.
We Must Take Breaks to Be Strong Enough to Achieve the Next Breakthroughs
Empowering and taking care of our people and continuing our commitment to patients has enabled continued success in our strategic growth path. Our rich development pipeline, including four phase 3 assets, is a demonstration of our ability to continue moving forward and without which we could not have the societal impact we strive toward. This past year was relentless and to prevent burnout, breakdowns, and continue to race toward the next breakthroughs to help patients, I learned that we all have to find ways to re-energize and build resilience.
- We wanted to ensure that every employee felt supported during the COVID-19 pandemic – prioritizing their health and safety and supplying them with the resources they needed to maintain a sense of normalcy in a storm of upheaval. This included mental health resources, tools for employees managing family and homeschooling, and hardship funds for those experiencing severe and unusual hardship as a result of the pandemic.
- We offered all UCB employees time-off to volunteer in their communities so they could not only do good, but feel good and also implemented a company-wide “disconnection day” to allow our people an extra day of rest from the rigors of our work during this time.
Our commitment to the well-being of our people and ensuring that we have a team that is rested and supported meant that we were not only able to minimize burnout, but also able to make our mission of helping patients and create a positive impact come to life in even more ways.
We Have to be Smarter, More Adaptable, and Efficient Than Humanly Possible
Through our digital business transformation, we are now redefining how efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation look. This is a journey with our people to leverage a digital mindset and new capabilities to deliver even more value. We use data and technology with purpose to better understand needs across healthcare and as a result, can make the right decisions for patients, our partners, and our business, faster. We also continue to grow our vision and reach with strategic partnerships and investments that help us better deliver value to patients:
- Through our investment in Nile AI, Inc., who is developing a digital epilepsy care management platform and bringing together data to make the epilepsy journey predictable, we have opportunities in the future to acquire insights and data about people living with epilepsy.
- Through our COVID Moonshot work and with support from Microsoft’s AI for Health grant, our scientists have been using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify molecules that counteract replication in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Using the Microsoft Azure AI platform has allowed UCB scientists to move quickly – condensing work that would have taken six months into a span of just three days. To date, of the more than 1,000 compounds designed and tested by the COVID Moonshot initiative, the most promising series of compounds are coming from UCB designs.
- Using advanced technology to better understand complex processes like protein degradation and work in the realm of structural biology, we are expanding the universe of conditions we can treat and bringing hope to patient communities who have felt unheard for too long.
These initiatives enable us to better integrate patient feedback and insights into our R&D process and across the value chain through stronger connectivity with individuals and communities – even during a global pandemic, to deliver better solutions to patients now and in the future.
How We Carry These Lessons Forward to Make the Future Brighter
We will never forget 2020 and now are strengthened by the lessons we will carry forward. As long as we do not lose sight of the ultimate goal of improving the lives of patients now and creating a healthier future, we are well positioned to meet the next challenge and the next one after that, as a community of bold and adaptable innovators.
About the Author
Jean-Christophe Tellier joined UCB in 2011. He became UCB’s Chief Executive Officer on January 1, 2015 after having successfully led UCB’s BioBrands and Solutions division as Executive Vice President. He is a member of the Board of Directors of UCB, Chair of BCR (Biopharmaceutical CEOs Roundtable), President IFPMA (International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations), Member of the Board of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Associations (EFPIA) and Vice-Chair of the Innovation Board Sponsored Committee (EFPIA). He is also a member of the Board of PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) and of WELBIO (Walloon Institute for Life Lead Sciences). Read more.