Fulfilling the Vision of Science: AstraZeneca's Ruud Dobber

Dec 10, 2017
Volume 37, Issue 12

From researcher to globe-trotting commercial leader, Ruud Dobber, now president of AstraZeneca US and executive VP of the company’s North American business, speaks with Pharm Exec about his career path and his core mission today: steering the big pharma giant’s US course as it navigates the complexities of a fast-moving therapeutic market

 

AstraZeneca was ranked 11th in Pharmaceutical Executive’s annual Pharma 50 listing this year, with 2016 worldwide prescription sales of $21 billion and R&D spending of $5.6 billion. Its top-selling drugs globally were Crestor, Symbicort, and Nexium. In 2017, AstraZeneca gained US approval for Imfinzi for bladder Ruud Dobbercancer and Faslodex for expanded use in breast cancer—and possible approvals for Lynparza, also in breast cancer, and Imfinzi for lung cancer loom in 2018. Dr. Ruud Dobber, president, AstraZeneca US, and executive vice president, North America, is leading his team’s efforts to realize the full commercial potential for these important therapies. 

Dobber has been heading the region for the big pharma company since August 2016. He is responsible for the activities of close to 6,000 people, leads AstraZeneca’s commercial operations in North America, and represents the region as a member of the company’s Senior Executive Team. In these capacities, Dobber is accountable for driving growth and maximizing the contribution of North America to AstraZeneca’s global business, of which the US represents roughly 40% of the organization’s global product sales. 

Most recently, Dobber was executive vice president, Europe, and oversaw business functions in the 28 European Union (EU) member states. Prior to that, he was regional vice president of AstraZeneca’s European, Middle East, and African division; regional vice president for the Asia-Pacific region; and interim executive vice president, global product and portfolio strategy. Dobber also was a member of the Board and Executive Committee of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) and earlier was chairman of the Asia division of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). 

Dobber takes pride in the AstraZeneca pipeline, and credits CEO Pascal Soriot for its dynamic transformation. “In his five years at the company, he has really transformed it even more toward science,” says Dobber. While noting the company was always science-driven, Dobber says Soriot has injected a philosophy of science and innovation throughout every region of AstraZeneca. 

“We have the mindset—if you are doing good science, if you think continuously about what science is discovering for patients, and know the value of what we bring to patients, AstraZeneca will be successful,” he says. “And you can feel that. I can feel that when I travel to different parts of the US and to various regional AstraZeneca companies around the world.” 

This science affiliation aligns perfectly with Dobber’s passion for research, medicine, and patients. He grew up in the Netherlands, earned a PhD in immunology from the University of Leiden, and eventually became a researcher in the fields of aging and immunology. With his foundation in research, Dobber says, “You learn to be resilient.” He explains that research is fraught with failures, “but if you are successful, you have that moment of ‘Eureka,’ and that’s phenomenal.”

Though Dobber has been on the commercial side since 1997, he has never lost his respect or enthusiasm for research. 

“I still feel the excitement when I talk to friends working in the area of hardcore science, or our own scientists at AstraZeneca,” he says. “For me, it’s always very refreshing to hear what they are doing, to hear their enthusiasm and passion. But with that excitement, you still need to be very focused. Science in oncology and other therapeutic areas is evolving so fast, so you need to be clear and dedicated in what you want to achieve and what you want to develop with your colleagues, and I love that.”

AstraZeneca’s research institutes are located in the US at subsidiary MedImmune in Gaithersburg, MD, and at AstraZeneca in Cambridge, UK, and Sweden. 

When Dobber was in research, he didn’t imagine he’d work for a pharmaceutical company. He says he was always excited and intrigued about science, but the missing link was how to bring the science to the physicians and the patients. 

“I think that was the crucial moment. There was never a doubt that I wanted to stay in healthcare, but when I made the decision to move out of the hardcore science world, it was clear to me that I wanted to go to a pharmaceutical company because they are doing the end-to-end process,” says Dobber. “They are discovering new molecules, they are developing new molecules, they try to bring new medicines to patients, and—if registered and approved—they’re handed over to the medical and commercial departments. I think that is a fascinating value chain; it’s fascinating what we try to achieve.”

The value of pharma

Dobber acknowledges that the biopharma industry has a profit obligation. “Most of us are listed companies, and we have shareholders, and we need to take care of them,” he says. “But the most exciting piece, at the end of the day, is bringing those molecules to the hands of the physician and then ultimately to the patient.” 

Achieving those results, however, is not always easy, especially in Dobber’s latest regional foray in the US.  

“When I was offered the job here, [the healthcare environment] turned out to be one of the most complex,” he explains. “There are a lot of different players—PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers), Medicare, Medicaid. ... It’s highly fragmented. And it’s extremely complex.” 

But the cost discussion is one that Dobber believes will continue for some time—and not just in the US. Overall, healthcare costs increase with evolving treatment pathways, the value of new medical and clinical discoveries, and an aging population. These all increase costs to patients and governments, and require more education and dialogue with those stakeholders.

 

“Before moving here to the US, I’ve been privileged to work in every geography in the world, living in Asia and Europe, and frequently traveling to various countries in the Middle East,” says Dobber. “Healthcare cost is an issue for governments everywhere. People are living longer and want to live longer in a healthy way and the opportunities and possibilities to do that are massively larger than they were 20-25 years ago. Cancer is a good example. We can’t claim to cure cancer, but for some cancer types, it’s a chronic disease, which was mission impossible 25 years ago.” 

“We also know that the last three to five years is the most expensive part of a person’s life,” adds Dobber. “I have real sympathy for governments that are seeing healthcare costs rising.” 

And, given the environment, there is also pressure on the industry to come up with alternatives, explains Dobber. “What I don’t like is the focus seems to be too much on the small part of the healthcare cost—the medicine cost—and not the total cost of care,” he says. “As an industry, we need to do a better job of educating, and we need to make sure that governments are understanding the value of medicines. Conversely, we need to understand the ultimate tool and goal is to make sure many patients can afford our medicines.”

To uphold the industry’s value mission, Dobber says drug manufacturers “need to take those signals seriously” and should do everything they can to educate governments. 

“Some may only see the value of what this industry delivers at the moment they are ill, when they are sick,” he says. “But the level of innovation and level of sophistication is incredibly high. And there’s all the R&D failures that you have on a daily basis as well. But the job of finding medicines—finding something—that will cure patients is a goal of every treatment, or to make a disease acceptable so that you can live a normal life. I find this a noble endeavor and that’s the reason I’ve been in this industry so long.”

Leadership experiences

Dobber values medicine, research, and science, and he also values all of the experiences he has had that bring him to where he is to date. He applies all of these views and values to his prism of leadership. Starting when he was offered a position to learn marketing and sales at AstraZeneca, and his visits to Germany, China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, India, and more, Dobber says he has learned from the different cultures and the ways these regions approach problem-solving and consensus. 

“I’m a direct person; many Europeans and those in the US have a direct leadership style, but that may not always be the effective one,” he says. “There are more approaches to solve a problem—it forms you as a leader. Cultural diversity is a phenomenal learning for every leader.”

Dobber says he has been privileged throughout his career to have managers that were aspiring or pushing him out of his comfort zone. “I didn’t always feel comfortable,” he notes, “but I’m very grateful for that learning experience. It’s good if you have a healthy level of ambition, that you have someone who thinks that you can do more.” 

This, too, carries into Dobber’s philosophy for leading others. “I’m always advising people, if you push yourself you can do so much more and even if it’s an area where you have no expertise; if you are curious to learn, and curious to listen to other people, you will have success,” he says. “It’s incredibly rewarding and refreshing to see that, and it’s one of the reasons I like the work I’m doing now. But I’m also grateful for the education that I had in the past.”

Dobber advises other leaders—and those aspiring to be—to help their direct reports step out of their comfort zone. “Raise the bar and let them see it as an opportunity. Encourage them to take the challenge,” he says. “Give them the mission-impossible challenge and see how they react. You might be surprised, but talented people will have a solution, and rise to the challenge. If you motivate people, they can do so much more.”

Other leadership tips? “The moment you are appointed as a leader, you need to think about your successor and have that ready,” says Dobber. “Work very active on your succession.”

And if you want to be hired by Dobber? Be performance-driven. Show ambition and drive to do the job in an excellent way. Have a level of curiosity to work with other people and be able to work collaboratively. “I look for people with that spark,” he says. 

Dobber admits, like most in his position, he doesn’t have a lot of free time. But, when he can, he does switch off between golfing, dinners out with friends, and learning more about his new home—the US. Since he settled into the Philadelphia area, close to AstraZeneca’s Wilmington, DE, headquarters, Dobber’s been to several US cities, including San Francisco, Washington DC, and New York. In his new hometown, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Dobber describes the area as beautiful, green, and warm. Last year, in Philadelphia, the winter was not very cold or snowy, but Dobber disagrees, as he shows me a picture of his dog Ivy in the snow from last year (see photo in online version). 

“That’s not snow, you can still see the grass,” I mention. “You know they are calling for a lot more cold and snow this winter?” 

With Dobber navigating AstraZeneca through another critical year in the US, with multiple product launches and continued market challenges, his resilience and leadership will be key in helping the organization to success—and the former scientist and Ivy can enjoy whatever weather the winter brings. 

 

Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at [email protected]

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