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Career Insights: Astellas — Innovation and Value


In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Percival Barretto-Ko, President of Astellas Pharma, US, speaks to Michael Wong about why value and innovation are the top two focus areas to add to resumes in 2020.

In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Percival Barretto-Ko, President of Astellas Pharma, US, speaks to Michael Wong about why value and innovation are the top two focus areas to add to resumes in 2020.

Michael Wong: What is needed for the biopharmaceutical industry to be more widely recognized for the decades of innovation it has spearheaded, while other technologies are more visible in the US?1,2​

Percival Barretto-Ko: At the heart of the biopharmaceutical industry is innovation. Going back to the early 1980s, from penicillin to human insulin to the first artificial heart, melding science and technological advances with a tireless commitment to making a positive difference in patients’ lives has always been the driver of this fast-paced industry. Fast forward to today, where arguably we are in the golden age of innovation in the biopharma industry. In fact, we are in an era of unprecedented healthcare innovation — new modalities, new technologies and new science are accelerating our ability to create new therapies, as well as actual cures.

Percival Barretto-Ko

Just in the last two years, Astellas introduced new therapies for certain blood, bladder and urinary tract cancers representing the first real option for patients in more than 40 years. We are studying a promising new approach to vasomotor symptoms (VMS) associated with menopause and how human stem-cells can cure diseases like dry-eye macular degeneration. We are learning how genes can be re-programmed to reverse complex muscle diseases. And, we are working with strategic partners to introduce new immunotherapy combinations that are changing the healing paradigm for patients with few — if any — existing treatment options.

For the biopharmaceutical industry to take it to the next level, we must ensure, without delay that these innovations intersect with patient needs and access at scale. The impact of such innovations will radically change the perception of the value of the industry. And, most importantly, these innovations will lead to optimal value for the patient.

This intersection is our true North Star at Astellas. Collaborative innovation with a singular focus on the patient must drive our industry forward. It has always been in our DNA, and it is one of the things that excites me most about leading Astellas US into the future.

What are the advantages of being a mid-sized company to deliver the kind of value which you have mentioned?

As a mid-size company, we are agile in our approach, focused on specific unmet needs and committed to partnerships that support what we can’t do in house. 

For example, according to American Cancer Society estimates, in 2020 more than 81,000 people will be diagnosed in the U.S. with bladder cancer and nearly 18,000 will die from the disease.³ In 2019, Astellas launched a drug with a partner company that was the first treatment approved for locally advanced or metastatic urothelial cancer following treatment with platinum-based chemotherapy and a PD-1 or PD-L1 Inhibitor. Metastatic urothelial cancer is an aggressive and devastating disease with limited treatment options, and the approval of (PADCEV) is a significant advance for these patients who previously had limited options after initial therapies failed. We did it with a partner to help bring their technology to scale. And today, we are partnering with a third company to research a combination therapy that could have an even greater impact. No one company, regardless of size or shareholder value, can do it alone. 

These partnerships are key to accelerating innovation, which is driven by insights shared through the patient voice. Patient insights ensure we’re responding to the most urgent needs.

Additionally, our size at Astellas allows us the flexibility to incorporate changes that support patient and employee needs. For example, Astellas has adopted health literacy best practices by simplifying forms and tools to make it easier for people at any educational level to understand our drugs and how they work. We have also streamlined patient contact processes at call centers and during clinical trial recruitment to help patients during a confusing and vulnerable time. These are just a few of the ways we’re uniting collaborative innovation with a focus on the patient.

Well, value and innovation might help an employer like Astellas, but what is the value proposition for employees? And of equal importance, what are your suggestions to secure such experiences?

As a patient-centric and people-driven organization, Astellas prioritizes building a culture of engagement founded on clarity of purpose. Rooted in our values, the patient is the focus of all we do. We strive to create an environment where the best talent can deliver the best science and the greatest value of innovation to our patients. We refer to it as our 3Ps — Patients/People/Performance. In other words, when you have a singular focus on the patient, and the right people in place to deliver the value of innovation, everyone benefits.

When I moved into my current role at Astellas, I challenged everyone in the organization to share their personal stories, and specifically their “why.” This clarity of purpose — as an organization and as individuals — fuels our commitment and collaboration. It highlights the unique perspectives that both build our inclusive culture, and enable to us to better meet the needs of the diverse patients and communities we serve. Having witnessed health disparities firsthand in my youth, I joined the Americares’ Board of Directors to contribute to the organization’s mission to help global communities affected by poverty or disaster.

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 impact, we took immediate steps to protect the safety and well-being of our patients and employees. This included retooling patient assistance and verification; providing crisis training for managers; offering childcare, mental health support and financial resources to employees; and, extending job training and search services for employee family members in need. And, we provided more than $2 million of support to community organizations across the U.S. and worldwide.

When our country found itself thrust into a racial pandemic on the heels of a global public health crisis, our long-term focus on employee diversity and inclusion took on more imminent and strategic importance, not because it was popular, but because in terms of access to healthcare and workforce unity, it was critical. We took a stand publicly. We held forums with our African American Employee Impact Group (AAEIG), one of seven employee advocacy groups we launched several years prior. We ensured we were listening to employee voices and effectively using recruitment, retention and development to enhance workforce diversity and cultural inclusion. As a result, we are activating our organization at every level to the needs of the diverse patient populations we serve.

Astellas is proud to have been recognized among the Best Places to Work for the last six consecutive years, with a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. As a board member of Chicago United, an advocacy organization whose mission is to achieve parity in economic opportunity for people of color, and as a new member of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, I am personally committed to ensuring that our organization stands up publicly in the face of racial injustice and inequality.

Engagement with our patients and our employees is vital during times of crisis or tumult, but the principles and value always stand true. And it is our clarity of purpose, our consummate focus on meeting the needs of our patients, that will continue to lead us forward.

Percival Barretto-Ko is President of Astellas Pharma, US. Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


1. https://fortune.com/worlds-most-admired-companies/

2. “The computer and pharmaceutical industries shared the spotlight in the original 1982 poll, with three companies apiece in the top ten…Today two of the original ten most admired, Merck and Johnson & Johnson, form a pharmaceutical triumvirate with newcomer Eli Lilly, Alison L. Sprout REPORTER ASSOCIATE Jung Ah Pak, February 11, 1991. https://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1991/02/11/74657/index.htm

3. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/bladder-cancer/about/key-statistics.html

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