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LEO Pharma CEO Gitte Aabo talks to PE about issues pertinent to the dermatology therapy area and how LEO's unconventional business model is helping the company achieve its objectives.
Denmark-headquartered LEO Pharma develops products primarily within the dermatology treatment area and markets them to more than 100 countries. The company has no external shareholders; it is 100%-owned by the LEO Foundation. It is focused on becoming the world’s “preferred dermatology care partner”. Pharm Exec met up with LEO Pharma’s CEO Gitte Aabo at last month’s eyeforpharma Barcelona event to discuss issues pertinent to the dermatology area and to see how the LEO Pharma business model is helping the company achieve its objectives.
PE: What challenges are pertinent to patients with chronic skin diseases?
Gitte Aabo: Sometimes there is a tendency in the pharmaceutical industry to talk about patients as if they were one big, blurred mass. But they are not. And if you have a chronic skin disease, you don’t even consider yourself a patient. You’re just a person who has this condition as part of your daily life, your daily routine. So adherence is a big issue. The message we want to convey is that the solutions we provide need to fit in with the individual lives of individual people. If treatments are too cumbersome, then patients simply don’t use them. So the easier we can make treatments to use, the better they fit into a patient’s normal routine, the better.
Having a skin disease can have a huge impact on your life, not just because of the physical, but also the psychosocial conditions. In some parts of the world, for example, children are not allowed in school when they have a chronic skin disease. They are not even allowed outside the house because their physical condition brings shame on the family. That may be an extreme example, but the social stigma associated with skin disease is huge. In modern western societies we are concerned with equal rights and egalitarianism, but there is still discrimination against people who live with a skin disease. Of course, it is embedded in us to be afraid of things like that, so further education around the subject is very important.
How are you tackling skin diseases in developing countries, where they are often much more prevalent?
Skin color and living conditions have a huge impact on the kind of skin diseases we see. For example, in China we’ve seen that diseases such as atopic dermatitis have increased in incidence from 10 to 20 percent over recent years. A lot of this is to do with a people moving into the cities. Another theory is that people are much more clean nowadays; they no longer have the same immune systems. Where we can play an important role in places like China is in supporting patient organizations and patient leaders in conveying the message that skin diseases are important and have a crucial impact on people’s lives.
You seem particularly emotionally invested in the work that LEO Pharma does. Would it be fair to say that you couldn’t see yourself moving to another company to take up another challenge?
For many years I was LEO Pharma’s CFO. I could have been at any company in finance. But when I’d been at LEO a few years, I was attending a board meeting and I came across a lot of letters sent in by patients. I started reading those and was very moved by their stories. I would never send a letter to a company, except perhaps to complain, but these letters were saying thank you for providing this treatment, thank you for helping me regain my life, and so on. It was a revelation to me and made me realize that what we do is so special.
What for you are the benefits of LEO Pharma’s unconventional shareholder model?
I think what makes the foundation ownership model stand out is the ability it affords you to think long-term. Our shareholder model impacts our whole thinking. We can decide do things just because they help patients. For example, we run a nutritional database online called Alba’s Post (https://albaspost.com) and we don’t charge any money for that, it’s just a way for patients to get diet information.
We are not under pressure to think about our quarterly results; it’s not important. Of course, it is important to run a sustainable business. I am concerned with how we make sure the company stands strong and how we can help many more patients. A key part of my job description is making sure the company I pass on to the next generation of LEO people is even stronger than the one I inherited.
LEO Pharma is a company with a long history. How have you managed to change the culture since you took the helm?
My basic philosophy is that if you want to survive and remain strong as a company, you have to change. We talk about changing a company as something a leader does to an organization. I believe however that if I want to change the company, I have to change myself. So it starts with me doing things differently, then I can put demands on the company to do things differently. The more you demonstrate that you are doing things differently, the easier it is for others in the company to change. You allow people to make mistakes, learn from them and move on.