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On a Double Mission: Chris Round, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany


Chris Round, Head of International Operations & Global Core Franchises at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany talks to Pharm Exec about how the company's new treatments are positioned to advance the company’s “double mission."


After a decade in finance and general management, Chris Round embarked on a pharma career that has seen him live and work in the US, Europe, and Asia and oversee commercial activities for the EMEA, APAC and LATAM regions. His 20 years with Merck & Co. (known as MSD outside the US) included five years at the company’s New Jersey headquarters as Senior VP of its Oncology and Immunology Franchise-which coincided with the launch of Keytruda in the US market-and different General Manager roles in Sweden, the UK and China. After moving to Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in 2017 as Head of EMEA, last year he became Head of International Operations & Global Core Franchises, where he is playing a major role in the company’s commitment to generating annual sales of at least €2 billion with new products by 2022, while also continuing to grow its core business.

Chris Round sat down with Pharm Exec to talk how new treatments such as Mavenclad (for multiple sclerosis) and Bavencio (for different indications, i.e. metastatic merkel cell carcinoma and advanced renal cell carcinoma) are positioned to advance the company’s “double mission;” what differentiates Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the immuno-oncology space; and how his leadership approach has evolved in a changing industry.

PharmExec: You’ve worked across a wide range of areas and territories. How have these experiences informed how you approach your role now?

Chris Round

Chris Round: I think everyone probably brings all of their experience to their latest position, almost regardless of what they're doing. Culturally, I hope what that helps me do is bring degrees of balance and cultural sensitivity and of insight into how different teams are going to behave and react, and an ability to put together diverse multicultural teams in a way that can be as effective as possible. That's probably the biggest lesson I've had from living and working in so many different spaces.

Also, having worked both in operations, in country operations and then global franchise operations, I’ve found having two different perspectives, one around long-term strategy and one around short-term execution, very helpful for keeping a focus on what we're trying to do at any one point in time and the right way of doing it. It keeps you balanced on the long-term mission of the organization and ensures that you’re not getting too short-term in any of your perspectives or execution tactics.

What are your short- and long-term goals as Head of International Operations & Global Core Franchises?

We’ve made an external commitment to the investment community that we're going to add €2 billion in pipeline-driven revenues by 2022, so one of the core priorities my colleagues on the healthcare executive committee and I have is to stay focused on making sure that we deliver that. We have two key levers for this. One is a drug in the multiple sclerosis (MS) space, Mavenclad, and the other is an oncology product, a PD-L1 antibody, Bavencio. These are the two major assets that we have and we're at the point of inflection from just having the core portfolio to launching these specialty medicines.

I personally have the responsibility also of keeping our core business on track and continuing to grow. Actually, much of our organic growth over the last five years has come from our general medicines business and from our fertility business, where we have a global leadership position. Keeping these things growing and developing are crucial, and they underpin our ability to fund the R&D and to launch the innovations as we get approvals. So, we have this double mission to become a global specialty innovator but continue to grow the core businesses.

With the core business doing well, what's behind the thinking to boost these specialty innovations?

One is that Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is firmly committed to these areas of oncology, immuno-oncology and immunology. The areas of high unmet medical needs are what drives our industry forward; finding solutions that really work for patients in these areas is the bedrock of our industry. We're not unlike any other research-based biopharma business; we have to innovate for the long term strategically. Our core business is well positioned and growing well but we'll face increasing threats, pricing threats, generic threats, competitive threats. So, if we innovate, hopefully what we can do is we can add the value of that innovation on top of our core business growth and use the leverage that gives us to fund further research and development.

In terms of the IO landscape, how do you see Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany as differentiated from other players in the space?

We have a high degree of confidence in our basic research labs. It's interesting that the PD-L1 antibody that we're commercializing with Bavencio came from the Merck KGaA labs. It was discovered there, it came out of those labs, but most of our competition cannot say the same thing. They've got their assets in different ways or through partnerships or through takeovers. We have demonstrated a strong degree of real competence in the basic labs, and we want to translate that into new mechanisms that benefit patients. That's what drives the strategy. We're focused on this global specialty innovation space. That's where we're spending our R&D budget, that’s where we see scientific opportunity and unmet need, but we continue to support and build and stay behind growing our core franchises, which in many cases are taking medicine to emerging markets.

With Bavencio, we feel like we're in the first wave of immuno-oncology agents that came to the market, with the PD1s and the PD-L1 assets being in the vanguard. We have a competitive combination program rolling out, and working with a big partner like Pfizer is giving us the opportunity to hopefully maximize the value of the assets. We have very good Phase 3 randomized data in renal cell carcinoma, which looks to be generating equivalent efficacy to the pembrolizumab (Keytruda) data. I feel like we've demonstrated that we have an asset that is competitive, so when we have the right data and the right readouts and the right indications, it’s about maximizing those and commercializing those well.

We're also differentiated in what we see as potentially the next wave of IO agents coming through. We recently presented data on our M7824 TGF-β trap mechanism, which will be potentially the first specific antibody in the IO space combining the effects synergistically of a patient-derived xenograft (PDX) agent and the beta trap mechanism. We should know within a couple of years how successful that's going to be. It is generating a lot of interest, and a lot of interest in the oncology community generally, and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has every opportunity to be in the first wave if it works.

Of course, there are levels of uncertainty and nothing's guaranteed, particularly in oncology, but we're hopeful. We have a range of other mechanisms as well, particularly in DNA damage and repair, which we think positions us close to the top of all of the companies that are active in this space. So, we have a number of areas of highly promising research, and we think we can come forward with first-in-class or best-in-class mechanisms, which is our intention.

You’ve talked in the past about patient centricity being a real priority for Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. How do you plan to build on that from the perspective of your current role?

While we always respect the sort of legal constraints that are placed on us in terms of communication with patients, particularly ex-US and around the world, I do think that if we put patient interests at the heart of the business, then we run a more effective business. It starts in R&D, making sure we get really good patient input into study design, identifying the right targets and putting the right programs together in a way that is of maximum benefit to patients. It continues through the whole drug development and regulatory process to try and ensure that we get the best products to those patients that need them the most as effectively as possible, and in ways that are as convenient as possible. It's interesting that, often in the past, doctors have taken what's convenient for patients fully into account. It can make a dramatic difference in the lives of patients.

A small example is Mavenclad. Unlike some drugs that require sort of daily or more injections, Mavenclad is an oral product. It requires just ten days of therapy at the start of year one and the same two weeks of oral tablet therapy at the start of year two and then nothing in year three and year four. The impact of a relatively small and contained profile is quite extraordinary, and essentially gives patients the opportunity to feel like they're living a life without the disease, without a daily reminder that they have a medical condition. Carefully thinking through dosing pathology and how our treatments impact on the lives of patients is very important, as is helping them with education around the disease and supporting them as they go through the journey with carefully tailored patient support programs. This is also an area where our industry can do a lot, again in a properly controlled and compliant manner. It’s important that we provide the know-how and the expertise that we have to help patients as they progress through their journey. With the advances in communications and digital technologies, there are opportunities to be much more thoughtful and much more targeted in how we communicate and what we communicate and where we communicate. And it can be a real assistance in improving outcomes.

What industry changes would you say have impacted the way you approach a leadership role?

When I joined the industry back in the mid-nineties, it was the time of salesforce expansion and primary care drugs. It really felt like it was driven by the research. That's been there all along, but it was a sales-driven, execution-driven challenge then. We all became a lot more thoughtful after the year 2000, and our ability to do the right things in the right channels in the right way led to the reduction in sales forces and a much more carefully planned marketing element to the approach.

Over the last 10 years, we've seen the rise of the need for real-world evidence and proper evaluation of our drugs compared to support value propositions in health, technology, appraisal and assessments. Where, at one time, if you had a good sales tool, you could do pretty well, I think now you need a much more integrated operation across sales, marketing, medical, and market access. These functions are all critical in ensuring that you thoughtfully and appropriately bring drugs to the market. That brings a lot of complexity with it. We have smaller teams now than we ever used to. Real prices for innovation are as low as they've ever been. We have to be smarter and more careful in the way we approach our industry. But it's that complexity that is making it more challenging and at the same time more interesting.