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Amid pandemic, leader helps build ‘commercial startup’ from the ground up.
Being called upon to lead a major company expansion effort, plotting hopeful new roads to success, is never an easy task, even for the most seasoned of biopharma business executives. But try pulling it off in the middle of a global health emergency. That was exactly the scenario that faced veteran industry leader Patricia “Patty” Torr, the first employee hired at Idorsia Pharmaceuticals US Inc. (IPUS) in March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, charged with building Swiss-based parent Idorsia Ltd’s US commercial footprint and leadership from the ground up. Setting up shop in the Philadelphia suburb of Radnor, Penn., where operations were officially a go just four months later, the mission of Torr’s group was clear: forge relationships with key US healthcare stakeholders and carve out hopeful paths to market for a stable of promising therapies in Idorsia’s pipeline, including one anticipated late-stage treatment, two decades in the making, for insomnia. Idorsia was borne from the 2017 spinout of Actelion’s drug discovery operations and early stage clinical development assets after Europe’s largest biotech at the time was acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $30 billion.
As US president and general manager, Torr secured Idorsia’s physical Radnor facility, built infrastructure and key processes/procedures, and established ways of working—all while in the throes of the COVID crisis. “It was tough, but you hire the right people with the right experiences and the right attitude,” says Torr on the job of creating a leadership group—one “not overly engineered,” she stresses, but agile enough to scale and adapt over time. Today, IPUS consists of more than 130 full-time employees and over 600 customer-facing employees. “My leadership team was energized by a buildout. We’re going to build something together and we’re going to leverage our lessons learned from previous experience, and innovate while we’re doing it,” adds Torr, who arrived at IPUS with more than 20 years of experience at big and small biopharma across several therapeutic areas, including cardiovascular and metabolic, hematology, and immunology.
As the pandemic evolved, Torr says IPUS found a good groove in balancing the hybrid work structure and mix of remote and face-to-face interactions, all the while onboarding more employees, growing the company’s partnership base, and building its culture. “To be able to do what we’ve done in two years and be at the precipice of our [first] launch, and in a large primary care market, is really a testament to how the team has come together and how we’ve been able to mobilize our workforce,” she tells Pharm Exec.
The launch Torr refers to is for insomnia treatment daridorexant, IPUS’s first-approved drug, cleared as Quviviq by FDA in January. A Schedule IV controlled substance, the tablet, a dual orexin receptor antagonist, was poised to enter the sizable, yet untapped, insomnia market this month (Quviviq will compete in particular with orexin antagonists sold by Merck and Eisai). According to Torr, 25 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, but less than 12 million are on a prescribed medication to treat it. In the long-term, insomnia is known to be associated with numerous serious health conditions, such as psychiatric disorders, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, substance abuse, and dementia.
A culmination of a 20-year R&D journey, originated by Actelion, carefully perfecting the drug’s therapeutic window and eventual eight-hour half-life, Quviviq is designed to modify the wake signal, helping patients get to sleep, stay asleep longer, and feel less tired the next day.
Believing strongly in Quviviq’s safety and efficacy profile, IPUS has partnered with Hollywood A-listers, athletes, and others to educate, or “edutain,” patients and healthcare professionals (HCPs) on the importance of recognizing insomnia as a legitimate disorder, with a need for interventions that provide not just a restful night sleep, but a quality next day. In January, IPUS unveiled its “Seize the Night & Day” campaign, teaming up with Jennifer Aniston, who has been outspoken about her own experiences with sleep problems, including sleep anxiety, sleep walking, and insomnia. The campaign, which showcases a website exploring the science behind insomnia, has sleep tips and tricks, and includes a patient forum. It also features “Jen’s Sleep Story,” where Aniston speaks candidly about her personal struggles in an unscripted, intimate chat. There is a 30-second TV spot as well, called “Time to Construct,” featuring Aniston and directed by Oscar-winning director, writer, and actor Taika Waititi.
In another marketing campaign, IPUS, in mid-March, premiered “The Quest for Sleep,” a feature-length documentary, on Facebook, followed by select screenings in New York City and Los Angeles. Narrated by Octavia Spencer, who voices the role of sleep, the film, which was approaching 500,000 views on YouTube in late April, follows the journeys of five real patients throughout their daily lives and struggles with sleep. Also featured are NBA player Andre Iguodala, Olympic runner Emma Coburn, and US Army Retired Lieutenant General Rick Lynch.
In other outreach strategies, Torr was instrumental in Idorsia’s formation of The Alliance for Sleep late last year, a committee of leading physicians and healthcare experts focused on the importance of sleep health, and the alliance’s subsequent release last month of its landmark survey, Wake Up America, conducted online by The Harris Poll.
With the launch of IPUS’s first product in the primary care space, typically an unusual step for a traditional startup, given the resources required, Torr likes to characterize IPUS as more of a “commercial startup.” Also driving the distinction is the company’s robust, by startup standards, specialty- and orphan disease-focused pipeline, which features 12 compounds, half of which are in late-stage development. One of those investigational compounds is selatogrel, a potential EpiPen-type product for patients at high risk of a recurrent heart attack. Other late-stage candidates target Fabry disease, lupus, resistant hypertension, and aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage.
Having overseen numerous product launches, commercial expansions, and promotional campaigns over the course of her career in the life sciences, Torr’s role and impact today in leading Idorsia’s US operations may be the perfect microcosm. A former athlete, Torr cultivated an interest in science, particularly in orthopedic surgery, at a fairly young age, having endured her share of injuries playing basketball growing up. Later, she would earn a bachelor’s degree in public health from East Carolina University, and her first “real” job was as a clinical research assistant for the Department of Anesthesiology and Cardio-Thoracic Surgery at Medical College of Pennsylvania (now part of Hahnemann School of Medicine). She ran clinical trials for medical device and pharmaceutical studies. It was in this role, Torr says, where she grew to fully appreciate what it takes to bring a new medicine to market. But eschewing the medical school route, the Philadelphia-area native instead decided to attend business school, earning an MBA in marketing from Saint Joseph’s University.
Her first commercial role in pharma was with the Astra Merck venture as a product manager for Prilosec, the world’s top-selling prescription medicine at the time. She credits former Astra Merck boss, and physician, Warren Cooper, MB, today chief medical officer at HealthCare Royalty Partners, as a valuable early mentor, “blending the science and the business” as a commercial leader and helping shape Torr’s professional development and approach to leadership. From there, she progressed through levels of increasing responsibility and seniority with several pharma companies, including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, J&J, Shire, and CSL Behring. Notably, while leading sales and marketing efforts at J&J, Torr launched six indications in 18 months and achieved over $2 billion in sales.
As far as what the future holds, the wife and mother of two says her goal is to help IPUS bring to the US market at least three products over the next five years and establish the company as a leading mid-sized, sustainable biopharma organization.
“It’s a badge of honor to challenge the status quo,” Torr says proudly. “The conventional way of doing things is not going to be as effective as it once was. So I would encourage young professionals entering the business to think outside the box and pressure-test new ideas. You can make a difference if you are passionate about what you believe in—that it’s not just an idea, but you’ve thought it through to have the courage to advocate.”
Michael Christel is Pharm Exec’s Group Managing Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.