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Led in part by its new head of the Americas business, Sebastian Guth, Bayer went all in in 2019 on expanding pursuits in science and discovery, striking deals with 11 digital health startups and upping investment in disease-detection programs and patient engagement and education.
Led in part by its new head of the Americas business, Sebastian Guth, Bayer went all in in 2019 on expanding pursuits in science and discovery, striking deals with 11 digital health startups and raising investment in disease-detection programs and patient engagement and education
Last year, Bayer made several announcements supporting its larger and long-term strategic vision for the pharmaceutical giant. “We are at an inflection point where breakthrough science is transforming care almost daily,” Sebastian Guth, Bayer’s president of pharmaceuticals, Americas region, told Pharm Exec in a recent interview marking his first year in the position. “Bayer had to make a clear choice between pushing the boundaries of science, investing in the big bets, or staying in the here and now. And we’ve made our choice and
are convinced that science and innovation are the way to go. In many ways, the decisions that we have made are already being reflected in our portfolio and pipeline today.”
In the fall of 2019, Bayer secured collaboration agreements with 11 digital health startups aimed at longer-term development of specific digital solutions to improve patients’ health in the fields of cardiovascular diseases, oncology, ophthalmology, pulmonology, and radiology, as well as digital therapeutics. The startups were selected from 750 applications from 65 countries.
Another funding source for treatment innovation has come from Leaps by Bayer, established in 2015. This initiative is the vehicle with which Bayer invests in breakthrough ideas across all businesses. In August, Bayer announced that it would acquire the remaining 59.2% stake in BlueRock Therapeutics, the biotech in which its Leaps by Bayer division had originally invested in 2016. BlueRock, which specializes in engineered cell therapies in neurology, cardiology, and immunology, was purchased for about $240 million up front, with an additional $360 million payment based on certain development achievements.
Additionally, in mid-October, Bayer launched LifeHub UK to accelerate and optimize disease detection and data-driven drug discovery by developing artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled imaging solutions. The new hub is the seventh pillar of Bayer’s global network of LifeHubs and will build on radiology and the company’s knowledge and expertise in the medical imaging field.
For pharmaceutical therapies, Guth says one of his objectives is to support transformational ideas that are focused on cures. This is illustrated with recent investments made in the Leaps division with BlueRock, as well as Bayer’s investment in cell therapy company Century Therapeutics, which Guth says complements the activities of BlueRock in the oncology space. Others include Pyxis Oncology’s tumor microenvironment-based technology to identify immuno-oncology targets and Khloris Biosciences, which is using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to trigger a robust immune-response involving innate and adaptive immune cells toward anti-cancer vaccines. “These are examples of big dreams and big ideas that really push the boundaries of science,” says Guth. “Leaps makes significant investments, and, frankly, it’s just amazing science and bold moves that we’re supporting.”
With so many biotechs and early stage discoveries out there, Guth says the decisions around which to invest in ultimately connect back to the people driving these efforts. “It’s fundamentally a human pursuit and it’s the people that we look at very carefully when deciding where to invest and where not to invest,” he says. “It’s their
expertise and their capabilities. It’s the experience they’ve gained in a particular space over the years, and it’s also the composition of the teams and it’s the culture that we see at work at those companies.”
Whether large or small, the partnering capability of those companies-the sense of how Bayer will be able to work with the respective teams to bring ideas forward-is part of the due diligence conducted prior to investing, according to Garth. “Culture is critical,” he says. “We have a lot of experience in collaborating. When you speak to folks outside of Bayer, we’re recognized as a company that has a track record of strong partnerships. And it’s part of the due diligence we do before we decide whether we can build one of these strong partnerships.”
The concept of patient centricity and being what Guth refers to as “customer obsessed” is something the executive has been passionate about for a while. But he says it was his experience with his father’s passing from lung cancer more than two years ago that “struck a greater chord” with him. “Going through that experience of loss-not as a pharmaceutical executive, but as a son, as a family-reinforced the necessity to put emphasis on [patient centricity],” he says.
Guth believes the language that the pharma industry uses is difficult “for patients to really understand what it is that we talk about and to translate that into words that make sense.” He adds: “It’s an area that matters to me and something that I believe is important in our corporate strategy.”
Bayer’s Patient Insights and Engagement (PIE) network helps Guth channel his patient-centric vision; he is one of the executive sponsors of the work that comes out of the network. PIE is a group of people embedded across
the different functional areas of Bayer, including but not limited to research and development, medical affairs, market access, and commercial. “In many ways, [PIE] is the voice of patients in what we do in those functional areas,” says Guth.
PIE is built on four pillars: listening, understanding, acting, and responding. The network has established a patient advocacy and advisory council, which integrates patients into Bayer’s development process. They physically sit down with researchers to ensure that their point of views and relevant endpoints are incorporated into Bayer clinical trials. “Overall, we’re seeing a significantly greater focus and the importance of patient-reported outcomes in the clinical trial work that we do,” says Guth.
In a similar effort, Bayer recently established a national joint partnership with the National Kidney Foundation to build the first patient network in chronic kidney disease. The objective is to collect patient data to better design patient educational resources and more targeted patient-centered trials.
Another example is Bayer’s significant investment in precision oncology, particularly around patient education and activation. Guth says Bayer invested $70 million alone in 2019 in activities that focus on driving the uptake of genomic testing in cancer. Bayer’s Test Your Cancer campaign, launched in May, features patient stories and educational materials, including a brochure, patient-doctor discussion guide, and fact sheet describing what occurs during a genomic cancer test.
Bayer also holds sessions each quarter where teams engage one-on-one with patients. “It’s amazing how much I learn every time I sit down with patients,” says Guth.
He recounts one particular example: a patient named Keith, who had late-stage salivary gland cancer, and was basically told by his physician that he had three weeks to live. Keith was then initiated on Bayer’s Vitrakvi therapy, which is indicated for the treatment of adult and pediatric patients with solid tumors that have a neurotrophic receptor tyrosine kinase (NTRK) gene fusion. “This was three years ago, and he described how the tumors melted away and how he knew when he went for his first scan after the therapy had been initiated that it would look so much better because he could feel the tumor mass shrinking,” says Guth. “It’s those conversations that ground us in what it is that we do.”
Guth believes that it’s not only the scientific breakthroughs that will improve patient health and outcomes, but also technological innovations. “I honestly believe that AI has tremendous value in patient conversations, particularly in identifying the right medicine at the right time and, frankly, much faster to the appropriate patient,” says Guth. “In the US, postmortem research is suggesting that about 10% of all patient deaths are attributable to a late or wrong diagnosis. That’s a massive problem.”
Guth contends that the purpose of deep learning technologies and AI at large is to help physicians diagnose significantly earlier and, at times, more appropriately, with initiation of the right treatment. He noted the work Bayer is doing in chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) and building an algorithm deploying deep learning technologies to help physicians identify this disease earlier. In late 2018, FDA granted breakthrough device designation to the AI software for CTEPH pattern recognition, which Bayer is currently developing jointly with MSD (the trade name for Merck & Co. outside of the US and Canada). CTEPH affects an estimated eight to 40 people per million globally, and is difficult to diagnose because it’s rare. Its symptoms are similar to those of other lung diseases and physicians may not always recognize it. As such, radiologists usually have the first opportunity to identify CTEPH in patients; therefore, it is vital that they recognize CTEPH indicators on images.
“In our mind, we are well-positioned to do that successfully because we understand the biology and are also growth market leaders in diagnostic imaging in radiology, in contrast agents specifically, and in fluid delivery systems and technology in the radiology space,” says Guth. “We have access to aid with expertise in imaging and access to a vast amount of images. So we’re able to construct training data sets.”
Having accomplished a great deal in his first year leading Bayer’s pharmaceutical business in the Americas region, Guth has additional goals for the future. They include:
Guth joined Bayer through its acquisition of Schering AG in 2006, where, at the time, he was head of strategy in business development and pricing for Schering in Europe. After the acquisition, Guth was appointed CEO of Bayer Turk, Istanbul.
“At that time, I was fortunate to not only spearhead the pharmaceutical business, but was also given the opportunity to lead Bayer’s business at large and across both the health and nutrition space, as the most senior Bayer representative in Turkey,” he says. “That was a tremendous opportunity. It helped me understand relatively quickly the breadth of Bayer and the incredible work we were doing, both in pharmaceuticals but also outside of pharmaceuticals.”
Guth believes these growth opportunities reinforced two core approaches that remain critically important to him as a leader today-the willingness to listen and learn and to not fall into the trap of judging too quickly. “As I go back to that period, it was when we laid the foundation for what the company is today,” says Guth. “If you look at simply, for example, the sheer size of our company today and the size at that time, it’s vastly different. We’ve grown considerably, both culturally and in terms of our portfolio.”
Another leadership model that Guth follows is that experiences shape a person’s beliefs, which drive behaviors
and helps people achieve results. “We may wonder why we’re not creating different results, but it may be because we need to create new experiences that allow for new beliefs,” he notes.
To that end, in the area of culture, Guth says he tries to create different experiences within his team that support a change in beliefs and behavior toward results. “I put a lot of my emphasis over the last 12 months on building a culture that supports the drive and the results we want to see,” he says.
Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at email@example.com