Janssen R&D focus enforced with new managing director

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Stef Heylen is the new Managing Director and COO of Janssen Pharmaceutica (Belgium), since November 2016. After a half year in this position, it is a good time for BioVox to have an interview with him. Heylen discusses the position of the Janssen campus in Belgium in a global context, tells us how Janssen remains at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs and  sheds light on some interesting new, ongoing clinical trials.

The global position of Janssen Pharmaceutica

Heylen: From the five therapeutic areas, Janssen Belgium has world-class expertise in the field of neurosciences, oncology, and infectious diseases. In addition, we have a dedicated research lab studying immunosciences. We’re also the sole site within Janssen focusing on the development of small molecules, which is still more than 50% of the Janssen portfolio. Linked to this, we just got approval to invest about 43 million dollars to bring all the development capabilities for small molecules together in one building in Beerse. The building will open in 2019. The success of the Janssen campus in Belgium is partially thanks to the presence of a unique ecosystem, which is built on a few fundamental pillars:
  • High-level education, thanks to renowned and high-ranking universities.
  • An innovation network through a thriving biotech sector, supported by research centers such as VIB. This network includes university spin-offs built onto very solid biotech companies (a few nice examples are DevGen, Ablynx, and Galapagos).
  • A very good healthcare system that’s largely accessible to everybody.
This ecosystem is a strength that we should foster.

Collaborations are at the heart of Janssen

Heylen: Here in Beerse, we have an incubator where startups can get office and lab space and access to research and funding. The difficulty for many startups is that they might have a great scientific idea, but to transform that idea into a product that can be administered to humans, you need a set of unique capabilities. You can find all those capabilities here on site. We are willing to share our expertise and help make those companies successful. We don’t expect anything in return; we only hope that through close interactions with these companies, Janssen will be the first company they think about when they want to grow or partner. We want to be on their shortlist. We currently have six companies here on site: S-Biomedic, Caelus Health, Octimet Oncology, eTheRNA, Clarity Genomics, and ProteoFormiX.
The vast majority of all science happens outside of your walls, so you need to be able to get a foot in the door.
Not to brag, but I really believe that partnering is in our genes. About 50% of our portfolio comes from early acquisitions and partnering. The vast majority of all science happens outside of your walls, so you need to be able to get a foot in the door. Through our Innovation Centers in Shanghai, London, San Francisco, and Boston, which have brought in more than 250 deals over the last 4 years, we have set up a system that allows us to tap into science wherever it happens, be it in academia or in startups. This is an essential component of our scientific strategy. The goal of the Innovation Centers is to act as one-stop shops for startups. If they want to collaborate with us, they should knock at the (digital) door of one of the Innovation Centers, where our in-house scientists will take a close look at the project. They will quickly evaluate whether it suits one of Janssen’s therapeutic targets. If we want to make a deal, we make sure to work constructively and jointly with the partner.

Always taking research a step further

Heylen: Let me give some examples on how we try to excel in our research and always try to take it a step further. We are currently working on technology to digitally monitor patients in clinical trials using mobile platforms. We start with drug accountability and drug adherence. For instance, when a patient takes a capsule, this is registered on a mobile device. If the patient doesn’t take it, the patient and the investigator get a signal that something is not right. This is how we can drive accountability. We have developed this technology with an external partner, Tata Consulting, who can sell the technology to other companies. We hope this will become a pre-competitive platform. Our R&D is based on truly transformational medical innovation. We are currently testing a compound for Alzheimer’s disease (AD), but not in AD patients. We target healthy subjects who are approximately 60 years old and have no cognitive symptoms yet, but in whom amyloid plaques are building up. This compound hopefully will avoid or delay the onset of AD. This is going to be a huge trial, running over 6 years, with a very significant investment of 800 million dollars. This is one of the projects where we envision intercepting a disease before symptoms occur, an important strategy in targeting unmet medical needs. You might also be interested in “Collaborating for healthier lives”, featuring Tom Aelbrecht

Janssen firmly anchored in Belgium

The Pharmaceutical Group of Johnson & Johnson operates worldwide under the name of Janssen. Janssen Pharmaceutica (Belgium) is one of the most prominent Janssen companies with offices in Beerse (Beerse I and II), Geel, Olen, La Louvière, and Merksem. Janssen Pharmaceutica (Belgium) employs more than 5,000 people, by far the largest number in the global Janssen network of about 40,000 employees. Janssen’s campus in Belgium is unique; they cover all aspects of pharmaceutical drug discovery and development, including early discovery, clinical development, chemical and pharmaceutical production, commercialization, support, and services. Globally, Janssen is a pioneer in five therapeutic areas: neurosciences, oncology, immunology, infectious diseases and vaccines, and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.