LEO Pharma’s new R&D lead on driving agility in drug development

After 27 years at Bayer, Jörg Möller has moved to LEO Pharma as the company’s EVP, global research and development. We spoke to him about the lessons he’s taking from his prior jobs into the new role and what it means to be an R&D leader in the modern industry.

As global head of research and development at Bayer, Jörg Möller implemented a strategy that focused on external innovation, increasing efficiencies and reducing costs that could be reinvested into R&D – and these are changes he now wants to bring to dermatology specialists LEO Pharma.

Möller says he was attracted to LEO by the company’s aim to take a patient-centric approach to R&D, where every idea is looped back to the question of what it means for patients.

“Innovation is ultimately not defined by us – it’s defined by the physicians that prescribe our products, and experienced by the patients who use them,” he says.

“It’s important to imagine not only how we treat patients today, but also what the standard of care will be 10 years down the road. Then we can consider what these patients really need. What is the disease condition? Is it a debilitating disease? Is it a disease that shortens people’s life expectancy? Is it a disease that has a high symptomatic disease burden, but is otherwise more of a nuisance?

“All these questions need to be asked right at the beginning of a new R&D project.”

It’s an interesting time for anyone to start a new job in pharma, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and lockdowns in place worldwide – but leaving aside the pandemic, Möller believes this is also one of the most exciting points in pharma’s history.

“Over the last 10-15 years we’ve seen a vast improvement in our understanding of disease processes and the pathophysiology of biologics, whilst also seeing huge advances in digital technologies. In a way the two cross-fertilise each other, and I believe that over the next 10 years, we will see a revolution in the way R&D is conducted that will allow new and better therapies to reach patients much quicker.

“That will impact the whole value chain. It starts with how we design innovative molecules using artificial intelligence. It continues with the way we run clinical studies using digital capabilities, and how we can use technologies to better identify patients, and find the right treatment for the right person.

“All of this is coming together right now – and in my view, having been in the industry for close to three decades, there’s never been a more exciting time to be in pharma.”

Focused innovation

Möller believes a company the size of LEO also needs to be focused on specific technology platforms that they believe can really make a difference.

“It wouldn’t make sense for us to invest in 30 different platforms, because that would only dilute our efforts,” he says, noting digital visual detection technology as an example of an opportunity particularly relevant for skin diseases.

“One of my goals is to work with the R&D and leadership teams at LEO to think about the specific technology platforms that allow us to leverage our existing expertise and competencies, and that we believe will play an important role in the future of the industry, then focus the company on those.”

To identify promising new platforms, Möller says he would like to see every employee at LEO also being a scout that always keeps an eye on new developments in their field.

“We also have Science and Innovation Hubs in Boston, Tokyo, and China, with satellites in some of the leading tech hubs around the world, which can pick up on new developments fairly quickly and, ideally, become the partner of choice for innovative companies that are interested in working with pharma.”

Pharma’s past penchant for siloing has often meant R&D innovations are applied in an ad-hoc way, and in his prior roles and now at LEO, Möller has sought to overcome this by driving home the point that working in the pharmaceutical industry is a team sport.

“It requires lots of discipline and lots of competency to work together, and it doesn’t stop at R&D – it needs to involve the whole organisation,” he says. “We need to put enterprise thinking at the forefront of our minds and consider what makes the most sense for the organisation as a whole rather than just the function we’re working for.”

Efficiency in R&D

As with Bayer, Möller says he wants to build more agility and efficiency into R&D at LEO, working with regulators not only to make the experience of participating in a clinical study more welcoming for patients, but also to accelerate the entire process.

In his previous role, part of this involved driving the company to consistently get data from a clinical study within four weeks of the trial concluding – and to go from receiving that data to submitting it within four months.

“Initially, as you might imagine, that goal was met with a lot of resistance, with people saying it couldn’t be done,” he says. “Of course, it didn’t happen overnight – it actually took a number of years – but eventually we were able to achieve it.”

And as with his focus on innovation, he says that managing this involved engaging the entire organisation.

“If you want to achieve ambitious goals, you need to take a blank-slate approach, starting from the very beginning of the overall process; not just optimising what you’re already doing.

“That’s an approach I also intend to bring to LEO.”

Of course, COVID-19 has already driven more agile transformation in pharma than anyone could have predicted a year ago.

“There’s a joke that’s been going around the industry for the past few months: Who has transformed the digitalisation of your company – A) the CEO, B) the CIO, or C) COVID-19? I think all of us would assign it to COVID-19.

“A year ago the entire industry was faced with the situation of patients becoming reluctant to go into hospitals for a clinical trial visit while hospitals had much lower capacity to run trials. It forced everyone to quickly roll out innovative ways of conducting studies.”

For LEO this involved innovations like using sensor technology to obtain data from patients 24/7, or shipping study medication directly to patients.

“These are all things we were already working with, but the pandemic has forced us to roll out these technologies much more widely than we would have otherwise dared to.

“That has been a very important learning that has accelerated our understanding of so many technologies.”

As Möller points out, this is, in many ways, a glimpse of how R&D will continue to develop from here on out.

“Having discussed this with colleagues across the industry, I can tell you that the feedback from patients has been very positive across the board,” he says. “Of course, use of technology will always depend on factors such as the specific indication or drug we are researching, but we can all see that this is a much more efficient way of working that massively reduces the burden on patients.”

About the interviewee

Dr Jörg Möller is LEO Pharma’s executive vice president, global research & development​. In his previous roles he has led the entire R&D value chain from target and drug discovery through clinical development, life-cycle-management and regulatory approvals in multiple therapeutic areas, including dermatology and immunology and a variety of technology platforms like biologics and cell & gene therapies​. He has joined from Bayer Pharma, where he was EVP head of R&D and a member of the Bayer Pharma Executive Committee​.

About the author


George Underwood is a senior member of the pharmaphorum editorial team, having previously worked at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University and current specialisms that include R&D, digital and M&A.

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