In the first of George Medicines’ Spotlight series of interviews, Chief Executive Officer, Stefan König, discusses his career, what led him to join George Medicines and how the Company is aiming to address the huge unmet need in hypertension treatment
Can you tell us about your career before joining George Medicines? What motivated and inspired you to work in life sciences?
Coming from a family of scientists, I was the outlier and started my career at a multinational fast-moving consumer goods corporation, after studying business administration. Following this I moved into consumer health and then business development and corporate strategy, before I then became a country and regional leader for large cap pharma organisations. In my last role I was responsible for a global team developing monoclonal antibody drugs and leading their life cycle management and commercialisation, at the same time as leading assets in the earlier development phase.
Back when I started my first job, I knew there were two things that would be important for the later steps of my career and life. One was working in an industry, and with products, I could really identify with. The second was having a positive impact on people who need it most, and I quickly found both of these in medicines and science.
What led you to your role as CEO of George Medicines?
An extensive part of my career working in the pharmaceutical industry took me to emerging countries – I lived for over ten years in South America, Mexico and Brazil, which exposed me to vastly different healthcare systems. I also lived in Central and Eastern Europe, where I saw the different levels of care and the unfulfilled needs facing populations when it came to healthcare.
Whilst I always strived to make a difference with the therapies I was directly working on, I also saw the challenges facing larger pharmaceutical companies when it came to ensuring there was equal and broad access to healthcare.
So, when I came across the opportunity to work at George Medicines – a spin out of The George Institute for Global Health, which is so highly regarded for its world-class research – I could not resist. George Medicines has a very clear mission – to extend and improve the lives of millions of people suffering from the world’s leading causes of death and disability, by creating innovative treatment and making these truly available to everyone. So conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The single-pill combinations of best-in-class treatments that we are developing have the potential to significantly reduce the impact of these non-communicable diseases on patients, families, health systems and economies.
Key to our approach when developing these medicines is that every region is targeted with a tailored strategy to meet its needs. This, I believe, is an unparalleled approach and so important to achieving our mission. It immediately spoke to my heart in terms of being able to contribute to better, brighter and healthier societies all over the world.
George Medicines has a very clear mission – to extend and improve the lives of millions of people suffering from the world’s leading causes of death and disability, by creating innovative treatment and making these truly available to everyone
What experiences from your global pharma days have you brought to George Medicines?
What ultimately is key, as you gain experience in any industry, is a strong network that can open doors. This is particularly useful when it comes to raising money, which is crucial for small organisations that are often limited in resources and staff. Access to a strong network of advisors that can help in specialised areas, without having a full-time employee in all specialised areas, or for specialised projects, is what I am bringing over from my previous roles. If I don’t know enough about a given area, I know where to go to and whom to ask, and I’m not shy about it!
What I learnt from living in different countries and coming to different roles where you don’t have the specialist experience, is that the best way to learn is by ensuring you ask assertive questions. As CEO of George Medicines, I try to facilitate the right dialogue by ensuring we ask these questions and by bringing the right people together. Thankfully at George Medicines we have an exceptional team of people, who are experts in their fields and all focused on one mission. I feel it is important that you give people a sense of ownership and freedom to operate within the project at hand, because that is ultimately what enables and motivates people.
Can you explain the relationship with The George Institute for Global Health and how that benefits George Medicines?
The George Institute for Global Health is the foundation of George Medicines, which is important for a multitude of reasons. It’s truly the reason for us being an organisation because we have exclusive rights to use and commercialise the outcomes of the research that the Institute produces. Often this is early academic research that we then take into the later phases of drug development, and as a smaller entity, George Medicines is able to do so nimbly and efficiently.
It is also foundational because the Institute’s values permeate into George Medicines and our vision and mission very much align – we share a focus on creating better treatments, better care and healthier societies, especially for underserved populations around the world.
What do you see as the biggest challenges to treating noncommunicable diseases?
There is a huge unmet need in this area. Even though there are many obvious treatments available, these aren’t being used adequately, nor adhered to adequately. The patient-physician dialogue, which means the cycle of finding the right drug and dose does simply not happen.
Also, most of the pharmaceutical industry has decided to move out of the non-communicable disease space. Many believe that the problem’s solved, but if you look at the figures from a healthcare system, cost and burden on society perspective, it’s actually quite the opposite. Over half of the patients who suffer from hypertension currently don’t have their disease under control, and that’s creating a huge cost burden for healthcare systems and putting a burden on individuals and their families, particularly those who live in underprivileged conditions. We want to break that cycle, and positively impact this vast patient population.
The Institute’s values permeate into George Medicines and our vision and mission very much align – we share a focus on creating better treatments, better care and healthier societies, especially for underserved populations around the world
What innovations are George Medicines bringing to address these unmet needs?
The innovation that we want to bring forward is based on simplicity. The current system does not identify hypertension as a disease for an individual, and what to do when it comes to the next phase of treatment. For patients suffering from hypertension, the quantity of drugs needed to manage their disease represents a significant pill burden. For any patient having to deal with a multi-drug treatment on a daily basis, this can become really confusing, so simplifying that process can improve adherence, compliance as well as tolerability to treatment by avoiding starting with such high doses. I think that this is where our innovation comes in. By trying to understand where the breakdowns are and then going in with the simplest solutions, which we are doing with our three-in-one, single pill hypertension candidate, GMRx2, as well as with diabetes further down the line. We are combining best-in-class therapies and adding a synergistic and additive factor in a smart way with a targeted solution.
What’s next for George Medicines? Where do you see the company in 5 years?
The first inflection point for George Medicines is coming in hypertension – GMRx2 is currently in a Phase III trial. Our goal is to bring this product to market in the US and Europe, likely with a partner, but also ensuring that this product will be available in regions like Africa and South America.
Another big value inflection point is our diabetes candidate which we have just brought through preclinical proof of concept studies. We are targeting this for first-in-human studies very soon and then based on that we’ll be working on a clear development pathway with Phase III studies planned for 2024.
Beyond this we have multiple products in our broader pipeline, some of which have come through preclinical studies already. Others are currently still ideas that we are exploring, testing in vivo and in vitro. We are currently going through a pipeline prioritisation exercise and once complete, we look forward to sharing more of the next exciting pipeline opportunities that we are working on.
What is the most exciting highlight of your career so far?
Back in Latin America, the company I worked for had a huge diabetes prescription business. However, we realised that we didn’t have any complementary products in our consumer health portfolio to help patients cope with some of the side effects of the disease. So we went back to the drawing board and looked into the challenges that really affect diabetes patients. A lot of it centred around nutrition and fatigue, so we came up with an idea to develop a diabetic multivitamin that was ideal for these patients.
We locally developed the product concept, brought it forward, and this treatment became an OTC drug available for patients. I am very proud to have played a key role in that process, which addressed a clear patient need and very quickly provided an effective solution.