Read the Conversation

EF: The last time we spoke in March 2020, you were recently appointed, and your first assignment was to keep the existing operation going and build a team to ensure continuity and growth. How do you assess your progress, and has your mission evolved?

OLA: The pandemic shifted everything. We discovered a whole new set of features that we never thought we would be capable of finding. Face-to-face interaction with stakeholders was the basis of our interactions, and at the moment, it was no longer possible to perform them from one day to another. The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation in the pharma industry by five years: we are now where we planned to be in 2027, which brings pros and cons. Enforced by circumstances, today, although we have many tools, we need to invest time for people to evolve. Additional complexity brought challenging times for us, our team members, and the entire organization.  

We created several wellness programs, for instance, UCB Care for employees, offering live streaming sessions of home exercise programs, which helps to counteract pressure, isolation, and fear that we knew our people were facing at the moment. Our priority was to keep the team together and safe. At the moment, isolation and uncertainty made it very hard times for everyone. As a company, we never stopped working during the pandemic, using four pillars to continue:  

  1. To ensure continuity of supply to patients, making sure the operations kept going.
  1. The well-being of our colleagues,
  1. To contribute and collaborate with the authorities,
  1. To keep the economy going by supporting partners, customers, and team members.  

We even made some payments in advance to some of our vendors to help them to survive during tough times. For example, vendors related to the organization of congresses in reason that they were not able to work at that time. Fortunately, we never had to dismiss any direct employee nor lose an employee due to COVID-19, although, sadly, some of our employees lost close relatives.

Despite the pandemic, UCB kept planning for the future. In this sense, we acquired Zogenix in 2021, and after such integration, we have launched abroad one of its legacy assets' products for Dravet Syndrome. It is an exciting time; the pandemic accelerated digital business transformation, the company pipeline, and our ambition to expand our footprint in rare diseases.

EF: How do you assess post-pandemic cooperation; how do you collaborate with different stakeholders in the sector or beyond, and what are you achieving?

OLA: Collaboration is crucial to understand the government's many initiatives. We will continue to explore several ways to interact and build bridges in order to achieve collaboration with the government. Collaboration is key among all stakeholders; on the one hand, collaboration with the government and, on the other hand, increasing partnerships with other sectors as well. Partnerships between pharmaceutical companies exist; for instance, we have partnered with other companies to commercialize some of our products. We also have a partnership with the AMENA Association to collaborate on a “better understanding of patients' needs” in order to overcome challenges. Furthermore, in 2017, we started a program on patient liaisons, where healthcare professionals interact with the patients talking specifically about the psycho-social aspects of their disease. Epilepsy, for example, is a very stigmatized disease worldwide, and in Mexico, such disease burden is heavy.  

We have learned a lot from our patients. Now, we have a better understanding of the problems a patient is facing, such as stigma, isolation, and psychological and economic pressures. In this matter, we partner with the University of the Incarnate Word in Texas, creating a certified course named "Caring the Care Giver." We offer this course to trainers for Patient Associations, primary and professional Caregivers, in addition to family members, to help them to understand burnout and how to manage burnout reason that being a caregiver is key to having a kind journey through the disease. Since its launch, about +5,000 patients and their families have benefited from it.

We also have partnered with Cisco Network Academy®, that is an ever-expanding community that provides digital and technical skills to bring opportunity to the promise of education, all aligned with UCB´s principle to contribute to access, sustainability, and fight against stigmas around patients living with Epilepsy. Cisco Networking Academy is recognized for creating alternate ways of education programs that have high-value and open options for people in vulnerable situations. As a result of this partnership with Cisco, we built an Academy, “UCB CONECTA,” to be part of our social responsibility initiatives translated into education for patients living with epilepsy.  UCB has reactivated this enormous project even though there was a brief break for a couple of years due to the pandemic. In Mexico, it is necessary to develop certified IT competencies and skills. So, this training opens the potential for new opportunities for those who graduate from Cisco Networking Academy®. UCB Mexico will also offer access to our Academy, “UCB CONECTA,” through Patient Associations so people with epilepsy can be certified and get access to this Cisco platform, where new opportunities will be provided for them. In this sense, in collaboration with Cisco and Patient Associations, UCB Mexico would be able to create a pipeline of IT and cybersecurity talented resources ready to innovate and shape the future.

EF: You raise awareness and advance the industry through collaboration, but UCB's innovation comes from Belgium. Is it possible for Mexico to become an innovation hub at a Latin American level?

OLA: Yes, I do, but certain requirements are necessary to be fulfilled. Till 2008, international companies had to have a manufacturing site in Mexico to hold a Marketing Authorization. The pharmaceutical industry has now shifted to a more competitive landscape. Many companies have installed manufacturing sites in our country to supply global demand. In the era of biologics, UCB has three strategic research centers (Belgium, U.K. & U.S.), three research satellites, four manufacturing sites, and seven development sites. These are spread globally - across six countries and employ over 1,700 researchers.1   

Diversification of clinical trials is critical, and UCB is working to increase the representation and inclusion of underrepresented patient populations through digital and data-driven approaches as well as connecting directly to patient communities.2 Mexico is primed to become a prominent hub for innovation in clinical studies. With its robust healthcare infrastructure, streamlined regulatory processes, cost-effective research environment, and diverse patient population, Mexico offers an ideal landscape for conducting cutting-edge trials. By capitalizing on these advantages, we can foster collaboration between academia, industry, and healthcare providers, leading to breakthrough discoveries and improved patient outcomes. Together, let us seize this opportunity to drive innovation and transform the landscape of healthcare in Mexico and beyond.

EF: What would be your three base pillars if you had to create a "Road Map to the Future" for the healthcare industry?

OLA: Technology must be a pillar; it has evolved enormously in recent years, and it will continue to develop further. Interconnection between wearables will progress in the future, and all the data collected from wearable devices will help the healthcare system in prevention, compliance, and medication follow-up. Wearables are key elements for the future. Even now, there are fantastic wearables in neurology, for example, a cap that, when worn, can detect if a person will have a seizure two minutes in advance, which might not sound as much time in advance, but it is enough time for a person to be prepared for such event.  

My second pillar would be people. New generations must unlearn what they have learned in the past to adopt new concepts and ideas. At the Hasso-Plattner Institute in Germany, a professor in a lecture mentioned that: "The speed of change will never be as slow as today.” This reflects how we see speed because everything is accelerated; today, we will surely be slower than tomorrow. The point is that people need to catch up with the pace of change. The most important capacity for people in the future will be to learn. Many studies on this topic attempt to understand people's ability to learn. There was the misconception that after an individual's late thirties or early forties, it takes much work to catch up and include new concepts and ideas, but recent studies have proven this notion is incorrect. As life expectancy is prolonged (to the high eighties), people need to work more years, and in case they retire from their job, they have to find other activities.  

To succeed, we must keep learning regardless of age and keep learning as a priority. With this mindset, we must master the ability to manage technology and connect technology with our patients and their needs. People's capacity to learn will continue driving innovation.  

My third pillar is data as a key strategic asset that enables us to achieve our patient value ambitions. Our objective is to establish a data-centric culture where data is the responsibility of each one of us through informed decision-making and amplifying value creation through empowerment, collaboration, and sharing throughout the company.

EF: Is there any final message you would like to share?

OLA: Healthcare is evolving by becoming more and more relevant. UCB started as a pharma company, and then it has moved to a higher level of healthcare, and I foresee that we will be in the well-being field - a far wider work area- in the future. We used to focus on treatments and physical symptoms, but now we must include many psychological diseases; well-being covers both departments and integrated care is necessary. My team is looking for hyper-personalization in reason that the future will be all about personalized care. I see that several stakeholders will interact in a person's ecosystem under the same data roof; this last point is the most important. Medicines are one component of well-being; healthcare will evolve to well-being in a more holistic approach.  

Healthcare is changing because patients desire this change. The trend is clear: people are now looking at health holistically, transitioning from simply seeking treatment to playing an active role by staying healthy and in a proactive approach.

June 2023