UK leaders: Takeda’s Jon Neal

In the first of a new series where we talk to GMs of UK pharma divisions, managing director for Takeda UK & Ireland, Jon Neal, tells us about the Shire acquisition, rare diseases, and access challenges in the region.

How did you get into the UK & Ireland managing director role?

I joined Takeda 10 years ago as their marketing director for the UK. I went on to have three different business unit head roles, and I was behind the launch of Entyvio in the country. After that I took over the oncology division and led the launches of cancer drugs.

I took over the managing directing role in April 2018, just before we announced the acquisition of Shire. I’ve since been running the integration of the two companies in the UK, while trying to maintain the momentum in both organisations’ businesses and pull them together into a new Takeda in the UK and Ireland.

Did you have any particular goals when you came into the role, and have they changed in light of the Shire acquisition?

I took over the managing director role when Takeda was doing well in terms of results and, after previously being a company where each country ran fairly independently, was rolling out more global systems and processes. My main goal was to maintain that momentum and take us to that next level – from a small-to-medium company to a medium-large organisation.

“There are thriving ecosystems here, and it’s really about getting alignment with other stakeholders on what the challenges are, then trying to work collaboratively, in a very open and transparent way”

That got turned on its head three months into my tenure when the company announced that it was going to acquire Shire. The acquisition essentially doubles our scale and complexity and makes us the ninth biggest pharma company in the world – and the 11th biggest company in the UK market. It has transformed our profile and the range of diseases that we make medicines for; we’re now present in neuroscience and rare diseases, for example.

Since then I’ve aimed to complete the integration as effectively and rapidly as possible while maintaining our culture and values – such as our focus on the patient, and on how we build trust with external stakeholders. Our ethos is that if you have a patient focus, develop trust and build your reputation, ultimately it will lead to sustainable growth for your company, and you’ll also help the sustainability of the health systems that we all rely on.

That culture was non-negotiable during the integration, so a large part of my job has been making sure that it is embedded in the UK – as the UK entity is perceived within Takeda as being at the forefront of those values – whilst maintaining our external momentum. Often when companies go through integrations everybody starts to look inwards, because they’re worried about what new processes and structures they’re going to have, and I really wanted to avoid that.

Rare diseases can be quite different from other therapy areas – how have you had to adapt to that after acquiring Shire?

I’m a big believer that the more disease areas you work in the easier it is to pick up the next one, a bit like languages. That diversity is something that we’re really embracing.

It has been fascinating for me over the last 12 months to learn about conditions like Hunter syndrome, Gaucher’s disease, and short bowel syndrome – and that’s even before we started looking at the pipelines. I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of the clinicians, patient groups and external stakeholders involved in these diseases – I’ve focused on meeting a lot of them personally, but also tying myself and the members of our leadership team into those areas so that we can get up to speed as quickly as possible. Shire had a really strong focus on policy work, and that’s something we want to continue.

For example, one of the rare disease spaces we work in is immunoglobulin products. There’s a shortage of plasma-derived therapies in the area, but a surge in the demand for them globally. Plasma collection was stopped in the UK as a precautionary measure many years ago, and we’re actively engaging with government to see if we can develop a more sustainable supply chain for these products.

What are some of the biggest challenges in rare diseases you’re hoping to tackle?

In many rare diseases there are two big issues: getting to a diagnosis and being able to get appropriate treatment. Treatment is not just medicine. Treatment could be multi-dimensional.

We’re currently working with EURORDIS – The Voice of Rare Disease Patients in Europe – and Microsoft to see how we can embrace the use of technology to help speed up diagnosis for some rare diseases. Diagnosis can sometimes take over ten years, because GPs  may only see one of these cases in their entire career, and will therefore never be able to spot the patterns that would flag a patient. With machine learning, though, we can potentially spot those patterns in patients’ symptomatology and intelligently flag people that should be screened. We have a couple of pilots in that area ongoing in the UK at the moment, looking at cohorts of data with specific hospitals.

There are great opportunities to collaborate with the NHS here to help improve diagnostics and make sure we can track the value of our medicines and the outcomes for patients. I think that’s an area where we will see huge developments over the next few years.

Would you say you’re generally quite positive about the future of the UK environment?

I think the biggest challenge we face is in the access arena and making sure that the UK continues to be a country that gets the most innovative medicines to patients as soon as possible. That’s an ongoing challenge. Organisations like NICE have a great international reputation, and things like the Institute’s method review over the next 12 months are crucial to making sure it continues to evolve.

One of the areas we really need to focus on is getting innovative medicines to patients in an appropriate and sustainable way for the NHS to move forward. At the moment there are a huge number of medicines that have life-changing potential coming through the pipeline, and we’ve got to make sure we can find ways of getting them to patients.

Things like interim access are really important for that. We’ve had interim access in oncology in the UK for a number of years through the Cancer Drugs Fund, but there are other diseases that have an equally devastating impact on patients’ lives that lack a way of getting access to medicines while the evidence base is growing. We need to find a way of doing that. The Conservative Party manifesto promised a move away from the Cancer Drugs Fund towards an ‘Innovative Medicine Fund’. I think that’s something Takeda and a lot of other companies would welcome.

I think the UK has always had an incredibly collaborative system. I’ve always felt that the power of patient groups in the UK is probably second to none in terms of their sophistication and their influence, and the difference they’ve made to patients’ lives. Meanwhile, if the NHS sees your intentions as pure you can collaborate very well with them.

In the UK we’ve got some of the world’s best senior leaders, some of the most influential patient groups, and some of the best universities. There are thriving ecosystems here, but it’s really about finding areas of unmet need and getting alignment with other stakeholders on what the challenges are, then trying to work collaboratively, in a very open and transparent way, so that we all know what everybody’s intentions are. You need to make sure that you’re listening very hard to those you collaborate with so you can find out what the challenges are and help them with solutions.

What are your ambitions for the combined company over the next few years?

We have an aspiration to be a leading company within the specialty and rare disease context. We want to work collaboratively with the health system to not just ensure rapid and broad access to medicines but also to help transform outcomes. When we were a medium-sized company we had a lot of agility, and we really want to retain that now that we’re a bigger organisation.

I’d like to see Takeda UK and Ireland break into the top 10 companies in the region over the next few years, and also for us to be recognised within Takeda itself as one of the most forward thinking and innovative subsidiaries – one that not only gets good business results but also is regarded externally and internally as highly innovative.