A history of… Novo Nordisk

Hannah Blake


This month on pharmaphorum, we explore the history of Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk, which has been changing and advancing the diabetes treatment environment for 90 years.

Today, there are over 366 million people living around the world with diabetes. Novo Nordisk prides itself on being a leader in the world of insulin and diabetes. The company is determined to change the so-called “rule of halves”, which suggests that “only about half of [diabetes patients] have been diagnosed and only half of those diagnosed receive professional care”.1

As you will be able to tell from this exploration of the company’s history, many of the products it has launched over the years are firsts, proving Novo Nordisk’s determination: first product to be fermented, first modern insulin, first prefilled pen…and that’s just to name a few.

Novo Nordisk today employs approximately 35,000 people globally – approximately 18% work within research and development, 27% in production, 37% in international sales and marketing and 18% in administration. While it has remained headquartered in Denmark, Novo Nordisk has production facilities in seven countries and offices in 75 different countries. As of the fourth quarter of 2009, Novo Nordisk’s products were marketed in 179 countries around the world. It is the largest publicly traded company in the Nordic countries, as measured by market capitalisation.


“Novo Nordisk’s history spans back to the 1920s, when the company began as two separate diabetes-focused entities…”


Novo Nordisk’s history spans back to the 1920s, when the company began as two separate diabetes-focused entities: Nordisk Insulinlaboratorium and Novo Therapeutisk Laboratorium. But the history could have been written completely differently to the way it turned out…

The beginning

Nordisk Insulinlaboratorium was founded in 1923, by Danish couple August and Marie Krogh. August Krogh was a professor at the University of Copenhagen and had been invited to the US by researchers at Yale University to lecture on his medical research, after receiving the Novel Prize for physiology in 1920.

Throughout their tour of the US, August and Marie came across many reports of people with diabetes being treated with insulin. Insulin was a hormone discovered in 1921 by two Canadian researchers, Banting and Best. Marie, as a doctor, was interested in the treatment as she herself had type 2 diabetes. Returning from their trip in the US with permission to produce insulin in the Nordic countries, August and Marie Krogh along with Dr Hans Christian Hagedorn, founded Nordisk Insulinlaboratorium. The pharmacist August Kongsted, owner of Leo Pharmaceuticals, provided the financial support that made it possible to establish the company.

In the same year as it was founded, the company produced the first insulin product in Scandinavia: Insulin Leo. The name was not a coincidence. In return for financial backing, August Kongsted asked for Nordisk’s first insulin product to be named after his company. The company hired Harald Pedersen to build the machines needed for insulin production.

Harald’s brother, Thorvald Pedersen, was also hired by Nordisk to analyse the chemical processes involved in insulin production. However, the brothers did not work at Nordisk for very long. They decided to manufacture insulin themselves, succeeding by producing a stable liquid insulin product that they named Insulin Novo. The brothers felt they could not cope with the marketing themselves so contacted their former employer to discuss a deal. But Krogh and Hagedorn turned the offer down and the brothers decided to do it alone. And that is how Novo Therapeutisk Laboratorium was founded, on the 16th February 1925.

Where did Nordisk go from there?

In 1926, the company established the Nordisk Insulin Foundation, which aimed to support physiological and endocrinological research and people with diabetes in Scandinavia.

Nordisk also founded the Steno Memorial Hospital, in the year 1932. In 1946, Nordisk developed neutral insulin with prolonged action, with a brand name of isophane insulin (Neutral Protamine Hagedorn, NPH).

In the 70s, Novo began to market Nanormon growth hormone, for the treatment of growth hormone insufficiency. The product was made by extracting growth hormone from human pituitary glands. It’s estimated that one out of every 3000 to 4000 children in the US are affected by growth hormone deficiency.2

What about Novo?

While Nordisk was building its portfolio of insulin products, the Pederson brothers began to build up their company: Novo Therapeutisk Laboratorium. The year the company was established, in 1925, the brothers went on to market two products, Insulin Novo and the Novo Syringe. Novo then went on to launch its first product manufactured through fermentation, which was called Penicillin Novo.

In 1938, Novo founded the Hvidovre Diabetes Sanatorium, after buying the Hvidovre stately home (which began as the home of Denmark’s King Hans). According to the Hividovre Group, the idea behind the Sanatorium was that “people with diabetes would stay there while learning how to live with their disease about its treatment with insulin – in other words, self-care”.3

The 1950s signified a good year for Novo. In 1951, Novo established the Novo Foundation, which is a non-for-profit organisation that aims to support scientific, social and humanitatian causes and also has an objective to provide the best possible protection for the company. Then, a few years later in 1953, Novo launched a long-acting insulin-zinc suspension called Lente. For a period of time, the Lente products covered up to a third of the world’s insulin consumption.


“In 1951, Novo established the Novo Foundation, which is a non-for-profit organisation that aims to support scientific, social and humanitatian causes…”


In 1973, Novo introduced Monocomponent (MC) insulin. This was a step forward for Novo because it was the purest insulin available at the time.

The 70s also were the decade in which Novo’s shares were quoted on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange. The company was doing so well that just seven years later, it became the first Scandinavian company to be quoted on the famous New York Stock Exchange.

By the 80s, Novo launched Human Monocomponent insulin. The difference between this and its previously launched Monocomponent insulin is that the new version was the world’s first insulin preparation identical to human insulin. The extraction process this time was from the pancreases of pigs and then converted to human insulin. Novo’s presentation of the world’s first human insulin in 1982 was a big event.

In 1984, Novo Nordisk began its operations in Canada, through a joint venture (JV) with Connaught Laboratories. The JV aimed to market human insulin Canada. This partnership went on for ten years, until the Canadian entity was formalised as Novo Nordisk Canada Inc.4

When did Novo and Nordisk merge?

As the two pharmaceutical companies operated within a few kilometres of each other, pursuing the same markets, researchers and scientific personnel, rumours began to start in the 80s about a possible merger.

While there were personal issues involved, a merger had obvious advantages to both companies. According to the Novo Nordisk Foundation, “a merged company was also clearly expected to be able to generate greater profit and thus be able to increase the grants for health research, and this assumption turned out to be very true.”5

It was in the late 1980s, specifically 1989, when Novo and Nordisk officially merged. But first, the Nordisk Insulinlaboratorium, the Nordisk Insulin Foundation and the Novo Foundation merged to become the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The aim of this merger was to provide a stable basis for the Novo Group companies’ operations and to also support scientific causes. Then, Novo Group joined the merger and the company’s well-known name of today, Novo Nordisk, was established. Novo Nordisk was immediately known as the world’s leading producer of insulin.


“In 1991, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and its 200 member associations launched World Diabetes Day…”


In the same year, the newly founded company marketed the world’s first prefilled disposable insulin syringe: NovoLet.

In 1991, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and its 200 member associations launched World Diabetes Day, on November 14th each year, to raise further awareness of diabetes around the world. Novo Nordisk has been involved in this initiative for a long time. The 2013 theme is “Education and Prevention”.6

In 1992, the Steno Memorial Hospital and the Hvidovre Hospital merged to form the Steno Diabetes Center. Its logo, of six turquoise balls, represents the “many balls that a person with diabetes must juggle in order to remain in healthy balance…The colour blue was chosen as it is used by Novo Nordisk to represent business partnerships.”7

Novo Nordisk believes that “a healthy economy, environment and society is fundamental to long-term business success”. In accordance with this statement, the company published its first environmental report in 1994. It was the first company in Denmark and one of the first in the world to do so. Today, Novo Nordisk reports on its business performance in one document, the Annual Report.

The year of 1996 saw the launch of NovoSeven, for the treatment of haemophilia patients with inhibitor reaction. Two years later, Novo Nordisk introduced the first low-dose continuous combined oral HRT for postmenopausal women. This was called Activelle, or Activella in the United States. The same year, a new oral treatment for type 2 diabetes, NovoNorm, was launched in the US and also in a number of European countries.

In 2001, Novo Nordisk established the World Diabetes Foundation with the “purpose of improving diabetes care in developing countries”. A year later, in 2002, the company signed the United Nations Global Compact, which is a platform for “promoting good corporate principles and learning experiences in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption”. Diabetes is the only other disease alongside HIV / AIDS to have a commitment to combat at a UN level.8

The world’s first prefilled growth hormone pen was launched in 2003 and was called Norditropin NordiFlex. In 2004, Levemir is launched, which is long-acting modern insulin.


“Novo Nordisk was the 10th company in the world to join the WWF Climate Savers initiative…”


The Novo Nordisk Haemophilia Foundation was set up in 2005 in response to the significant need to improve haemophilia treatment in the developing world, underlining the company’s social responsibility within haemophilia care. In 2006, Novo Nordisk signed an agreement with the World Wide Fund (WWF) that committed the company to reduce its carbon emission by 10% by 2014 compared with 2004. Novo Nordisk was the 10th company in the world to join the WWF Climate Savers initiative, behind sportswear company Nike and manufacturer Tetra Pak.

“Through Novo Nordisk’s commitment to the Triple Bottom Line we are determined to minimise the impact of our activities on the global, regional and local environment. The partnership with WWF plays a significant part in helping us achieve this.”

Lise Kingo, Executive Vice-President and Chief of Staff at Novo Nordisk.9

Since then, the Coca Cola Company, pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johsnon and Hewlett Packard have all joined the initiative.

In 2010, Novo Nordisk launched NovoPen Echo, a new insulin pen that was developed especially for children. Initially launched in Denmark, the pen includes a memory function and half-unit dosing increments.

Novo Nordisk today

Today, in 2013, Novo Nordisk continues to advance key treatments in four core areas:

• Diabetes care

• Haemostatis management

• Growth hormone therapy

• Hormone replacement therapy

The company has a two-tier management structure consisting of the Board of Directors and Executive Management. The current Chairman of the Board is Sten Scheibye, while the current CEO and President is Lars Rebien Sørensen.

For the fourth quarter of 2012, Novo Nordisk announced a sales growth of 18%, attributed largely by type 1 and type 2 diabetes drugs Victoza, NovoRapid and Levemir. Overall, net profit increased by 25% to DKK 21.4 billion.

Also in 2012, the company reached its four long-term financial targets. Consequently, two of the four targets have been increased. For 2013, sales growth measured in local currencies is expected to be 8–11%, and operating profit growth measured in local currencies is expected to be around 10%.


“Social media is reshaping the way Novo Nordisk communicates both inside and out…”


Social media is reshaping the way Novo Nordisk communicates both inside and out, according to its website. In 2011, the company launched an online resource for US diabetes patients called Cornerstones4Care website, which marked the start of Novo Nordisk’s online engagement.  Since then, the company has also become active on Twitter and Facebook.   Novo Nordisk’s most global Twitter profile is @novonordisktbl, which it describes as “the official Novo Nordisk voice tweeting about Corporate Sustainability”. Take a look at Daniel Ghinn’s review of pharmaceutical companies’ use of Twitter for more information on the level of engagement Novo Nordisk has reached so far.

And if you’re wondering where the Novo Nordisk logo came from, you may be interested to know it has been the company’s logo since 1926 and is of the Apis Bull. The Apis Bull was one of Ancient Egypt’s sacred animals and was worshipped as the incarnation of Ptah, creator of the universe. According to the company, the logo is a stylised reproduction of an Egyption statuette dating from circa 664–323 BC and it represents: “the eternal dualities of life, day and night, life and death”.10

Novo Nordisk in the future

The company currently has a strong R&amp,D pipeline, consisting of 14 compounds in phase 1 development, four compounds in phase 2 clinical trials, four compounds in phase 3 and four compounds that have already been filed for registration.

To sum up, in 1923, Novo Nordisk’s Danish founders began “a journey to change diabetes”. The company today consists of “thousands of employees across the world with the passion, the skills and the commitment to continue this journey to prevent, treat and ultimately cure diabetes.”


1. http://www.novonordisk.com/about_us/changing-diabetes/default.asp

2. http://www.healthygrowth.com/ght.aspx

3. http://www.hvidoeregroup.org/public_html/history.html

4. http://www.stacommunications.com/journals/cpm/2012/01-February/01CPM_008.pdf

5. http://www.novonordiskfonden.dk/en/content/history-novo-nordisk-foundation

6. http://www.idf.org/worlddiabetesday/about

7. http://www.stenodiabetescenter.com/documents/article_page/document/History.asp

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novo_Nordisk

9. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/how_we_work/businesses/climate/climate_savers/partner_companies/novo_nordisk/

10. http://www.novonordisk.com/about_us/our_logo/our_logo.asp

Previous ‘A history of…’ articles include:

A history of AstraZeneca

A history of GSK

A history of Sanofi

The next ‘A history of…’ article will be published on the 28th March.


About the author:

Hannah joined pharmaphorum in early 2012, after graduating with a degree in Magazine Journalism &amp, Feature Writing in 2011, and leads our news coverage, in addition to liaising with new and existing feature authors. With over three years’ experience working within the journalism industry alongside university, Hannah has written for a number of different print and online publications, within the women’s lifestyle, travel and celebrity sectors. Now focussed on the pharma sector with her role at pharmaphorum, Hannah is embracing the challenges of working within a fast growing media organisation in this rapidly changing industry sector.

For any queries or contribution suggestions, please contact her here or via Twitter @Hannah_Blake2.

What do you think the future looks like for diabetes leader Novo Nordisk?