After Martine and Jean-Paul Clozel created Actelion with two other founders and grew Actelion into Europe’s biggest biotech, the company and its late-stage pipeline were acquired by Johnson&Johnson in 2017. With Actelion’s discovery- and early-stage R&D assets, the couple formed Idorsia, with the vision to build one of Europe’s leading biopharmaceutical companies
We talked with Martine Clozel about her passion for research, the medical view in science and what aspiring biotech entrepreneurs need.
Martine, is Idorsia the new Actelion?
In part yes, we still do difficult things. That has not changed at all. Our culture and our goals are the same as they were for Actelion: we want to discover innovative new drugs which may have a big impact on patients’ lives. We are very happy to continue our work of discovering drugs. It’s fantastic that we are able to do that. I see lots of enthusiasm in the company. Actelion had become almost a large biopharma, with presence in many countries. Idorsia is based in Allschwil, concentrating on doing R&D efficiently. We are already thinking about the commercial phase, though, and have recently hired a chief commercial officer and opened a first foreign office in Japan.
Are your portfolio decisions purely guided by the science? Or do you also take commercial factors into consideration?
We all know that the medical need in insomnia, lupus or in hypertension is huge. The choice of a new clinical indication depends on the new molecule, its mechanism of action, and where the molecule can have the biggest impact as a new therapy. We are trying to be very pragmatic and follow where the science takes us. In phase II and beyond, when we start to understand more and see that our hypothesis is confirmed in safety and efficacy, we can start to position the drug in terms of market entry and commercial potential.
How is your approach towards licensing in or licensing out projects?
We don’t license in, as we have a lot of fascinating internal prospects. Currently, we have ten compounds in clinical development. Several research projects are progressing towards development. We have activities towards out licensing deals, though – not because the projects are deprioritized but because we have a much smaller organization than before. We have only one third of the clinical development capacity we had in the past and cannot handle everything. We are a small company with a big portfolio.
You are fully focused on your internal projects then? Or do you also pursue external collaborations?
We look for tailor-made solutions. If we see something that can help us, we also like to work with external partners, being it universities, biotechs or others. In fact, many of our projects start with a paper we read or some exciting new data we come across, which we will then further pursue.
On your website you first focus on patients symptoms when describing a disease and only then go to science. How do you make sure you and the Idorsia employees always stay close to patients?
We are very close to the people who are close to the patients, doctors, nurses etc. We listen carefully and really try to understand the patients. We also invite patients. I am a medical doctor, so naturally we have a medical view on everything we do in research. That is one of the characteristics of Idorsia.
Speaking of employees, how easy is it to recruit the right people here?
It’s not easy, but it’s not easy anywhere. I love Pharma. It’s fantastic to be able to help patients, treating thousands of patients. It’s amazing and yet not everybody knows about it. There is a lack of communication on what pharma is about, be it the improvement of life expectancy, the revolutions in oncology, the improvement in quality of life, all that is progress. We need to talk more about the importance of pharma to attract next generations of talent.
It seems that US biotechs are more successful in staying independent. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know if that is true, just look at the recent acquisition of Celgene, Tesaro, Kite and Loxo by BMS, GSK, Gilead and Eli Lilly, respectively. Just to name a few. Currently, biotechs rarely remain independent, also in the US, simply because big companies seminally rely on their discoveries. With Actelion, we had an ambitious, long-term view. It was never our goal to get acquired. Instead, we wanted to create a structure – not only one molecule or one technique – but an organization that is able to discover many drugs. We were ambitious and we were taking risks – and that is relatively rare. Maybe American biotechs come with a little bit more of this ambition, but Europe has some particularities that I think the industry should build upon. Chemistry in Switzerland and Germany is exceptional, for example. But generally, Europe is full of exciting science and great people.
Why is it rewarding for you to work in a startup compared to a big corporation?
A small organization provides more freedom and – more importantly – proximity between facts and risk taking. Our portfolio is small enough for the management to know all the projects. We can be very efficient in making decisions and that is much more difficult in big corporations.
What is your advice on starting a biotech?
Think about surviving and being profitable at the same time. Have both the short and the long-term view, so do not just focus on the next milestone but think big from the beginning. Be pragmatic about your decisions. And especially also, don’t do it alone but with a team.
Speaking of having a partner: You set up both Actelion and Idorsia together with your husband. How do you navigate between lab and dinner table?
My husband and I know each other since a very long time. We share the passion for research and for helping patients. I always appreciated being able to discuss difficulties and also to share the many good moments with Jean-Paul. Of course, we work a lot and are very committed – as is everybody at Idorsia. We try to draw a line between office and home, especially when our children and grandchildren are there. We want to be available for them. It’s demanding, but we don’t think and talk about work 24/7.
Will you still be hunting the next drug in ten years?
I don’t think so. I don’t want to work forever. At some point I want to take more time for family and friends.
Actelion is not only known for its drugs but also for its signature building. Idorsia is at home in a Herzog & de Meuron building. How important is architecture for you?
It’s very important. These buildings will last for many years and are part of the culture and of the style of Basel. Switzerland and Basel in particular are avant-garde in architecture. We are happy to have been able to participate in that. The architecture represents the innovation we are aspiring to. We want good working conditions for our employees, lots of light and many possibilities to interact – after all, we spend a significant amount of time at the office.
We heard the funny story that Idorsia is the acronym for “I do research in Allschwil”. What is the true story behind the name?
I like it. In reality, we had the opportunity to take one of our already protected product names. It was giving us a solid start to insure the company name.
Interview: Annett Altvater and Stephan Emmerth