Interview with Kris Sterkens
Kris Sterkens is the Company Group Chairman of Janssen, EMEA – a company he has held a position at for over 30 years. We spoke to Kris about Janssen’s values and vision and the role these have played in his life, Janssen’s mission to be a responsible partner in society, and how his path has made him the leader he is today.
Why did you join the life sciences industry and why in a strategic, financial role?
Growing up, my father was the village general practitioner, and to enter our house I would walk through the patient waiting area. I was fascinated by the people sitting there in fine suits, who were medical representatives. Fast forward to university and it was an obvious choice for me to study applied economics given my strengths. I wasn’t the best at science, I was afraid of needles, but I was good with numbers – medicine for me was never on the table. My first job out of university was with Coopers & Lybrand as a financial auditor, and I was assigned to work with Janssen. Now, in Belgium, Dr Paul Janssen is one of the best-known figures and I was immediately intrigued by the healthcare industry: everything they stood for, what they wanted to achieve, and the innovation they wanted to bring. Eventually, there was an opening for a financial analyst at Janssen and I applied and was offered the role. I didn’t go to medical school, but I believe I have closed the loop with the contributions I am making in healthcare today. By taking that role, everything came together for me.
Could you discuss your own alignment with Janssen’s Credo?
The fact the Credo has been around for >75 years speaks to its power, yet it is so simple. Four paragraphs, four different responsibilities: to the people we work with and for, to our employees, to our community, and to our shareholders. We wouldn’t make it as an industry if we didn’t put the patient first, but innovation can only prevail if we get financial return. If we get the first three right, then the shareholders should also make a fair return.
On a personal level, we are all raised with a set of values, and I can see the ones my parents gave to me embodied by the spirit of the Credo. We all know a patient; I have close relatives who have Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and psoriatic arthritis. You experience an unmet need in someone and see the difference you can make to their life. If you take that as the starting point and act upon it, like the Credo does, then everything falls into place.
In all its simplicity, the Credo addresses all of that; it is a precious ecosystem where if you tinker with one part, it falls apart. It is a powerful document that guides our moral compass and provides our North Star.
For a piece of art to stand on its own, you have to captivate your audience from the beginning
What initiatives have Janssen put in place to help tackle mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it?
Stigma exists because people without mental illness have a hard time identifying with someone who has depression or schizophrenia. When a disease has external symptoms, it is a lot easier to understand what someone is going through, but the burden of mental health is often invisible. Therefore, in addition to bringing forward breakthrough medicines, we also have an obligation to raise public awareness of mental health, and at Janssen we have done so in several ways. One example is a campaign we launched in Europe; we had a van drive through and stop in all the major cities, and inside this van you could experience a 3D schizophrenic episode simulation, which takes you on a 5-minute walk to the grocery store through the eyes of a person with Schizophrenia. You hear voices, see shadows – it’s a frightening experience, but it’s educating people and creating awareness. I don’t think any of us have cracked it yet, but only by continuing to talk about mental health and raise awareness can we continue to bring forward breakthrough medicines that make a difference.
What excites you the most about the future when you hear the word ‘innovation’?
I get very excited about the potential of the combination of technology and science, which will lead to great strides forward in the management of our health. I know that some of the applications we see in gene and cell therapy are only glimpses of what is to come. If we think about an ultra-customised world, there will be a different treatment for each individual, based on their own characteristics. This is possible with technology and by translating data into tailormade medicines. In 50 years, we are going to look back to 2019 and not believe that we waited until we got sick to seek treatment. We should aspire to live in a world where treatment, interception, prevention, and prediction is possible.
You have a passion for music. Could you discuss how you incorporate your creative attributes into your work?
I have been making analogies between the pharma and music industries for years. Disruption of the music industry shows a lot of similarities to what healthcare will go through. The 1980s saw the CD revolution, interrupting the use of vinyl, and more recently we saw digital disruption with iTunes and Spotify; the only major record label that survived was the one that adapted. Pharma is a high barrier industry, but if we continue to wait on the sidelines until the dust settles with technology, then we run the risk of being disrupted by tech companies who are able to see value propositions that we don’t. We can create unparalleled opportunities if we work together with tech, but we have to create complete alignment with our stakeholders if this is to happen. In 1964, The Beatles released ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, which starts with a beguiling chord known as the magical mystery chord; no one could figure out how that exact sound was made. For a piece of art to stand on its own, you have to captivate your audience from the beginning, and in healthcare, to create alignment on views and priorities with our stakeholders, we have to find our own magical mystery chord. I bring creative analogies into my work so that my visions resonate with people. But music also plays into my work; I always have a guitar in my hand when I prepare for strategy presentations or review business proposals. My best thinking comes when playing guitar; it is how I came up with the magical mystery chord analogy!
What do you think the future will look like in regard to pharma’s partnerships with non-profit organisations?
We embarked on partnerships at Janssen a number of years ago when we developed our transformational medical innovation strategy. It is not enough to just develop breakthrough medicines if we can’t make them available to all parts of the world. We established our global public health group: a business model working with several national governments across Africa and the Indian government in addition to other governments, as well as non-governmental organisations to bring our medications to populations that cannot afford the usual prices. One strategy is equity tier-based pricing, and here we base our medications on a number of criteria, the main one being GDP per capita. Certain medicines that meet a high unmet burden are made available at even lower prices. One example is our medicine for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, the first new medicine in 40 years; we worked with the Indian and South African governments to make this medicine available under special conditions to reach as many patients as possible in two of the highest countries in the world for incidence and prevalence. Pharma is not just a profit organisation but one that combines doing the right thing with the commercial business.
If you could send your younger self a letter when you were starting out in your career, what would you write?
The only piece of advice I would give would be to dream bigger! I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be in the role I am today. At school I wasn’t a straight A student, I stumbled into my role at Coopers & Lybrand, and I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in. After a few years, things became clearer, and I applied for the role at Janssen. At Janssen, I took a stepwise approach to my career; I didn’t have a long-term vision, and this let me get the most out of each role. I went way beyond what I believed I could have achieved, and who knows what would have happened if I had set my aspirations higher. I feel very privileged in what I have achieved with the help of Janssen. The advice I am giving to my children is to aim high; it is better to aspire to something really big and miss out than set the bar low and never reach your full potential and dreams. I spoke earlier about my fear of needles. In my early days as a professional I desperately wanted a certain electric guitar, but it was really expensive, so I signed up to take part in a trial, as part of the control group, that required you to draw blood 8–12 times a day. Within the first few sessions I had overcome my fear and by the end I could afford my guitar. It just shows that you can overcome your limitations if you really want (and the lengths someone will go to buy a guitar…).