S02 E05

Planning for Pharma's Post-Covid Future


Kevin Leshuk

Pharmaceutical Executive

Focus Group Inc.

In the fifth episode of our second season, Peter Brenders, Founder & President of Kontollo Health, talks with Kevin Leshuk, veteran Canadian Pharma Executive, about planning his "next career act" at the same time the pharma industry is considering what kind of future it will face.


Thank you for downloading the NPC Podcast from the National Pharmaceutical Congress for October 14, 2020. This program is all about discussing and considering the purpose, process and people of the pharma industry during the Age of Covid. Each week, we continue the health care conversation by answering questions from listeners like you.


This program is proudly presented in cooperation with Impres, Impres best in class commercial solutions offered top line and bottom line growth with maximum salesforce flexibility, speed and efficiency. Learn more about their next generation commercial model at www.impres.com.


On today's podcast, our guest is Kevin Leshuk, a senior Canadian pharmaceutical executive. Freshly returned from Fredericton is your host, Peter Brenders of Kontollo Health.


But first here is life sciences commentator and rock music critic Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies.



Thanks Liona. You know, we don't often get to combine pharmaceutical industry content with rock and roll. But fortunately, today's guest gives us that opportunity.


*All Shook Up by Elvis Presley plays*


All Shook Up. Well, when the King of Rock gives you a shout out that must make you the King of Pharma.


Among other career achievements, Kevin Leshuk led Celgene in Canada from its humble beginnings to its recent acquisition by BMS. After steering that rocket he's writing his personal next act just as Covid is requiring our industry to rethink its return to the stage.


Here's Kevin, in conversation with Peter.



Welcome to the NPC Podcast.


I'm Peter Brenders, your host, and in our continuing look at the impact of Covid-19 on the purpose, process and people in pharma. This episode explores the possible future of pharma in Canada.


Joining me today is veteran Canadian Pharma Executive Kevin Leshuk, most recently GM of Celgene in Canada. And now principal of the Forus Group.


Welcome, Kevin.



Nice to be online, Peter.



So Kevin, I understand it's been almost nine months since you left the GM seat. And you've been doing some consulting in our Canadian pharma ecosystem.


What did you learn?



Well, a couple of things, the value of a good IT department, because I've definitely had more than my share of issues. And so it's been an interesting transition. But I think more than anything else, just a general excitement in the environment, from a lot of organizations, principally out of the US, but companies that are looking at the Canadian environment, really see a lot of value in wanting to come to Canada to one organization I've been working with directly is very passionate about bringing their portfolio to Canadian patients. And I think we've seen, you know, the growth of other great companies for that next year company coming up CL genetics, Incyte, just to name a few and expansion.


I've had a lot of colleagues, former Celgene colleagues who are now transitioning and getting calls from them. And they're exploring exciting opportunities, and some of the more established companies, you know, I'm very positive about the future of the current ecosystem, I think there's going to be exciting new players coming into the space that will add tremendous value, not just to the product portfolios, but I think will bring maybe some fresh new thinking on some of the challenges that many of us know a lot about already.



So you talk about sort of the new, exciting new entries there. Well, let's talk about some of the existing entries that are bringing good therapies to patients, but it's been suggested that Canada may be losing its priority status for some product launches from these global companies.


What have been your observations?



Well, I mean, there's no question that what's happening in the environment and amendments and updates to the various regulations, PMPRB and such, are causing a lot of companies to pause, but just in my former organization, they've sought and achieve regulatory approval for new compounds. And, obviously, if companies weren't going to be bringing things forth, you know, you don't even proceed with a regulatory approval.


So I think a lot of companies and very traditional Canadian style are looking at ways to continue to do what we do as an industry and bring important drugs. I think drugs that maybe are me-too or only slightly better, that in the past might have been viewed as patient enhancements are probably getting a real hard second look, second thought by companies, but transformative drugs, new medicines, transformative platforms, I think are going to continue to be brought forth and I think probably as taxpayers as, as members of this industry. We should continue to find ways to make sure that those value propositions are brought forth, even with tightening regulations. But, again, I think, right regulations and pricing controls and what have you, we're seeing that around the world. And so I don't think Canada is necessarily an outlier.


I think we need to continue to make sure that our governments and our payers understand it is a global ecosystem. And there needs to be an appropriate position within that environment. But I'm optimistic. I mean, I really think that the older companies, the more established companies are going to be challenged to rethink some things, there definitely will be evolution, and the new companies coming up will challenge some of that, and I think provide new thinking.


So we may see some changes to the environment. But if we focus on bringing truly transformative new therapies, disruptive new technologies, and I'm pretty optimistic that we're going to find our way.



So let's get let's talk about that in terms of you saying some of the established companies need to rethink some things. So if you are putting on your old hat, or if you were in a role like that, what things? What rethinking what new approaches would would that entail?



Certainly, global price banding is going to become a real central focus for companies. And I think Canada will be very much in the center of those discussions. Again, I have been out of, obviously, the mainstream conversations in the larger organizations, but talking with some of the smaller companies looking to come to the Canadian environment, they're coming in and kind of with a green-field view, and recognize the Canada is a G7/G8 country, very strong economics. And yes, they're challenged by sort of the whole understanding the complex and confusing regulatory environment, but seem to be very committed to looking at doing things in a different way.


So certainly how launches will occur will be different, I don't think you'll see big commercial investments until you start seeing a real signal on the market access front. But I think that will spur on development in medical affairs and medical education and market access initiatives. And so I think it will require a bit of a pivot by the more established companies maybe a reshape of what their workforce looks like. And some that do it well, that are able to pivot I think will be exciting, the new companies coming in are coming in green-field so they can build it from the ground up, which is equally exciting. And I think both the new regulatory environment and even this strange Covid-19 pandemic environment are causing a lot of rethink and new things.


So, to me, it's all you know, it's all pretty exciting. Having been 25 years in the industry, we were forced to reflect change. And I think that's probably a very good thing.



You're listening to the NPC Podcast with veteran Canadian Pharma Executive, Kevin Leshuk.


So rather than wait for the global launch to come here, what approach could people like you and I do to help get these new therapies to Canadians?


Are we stuck waiting for someone to bring it here? Or are there actions that Canadian entrepreneurs can take?



You know, one of the other parts of the ecosystem that I've had some time to explore is really reaching out to organizations that classically been smaller, sort of up and coming companies with evolving portfolios. not quite ready yet. But I've been speaking with them, you know, they haven't been completely sure what to do with Canada, yet. They know they want to come. But it's not sort of the EU, it's not certainly in the US. But it still does have a favored nation approach. And I think that that standing hasn't changed, although they understand that there are some challenges.


And those words, or those letters still brought forth to me that we know all too well. PCPA, PMPRB, and the like. And so you know, having dialogue with them, and finding a real openness to maybe they don't have to build their own large infrastructure locally, maybe they can look for a partner locally, whether or not that's an established partner, or, you know, a group is looking to create something new. And that's that's something that I've been exploring, and there's a real, there's some real traction associated with that. And, again, I think the larger companies will probably still look to do things their own way or not, not launched, but I think there's a very strong growing biotech biopharma ecosystem globally, that still sees Canada as a place that they want to come, but might not have sort of that full breadth of portfolio that you would like to launch your full affiliate and are actively looking for partners and I think we've seen some examples of that already evolving in a Medison Canada comes to mind and I know there's obviously many others. And that's something I've been exploring.


And I've been really pleasantly surprised at the receptivity, it's not easy. And we'll see whether or not it all comes to fruition. But there's a real opportunity for Canadian entrepreneurs that if they wanted to go there that there's a level of receptivity that might not have been there five years ago.



So that sounds in some respect that there's almost a new vibrancy in the market. And how would you explain that? Is this due to Covid-19? Or is it just due to the environment and the market and what we're seeing actions of government?



Well, I mean, it's a good question. I mean, I think that there's a new vibrancy in the environment, when you see, you know, Canadian companies like Repair and Fusion and Inertia just had a major announcement, Canadian innovative development companies looking to go to that next level, I think that speaks to the environment. And then of course, what you see coming out of the out of the US and some of the startup companies that have had major advances, therapeutic advances, announced Immunomedics comes to mind ot in New Jersey, TG Therapeutics out of New York, there's a lot happening, and they're all looking to understand how to come to the various markets.


And in a strange way, Canada's complexity creates opportunity. I think those that of us that understand that this is still a great place to do clinical research, great place to establish a solid business, I think resonates. Again, I remain sort of optimistic, is it Covid related? No, I think the momentum was starting, I think, you know, certainly the federal government and the provincial governments have recognized the importance of health care, not necessarily in actual sort of pharma therapeutics, but certainly diagnostics and the like.


So I do think there's an openness to establishing Canadian entities and probably a more openness or more awareness of health, which if we do things appropriately, I think can rollover and spin over into smaller biopharma commercial startups.



So when you say Canadian entities in health, are you seeing or you're hearing signals from government that they want to see some domestic capacity start to build up? Almost like what we've heard in terms of domestic capacity to build PPE.


Do the government signal that they want domestic capacity for therapeutics?



Yeah, I mean, I haven't been engaged in those active conversations at the government level. I do know others, and I'm having active conversations with others who have been in those discussions. I don't think we've seen anything yet. So I think it's early, I do think that the government's are very focused on the Covid and pandemic, and those elements within it that are going to both support the existing patient and caregivers and that ecosystem. But I definitely think that there's going to be a lot of forward thinking and planning, supply chain issues, all of that.


So I think it's, you know, I think it's early to say that, that there's going to be a complete recognition of the Canadian BioPharma environment as something that governments are going to look to invest in more. But I do believe that there's a more open year. And I think that that is being driven by Covid.


So I think time will tell around that I don't think there's going to be a huge fundamental shift short term, but I think longer term, there is more of an openness now than ever before. And so we'll we'll have to see where it takes us.



You're listening to the NPC Podcast, I'm Peter Brenders, your host.


So the NPC audience is broad, covering a lot of jobs, a lot of roles across the country and international. Do you have advice or counseling you'd offer to any folks out there how to take advantage and be that part of the solution for bringing new therapies to Canadians?



I'm not gonna lie, I wasn't expecting to have lots of free time in my career at this point in my career, I think I was probably like many, very happy in the role I was doing, we had a great organization that I was very proud to be part of, and work with some great people. But you know, change happens. And sometimes within you know, within that environment, you become complacent.


So I think this is a really important moment, both for everybody in the Canadian environment, there definitely are changes that are being imposed. You know, pricing controls, regulations, regulatory elements are, you know, being amended around the world, not just in Canada. And so, I think, if you love what you do in life sciences, you know, this is a time to really take a step back and reflect on, you know, your capabilities, your strengths, what are the areas that you'd love to do? I do think that companies will be looking to pivot a little bit and what does that mean? Certainly, we can get into the whole question of the whole work home office environment, that in itself is going to be made to change management.


But I think that, you know, looking at the Canadian ecosystem, and if you're someone who's been looking at the global traditional companies as really sort of your career path, get to know some of the up and coming companies in your space again, you know, I named a few already Repair, Fusion, you've got, you know, amazing things happening out of Zymeworks. There's lots of things and so really paying attention to the Canadian environment, what's happening in those companies? Where are they going, you know, how do your skill sets map up with that? Think about launches. What's really gonna happen in the ecosystem? Do you have the opportunity? Are you going to be positioning yourself for that next tranche of companies that will be coming in? And what do I need to do and prepare and just sort of look at the next five to 10 years as a period of change and excitement and prepare for it, I think is the best thing we can do.


And change happens. And change happens when you sometimes don't expect it. Certainly, our industry is going to continue to consolidate I think, in some ways, but then continue to mushroom in others, but it's going to be big to small. Certainly, this pandemic has changed the lives for all of us, and are we using it as an opportunity to take a moment to reflect, we all gain back at minimum 2+ hours on commuting, and probably even more.


So when we think about some of the international community many of us have done. So think it and use it and really kind of futuristically look at what the market will look like in the next five to 10 years and take advantage of some of the great Canadian companies that are starting to evolve.



How do you stay sane when you're transitioning out of a job you've had and loved for 13 years into something new?



I'm not sure my wife would necessarily say I stayed completely sane but I probably, out of a little bit of a sense of fear of the unknown, jumped into a consulting role very quickly after my last day and fell in and I have to admit, I think I was on a plane sandwiched in the middle seat to San Francisco, eight days after my last day itself and I definitely had a moment, wondering, what the heck am I doing, and am I just, you know, running into something because I'm afraid of having lost what I held very, very dearly?


It actually proved to be a very good thing for me, because it kept me involved in our world, in the life sciences area, it kept me engaged kept me mentally stimulated, it was in an area of therapeutic area that I knew. So I knew I could add relative value relatively quickly. On the therapeutic level and the Canadian environment level. And there are a lot of companies that are excited about the Canadian environment, but really don't understand it.


So I guess I would say to somebody, if they were transitioning out for whatever reason, find a way to stay engaged, even if you're not sure what you want to do next, there is a lot of need for people who are passionate about the Canadian environment, understand the Canadian ecosystem, you know, the complexities of the market access world and so on. Because there are a lot of companies who think that Canada is a great, great place to come and, and they're looking for guidance.


So I would encourage someone to, you know, I'm not sure I'm a particularly good consultant, to be honest, I like working with teams. And then when you're by yourself, it's definitely different. And so probably would look to get back into a more traditional environment over time, albeit likely very small again. But I wouldn't be afraid about you know, hanging up sort of the shingle, so to speak, and making yourself available and connecting specifically into the therapeutic areas that you know, with the customers and partners that you've worked with over those years, because you can add value very, very quickly. And then I think it reinstates your own value proposition as an individual, which was important for me.


So I think everyone's journeys could be a little bit different. But I would recommend that for sure.



Any last thoughts, Kevin, than you'd like to convey to our audience?



You know, again, what I've learned is that it's actually through unexpected events in my own career, and certainly this most recent unexpected event in all of our lives, there's a lot of opportunity, and I'm pretty excited about what the future looks like. It is different. It's not traditional, in some ways. There's certainly I think, going to be a very vibrant, traditional environment with many of the companies that we all know but some really exciting up and coming companies which who if you want to be part of that, you know, creating green-field, creating the new environment for the next 15-20 years, whatever your journey timeline looks like.


I think it's all really good. It's just we just have to continue to stay out and, and find ways like we always have as Canadians through the Canadian life sciences community.



You've heard about opportunity today and you've heard about Canada's complexity creating that opportunity. Joining us today was veteran Canadian Pharma Executive Kevin Leshuk.


Thank you for listening.



Thanks to Kevin and Peter.


You know, I think they could take that act to Vegas. We're here every Wednesday at the NPC Podcast leading the life sciences conversation. You can catch up on any episodes you've missed through Google Podcasts, Apple iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcast fix.


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The NPC Podcast was presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. Learn more at www.impres.com.


This is Mitch Shannon of Chronicle companies in Toronto. Your producer is Jeremy Visser the announcer is Leona Droid Maxwell.


Have a great week and stay safe. We'll see you next week at the start of the National Pharma Congress.