with John Huss
1. What does innovation mean to your company?
Innovation in our industry has too often been limited to research. But innovation impacts everything, and it is divided into three phases: the discovery of new substances, development and testing, and commercialization.
2. How do you implement that innovation?
Phase one is relatively inexpensive, but very risky: one out of every 10,000 molecules discovered ever sees the light of day. My goal is to bring innovative concepts into the early stages of research and to kill them early if they prove unsuccessful. Phases two and three are where it becomes expensive and complicated; for that, you need partners. Small biotech companies like [Theratechnologies] need larger organizations to support the costs of developing drugs and bringing them to market.
3. Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
Innovation isn’t limited to the products we create. We also need to be innovative in developing our business model. For example, it is possible to be a “virtual” biotech firm by contracting out research or working with partners to commercialize and distribute. We need to look at all of these ideas.
4. What are the core values of an innovative company?
At Theratechnologies, our values are courage, creativity, collaboration, and responsibility. You need courage to face today’s environment and make choices; you want creative teams to look at different ways to find drugs and commercialize them; you expect your people to collaborate better in order to gain time; and, last but not least, you want each individual in the company to be responsible for what he or she is doing.
5. How has the notion of innovation changed?
This may seem counterintuitive, but I believe you first have to run to what you don’t want to hear. Otherwise, you surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear, which will not be helpful.
John Huss started his career as a sales representative for a major pharmaceutical company more than 20 years ago.
“I remember calling on cardiologists and telling them about these new drugs called statins,” Huss recalls. “Many cardiologists back then didn’t see the benefit of prescribing them for patients with high cholesterol levels.”
Fast forward two decades, and statins are firmly entrenched as a victory for human health and a success story for pharmaceutical manufacturers. And John Huss? Well, he’s no longer a sales representative.
In early 2011, Huss was at a biotech conference in Israel when he found out about Theratechnologies for the first time. Russ was actually catching up on all available data about the company’s new peptide when a headhunter called to ask if he would be interested in becoming Theratechnologies’ CEO.
“The opportunity to run a small company, after having run the affiliate of a large company, really motivated me,” Huss says. “In addition, I love Canada, which helped me decide to take the leap. Our four children were born in four different countries, and one of them was born in Toronto, so it felt a bit like coming home.”
Theratechnologies was founded in Montréal in 1993, and the company’s new peptide is blazing a new trail in medicine.
“I see the potential for our growth-hormone-releasing factor (GHRF) now, in exactly the position statins were then,” says Huss, who also serves as president, in addition to CEO. “The concept is so new and the potential so great that growth over the next few years, as the medical community begins to see the applications and benefits, could be enormous.”
Theratechnologies has developed and patented a GHRF called Egrifta. Egrifta is not a human-growth hormone (HGH) replacement; it actually stimulates the pituitary gland so that the body creates more of its own HGH, which assists the body in building muscles and reducing fat.
“There are many important applications for new peptides like this,” Huss says. “Patients suffering from diseases that cause chronic muscle wasting, or patients with excess visceral abdominal fat (which increases risk of heart disease), could be helped with this new class of drugs.” In the United States, the FDA has approved Egrifta for treatment of HIV-associated lipodystrophy.
Such success is not foreign to Theratechnologies. The company was able to get to where it is today by keeping its goal specific.
“We decided to focus on one product in one market and to get approval from one regulatory agency before we expanded,” Huss says. Egrifta’s approval by the FDA and the distribution agreement Theratechnologies negotiated with EMD Serono was the fulfillment of that original goal. Now, Huss says, the company is positioned to expand to other countries. Distribution arrangements with Sanofi in South America and Ferrer in Europe are in place and will be operationalized as regulatory approvals are completed.
“Partnerships are crucial for a small biotech firm,” Huss says. “We do not need 10,000 employees to become a $1 billion company. We need the right partners in order to commercialize new products in key areas. Even research and development can be contracted out. Moving forward, building and managing alliances will become a major priority.”
Theratechnologies wants to keep the lead it has in the GHRF field. “In order to fully leverage the potential of this class in a broad range of indications, we need to develop new, more patient-friendly modes of administration,” Huss says. For that, the company has synthesized more than 250 GHRF peptides in 2011, and will conduct feasibility studies this year.