Innovation is the lifeblood of our work in medicine development. Without it, we could not deliver a promise of hope, health, and prosperity. That promise takes the form of new treatments that improve patients’ ability to live productively with one of our planet’s most serious diseases : diabetes.
Novo Nordisk has been delivering on that promise for almost 90 years.
It all started in 1921 when a physician sought out a new treatment called insulin to help his wife’s struggles with diabetes. Insulin is now the cornerstone of diabetes care. Since then NN has developed a whole portfolio of protein-based diabetes medicines.
For millions of people, insulin keeps them alive every day for about the price of a cup of coffee.
But insulin is far from a commodity ; it still requires our best innovative thinking to tap its full potential. To set the stage for the discussion, I’d like to share how we have kept
innovation going // by coming back to our roots, by taking risks and by seeking inspiration outside, including my home country, China.
We have to keep innovation moving at the same pace as the global diabetes pandemic - now affecting 366 million people. We are able to do that because of our business model : we chose to stay focused on diabetes and to maintain significant investments into R&D. Today, we have seen that pay off because we now have the possibility of launching one new drug // per year // for the next five years.
And, while Novo Nordisk’s research budget for diabetes rivals that of the National Institutes of Health and Denmark is ranked #2 this year, we know that we cannot innovate alone. We look for sources of innovation wherever they are.
Novo Nordisk recognized the huge promise in China early on. It was not just because China knew something about insulin - the insulin crystal actually was first generated in China during the Cultural Revolution. Novo Nordisk was the first Western pharmaceutical company to set up a research presence in the country. We saw the tremendous talent coming out of the dynamic academic and scientific community.
That has grown even more as many Chinese are returning home after spending years in the West. [Harvard Med School story] We are returning for cultural reasons, but also to be part of the global innovation wave. These researchers and scientists, who have studied and worked abroad, are helping my country – and my company – drive innovation.
Innovation comes not only from having great talent, but also from having a culture willing to take risks. And, knowing when to admit your mistakes. For us, leadership in insulin was not a foregone conclusion. We spent a decade trying to create a pipeline of medicines based, not on insulin, but on small molecules. That didn’t work – it was not our field of expertise and the chances were slim : we saw the typical attrition rates of traditional pharmaceutical development.
So we took a new risk – we went back to insulin and we discovered we had to do something different in our own culture. We restructured the research function ; we combined chemistry and protein know-how and focused on what we knew best : making a difference for the diabetes patient through injectable medicine.
That focus has helped produce our upcoming new insulin degludec, currently under review by the FDA, EMA, and Japan.
Our focus on diabetes has also made it possible for us to be even bolder, and explore what will prevent or even cure diabetes. That kind of innovation we know we can not do alone.
Our new Seattle research center for Type 1 diabetes is small by design and we’re actively looking for partners to help us expand our knowledge of diabetes. We know it’s not going to be hard to find them. Seattle boasts some of the most impressive biotech researchers in the US.
So far, I’ve talked about innovation and the Novo Nordisk journey. Now I would ask three questions for your consideration :
Who are the people that create an innovation culture – in your organization or in your country ?
Are you taking the right risks ?
And, finally, who are you taking those risks for ?
Our leadership in diabetes comes from our strength in R&D AND our passion for those patients who live with this serious disease day in and day out.
They face a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness and amputations. The cost of diabetes is going to grow. And the time for solutions is now and it’s about more than developing the right medicines.
So, in order to innovate as society and as professionals, we are going to need to tap the same drive and determination that a Danish doctor had in 1921 for his wife.