The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

It was a desire to work with customers that first led Simone Thomsen to pursue a career in hotel mana­gement. And it was a love for things international that led her down a path in that industry to Japan. That she would find the combination of helping others and global perspectives in pharmaceuticals was something she didn’t expect. But as fate would have it, that’s what awaited her so far from her native Germany.

For nearly two decades, Thomsen has cut a path for women in business as a leader at Eli Lilly and Company, and with global healthcare company Fresnius Kabi before that. She also sat as the only woman at the time on the executive board of the Verband der Chemischen Industrie e.V., a group that repre­sents the politico-economic interests of about 1,700 German chemical companies and their subsidiaries abroad.

At Lilly, Thomsen found a home. She has a long history with the 143-year-old pharmaceutical developer going back to 2002, when she joined as new product planning manager in Germany. Subsequent sales and marketing roles in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States led to her being named vice president of marketing for the international business unit in 2018.

On September 1, she made a move again, taking over from Patrik Jönsson as president of Eli Lilly Japan K.K. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Thomsen, who served as the com­pany’s chief marketing officer from 2011 to 2014. And just two weeks after returning to Japan, she talked to The ACCJ Journal about her experiences and plans.

Lilly is devoted to simultaneous development of innovative medicines.
Photo: Eli Lilly and Company

What brought you to pharma and Lilly?
Before pharma, I worked in the hospitality industry for five years. When I got started in hotels, my desire was to work with customers and internationally. So, after the hotel, I decided I would do something that made a difference in society. I studied through quite a few internships, specifically with pharmaceutical and chemical companies. When you see what really innovative drugs can do for people’s lives—and also their families—that really has an impact on you, and it did me as a very young professional. So, I was struck with that idea of really making an impact. I feel like that’s my contribution—to make things throughout the world better, to make it a better place—and that’s how I got involved in pharma.

As for coming to Lilly, that was a very personal choice. At my former employer, I had a female role model—a mentor—and she suddenly died from severe sepsis. She was 44 and had two kids. That had a huge impact on me as a person. I was talking to our medical team about how she died, and Lilly had a product in development for severe sepsis. Over the past 25 years, there has been little innovation in its treatment. It’s a very difficult disease. So, I thought, wow, if Lilly is investing in research to find a solution to this disease, it must be the company for me. And I think that was one of the best decisions I ever made. I’m now 17 years with the company and hopefully there will be many more to come.

Lilly’s employee resource groups are a key part of the company’s diversity efforts. Photo: Eli Lilly and Company

How has your experience prepared you to guide Lilly Japan?
I first came here and studied at Kumamoto University, then worked for a few years, on and off, here in Japan in various capacities. Going back and forth, I think, gives you a good perspective and view of what some of the opportunities are. You go to other countries and come back, and, of course, you have added experiences that I think help you reflect better. Maybe you have seen some best practices surrounding similar challenges. I think that helps a lot, because you see that solutions are sometimes very similar for different problems.

How is technology changing treatment?
Digital advancement is impacting all our lives, every day, whether we like it or not. Likewise, we have a system over the past couple of years that has definitely been influenced by that.

Here in Japan, we see that, with the aging population, the strain on diagnosing patients will go up. There are some great solutions now for communication and digital diagnosis, and it’s simply a matter of finding proper solutions for some of these problems. For us at Lilly, we have been specifically focusing on certain apps that can analyze and enable the combination of digital technology and the innovation we bring. That’s basically what we have been focusing on the most.

There were quite a few years when we were building the infra­structure and our own knowledge around where best we can link the technical submissions with our research-based, innovative medicine development. And that’s why we now have a breakthrough digital agenda globally that is specifically focused on insights about smart­phones and digital applications. We are investing a lot in connected devices.

Alzheimer’s disease is also a big area for us. We’re about 30 years into research, and we still hope to find the one solution. But we know that one of the challenges for us in finding a solution for Alzheimer’s is the diagnosis. Is someone a mild dementia patient versus a more severe, progressed Alzheimer patient? That’s relevant, because the approach depends on the indications.

That’s why, for example, we have been partnering with Apple and Evidation to really look into helping people use at-home apps to help with the diagnosis of these various patient types. So, we can use digital technology either to advance and help diagnostics, or to improve the usage, monitoring, or influence of our medicines.

How does this fit into the traditional process?
I think it is still very much in progress. There are some tech­nologies already that are successful on the diagnosis side—for example, when it comes to skin cancer. The challenge with most of these solutions is that, because they are new, there are no clear guidelines on how to validate these types of technologies.

It’s very clear that if you develop a medicine today, the FDA has—all the regulatory authorities have—processes you must follow. As we get into digital technology, all of the regulatory authorities around the world need to learn how to control, how to check that the technology being offered is safe and accurate, as they do with medicines.

For example, 95 percent of apps out there today are not validated. That is where we, as a pharmaceutical company, have a role to play, because if we invest in these digital techno­logies, we know how to run this process, we know how to develop and validate it. And I think this is the knowledge we are bringing as we partner with regulatory autho­rities to create some of these processes to make sure that all these offerings are safe.

One of the opportunities, but also one of the challenges, is how to make sure that you provide policy processes and regulations that safeguard the patient. This is an area in which we would like to provide our expertise and help.

Can tech help an aging population?
We have been heavily investing in customer support, depending on which type of patient you are. If you are going for a treatment with a Lilly product, we provide support through either constant care or digital communication—not just about the treatment itself, but also the disease.

That is exactly what we hear from physicians as being helpful, because you can provide that at any time, and you don’t need to be at the hospital to get this information. It also helps healthcare professionals, who are really tight on time these days. That’s another opportunity for the healthcare provider to be more efficient.

I think the biggest challenge is, was, and will be, the aging population. And I think, in drug development, there are opportunities to bring innovative drugs more quickly to patients regardless of where they are, even in rural areas. If we harmonize international guidelines for development with Japanese guidelines, it helps us deliver this type of medicine much faster to a larger population.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry?
I think how you develop and get approvals for pharmaceuticals in Japan is very clearly defined. The government has made some innovations in policies and has eased some of the regulations on those to allow for much more sustainable development. I think there has been some robust progress made over the past couple of years.

This is what has allowed us to do simultaneous development here so that we can ensure that you basically all have access at the same time for the same product no matter where you are. Which, the last time I worked here in Japan, certainly was not the case. We had a significant delay and we need to ensure that we keep this progress.

Also, on the regulatory side, [the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency] is certainly one of the best authorities for drugs in the world. They are working on some possibilities of getting innovative new products to Japanese patients much earlier. I think there has been some good progress there, but, as always, we need to make sure it continues.

I’m not sure this is the biggest problem, but it is the biggest objective of being here. The path to innovation is focusing on innovation policies and guidelines and continues to stay the course. With the aging population comes challenges with the budget and our industry stakeholders need to realize that innovative medicines are the solution to the problem and not the problem itself.

How has Japan helped Lilly?
We have invested heavily in simultaneous development and, throughout that process, you learn as a company. We can now send back what we learn here to our global operations and to our deal proposals. So, in the end, it is a win–win. That, I think, is one of the opportunities that we have specifically seen here.

There is also the high standard around customer expectations from custo­mers when it comes to quality. Japan has the highest standards in the world, and we have always used this as the benchmark for our global operations. So, there has always been very, very tight collaboration with Japan, which is our biggest operation outside the United States.

How does Japan compare with Europe?
Like Japan, many countries in the European market have universal healthcare, and I feel the challenges are very similar. Germany also has an aging population problem­—which means that we are living longer lives, but as we age, we also get sicker.

The biggest difference is how governments address these common problems. An interesting example of this is the German health technology assessment system. This is an example where something was set up very quickly, without involving all the stakeholders. Healthcare is complex, so, such a fundamental change to your system really requires all people sitting around the table, talking to each other. That did not happen in Germany, so what you have now is a system that is extremely complex, rigid, very limiting, and costly. But the worst thing is that many innovative products that are standard in other countries have not been approved for reimbursement in Germany.

So, it is important to work together, talk with each other, understand each other’s perspectives, and debate it, while, in the end, always having the patient’s needs in mind.

How does Lilly help employees achieve work–life balance?
That is a very important part of our journey. We reach out to our staff to find out what their diverse needs are so that we can really understand how we can improve our work environment. Last year, we rolled out an update to our guidance and how we want to work better—and that coincidentally nicely tied into our new Kobe headquarters, which we moved into in May 2018 and where we implemented some innovative work-environment design to foster collaboration.

We also implemented home/office without any limitations on days or time. With many companies, often it is like, okay, speak to your supervisor, and maybe for a day, if it goes well, then maybe you can do it. What we say is that we encourage it—based on your needs, your work–life balance, your family situation. And we think that if we can provide this kind of environment, then, of course, we will have a highly engaged workforce. In my experience, if you have engaged employees,  you have engaged customers.

That is one example. We have many more. And I think that is also why it is no surprise that we won an award at the Nikkei New Office Awards [this year], which we are really proud of.

How is Lilly embracing diversity?
Diversity and inclusion has been a top priority for us at Eli Lilly for many years. With Dave Ricks becoming our CEO, we have embarked globally on understanding several employee journeys, starting with women and then moving on to minority groups. This year, we are conducting the LGBT+ journey. The question is—if you are a woman or disabled person, what journey do you take in your career at Lilly and what are some of the challenges you face? Once you see the results, we can take both global and local actions. That has been really helpful to drive change.

We also have several employee resource groups representing our different diver­sity groups such as, for example, our LGBT employees, who work together around the world with their allies to raise awareness for their challenges.

In addition, I have found reverse mentoring to be a very effective method to raise diversity and inclusion awareness and understanding. Currently I have a LGBT mentor and before that, I had a Millennial mentor. Every month, we have a call and it helps me understand some of the challenges in the day-to-day work life that employees are experiencing at Lilly. It helps me, as a leader, to better understand the situation. It also helps me find the right words and ask the right questions: How do I ask? How can I understand? How can I help?

The employee groups and the ally system, in which emplo­yees outside a minority group support its members,  have been very successfully rolled out at Lilly. They have regular meetings, do training and mentoring and in general keep raising the bar.

A last word on diversity and inclusion—corporate-wide, we have also begun to have aspirational goals. We started with gender and now we added selected minority groups. In that context we are all very focused at Lilly Japan on making sure that the ratio of female managers continues to increase. Right now, we’re at 26 percent, which is industry leading but not where we want to be. That should be much higher, so we have a lot of focus on making sure that we get this number up. In the end, it’s not about giving this or that person a role based on the gender, but we view it as an opportunity to cast a wider net and find all the talented people.

What is your vision for 2020 and beyond?
First, we are always connected to the vision of Lilly globally: Lilly unites caring with discovery to create medicines that make life better for people around the world.  That’s the purpose, and that’s why, internally, we’re focusing a lot on bringing this vision to life.

In Japan, things have been good so far. I men­tioned simulta­neous development before, and we’re now launching three innovative products per year. We have the same timelines here and abroad, so that’s great. I want to make sure that we continue on that path, because it’s that quality that has made the Lilly Japan a top 10 company in the country.

On the policy side, I’m fully committed to continuing the work with our associates to find good healthcare solutions and co-design a system which really is grounded in pro-innovation policy.

We have a strong foun­dation with some of the best medical researchers in the industry. We also have some of the best teams on the digital sides. I want to make sure that we continue on this path, and provide exceptional customer experiences.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
In my experience, if you don’t have engaged employees, they don’t engage customers.