With many family-owned businesses, children are often pressured to join the fold and maintain the legacy. Such was the case for Helsinn CEO Riccardo Braglia. “I originally wanted to be an engineer, but my father didn’t leave me with much choice to do anything other than join the family business,” he admits. Nevertheless, 33 years on, Riccardo doesn’t have a single regret.
“When my sons were young and they asked me what my job was, I would tell them I was a fireman, of sorts. I go into the office, find the fire, and try to find a solution to extinguish it. I perform better under times of stress than when everything is going well.
I’ve never been afraid of a challenge and I find motivation in curiosity. I’m passionate about discovering something new that could make a positive impact on the lives of those suffering with cancer,” Riccardo explains. “I also love the other side of my job where I get to interact with people – whether they’re key opinion leaders, scientists or patients.”
Founded by Dr Gabriele Braglia in Switzerland in 1976, Helsinn has grown into an international business committed to improving the everyday lives of people with cancer around the world.
While retaining its core values of quality, integrity and respect, the business has grown to more than 600 committed employees and 70 commercial and marketing partners that, together, help Helsinn create a large portfolio of cancer-care therapies. “Since I started, I’ve seen a complete shift in the therapeutical areas and markets we work in – the growth has been massive,” Riccardo notes.
“I’ve seen a complete shift in the therapeutical areas and markets we work in – the growth has been massive.”
Helsinn’s main focus over the past 15 years has been the development of cancer supportive care products, based on the concept that, with innovative treatments, many types of cancer can now be viewed as a chronic disease. While many cancer patients are living longer thanks to breakthrough therapies, this doesn’t ensure a good quality of life free of side effects.
Therefore, Helsinn continues to invest in the development of a pipeline of cancer supportive care products that will help patients to enjoy a better quality of life.
“The obvious challenge is that developing these new treatments is a lengthy process that requires more and more capital. Being a private, family-managed business, we have to target a niche cancer space that’s not controlled by big pharma,” Riccardo explains. “Helsinn has created its own space in treating the side effects of cancer and chemotherapy, and we’re now moving into cancer therapeutics involving orphan drug status, where we continue to play a major role – leaving the larger, more popular cancer treatments to multinational companies.”
As a family-based and values-oriented company, Riccardo believes that it’s Helsinn’s people who have been the main ingredient in its successful recipe in the past decades. “Our culture is focused around the values of quality, integrity and respect. We follow a transparent, ethical approach and we encourage all employees to be good citizens, because their actions reflect on the company. Although we’re a private company, we try to communicate as transparently as any public company,” he points out.
Riccardo has found that because of its size, Helsinn is not only more agile than its larger competitors, but also finds it easier to create trust and strong connections among team members. One of the cornerstones of the Helsinn philosophy is collaboration – both within the company and in its dealings with like-minded partners and suppliers. “When it comes to our partners, we pride ourselves on maintaining long-lasting relationships that are a win–win for both sides,” Riccardo notes. “We not only share the profit, but
also the development and the challenges.”
Looking ahead, Riccardo believes understanding his customers is the path to a successful future for Helsinn. “Our primary focus is our patients. We must understand their needs and discover how we can help improve their quality of life and ideally how we can help them live without cancer, if possible, or at least live longer with cancer,” he explains. “We know that treating cancer is expensive, so we are always trying to develop new drugs in a fast, cost-effective way.”
Riccardo has identified the US, China and Japan as Helsinn’s largest and most promising markets. “We have strong partners in Japan, and we have a subsidiary in the US that continues to grow in terms of size and capabilities. We’re now launching two new products: one in cancer supported care and the other in cancer therapeutics,” he explains.
“The Chinese market is new for us. We’re waiting on final approvals for two drugs and hope to launch our China branch in the first half of next year, with the support of our local partner, Mundipharma. China will be a big challenge, but also an important opportunity. Looking at the big picture, we want to reach as many countries as possible because we truly believe our products can make a difference.”