- IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Strategy

“The IMD EMBA taught me where to play and how to win”

Andreas Wallnöfer, discusses his career path and what he learned at IMD
July 2018

Andreas Wallnöfer is an expert in pharmaceutical medicine and after joining Roche’s R&D department in the 1990’s, he rose through the ranks to become a member of the global R&D leadership where he stayed for over 12 years.

After the Roche and Genentech merger, Andreas became Head of Roche’s Cardiovascular and Metabolism business unit. When Roche decided to strategically exit this franchise in 2014, he decided to leave the company. For a long time he had wanted to take part in an Executive MBA at IMD – he struggled to find the time – but this departure finally gave him the opportunity.

“I was in my early 50’s and was ready for the next chapter after Big Pharma, where I learned a lot but also had to realize that your impact will always remain limited, even when you are in a senior position,” he says. “I had lots of managerial and leadership experience but felt a high quality, formal business training would still be valuable for me,” he recalls. His learnings on the program were timely for his next big business challenges.

During the EMBA, Andreas worked as an executive consultant to boards of several biotech companies. Right after completing the IMD program in 2015, Swiss biotech company Polyphor asked Andreas if he would join them as interim Development Head and CMO to support them to get their potentially revolutionary new drug to market. Polyphor had developed a new chemical class of antibiotic, able to fight specific pathogens that had become resistant to existing antibiotics. This meant Polyphor’s lead drug had high medical and business potential.

There is a huge medical need for the company’s innovative product, explains Andreas. In the last 25 years no novel class of antibiotics had been developed, while the threat of resistant pathogens increased world-wide. While governments and society encouraged the development of new antibiotics, market access guidelines were, however, not yet tailored for highly potent and highly selective precision antibiotics such as the one Polyphor was developing.

“Polyphor had struggled to reach an agreement with FDA and EMA (the US and EU regulatory bodies, respectively) on the medically and operationally feasible confirmatory clinical studies. Andreas used his extensive R&D experience to come up with an innovative strategy to prove the efficacy and safety of the novel precision medicine.

“It was quite a challenge and an enormous motivation to get this medicine to patients in need,” says Andreas. “Since we were the first in a novel class, we could not follow the established precedence. We had to work closely with the regulatory bodies, establishing the relationship and discussing with them how they might adapt their established regulations so that they would allow the development of this new technology, which had clear benefits to patients.” He found that once trust was established, the Agencies became open to finding legally and scientifically correct, constructive solutions to addressing the problems.

“This was very rewarding work and it was evident that such interactions were much more feasible in a small company compared to big Pharma, where inevitably many layers get involved in such critical discussions,” says Andreas.

After a lot of hard work, the development path and design was approved by the FDA in March 2017 and EMA in June 2017. Along the way, Andreas – together with an experienced and charismatic new CEO – was involved in redesigning the company’s management and bringing additional experienced pharma staff on board.

Right after the FDA endorsement, Polyphor was able to raise a next financing round of 40m CHF, ensuring the continued operations and allowing the preparation to go public. The recent IPO was successful and exceeded expectations.

While all of this was going on, one of Polyphor’s biggest investors, leading Swiss VC BioMedPartners, invited Andreas to join them as General partner for their new fund. This undertaking also became a success and BioMed raised 100m CHF for their third biotech venture fund in February 2018.

Andreas believes the EMBA gave him invaluable insights that helped him with the work in a broader business role in biotech, and is most valuable in his role as GP at BioMed Partners, where he is now board member in several of their companies. The IMD school of strategic thinking (‘where to play and how to win’) also helped him to align the companies on positioning and development strategy and to get traction for implementation to push the product through to the market or to acquisition.

When it came to playing a part in the IPO, Andreas was also aided by what he had learned on the program. Despite not being from a financial background, it had helped him understand the context better, as well as the discussions with investment banks and investor groups. “The continued learning is in the DNA of the IMD training,” he says.

Andreas explains that the program offers personal insight and reflection on why you do what you do. “The EMBA allowed time for in-depth discussion with coaches and colleagues, and over the 15 months duration, you get to know each other much better, receive more valuable feedback and benefit in very useful debates.” He adds that the program enabled him to be on neutral ground and talk to people from other industries, which he would not experience in his own workplace. “This was very enriching and instructive, because you recognize patterns from other industries and are able to see the problem from different perspectives. I was also very impressed by the quality of the participants,” he says.

As for Andreas’ most important lesson learned in business: to have confidence in your intuition. “There are always dozens of reasons to wait and there are a lot of people who want to be reassured by others and go into circular debates. Of course, you have to analyze, reflect and plan, of course you need to form alliances, and align people but once you are convinced go for it, take some risk, see how it evolves and adjust if needed. If the direction is good, people will join in, and you’ll create momentum.”

Find out more about the IMD EMBA.