A good team can conquer almost anything

2019-10-09

Hans Schikan

He always keeps his focus on the team, whether he is CEO, investor or adviser. Hans Schikan has almost 30 years of experience from various positions in the pharmaceutical industry.

“A good team is very high on my list when it comes to the opportunity to develop as a company and overcome setbacks,” he says.

Hans Schikan was born in the Netherlands and is a trained pharmacist. When it was time to choose between running a pharmacy in a small town or working in Holland’s largest pharmaceutical company Organon, he chose the latter.

“It was the adventure that called to me, and it became a true adventure. I started with business development in the international market, and it led me to a life in Japan, in Thailand and, as CEO of the company, in Finland and Holland. Of course, it was very exciting and interesting.”

After 17 years, he brought his experiences to the fast-growing company Genzyme, now part of Sanofi, and delved deeper into the market for drugs for rare diseases. Among other things, Genzyme developed the first effective drug for Gaucher disease, which is caused by an enzyme deficiency and leads to enlargement and damage of various internal organs, resulting in symptoms that are more or less severe.

“At Genzyme, I learned the importance of patient contact. They have unique knowledge about their diseases and how it affects life. Since then, I have always maintained that each life science company should try to establish as close contact as possible with the patients. In other words, a really good team always includes those you are targeting.”

After five years, Hans Schikan was ready to move on. An investor called him and asked whether he would consider becoming CEO of a small, interesting company called Prosensa. The company had 15 employees and also researched drugs for rare diseases, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). DMD is caused by impaired function or deficiency of a particular protein, and affects boys and men almost exclusively. The muscles slowly degenerate, and many die young.

“I thought it was now or never. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of really building something, and helping others.”

That was the start of an exciting journey. The company went from 15 employees to 130 in six years, entered into a partnership with British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and was introduced on the Nasdaq exchange in the USA.

“Everything went well and it was a fantastic feeling! Naturally, there were times when things were more challenging, but we were able to overcome these challenges.”

Meaningful patient contact continued in Prosensa.

“The initial research we did was actually funded by the patient association. Eventually, they became the real investors, with stock shares,” explains Hans Schikan.

There were many who hoped that Prosensa and GSK would reach the goal line with the new drug. Particularly the patients. That is why it was especially disheartening when the crucial clinical tests did not show good results.

“We had great results for many years, and were so certain that we would succeed. Now, the share price plummeted and there was a crisis. When something like this happens, it is important to turn to your team and set a good example as CEO. Staying put, being as open as possible, letting all of the employees know how much they are needed, and repeating over and over again what it is we want to achieve.” 

Prosensa was ultimately sold, and Hans Schikan redirected his passion somewhat. Today, among other things, he is active as an advisor, sounding board and network builder in an organisation responsible for classification under the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. He also sits on a number of company boards (including a few in Sweden), sits on the jury of a scientific award, and coaches CEOs. He has also started a company again, Pharvaris, together with an experienced director of finance, a pharmaceutical researcher, and others. The aim is to work with the core group that developed an injection drug for people with hereditary angioedema in order to develop a drug that could instead be taken by mouth. Angioedema is characterised by swelling of the skin or mucous membranes.

“We are a very good example of what the team means to investors. Even though we initially only had an idea of what we wanted to do, had no scientific results to speak of, and only had a minimal chance of success, it was very easy for us to get funding. It is mainly our experience and skills sets that the investors look at. They know where we come from, what successes we have had, and how we have handled adversity.”

Hans Schikan

Learned Swedish: During a research semester at the Uppsala Biomedical Centre.
Motto: Celebrate when it is possible!
When not working: Tennis, hiking in the mountains, skiing, sailing, cooking. But, always keeps an eye on his mobile phone. “It doesn’t feel like a job. I think it's fun.”

Tips from Hans Schikan about how a CEO can strengthen the team

  • Talk often about the goal of operations, about the mission and vision. Does everyone agree?
  • Be as open as possible in both good times and bad.
  • Let employees know that they are needed and why – and do this often.
  • As the company grows, make sure that anyone who did a little of everything before can now concentrate on their core area.
  • Also involve the target of the company’s product or service as part of the team, for example the patient.

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