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"It’s been a great first year" - an interview with Pierre Meulien


IMI: In your interview with the IMI office a year ago, you said you were excited to be joining IMI. Are you still excited to be here?

Pierre Meulien: Pierre_BIO_pic2014_200px.jpgAbsolutely, I am – it’s been a great first year. I came in understanding that this was the beginning of a whole era of constructing public-private partnerships. They’re very new, very challenging for all the stakeholders and we’re not only pushing the boundaries in terms of what we’re learning scientifically, but we’re pushing the barriers around what kinds of partnerships can be built in terms of aligning very different views from a number of different stakeholders. That’s very exciting for me: I believe that great things are created at interfaces, and although interfaces are sometimes challenging to put together, they can be incredibly productive. When we talk about innovation and especially about open innovation challenges and models, some of the IMI projects that have been developed over the years have been at the cutting edge of the open innovation paradigm.  In those really quite complex constructs, fantastic things can happen.

For example, we recently met with the partners of a project that has just finished, U-BIOPRED. That six year project had 40-50 different partners from the public and private sectors, including patient groups, and it is not an exaggeration to say that they essentially redefined the taxonomy of asthma. Thanks to this project, patients going in for assessment in the not-too-distant future will have new medications and new types of interventions proposed to them. It has also transformed the way industry partners play in asthma and in respiratory diseases in general. The project has been, in the team’s words, ‘transformative’ in the way they work.

IMI: Which other accomplishments in the past year are you most proud of?

Pierre Meulien: One highlight was being able to create very serious strategic intent around oncology because it’s a topic in which historically some companies were reluctant to open up and share information. However, we are building our new cancer strategy with the realisation that no one company, no one institute can have the monopoly in something as complex, important and as serious as that.

Another highlight would be what we’re doing in the area of Alzheimer’s. Through the EPAD project and their growing pan-European cohort of people who are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, we’re going to have a unique and critical opportunity to intervene early on before dementia really sets in and becomes irreversible.  

I am also proud of our contribution to the antimicrobial resistance efforts on a global level. We have been pioneering innovative new models to address different challenges related to antibiotic research and development, and our programme is recognised for that worldwide, informing other initiatives and efforts. The clinical networks and the laboratory networks that we’re creating are also going to be vital for anyone testing innovative products in this difficult area.

If we look back at our strategic intent from the beginning, which is to try and tackle some of the world’s most serious health problems that are a huge financial burden on health systems in Europe and elsewhere, I think we are focusing on those big ticket items, whether it be Alzheimer’s or other neurological disorders, cancer or infectious disease. Those are kingpins of what we’re doing and will remain so.

IMI: You mentioned that IMI is pushing the boundaries of public-private partnerships. Could you give an example of how we’re doing that?

Pierre Meulien: I say that we’re pushing the boundaries because the working models which IMI consortia are using are different from one to another. Yes, we’re within a framework which is set in the H2020 context but the beauty of IMI is that we have this flexibility to have different kinds of constructs within our portfolio. For example, in our ULTRA-DD project the partners have been able to agree that most of the results are immediately accessible to everyone without any conditions. It’s an open access model.

It is important to note that in the life sciences field everything will continually evolve, nobody is standing still. The pharmaceutical industry is obviously a fast moving one; there are lots of challenges that the industry is currently facing. IMI is a great place for them to experiment with new models of learning that can be beneficial both for the industry and for the public side – we can incentivise the industry to work on things they might not otherwise work on such as antimicrobial resistance or Alzheimer’s.

The public side will also evolve, the maturity of the patient groups will evolve and the voice of patients will become even important than it is now. Therefore, we will continue to involve more regulators, payers and other stakeholders that have a strong voice and a role to play in the delivery side of what we’re doing.

IMI: Could you tell us a bit more about the value of IMI as a public-private partnership? Couldn’t the same things be accomplished with other H2020 instruments?

Pierre Meulien: Our original, overarching goal was to try and increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of research and development of innovative medicines, and to make these innovations more accessible and affordable to European citizens. The only way we’re going to do this is if we can make a huge, transformative difference in the way research and development is done. Some of the results from our projects have already been transformative, whether we’re talking about severe asthma or antimicrobial resistance, or the impact on the industry itself and the way in which they work. Doing what we do, we keep on challenging the norm – that’s our job. We challenge how the pharmaceutical industry works, challenge how the academia works, challenge what voices other stakeholders bring to the table.

Lots of things can be done with other instruments, but there are things where only a public-private partnership like IMI can provide the unique platform to do certain things. We’re not everything to everyone, but there are things where we need a public-private partnership to come together and provide a solution to a specific challenge. For example, the European Lead Factory is a project that could not be conceived without a public-private partnership concept and this huge collection of compounds that has been created is probably the best collection of molecules in the world.  I don’t believe that construct would have been possible without a public-private partnership.

IMI: IMI just finished hosting the annual Stakeholder Forum, and with about 400 participants, it was the biggest ever. What was the main objective of the event, and what were the main take-home messages?

Pierre Meulien: This is one of our most important meetings of the year because it allows us to take the temperature of our community, to test ideas in specific areas and get immediate feedback. It reinforces our objectives of openness and transparency in the way our projects are initiated and managed.

This year’s event was a great success. In terms of the number of participants, it was the biggest IMI Stakeholder Forum ever, which shows that the interest in our work and our projects is increasing. For the scientific part, in four separate workshops we gathered feedback on four big research topics – oncology, biopreparedness, advanced therapies and digital health. The main objective of each workshop was to take the pulse of the field in terms of what is going on and where the trends are, and then drill down to what IMI can do as a public-private partnership. Now we can really sit down with our Strategic Governing Groups and the Commission to try to understand where would be the biggest added value of using the IMI vehicle. In each of those fields, I think we’ll come up with some great things. We won’t be able to do everything in 2017, but we might even get a three year plan as a result.

IMI: What do you see as the biggest challenges going forward?

Pierre Meulien: The biggest challenges are to do with maintaining continued alignment among our stakeholders. It’s both the strength of what we do, but also a challenge because there is a lot of political pressure for the players to change the way they normally work. Once again, IMI is a great platform for them to come and work together, but every time they come to IMI, they have to compromise somewhere.

Furthermore, the science is progressing at such a pace that we have a challenge in terms of our collective ability to harness that cutting edge research in real time and incorporate it into our projects. Although we have great academic groups on board and they are themselves at the cutting edge, they often have to integrate research that is not in their own area, and that can be difficult. At the same time, this is why the cross-disciplinarily of what we are doing is so exciting.

Another challenge is that we need to bring new sectors into play in order to deliver on our overall goals – whether that is in the diagnostic industry, in the imaging industry, the ICT industry, or areas like nutrition. All this plays into this multidisciplinary approach we’re talking about but it also increases the complexity of our projects.

Finally, there is the challenge of communicating the value of what IMI does, especially to politicians. We do a lot in this area but there is still a lot more to do. Our projects are performing very well by any measure, but the challenge is in translating that performance into language that people can grasp, without promising that we’re going to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s within the next ten years.

IMI: What’s your main goal for next year?

Pierre Meulien: Communicating on our results will surely be a priority. We’re also going to focus on building more ties with the international community, and the business of getting other sectors and stakeholders more involved. We’re coming to a point where we’re seeing that in some of our projects we absolutely need the imaging companies or the ICT or the diagnostics to deliver what we want to do.

Another goal will be to get more SMEs on board, to harness their innovative ideas. Patient involvement will also be important– we’re going to be creating a new patient advisory group as part of the IMI governance because we’re serious about involving them as much as possible.

IMI: What was the biggest surprise to you since joining IMI?

Pierre Meulien: It is even more complex than I thought it was going to be. It is a highly complex area which is why I believe so much in the public-private nature of what we’re doing – even more than I did a year ago. For some things, I am absolutely sure, the public-private solution will be the only way that we get some of these new innovations to patients.