Paul Stoffels’ return to Galapagos might be the biotech story of a generation. Simultaneously a founding father and returning champion, Stoffels’ second stint at Belgium’s promising, if beleaguered, biotech is really only getting started.
A renowned leader in innovation, hailing from Johnson & Johnson where he served as Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer, Stoffels has what could be described as the Midas touch when it comes to seeking out new treatments; the drugs he selects often prove to be highly successful for patients and companies.
Now, just over a year and a half into his return to Galapagos after co-founding it in 1999, he has already made waves. He acquired CellPoint and AboundBio, boldly signaling Galapagos’ thrust into CAR-T therapies, and dropped programs in fibrosis and kidney disease.
“Our goal is to bring new transformative medicines to the clinic and to the market including three next-generation CAR-T candidates over the next three years,” said Stoffels.
Although its trajectory is not yet secured, and many biotech companies have seen their valuations drop in the past two years, Stoffels’ long term-vision remains intact. “Our innovation strategy accelerates growth, value creation and impact for patients. We’re bringing transformational medicines forward as fast as possible to help patients live longer and healthier lives,” Stoffels says.
Moving fast for patients has always been at the forefront for Stoffels; he started his career as a medical doctor. During his training, he explains, he traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo just as the medical community was starting to understand the impact and suffering caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
“It was 1983 and I just started as an intern at a hospital in Kinshasa,” said Stoffels. “We were confronted with an increasingly large number of patients suffering and dying from an infection with the recently discovered HIV. Scientists rushed to unravel the nature of this disease.”
HIV would go on to become one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, killing tens of millions, and affecting even more, including those close to Stoffels.
“HIV came really close when one of my best friends — who was a doctor in Africa too — was infected with HIV. The odds were against his survival,” he said. His friend lived, he continued, but from then onwards, “I refused to accept the situation and put my heart and soul in finding ways to fight HIV and other deadly diseases. For my friend, for his wife, for his two kids. For countless affected families.”
That blend of professional, personal, and humanistic motivation carried Stoffels forward. Today, few people can claim to have had as much of an impact on the lives of countless people all over the world impacted by HIV and other medical issues.
HIV is no longer the death sentence it was, thanks in part to Stoffels’ work during his near-two-decade stint at Johnson & Johnson (J&J). During his time at the company, J&J brought three HIV medicines to market.
In his time at J&J, Stoffels set the company-wide innovation agenda, discovering and developing more than 25 new medicines, seven of which were added to the Essential Medicines List of the World Health Organization. “This recognition is what truly matters to me, for the huge impact these medicines are making for patients worldwide.”
He established J&J Innovation, a vast network of innovation hubs across the world, as a source to access the best science and technology through strategic partnerships, licensing, acquisitions, incubation, and investments. This was a visionary approach that companies across Europe, the United States, and Asia are now mirroring.
Currently, there are more than 700 companies incubating in the J&J Innovation ecosystem. While Galapagos has more focused aims, its prioritization of external collaboration is central to the Mechelen-headquartered company’s new strategy. “External collaboration is key,” said Stoffels.
Today more than ever, companies are putting out feelers into the wider ecosystem to identify the new drugs, technologies, and companies poised to make an impact. For companies with deep pockets, the timing is right.
One of the ironies of the last few years is that the renewed focus on public health in society at large has combined with a terrible few years for much of the biotech industry. It’s a buyer’s market. Competition for capital is heating up. And Stoffels, who has a sharp eye for technologies that accelerate time to patients and are undervalued in the marketplace, stands ready to make smart deals.
The near-immediate acquisitions of CellPoint and AboundBio upon Stoffels’ arrival indicate a new direction. Galapagos has gained access to a scalable, decentralized, and automated point-of-care cell therapy manufacturing model, a clinical pipeline in hemato-oncology, and a human antibody-based therapeutics platform.
Stoffels said: “Our oncology research focuses on CAR-T-cell therapies, manufactured at point-of-care, close to patients, as well as fully human antibody capabilities to develop next-generation biologicals and multi-targeting CAR-Ts. Our aim is to reduce patient waiting time and deliver transformative therapies in a median of 7 days vein-to-vein.”
The acquisition of both companies is an early step, and a strong signal, indicating the company’s strategic transformation under Stoffels. His plan is to accelerate and diversify.
Reflecting on his first year and a half at the helm of Galapagos, Stoffels said: “Throughout my career I’ve always had one mission in mind—to deliver more years of life and quality of life to people around the world through the power of innovation at scale. At Galapagos we’re already changing the future of patient care in immunology and oncology.”
Razor sharp and acutely industrious, Stoffels’ incisiveness in his approach to building innovative companies is second to none, and it is infused with a fiercely humanistic instinct that has fueled him on a personal and professional level for decades. It ensures that the work he does, whether with J&J or Galapagos, remains focused on what is most important: delivering better patient outcomes.