Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Klaus Dugi

Dr. Klaus Dugi is CEO of Vandria, a Venture Partner at ND Capital and currently a Board member at AOBiome Therapeutics and Ferring Ventures.

He spent 18 years in pharmaceutical industry with Boehringer Ingelheim and Ferring Pharmaceuticals, mostly in leadership positions including more than eight years as Chief Medical Officer. At Boehringer, he oversaw the successful development, global approval and launch of several novel medicines including four which have achieved blockbuster status. He gained commercial experience as General Manager for the UK & Ireland at Boehringer.

Klaus was a PostDoc for four years at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US, conducting research in the fields of metabolic diseases and molecular biology. He received his clinical training in internal medicine and endocrinology at Heidelberg University Hospital where he teaches as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with Klaus Dugi

Tell us more about your background and what is your team building at Vandria. 

I am a physician by training. I spent four years as a PostDoc at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, USA, and subsequently received my clinical training at Heidelberg University Hospital in Internal Medicine and Endocrinology. Inspired by the opportunity to develop new medicines to improve outcomes for patients, I moved from academic medicine to pharmaceutical drug development in 2003.

I started the clinical diabetes area at Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) and advanced to become Global Head of Medicine and Chief Medical Officer for BI for five and a half years. After two years of commercial experience as the General Manager for the UK & Ireland for BI, I joined the Executive Committee of Ferring Pharmaceuticals as CMO. 

Having gained experience in big pharma, I have more recently focused on earlier innovation in the biotech industry. For the past three and a half years, I have taken on the CEO and CMO roles at Vandria while also being a Venture Partner at ND Capital and sitting on a few Boards. 

Throughout my career, I have learned that having effective teams is critical to success. I thus consider building the team my most important role as the CEO of Vandria and I am proud of having contributed to hiring a very diverse and highly effective team at Vandria and of engendering a culture in which the team enjoy working together towards a common goal.     

As someone who transitioned from practising medicine to working in industry, what prompted this shift and what were the most notable aspects of your experience?

While I very much enjoyed working with patients in Heidelberg, I unfortunately spent most of my time on administrative tasks. Given the opportunity to start a new therapeutic area at a family-owned, data-driven, and ethical company like BI and to potentially develop novel medicines to address unmet medical need was highly attractive to me.

What I very much appreciated in the pharmaceutical industry was the complete lack of routine as every day comes with new learnings and challenges, and the highly collaborative spirit of achieving goals together as a team. 

What are some key lessons you have learned from your time at BI and Ferring?

The importance of team! Of having the right people in the right job, how crucial a high level of communication is, and the absolute necessity to work together cross-functionally without any silo mentality. 

What are some advantages and disadvantages of working in big pharma compared to the biotech sector, from your perspective? 

The advantage of big pharma is having access to many content matter experts for all aspects of drug development and working along well-established processes. The downside can be a slow decision-making process and too much red tape. 

In biotech, you need to be more of an all-rounder, highly flexible and adaptable which brings its own challenges and rewards. That said, it’s nimbler with faster decision-making. With that of course comes very visible personal responsibility which I enjoy.

What sets Vandria apart as an exciting company and what significant milestones is the company aiming to achieve? 

Vandria is an example of a truly innovative company pioneering a new approach based on cutting-edge scientific knowledge. We are using the emerging understanding of the role of mitochondria to develop a first-in-class novel approach to rejuvenate mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, to address age-related diseases.

Our frontrunner compound has a unique dual mode of action for the treatment of brain diseases. In pre-clinical models it combines an immediate positive impact on memory and learning with long-term disease-modifying effects such as a reduced inflammation of the brain. This may translate into a highly attractive profile for an Alzheimer’s drug. A significant milestone for us will be to become a clinical-stage biotech company which we expect to happen as soon as July this year. 

Can you highlight some career achievements you take pride in? 

I had the privilege of being intricately involved in the development of two novel diabetes drugs whilst at BI. Linagliptin became the first diabetes therapy to be available to all patients with just one dose which is very popular with prescribing physicians. Empagliflozin was the first diabetes drug to show a significant positive impact on cardiovascular outcomes including a 32% reduction in all-cause mortality. 

I also take pride in having hired and worked with some amazing colleagues who added so much value to what we did in various settings including at Vandria. 

Finally, I am very happy that I never had to put commercial interests over patient benefit. 

You are also on the Board of a number of other biotechs. Can you share some insights into these companies? 

Notify Therapeutics, where I have the privilege to serve as Chairman of the Board, is developing a novel approach to help people who struggle with infertility to fulfil their dream of starting a family. 

AOBiome Therapeutics has developed a local microbiome therapy for patients suffering from atopic dermatitis and has published very positive and convincing Phase 2 data. 

Cytoki Pharma is developing a new class of medicines harnessing IL-22 biology to better treat metabolic disease which, with my background in metabolic diseases, is very exciting to me. 

Who or what has shaped who you are? 

The first that come to mind are my parents who inspired and supported me to trust in my abilities. Professionally, my bosses at BI taught me the importance of transparency, patient safety as the number one priority, attention to data detail, but also the importance of constantly looking for new ways of doing things. 

What is one interesting fact about yourself that few people know of (a hobby, etc.)?

I have quite a few hobbies, two of those being perhaps a little bit of an odd combination: I play a lot of online and in-person chess, but I also have a passion for dancing Tango Argentino. Perhaps they reflect my strategic skills but also my ability to be nimble, fast-moving and passionate!

Do you have any final remarks/advice to share?

My advice to other leaders would be that whilst strategy and analytical decision-making are important, to focus more on soft factors such as motivating and empowering their teams, communicating as much as possible, and in line with Simon Sinek to always start with the WHY. In our business, this is easy: WHY do we do what we do is to help patients live better and longer lives. 

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