Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Pascal Winnen

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Pascal Winnen is a co-founder and the CEO of HEMEX, a pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device consulting firm with offices in Switzerland, Germany, the USA and Singapore. Through HEMEX, he has also invested in several innovative life science startups, where he also advises on regulatory, clinical and marketing strategies, either as a senior consultant or as a board member.

From 2011 to 2015, Pascal worked for Finox Biotech, bringing one of the first biosimilar fertility treatments to the market in the EU and leading to the successful acquisition by Gedeon Richter in 2016. Prior to that, he has also worked in various positions in the pharmaceutical and medtech industry. Pascal holds a bachelor’s degree in Telecommunication Technologies (University of Leuven, Belgium) and a master’s degree in Clinical Research (Donau University in Krems, Austria). 

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Pascal Winnen

Tell us more about your background.

I studied telecommunication engineering and worked in the industry for a couple of years. However, in 2000, the telecom bubble burst. At that time, I had a young family and decided that I needed a job that was a little more stable. And of course, healthcare is more stable than anything else because everybody will always need it. I started working in a technical function at Cochlear, where I had met my wife. 

I later worked for Arpida, an antibiotic development spinoff of Roche that had about 20 antibiotics in the pipeline. We submitted the first one for approval in 2008, but unfortunately it was rejected in 2009. The company had to be dissolved and everybody left. That was my first big venture in healthcare, which should have been a more stable industry, but it backfired. 

The good thing about it was that I met my co-founders there. Paul Hadváry was the first CEO of Basilea and Richard Peck was the Head of Regulatory Affairs at Roche. In 2011, we got together, rented an office, created a website, and started to look for clients. 

We found a project in Burgdorf through a connection, that had an interesting molecule—a biosimilar for fertility. With fertility, you theoretically need 9 months to proof that it works, but it took a little bit longer. In 2015, the company was sold for $190 million. That was nice but it also meant that everybody had to make an exit because there were no follow-up projects.

In 2015, we officially incorporated HEMEX and started building the business. Originally, we started with only regulatory affairs, quality assurance and clinical operations; but now, we offer all expertise needed to bring a product from the bench to the market for different segments of customers in pharmaceuticals, medical device, in vitro diagnostics, digital health applications, etc. 

From the 3 original employees, we are now 20 as of today. We were successful from the first year and continued to reinvest that money in the company and expanded the services that we offer. We also expanded geographically to Germany to serve the EU clients and to Orlando, Florida to serve our U.S. clients. Starting this year, we also have an office in Singapore.

Tell us more about your clients.

Geography-wise I would say 95% of our business is in Switzerland, despite some of the work being done abroad. We live in an international world, and though clients may be headquartered here, they can conduct clinical studies globally. 

We have few big pharma, biotech customers and plenty of small, early-stage medtech clients. Based on the 80/20 rule, I would say that 80% of the clients bring 20% of the business; and 20% of the clients bring 80% of the business. 

I find HEMEX unique because you also invest into startups. Tell us more about this. 

In 2018, we were serving early-stage startups which all had the same problem: most of the time they were fundraising, instead of building the company and the product. As we were successful and making money, we decided to start investing that money into startups. We can truly analyse a company because we were working with them in the areas of regulatory affairs, quality assurance and clinical operations. We had all the expertise that a purely financial company does not have. The only disadvantage is that we don’t have that much money. 

However, we can still invest with a smaller ticket size in these early stage startups and join forces with financing partners who don’t have the expertise. They had to pay experts a lot of money for advice. We help the startups with research, provide incorporation support, launch their Series A, B, etc. Sometimes, we can’t support big biotech projects because they need so much money. That’s why the focus moved towards medtech because their financing needs are in smaller amounts. 

There is a lot of money around in the current negative interest rate environment. With a lot of risk capital, everybody wants to invest in startups. Our investors have the money to do this, but they do not necessarily have the know-how to make well-informed investment decisions. HEMEX does not have that much financial capacity but had a lot of know-how to help the investors decide.

Usually, in an early stage startup, it’s easy to get 10-20x your investment; but 80% of those investments fail. If you can reduce that 80% failure rate to 50% or 40%, then you can make real money. That’s what we wanted to offer to our co-investors and financing partners. 

Can you share some challenges you’ve faced?  

In the beginning, you do everything from cleaning, to paying invoices and salaries, doing tax declarations, etc. As you grow, you need to build your organisation and you can’t do everything yourself. You need to find the right people and motivate them, and it’s not just about money. I’ve worked in companies where I made a lot of money, but I didn’t like my job too much. 

Growing and staying profitable is another challenge. In the beginning, when you’re 2-3 people, nobody really cares about you. But when you grow to 10-15 people in a short time, then you start appearing on people’s radar—not just potential clients but also competitors. It was a very competitive environment, but we managed to do it.

What has been some highlights for you on this journey? 

There have been many highlights. We’ve built a great team of 20 very highly trained young scientists. They are very dynamic and happy with their jobs, so that’s a major achievement for me. That was probably the most difficult thing to do and manage. 

In terms of our clients, they managed to create a product from a very basic idea. They investigated the science behind their idea, made prototypes from that, and finally made products that reach the market with doctors and patients using them.

With our investments, none of the dozen or so companies that we’ve invested in has failed thus far. Some grew rapidly, some a little bit slower, but they all increased in value. We are quite happy with that, and our investors are also happy. 

Tell us more about InQbator.

InQbator is a joint venture between a few parties. Launchpad, a small VC domiciled in Singapore, is a client of BLKB, the cantonal bank of Baselland. Launchpad has the infrastructure in Muttenz and Orlando, Florida. They wanted to set up an incubator with a focus on life science.

The bank has the money, the VC has the co-working infrastructure, and Swiss universities and Universities of Applied Sciences produce a lot of brilliant ideas. What was missing was the fourth pillar—the expertise in asking the right questions. Somebody had to assist with determining the right investment, the services that a company needs, whether they are under- or overestimating the tasks that must be done to bring a life science product to the market, etc. 

They looked for a partner who could cover this gap and that was how they got involved with HEMEX, via BLKB and the office of Economic Development here in the Baselland Canton. They contacted us and asked if we would be interested in joining forces for such a project, and we agreed. 

We worked out the concept, ideas, money, infrastructure, and expertise. It’s very important that we select high quality projects to become successful. And since ‘Quality’ starts with the letter ‘Q’, our name ‘inQbator’ are all small caps except for the capitalised ‘Q’. Since we first talked more than eight months ago, we now have 6 startups in the program. 

What drives you?

Being ambitious, I need to have goals. I never want to have the status quo. I mean, I’m happy with what I have, but as soon as I feel that there is nothing more to reach for me, I would go back outside. I need to grow professionally, personally, or any kind of challenge. Trying to reach my goals drives me. I put high goals for myself, and I strive towards them. 

What is your view on failure?

Failure is needed. Ariana Huffington said that failure is not the opposite of success, but it’s a steppingstone towards success. You fail, you learn from it, and you move on. In my CV I have my quote: “Fall down, stand up, straighten your crown, smile and walk on.” 

If you fail, it’s not the end of the world. But sometimes it can be lonely and you’re there alone. And if it fails, nobody is going to come and pick you up. So, you must be ready for that.

Best and worst part of being a CEO? 

The best part is that you can really achieve something. If the board gives you strategic goals, then it’s up to you on an operational level to implement those. 

The worst part is that it’s lonely. You are at the top of the pyramid in the company, and you are responsible for everything and everyone. You cannot lower your guard at any time.  

Can you share some lessons learned? 

I think the most important thing is the team. When I invest, I don’t invest in products, but I invest in teams. The greatest project without a good team is going to fail; the best team with a product that failed can always find a new product and continue. 

Great teams do not have big titles, big egos, but simply very ambitious people who are happy to work. You can just trust them. If you are part of a good team, you can achieve everything. 

What advice do you have for startup founders? 

You need to be willing to learn, especially those coming from top universities. Those who do not have the biggest egos, they usually make it. You see them round after round of financing, they’re likeable, and they get the money. You tell them, “Look, I worked in this industry for 25 years. Don’t do it that way because you will fail.” Many who chose not to listen and did it their way after getting the money, failed. 

You bring your expertise, dynamism, and scientific background, and those are all great. But be willing to learn, be humble, take advice from people who are more experienced. 

I see that for myself too. Sometimes, I have a board member who is a lot more senior than me. And sometimes I think, “why do they say that?” And two weeks later I noticed why they said it. Once you can do that, then you’ll be very successful. 

What is your hope for HEMEX? 

My hope is that we continue to grow the way we do now, and for people in the company to grow. We want to continue attracting a lot of wonderful people and for them to be happy in their jobs. 

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