Over the course of his career, Adrian Adams has served as CEO of seven different pharma companies, including Aralez Pharmaceuticals, Auxilium Pharmaceuticals, Inspire Pharmaceuticals, Neurologix, Sepracor, and Kos Pharmaceuticals. Most recently, he took over the then-called Impel NeuroPharma in May 2020—at the height of the pandemic—and since then has led the company through its first product approval, undergone an initial public offering (IPO), rebranded to Impel Pharmaceuticals, and attracted big interest from Big Pharma in its novel drug delivery technology. PM360 spoke with him about all of this and what it takes to run a successful pharma company—or seven.
PM360: When you first arrived at Impel in May 2020, what were some of the biggest challenges you had to deal with?
Adrian Adams: The challenge, in many ways, was that 2020 and 2021 were very important years for the company. In 2020, we were awaiting results of a pivotal Phase 3 program for our first product. Also, we were journeying towards an IPO, which we would complete in April 2021. But we had to do all of this while dealing with the human resource aspect of making sure we could retain connectivity between everyone at the company during the pandemic. So ultimately, one word can sum up what was most important at the time: communication. We put in place a focused, objective setting where it was clear to everyone what we were trying to achieve. Even though we were operating in this new virtual world, we still had major milestones we were looking to accomplish.
One of those milestones arrived in September 2021 when the company’s first product, Trudhesa, was approved. In addition to dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, you were also launching into a competitive migraine market. What was the strategy to overcome that?
Trudhesa is a drug-device combination that uses our proprietary Precision Olfactory Delivery (POD) technology as a means of delivering the product uniquely to the upper nasal space, which is different from other products that deliver predominantly to the lower nasal space. After we were approved, our shareholders would ask a similar question, “How can a small company compete in a very large, competitive market?” My response was that financially we couldn’t, but we didn’t need to.
We didn’t need to create high levels of awareness because the chemical entity within our POD technology was dihydroergotamine mesylate (DHE), which is already seen as a gold standard in the treatment of acute migraine—it just had never been able to be delivered in a consistent and predictable way. Trudhesa was able to do that.
So, we took a very targeted approach. We had a 60-person sales force focused on reaching around about 8,000 physicians (5,500 neurologists and 2,500 primary care physicians). Together, those physicians gave us access to about 35% of the market. What I’ve learn when running a small company is you want to know what return you’re getting on every dollar you invest. We wanted to make sure we were not spending huge sums of money without knowing it was being spent in the right areas. So far, the approach has paid off as in the fourth quarter of 2021 we exceeded expectations with over 4,200 prescriptions generated.
Earlier this year, you announced the rebranding of the company from Impel NeuroPharma to Impel Pharmaceuticals. What went into that decision and what does it mean for the company moving forward?
When you are a private company, you have to focus your resources, so even though we recognized that our POD technology had wide applicability across many disease areas we could only stick to one area at that time. But what we’ve seen—and what we predicted—was that once Trudhesa got approved, the interest level from other companies increased. They now find this upper nasal space to be an interesting and differentiated area, and want to speak with us about partnerships on delivery options for their new chemical entities or other products. So, this name change was a means to support the fact that over the course of time we will bring our POD technology into multiple therapeutic areas, because there is opportunity beyond just migraine.
In several of your past roles as CEO, you led your former companies through acquisitions by larger pharma companies. Do you anticipate going down a similar road with Impel?
As you can imagine, with my background it’s the question I get asked all the time. My first public company Kos was acquired by Abbott, my second company Sepracor was acquired by Dainippon Sumitomo, and my third company Inspire was acquired by Merck. I can’t change the fact that I build successful public companies that have been acquired, but I would say that in every one of those situations, the building of the company was not with the intention to sell—it was building for success.
As it relates to whether Impel could become an acquisition target, from a business philosophy I prefer to focus on what I can control and not worry about the things that I can’t control. I can’t control whether someone at some stage is going to make an offer for the company. What I can control is success in business development, commercial, and R&D execution.
Based on your experience in this industry, what have been some of the most important lessons you have learned?
One of the most important lessons, which has been reinforced over these past couple of years, is the need to continue to invest in people and culture. Everyone talks about culture, but there is a difference between saying the words and actually embracing values. Across our industry, and others, we have seen a high turnover of employees as they reevaluate the balance between their business and personal lives. It’s led to a situation where unless you have a strong culture and established values to support employees, then your company is going to suffer.
Additionally, from a business philosophy point of view, there is a big difference between building a company focused on objectives and one with what I refer to as a “customer in” mentality. Instead of operating with a mindset of hitting certain financial objectives, you must look at things from a customer’s perspective and try to meet their needs. Combining all of those aspects is the key to success in tomorrow’s world.