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Ionis: Raising the Bar for ESG

In this episode of Pathfinders, Luca Issi, Senior Biotech Analyst at RBC Capital Markets, speaks with Beth Hougen, CFO of Ionis Pharma – a leading innovator in the development of antisense medicines and RNA-targeted therapeutics – to find out how the firm is embedding ESG into its vision, strategy and performance.

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By Luca Issi
Featuring Beth Hougen, Chief Financial Officer, Ionis Pharma
Published November 5, 2021 | 3 min read
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Key Points

  • For Ionis, putting patients first is the foundation of their approach to drug discovery and sustainable innovation.
  • An important step on the firm’s ESG journey is regularly reporting on their practices and progress to stakeholders and obtaining feedback.
  • Championing diversity and inclusion in the workplace starts at the top, and ensuring a positive environment, equal pay and employee safety are key priorities for Ionis.
  • Ionis aims to set the standard for enhancing clinical trial diversity to reach patient populations in most need.

In an exclusive interview, Luca Issi, Senior Biotech Analyst at RBC Capital Markets, and Beth Hougen, CFO of Ionis Pharma, discuss how Ionis is actively raising the bar around the unique set of ESG issues facing biotech firms.

Luca Issi: Can you give us the big picture mission for Ionis, and how ESG fits in with your broader corporate goals?

Beth Hougen: Ionis was founded over 30 years ago to pioneer antisense as a new approach to drug discovery. From day one, we’ve put patients at the center of that mission. It’s the foundation for all that we do. Today, we have three products on the market – Spinraza, our blockbuster medicine that has changed the lives of patients living with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), and two other medicines for rare diseases.

We’ve built an organization with innovation at the core to meet the needs of patients who depend on us. To execute on our vision, we recruit the most qualified talent and focus on ensuring the health, safety and well-being of our employees and our patients.

Our approach to ESG is embedded in how we work. Now, we have an important opportunity to communicate that more broadly. We're looking forward to publishing our inaugural Corporate Responsibility report this fall on our efforts, which is just the beginning of our commitment to report regularly and transparently on our ESG priorities.

When you think about the next two to three years, what are the top ESG priorities at Ionis that you would like to tackle?

Continuing to have a diverse, inclusive and equitable workforce across the organization will remain a priority, from the leadership team right through into the organization. We’re also evolving from a company that's excelled in research and development to a more fully integrated organization that’s focused on bringing more and more best-in-class or first-in-class medicines to markets around the world. So, a critical objective going forward will be advancing patient diversity too, both for ourselves and our partners.

What policies are in place that will allow you to ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce going forward?

When you're a small organization with a big agenda, every individual counts. It's critical for us to have the very best talent we possibly can, regardless of race, gender, or any other differentiating factor.

That starts at the top of the organization. We have several women on our board and recently brought Allene Diaz on board, who brings a unique perspective with her background in commercializing and marketing medicines at big pharmaceutical companies like GSK and Merck.

“When you're a small organization with a big agenda, every individual counts. It's critical for us to have the very best talent we possibly can, regardless of race, gender, or any other differentiating factor.”

Beth Hougen, CFO, Ionis

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Another important initiative is our Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, which are employee-led teams that are focused on particular dimensions of diversity. They're designed to support our business goals, diversify our workforce, build cultural awareness across the organization, and promote an inclusive and supportive culture.

Today we have six ERGs, including one specifically for women and one for the LGBTQIA+ community. We also have an ERG that engages high school students to open their minds to what could be available to them in the life sciences space.

Another important topic is compensation and equal pay. What measures do you have to ensure fair pay among all of your employees?

We closely monitor our compensation practices across the entire organization to ensure we are paying at least the 50th to 75th percentile against industry benchmarks. If we see that we may not be paying any individuals competitively, regardless of their race or gender, we make adjustments immediately and maintain that equity.

Pivoting to manufacturing and the environment, can you talk about how you’re implementing ESG principles into your facilities?

We have a manufacturing facility here in Carlsbad that we have had for over 25 years. It's gone through a lot of changes as we’ve grown, but it’s now time to find a new site that will enable us to keep advancing our pipeline and technology. Importantly, that site will also allow us to invest in the latest technologies to ensure the new facility is as sustainable and safe as we can possibly make it.

Obviously, manufacturing does have some intrinsic risks. Can you tell us more about how you're training your workforce to promote their safety?

We have an expert health and safety team who look after our facilities and employees. Every employee gets a full orientation into safety practices on their first day of work. Obviously, we follow GXP guidelines too.

We also have a host of biopharma partners who have their own standards to follow. I can't count how many times we go through inspections by regulators and partners, but we’re doing an exceptional job on all fronts.

Can you talk about the steps Ionis has put in place to make sure countries with lower income, as well as historically under-represented demographics, are included in clinical trials?

That’s a great point. It hasn't been front of mind for the industry at large, and I’m glad that’s changing. With a pipeline of 40 or so medicines in development – not only by Ionis, but also by our partners – we're conducting clinical trials across the world. So, it's critically important we reach the patient populations in most need of our medicines and enroll them into our studies as quickly as possible.

More and more, we try to match the diversity of our clinical trials to the demographics of our study patient populations. In our work with Eplontersen, we’re working closely with our clinical operations and research groups, but also with patient advocacy groups and our corporate communications teams to enable us to recruit patients who more closely resemble the patient population for whom the treatment will be most beneficial. And this work has created a foundation that we can incorporate more broadly into our clinical trials.

You also have approved products on the market. Can you talk about the pharmacovigilance systems you have in place around a blockbuster drug like Spinraza?

That question has two parts for us, because products like Spinraza, Tegsedi and WAYLIVRA are marketed by companies other than Ionis. In the case of Spinraza, the pharmacovigilance sits squarely with Biogen. And with over 11,000 patients on drug in more than 60 countries around the world, and the safety profile that we've seen from Spinraza, I feel very confident that Biogen is doing an exceptional job of ensuring the safety of those patients.

In the case of Tegsedi and WAYLIVRA, we’ve retained marketing authorization at Ionis. Therefore, the responsibility sits with us and our exceptional pharmacovigilance team. It’s a critical aspect of the company, partly because we have a platform technology that allows us to learn a lot about the safety profiles of our medicines, which we can translate into different therapeutic areas.

Many years ago, we established an integrated safety database that we maintain for all of our medicines. Our partners also contribute the data they collect in clinical trials, so we can publish reports and share findings from our database.

Can you tell us more about n-Lorem and why that organization is important not only for patients, but for you as an organization?

As you may know, n-Lorem was a goal for our founding CEO, Stanley Crooke, the founder of Ionis. He always believed that our antisense technology was uniquely able to address rare genetically based diseases. So, when he left Ionis, he formed the n-Lorem Foundation, which Ionis supports by actively looking for therapies for patients who may be the only ones with a particular genetic mutation. We’re proud to be a part of Stan’s vision and we’ll continue to support it with our resources and technology.

We’ve talked about Spinraza. Can you talk about Surf Away SMA and why that's so important for the patients, families and caregivers involved in this devastating disease?

Surf Away SMA is run by volunteers from Ionis and is a great opportunity for SMA patients to come to the beach right here at Carlsbad in Southern California, get on a surfboard and experience the waves and the sun with our local surf celebrity dog, Ricochet. The smiles on patients' faces and the joy they get from being out in the ocean really warms your heart.  The fact that we’ve created a drug in Spinraza that can give these patients the ability to live a more normal life, to live freer of their disease, it really makes what we do so much more meaningful.

Beth, that's very inspiring and probably the key reason we’ve all decided to be in biotech – we're all trying to make an impact for patients. This was a great conversation. Thank you for your time and all of your insights.

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Required Disclosures and Disclaimers

Featured Guest:

Beth Hougen

Beth Hougen
Chief Financial Officer, Ionis Pharma

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