Though Brussels-based UCB is not a household name in the U.S., for those who have epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis, the company’s top three drugs can be life-changing therapies.
UCB entered the U.S. marketplace in 1994 through an acquisition of another pharmaceutical company. A year later, with 40 initial employees, the company established its North American operations headquarters on a 44-acre campus off Cobb Parkway near Windy Hill Road.
In 1996, UCB made headlines with the introduction of allergy medication Zyrtec, which it co-introduced with Pfizer pharmaceutical company. At the time, Duncan was senior vice president at Pfizer and was leading his company’s efforts to launch the drug with UCB. Duncan spent 17 years with Pfizer, starting as a sales representative immediately after graduate school.
In 2007, UCB tapped Duncan to lead its European operations. His territory and responsibilities quickly grew, and he was asked to help lead the company through a drastic realignment.
“I joined UCB in part to transition them from a primary care company into a specialist medicine company,” he said.
Duncan says that pharmaceutical companies either offer a wide range of medicines or are focused on smaller populations and medical needs.
“The market has shown that most general diseases are pretty well-served,” Duncan said. “We have a clear focus in immunology and neuroscience diseases.”
Duncan says the economic impact to the pharmaceutical industry hit the primary care companies first.
“We could not continue to replenish the primary care pipeline,” he said.
Duncan said the greatest challenge he faced was in 2009, when the company eliminated 350 positions in order to make the shift.
“We have this great company with a great future, but we had to go through this difficult transition,” he said.
Since that time, UCB has launched three drugs: Cimzia for the treatment of adult patients with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease; Vimpat for adjunctive therapy in the treatment of partial-onset seizures in epilepsy; and Neupro for Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome.
Of the company’s 8,500 employees worldwide, Duncan oversees 1,000 in UCB’s operations group. The Smyrna office is home to 400 employees in four buildings. In 2011, the company generated revenue of 3.2 billion euros, the equivalent of $4 billion.
According to Duncan, UCB puts upwards of 26 percent of its revenue back into research — two times the industry average. He says the phase-three research period with a drug is by far the most expensive part.
He said he is excited about three drugs the company has in phase-three development: Brivaracetam, an epilepsy drug; Epratuzumab, a lupus treatment; and Sclerostin, an antibody for post-menopausal osteoporosis and fracture healing.
“The reason I joined UCB was for its pipeline of new medicines and its specialist focus in immunology and neuroscience, areas where there is great medical needs,” Duncan said. “We are not in the business of bringing ‘me too’ medicines to the marketplace. I came here to build something special.”
Duncan’s colleagues say he has succeeded in that.
“Despite significant changes in health care and challenges in the antiepileptic drug market, Greg has led UCB successfully down the road of further drug development and providing epilepsy patients new options for improved seizure control,” said Dr. Brien Smith, co-chair of the department of clinical neuroscience and chief of neurology at Spectrum Health Medical Group.