Horizon Therapeutics CEO Is Trying To Cure His Son’s Rare Disease

Via Peters

Few questions stump Tim Walbert. But when the Horizon Therapeutics CEO picked up his 14-year-old son, Timmy, from high school football practice recently, this one did: “Dad, are you ever gonna come up with a medicine to treat our diseases?”




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The question was a fair one. Walbert and his son suffer from the same rare disease. It causes inflammation throughout their bodies and chronic pain that impacts their ability to function. Walbert’s’ autoimmune condition, separate from his rare disease, causes chronic inflammation in his joints and tendons. Walbert’s condition started in his late teens, but Timmy’s started even earlier, in eighth grade — part of which he had to spend at home due to his ailments.

Walbert found himself fumbling to answer his son’s question. Finally, he said, “I hope so.” Never mind that Walbert founded Horizon Therapeutics (HZNP) 13 years ago specifically to achieve autoimmune medical breakthroughs that others have not. “Hope is not a perfect strategy,” he said, “but in situations like this, it’s your only strategy.”

Horizon Therapeutics CEO: Let Hope Inspire You

Hope — and the dogged determination that comes with it — takes Walbert further than most. In a world where 30 million people suffer from rare diseases — he’s one of the few in a particularly unique position to do something about it.

While there are 7,000 rare diseases, only 350 have approved treatments. With that in mind, he left his prestigious job as vice president and general manager of immunology at Abbott Laboratories (ABT) and after two other jobs, eventually founded Horizon in 2008. “I can give a broader voice to hope than many,” he said.

Horizon had its first medicine approved in early 2011, the same year it went public. Since the IPO, Horizon expanded from two on-market medicines to 12 on-market medicines, eight of which are treatments for rare diseases. Since the IPO, Horizon has seen net sales increase from $7 million in 2011 to $2.2 billion in 2020, a 31,646% rise. Its stock has rocketed roughly 1,000% since the IPO, topping the S&P 500’s 253% gain in that time. And the company is on pace to make an adjusted $1.1 billion in 2021, up from a loss in 2011.

While at Abbott (whose branded drug business is now AbbVie (ABBV)), Walbert was the guy responsible for developing and commercializing that drug Humira 18 years ago that has helped to not only improve his own life, but the lives of millions of others suffering from autoimmune diseases.

Humira targets and blocks TNF-alpha, which plays a role in the process that causes inflammation in the body. Without Humira, Walbert says, he wouldn’t be able to go to work. “I’d be lying in bed or sitting on a sofa in the living room” trying to deal with the pain and fatigue, he says.

A good day for Walbert and his son, he says, “Is simply doing all the things people take for granted.”

Turn Others’ Challenges Into Opportunity

It could easily be argued that Walbert understands the real-person part of his business as well — if not better than — any CEO in the business of creating drugs for rare diseases. He’s a caregiver, too. And he finds that being a caregiver to a son with an autoimmune disease is even harder than being a CEO patient suffering from one. “Being a parent and caregiver who has to take care of a patient adds a whole new perspective and made me better at what I do,” he said.

One day, for example, caregiving for Timmy might mean picking him up early from school after receiving texts that he’s not well. On another day, it’s running to the pharmacy to get him meds.  And on yet another day, it might be finding the right doctor to work with him. “It’s not something that comes and goes. It’s something that’s part of your life,” he said.

But he insists that he’s no different from any other caregiver who must go through these things. Except, of course, that he runs a company that could someday change the dynamics. The thing about autoimmune diseases, he says, is that with a vast majority of patients, you can’t outwardly see that anything is wrong. It’s all inward. “You can look healthy on the outside, but on the inside, your body is attacking itself because its auto-immune system is overproducing,” he said.

Walbert estimates he saw close to 100 doctors through the years before getting an accurate diagnosis. But his son didn’t need to see so many doctors because they knew exactly what he had.

But it hasn’t stopped Timmy from playing lineman on the school’s freshman football team. Exercise can actually help fight the disease even though the fatigue factor from playing makes it tough on his son, says Walbert.

Tap Parenting Skills At Work Like The Horizon Therapeutics CEO

As a CEO and parent, Walbert learned that some of the most important characteristics of being a great leader line up with being a great parent. First off, he says, being a great leader requires someone who understands all the intricacies of the business. Next, he says, great leaders have intellectual curiosity. Finally, he says, they lead with passion and purpose.

His own intellectual curiosity begins every day around 5 a.m., when he wakes up and typically spends the next few hours reading. “I’m always trying to stay ahead of what I need to be doing. I always want to know as much as I can about anything I do,” he said.

Perhaps this sense of lifting himself up from his own bootstraps came from his own upbringing. His mom worked for Bethlehem Steel for years and his dad — now in his late 70s — still works as a Lutheran minister. “We grew up poor, but didn’t know it,” he said. His folks showed up for every sporting event he participated in as a kid. Family, he says, was always stressed above everything else.

He looks for some of these same traits in the employees he hires — which now number 2,000. “Just hiring people to pay them is not what we do,” he says. For example, Horizon gives every employee one paid day off every year to go volunteer for whatever cause they’d like. Perhaps that’s why Horizon’s turnover rate is about 50% lower than the average in its sector.

Find A Path To Grow

At the beginning of the pandemic, Walbert was the first corporate leader in Illinois to provide $1.5 million in seed funding for Governor Pritzker’s Covid Response Fund. In total, Walbert’s leadership provided $3.7 million in direct Covid support initiatives which produced a match of more than $80 million from Illinois-based life science companies, says John Conrad, president and CEO of the Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Walbert can be skilled at making savvy decisions, in part, because he can see through the patients’ eyes, says Mike Grey, lead independent director on Horizon’s board of directors. Back in 2017, for example, Walbert made the then-gutsy call for Horizon to purchase the maker of Tepezza, a drug used to treat a rare eye disease, for $145 million. Tepezza has guided full year 2021 net sales projected at $1.6 billion.

But during the pandemic, Tepezza sales were impacted when Operation Warp Speed ordered that the manufacturing of Moderna’s (MRNA) Covid-19 vaccine took precedent on the same industrial line that made Tepezza. So production of Tepezza, a drug that made $820 million its launch year, was halted the next quarter.

Today, Tepezza’s sales are back at slightly over $1 billion for the first three quarters, says Walbert. That may be just the beginning. At a recent investor meeting. Horizon disclosed the addition of five new programs for two development-stage candidates.

Make Fun Work (Not Retirement) Your Goal

For Walbert, career success is all about moving forward — and having some fun along the way. “I get up each day and can’t wait to go to work,” he said. “There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

Nor has the 54-year-old thought about retirement. “I will never really retire. Working is therapeutic and keeps my mind busy from dealing with the challenges of my disease,” he said.

Back to his son’s question: Will Horizon ever come up with a medicine that makes life better for Walbert and Timmy?

Can’t say for sure. “Hopefully, I’m a good example that you can live with rare autoimmune diseases and still be successful,” says Walbert, then adds, “And hopefully, we can make my son’s life a little better.”

Horizon Therapeutics CEO Tim Walbert’s Keys

  • Leveraged a career in life-sciences research to found Horizon Therapeutics in 2005. led huge growth since taking the company public in 2011.
  • Overcame: Daily personal struggles not only dealing with his own autoimmune disease, but also taking care of son with the same condition.
  • Lesson: “Hope is not a perfect strategy, but in situations like this, it’s your only strategy.”

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