Oliver Rittgen, CEO at Bayer Nordic, raised the international profile of Finnish pharmaceutical research. Finland has amazing strengths, he reminds us.
It’s a Friday in August and thick fog hovers over the Gulf of Finland. It obscures the sea view from the windows of Bayer Nordic’s headquarters in Keilaranta, Espoo, leaving only the facades of nearby offices visible. CEO Oliver Rittgen looks at the thick, white fog and tells us, quite surprisingly, that he has just navigated through the fog a couple of hours earlier on his way back from the Inkoo archipelago. From “mökki”, as he tells us in Finnish. Rittgen is a top leader at the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer. Six years as the CEO of Bayer Nordic have made him one of the most influential and best-known figures in the Finnish health and pharmaceutical industry.
However, Rittgen’s assignment in Finland is now drawing to a close. His family will soon move back to Germany and he will travel back and forth between Leverkusen and Espoo. After six successful years in Finland, he will become the Head of Corporate Finance at Bayer AG, a group with annual sales of up to EUR 46.8 billion. His first task in the new role will be to manage the finances of the Bayer-Monsanto deal.
Although returning to the group head office means more responsibility and influence, Rittgen says he feels sad to leave Finland. In all likelihood, the Finnish healthcare sector is also sad to see him go because he became known as the driver of several cooperation projects in the sector. Rittgen’s six years as the CEO of Bayer’s regional organisation in the Nordics have been nothing short of a success story. His command helped raise the profile of the Finnish clinical research centre, which is now a major player in Bayer, even on the international scale. The company’s revenue has grown strongly.
However, thanks to his dedication to developing the pharmaceutical and health industries and promoting innovations, Rittgen’s influence in Finland reached far beyond Bayer Nordic. For example, he was one of the leaders of Team Finland Health by Finpro, a growth programme culminating in an extensive survey of the sector’s strengths, which was released last year.
“From a professional point of view, these years have been excellent,” Rittgen comments.
Bayer’s innovation operations in Finland grew immensely under his command, both organically and through acquisitions and partnerships. The R&D function currently employs 150 people in Finland and in other Nordic countries. The clinical research centre in Espoo supervises the clinical research of medicines both in Finland and abroad. “Finland has become our fourth largest clinical research centre globally,” Rittgen points out.
“The largest R&D unit is located in Germany, the second largest in the US, and the third in China. Finland has the fourth largest unit, which is pretty remarkable, considering its size compared to other countries.” The total number of employees at Bayer Nordic is about 1,330, 800 of whom work in Finland. The company invests approximately EUR 60 million in Finland every year.
Bayer Nordic’s largest production facility is located in Turku. It manufactures Bayer’s products to global markets and specialises in contraceptives. Bayer Nordic is an important export company with 130 destination countries. Bayer Nordic has also grown considerably under Rittgen’s command. The company’s revenue has doubled, and Bayer Nordic reported sales of EUR 1.4 billion in 2016.
“This has been quite a journey, made possible by our innovative products, such as the Mirena family. Mirena’s blockbuster status was an important milestone for us.”
The sales of Bayer Nordic’s Finnish innovation, the Mirena product family, reached the one billion euro mark, earning it “blockbuster” status. Blockbusters are important achievements for pharmaceutical companies. Mirena is the first Finnish blockbuster product. Bayer Nordic grew through the acquisition of Algeta, a Norwegian therapeutics company specialising in the treatment of cancer. The company’s third major R&D and manufacturing unit besides Espoo and Turku is located in Oslo, Norway. Rittgen considers Bayer Nordic’s research cooperation with Orion as another important achievement. The two companies collaborate to develop medicine for prostate cancer. Bayer has high expectations for Algeta’s product and the cooperation with Orion: both medicines have the potential to become new blockbusters.
“During the last couple of years, we have managed to position the Nordic countries into the centre of our innovation work. Our fourth largest research centre is now located here, and last year we participated at Slush, inviting our people to admire the innovative Nordic startup world,” he says. A total of 50 people from Bayer’s head office attended Slush last year.
Rittgen is convinced that Finland has genuine strengths that can raise its global profile in pharmaceutical research. “Cooperation is agile across disciplinary and other borders in Finland,” he points out. Rittgen identifies good basic research, a high level of technical competence, extensive cooperation between different sectors, and health data and biobanks as Finland’s strengths. According to Rittgen, Finland probably has the best biobanks in the world. Biobanks are repositories for storing biological samples, such as tissue and blood, from people who have given consent to such storage. The samples are available for use in research. In Rittgen’s view, biobanks play a major role in the development of personalised medicine and therapies.
“Finland has probably the best biobanks in the world. They contain both samples and data. Another key strength is the biobank legislation, which enables using the data while protecting the privacy of clients,” Rittgen says.
Rittgen has good memories of Finland, but he struggled at first. Although he had become familiar with foreign assignments over his career, coming to Finland was a whole new challenge. I think we had the time of our life here. Finland is safe and beautiful and Finnish people are super friendly.”
“At first, I underestimated the time it would take to network with others. It wasn’t easy at the beginning,” Rittgen remembers. “But I must say that once you get through with the frustrating first steps and become part of the network, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Coming to Finland is no walk in the park, Rittgen says. Unlike the major cities of most countries, Finland does not have an expatriate community of professionals in different fields. There are only a few regional headquarters of multinational companies or offices of international organisations in Finland.
“One really needs to become Finnish here, which makes Finland markedly different from other countries. This also has its upsides—one needs to integrate into society,” Rittgen says.
He points out that it is easy to end up living in an expat bubble while on an international assignment, out of contact with surrounding society. Since there is no expat community in Finland, there is no bubble, either.
The new CEO of Bayer Nordic after Rittgen will be Mirian Holstein from the Bayer head office in Leverkusen. Rittgen has two tips for his successor. “Enjoy your time in Finland as much as we did. From a personal point of view, I think we had the time of our life here. Finland is such a safe and beautiful country, and Finnish people are super friendly,” Rittgen says.
“And secondly, there is the great ecosystem of innovations. Although we have already done a lot, there is still room for more. Too often, Finns focus on their limitations, but I think they should rather focus on their opportunities, because they really are endless!”