The Bronze Age

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Lanie Goodman   Contributor

The Bronze Age

Article first published in May/June 2021 Forbes Monaco issue 

CLINUVEL, Monaco’s one and only publicly-listed pharmaceutical company, has a long-term strategy that pays off. And a complex history with a rosy future—the introduction of a new DNA-repair product line that is a unique dermo-cosmetic cutting-edge technology.

Back in 1980, in a lab at the University of Arizona, four scientists hit upon what they thought would be the technological discovery of a lifetime—the ultimate tanning natural hormone. Only 48 hours after an injection, your skin would turn a golden Mediterranean bronze from head to toe. At the time, developing the pharmaceutical potential seemed obvious: it would be marketed as a lifestyle drug and revolutionize the tanning industry.

Sound like a potential blockbuster business? Subsequently, an American company called Melanotan was formed, focused on commercializing the benefits of sunless tanning without any UV damage. In 2001, they sub-licensed their technology to an Australian company, EpiTan, hoping to go even further with the drug as a public vehicle, but somehow their strategy failed. By 2005, the company had run out of money, which is when Dr. Philippe Wolgen, CLINUVEL’s current chief executive officer, stepped in.

Trained as a craniofacial surgeon with an MBA from Columbia University in New York, Wolgen was working at the time as a freelance analyst and researcher in London. “I came across this company in request of investment funds,” he recounts. “The company had consumed $30 million in investments over 25 years, but the partners fundamentally believed that they should develop a lifestyle drug and you couldn’t sway them out of it.”

After writing up a negative report on EpiTan, advising funds to sell, Wolgen was asked to go deeper into analyzing what was wrong with the business model. He invited all the directors to London and then, two months later, flew to Australia to reassess what was at stake.

“That’s when my view dramatically changed,” Wolgen says. “There was a phenomenon in this company that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. Imagine you come up with a new technology in pharmaceuticals— usually the first thing you ask is, ‘Does it work?’ and then ‘is it safe’? If you discover that something works but safety is compromised, you may have to retract it from the market later. Here we had a drug that was safe but no one knew how to use it, except as a lifestyle drug—so that conundrum piqued my interest.”

However, European funds were willing to finance $2-5 million if Wolgen found a way to change the strategy. Shortly after, he was appointed CEO with the expectation to restructure, design a viable commercial strategy and reposition the company. He changed the name to CLINUVEL Pharmaceuticals.

“I flew back to Australia and proposed the changes to the Board of Directors during a 3-day meeting. The ray of light was a Norwegian- American colleague Hank Agersborg, one of the original co-founders of EpiTan, who sat on the Board. He was exceptional and gifted but ostracized by his peers as no one listened to him. At one dinner, we drew on a paper napkin what should be done. While working seven years with him, we turned the company around at a fraction of the price—we spent $150 million instead of $1.2 billion —by building a whole new business model with a long-term strategy.”

The ultimate challenge, Wolgen states, was integrating all the corporate functions in-house. “You can cook the most beautiful meals with the least amount of ingredients,” he says with a smile. “The same goes for a model of constraint and a limited budget. The idea was to identify raw talent and build a learned academy from within. We ask young professionals to stay for 10 to 15 years, which might represent a third of their career, but from a small team, we’ve grown into a sizeable entity.” Apparently, patience and longevity has yielded impressive results. “You attract people prepared to invest for their next generation, thereby providing the foundation of the company. They invested in 2006 when the company was valued at $30 million—today it’s worth $1.5 billion, which translates to 50 times value appreciation.”

Investors in CLINUVEL include the likes of entrepreneur Sean Parker, first president of Facebook, who bought 6% of the company in 2012 and has remained a shareholder.

From the very outset of the restructuring, Wolgen and his research team started re-evaluating the technological application of the hormone and amplifying it into something that would be medically useful. “We needed a PoC and to figure out how to make a dramatic impact on people’s lives.” The company reached out to a group of people (some 4,500 in the U.S.) with a rare disease called erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) who live indoors and can’t be exposed to light.

“Light comes in different waves, and these patients are intolerant to the blue spectrum and UV,” Wolgen describes. “Their lives are upside down—if they go near a window, their skin actually starts to form blisters and burn.” The solution was a medicine containing afamelonotide, a synthetic form of a natural hormone produced by the body.

“We changed the molecule a bit and formed an implant, which provides 60 days of protection. Other pharmaceutical companies told us we were mad. Why would anyone spend nine years to develop a drug for these people? I wasn’t concerned about the commercialization but the clinical need.”

Today, with research laboratories in Singapore and a presence in six countries, CLINUVEL has steadily developed diversified biopharmaceutical uses for patients with a variety of genetic, metabolic or life-threatening disorders, all approved by the FDA and the European Commission.

Their highly successful drug compound, SCENESSE, not only prevents phototoxicity but is also used to treat vitiligo, a patchy depigmentation of the skin, widely known as “the Michael Jackson” disease. Wolgen explains that they’ve had the most success with African-Americans (“some cultures are sensitive to darker pigmentation, like in parts of Asia where it’s not culturally accepted”) and plans are underway this year to establish seven treatment centers in the U.S. Another extraordinary use of CLINUVEL’s molecule was developed with PRÉNUMBRA, to be used to treat strokes (blood clots) and other brain diseases.

“Our hallmark is to approach business matters with diligence and long-term vision. As such, here in the  Principality we are the first publicly- listed pharmaceutical company,” Wolgen adds.

Why Monaco? The concept took form in 2018, when Wolgen met with Jean Castellini, minister of finance and economy, who encouraged the company to consider the advantages of the Principality, from possible influential investors to the widespread talent. Two years later, in a post-Brexit and Covid- struck world, the company was able to launch their operations in Monaco with a small team.

And the best is yet to come. Although the full details of CLINUVEL’s latest discovery are still under wraps, the pharmaceutical company will be making its first exciting foray into dermo-cosmetics with a unique cream (derived from that same versatile molecule) that repairs DNA from photo damage of sun exposure, thereby reducing the risk of skin cancer. Over the next two years, VALLAURIX, a fully-owned subsidiary, will brand and market its products from Monaco and possibly create an uproar in the cosmetic industry.

“The responsibility is on us to deliver, to make progress and to monetize our expertise,” says Wolgen.

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Lanie Goodman   Contributor

Born and raised in New York, Lanie Goodman is an arts and travel writer based in the south of France since 1988. She is a contributor to publications such as T-Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveller and Departures, and the author of Romantic French Homes . Formerly a Professor of French Literature at CUNY, she teaches courses in journalism and cinema at the SKEMA at  Sophia-Antipolis. Lanie covers arts , travel and lifestyle at Forbes Monaco.