Change Creates Opportunity with Ramin Valian


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Throughout his career, Ramin Valian, VP of international glaucoma, reimbursement pipeline, for Allergan/AbbVie, has stayed by the side of his mentors.

Fresh out of college, where he earned degrees in Middle Eastern studies and Russian, he shifted his goals from working at the US State Department to joining his older sister at Roche. After learning the pharmaceutical industry ropes as a sales representative, he followed his supervisor, industry leader Joseph Schultz, to Johnson & Johnson and then Allergan.

Holding various leadership roles over the past 15-plus years, Ramin has helped launch every one of Allergan’s glaucoma products. With host Ehsan Sadri, MD, Ramin discusses his tenure at Allergan, the acquisition by AbbVie, and his ability to adapt to change.

When you listen to this podcast, you’ll also hear Ramin’s take on:

• New frontier for presbyopia: the latest on AGN-190584, AbbVie/Allergan’s drop.
• The AbbVie/Allergan innovation pipeline, including a collaboration with REGENXBIO for gene therapy in the retina space.
• The four pieces of advice he gives to entrepreneurs and mentees.
• How he’s navigated a long career through mergers, buyouts, and other external pressures.

Click “play” to listen.


Ehsan Sadri: Hi everybody, I’m Ehsan Sadri. I am fortunate to have my friend Ramin Valian, who is good friend of mine for many years now, here local and Allergan. And you know, just it’s exciting to have him join us today. And for those of you don’t know, Ramin has a really interesting background. I’m not going to steal his thunder; he’s going to go through it. But he’s really most recently spearheading all the glaucoma and all the other eye care stuff that are exciting coming with Abbvie, and legacy Allergan products. So without further ado, Ramin, welcome to OIS Podcast, how you doing?

Ramin Valian: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Ehsan Sadri: It’s a pleasure having you. So you know most of the KOLs know you obviously on a personal basis. They’re probably texting you all the time. But for the folks that are listening in on this podcast that may not know Ramin, tell us tell us a little bit of your background. Where’d you grow up?

Ramin Valian: Sure, inactive agreement start there. Now I was reminiscing about the first time I met you Ehsan. And you were my very first ophthalmologist I met when I joined Allergan, 16 years ago next week. So a great pleasure to be able to connect with you because I really remember meeting you. By very first time in California meeting a glaucoma specialist and you were to glaucoma special I’ve never very first time. This pleasure connecting with you 16 years later now.

Ehsan Sadri: Amazing how time goes. I remember your daughters were little.

Ramin Valian: Yeah. College now.

Ehsan Sadri: Amazing. Amazing. That’s why we’re still working right.

Ramin Valian: Now, background, I mean, you and I have very similar backgrounds. I actually grew up in Iran. I moved to the United States when I was 12 years old. So right, literally after Iranian revolution. And contrary to most people’s beliefs, I actually moved to Washington DC, not to Los Angeles. That’s where I really grew up in the Washington DC area. You know, I grew up in the DC area, I went to school in Virginia. And really, you know, when I think back on my career and my journey, it’s been a very interesting journey coming to the country as a like a first immigrant, right, we want to thank my children as being like, first generation is really that really good story of an immigrant coming to the United States, and really, starting from really zero and building a foundation here. So that’s my story. And you know, when I grew up in Washington, DC, you know, when I look back at many different experiences, the last thing I ever thought that I would be getting into the pharma industry, and that back then my ambitions were quite different in DC being close to central power, which is a Washington, DC, government and just agencies and state departments. So of course, so when I went to university, actually, my studies are very different. I actually studied Middle Eastern studies with a minor Russian, because I had all these aspirations to go into the State Department and join the Foreign Service, just like my father had done when he was in the Iranian diplomat. And long behold, I got my introduction to the pharmaceutical industry with my sister who actually started as a representative in Roche laboratories, and I followed my sister’s trajectory, every move she made, I followed her in that same role. So we ended up actually working together and sure enough, I ended up working in the pharmaceutical industry at Roche in Nutley, New Jersey.

Ehsan Sadri: So it’s interesting, because I remember I miss your Dad, by the way, you know, for those of you know, Ramin’s, that was a sweet, kind, very clever and funny person, and I really, really miss him. I, you know, every time you and I get together, we talk about him, and you know, how the all the influences our parents had. And it’s interesting because your sister had a huge influence. Your school, did you study business? What was the initial like?

Ramin Valian: My initial seed was at fathered in business; it was really Russian. Wow. And, you know, it’s when I tell people the story of my education, it was really, if you’re shocked because, you know, obviously, I’m in a business environment. You know, I look at financial numbers, I run big businesses, but my training was very elementary. In fact, like, when I left my school by my college, I went to college, William Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. And when I, my first job was actually in the financial industry. And that’s really because I need to learn how to be in a business and how to read finance. I was a financial analyst for maybe 12-18 months. Before I joined Roche as a sales representative in the Washington DC area like most people in this industry, your track record start in the field in sales, right? That’s where you get your really your chops. That’s where you get your understanding customers, your intimacy. And that’s right started in the industry as a rep. But really, I started my journey in a totally different vantage point being looking farther out going into some new a different like in a State Department. And sure enough, I did go international, but Roche Laboratories, which is Swiss based. So you are Roche, and then so obviously, there’s tremendous amount of, you know, experiences there. Let’s unpack that a little bit what led you from that to eyecare. So what happened within that, you know, Roche actually had a really good program for young, entrepreneurial successful representatives. So when I was at Roche, that you are given a pathway to go into sales management, or you come into internal product management, and I was selected to come into product management. So without methods, I spent two years in Nothing New Jersey, going through different various functions like analytics, forecasting, fundamental skills that you need to be a successful business manager. And I did that in a variety of categories being in obesity, and anti-infective in HIV. So we’re looking at my background and had you know, very good experiences and then big buckets of business, just not marketing, analytics, sales, training, forecasting, PE or so forth, in different therapeutic categories. And eventually, the person I work for at Roche ended up going to Johnson and Johnson as head of worldwide Pharma. And he really, this goes back to how he kind of get your start in different organization just like you. This gentleman, Bob Savage was an early mentor of mine. And when he went to Johnson & Johnson, you know, he called me to leave Roche to join Johnson & Johnson and he manages a worldwide president of pharmaceuticals. And you know, he had a vested interest in my career. So I went to Johnson & Johnson and I spent about 10 years there on the pain therapeutics business. And as I worked at Johnson & Johnson, I happen to work for a gentleman named Joe Schwartz who you know, well as your work that ortho McNeil than ortho biotech as president of ortho biotech. And many years back, he was recruited to come to Allergan, to run the Allergan eye care business. And so he came out to California, and he called me in another individual and asked us to really take the offer to come to California to do something different. And frankly, you know, when I got the call from Joe, I had no idea who Allergan was I have no idea about eye care. I didn’t know what Botox was. Right. So I thought, well, you know, it’s interesting, California from East Coast, maybe I’ll come to this for a couple years, learn something. And so I took the shot because I knew Joe was a good mentor. And I came to California, following Joe Schulz, and that’s where my eye care journey began. And, you know, my journey began in the glaucoma space. You know, I think one of my good accomplishments in this organization is I’ve launched every single glaucoma product in this company. So seven launches and everything that we market with exception Restasis, I’ve had a hand in launching. So that’s been a really good experience for me, but that’s where my experience and I cared came. It was really through Joe, bring me to California to our again, and putting me in charge of this business, the glaucoma business.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, and I remember Joe very vividly, Joe, just, it was one of those sharp really no-nonsense-guys. And I think he left like not shortly after you came right. He wasn’t here that much longer.

Ramin Valian: He was I mean; we could all be so lucky. I think Joe retired at 47. Florida. So yeah, he you know, he came through with a goal and he reached his goal. And in Australia, you and I are still here in the game. So we haven’t met our goal yet.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, maybe the goal is the journey. I don’t know if I remember the lawn. I remember. I was very jealous. I remember he took me to tango. I was like, what? You’re retiring. He’s like, Yep, I’m going to Naples. Yeah. Incredible. So okay, so how? So you come here obviously you’ve done terrific at elegant and just build a great brand for yourself, but also, you know, through all the ups and downs of Abbvie and then all the MX activity prior to that, how do you let’s dive into that a little bit because, you know, you join Allergan? It’s an obviously pharma, heavy eye care and now into Botox and all that, but how do you stay there so long we anticipating that and then more importantly, with all the ups and downs with all the, you know, all the Ackermann fiasco stuff that went on and all that and to hear the almost 2022 Yeah. Tell us how you navigate through all those crazy tumultuous times?

Ramin Valian: Well, that’s really good question. I think one of the things I’ve been really fortunate in my career in Allergan is, it’s a great company, right? So you know, if you have a put a stake in you, and they really give you different experiences. So just because for example, I came in, and I’d say this to the Abbvie came quite a bit, just because it says, eye doesn’t mean eye one thing, right, in front of the eye, as back of eye, there’s different facets, in eye care right. And I think with within this business, I’ve been afforded really good opportunity to learn and do different things. So for example, you know, what I was able to get that launch experience, and I’m able to pivot to a global strategic role by then work in r&d and business development, looking at the worldwide business for eye care, for example, right? When I left that, I was able to come back and run the US sales or marketing for a remnant right. So I was afforded a lot of different opportunities. And I think the thing about Allergan is, I think people are always realized, you know, this commitment, this is the eye company that was founded nine years, seven years plus in eye care, right? And it still continues to be a player in this space. And even with Abbvie, Abbvie is recognized the importance of this business to overall, Abbvie fitness as well. So we continue to invest in this business. Right. So going back to your question, by chain, I think a couple of things. One is, I certainly think it helped coming to this country as an immigrant that sort of adapts you to change, you have to change, right? You have to learn different language, you have to learn different culture, you have to learn when you see people on the street, not to kiss them on right in the left-hand side. On right, as you know, right thing. It Right. So, yeah, that fortunately, has changed, right. And I think that that really helped me navigate through change. And I think the thing that most people miss, change creates opportunity. So every time there’s been a change in opportunities for me to step into those changes, right. And I think I’ve been very focused on you know, frankly, sometimes keeping your head down and focus on the objective, and not getting caught up in a lot of the dynamics that goes right to change, right and focusing on that it’s been very helpful. And I tell you, as you brought up, like Ackerman are valued or Abbvie, yeah, and activists, right force activist Bill, you know, Fred Saunders and that team as well. So I’ve gone through constant change for the past five years or so five years for plus, right. But opportunities haven’t changed, my focus hasn’t changed. And frankly, the organization has been very good in keeping opportunities open to navigate to change, as long as you’re open to looking at things differently, or perhaps a different lens or approaching problems, maybe in a different passion you’ve done in another company, because cultures do change.

Ehsan Sadri: It’s a great point. I mean, we could, you know, we’re we could spend so much time going over how to do that. But I you know, your point about change. And, you know, I remember reading a quote by Einstein and said the only constant in our lives is the acceleration of change. So profound, right? Yeah. And it’s funny, because you touched on it as, as an immigrant kid, you don’t really realize you’re doing it, but you’re just kind of subconsciously, got to change it. Otherwise, you’ll just kind of, you know, you just come in, and not know, you know what to expect. And if you don’t evolve, you’re just kind of not do well, as fascinating. And also just kind of navigating also for those for those people listening. It’s not easy and navigating a long career. It with, with all the external pressures, right, so I mean, Romaine makes it sound easy, but, you know, there’s all sorts of, you know, layoffs and sort of fiscal downturns up turns, and like, one quarter is great, and there’s like pressure and you get bought out and all those things, I would love to talk to you again, maybe in the future, but because it’s fascinating, because, you know, when you have a merger, the mother company, you know, sometimes is aligned, which is sounds like Abbvie is, and everyone recognizes that. And sometimes we’ve seen another, you know, sort of Ophthalmic medical device, they’re not aligned. And you see that, you know, subsequent spin off later on probably a few years later, of the AI units and we’ve all seen that and it’s just interesting how one works, and one doesn’t, or what the team does to make it work. I was just find that to be fascinating.

Ramin Valian: So well, you know, and I think to add to that, I think the one thing that’s kind of kept us you know, where we are is at the passion of the people in this business is contagious, right so I think when you have the change that you just talked about being like you know, forests or activist or Abbvie, I think people realize there’s passion in the business not only from the employees but also from the customers. Right? And I guess people excited about why they want to invest. People see the future. But I think people have to see the passion. Right. And there’s passion in this business. That’s why I think for all of us, you included, you know, we’ve had our foot in this business forever, right. And as far as we look at other legends in the fields like David Pyatt or jamais and others, they never seem to leave this field of Ophthalmology because there’s an incredible amount of passion behind this field.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah. Agreed. The customers really becomes your partner, really the product portfolio, evolution, it’s pretty fascinating. So obviously more to come there. But so let us pivot because I want to really get dive into now what’s happening now? Because you know, you’ve got a Duresta and you and I’ve talked about that, and then what’s going on with the product portfolio technologies and all of you know, Abbvie, Allergan, tell us what’s exciting you?

Ramin Valian: For a couple of things. I mean, you know, maybe you have seen this or have not, but you know, as recently Abbvie, Allergan, Abbvie, we just announced a collaboration with Regenxbio. For one time only gene therapy interventionists pays for, you know, where they MD diabetic retinopathy conditions. Now, obviously, that’s subject to regulatory approval. But that’s a pretty big deal, right. And that kind of shows the commitment of the organization to investing in transformational deals, like Regenxbio, or gene therapy, or one time gene therapy and redness based, right. So I think that kind of demonstrates the commitment in terms of investing in opportunities. And you see that with Abbvie, I think in terms of the future and where we are certainly, you know, we you know, either fourth imposition of launching Duresta last year, albeit, in a pandemic, launching, uh, you know, first in class by degradable implants, sustained drug delivery, never been done this space, right. And we did it successfully. And we’ve kind of have now set this new pillar within glaucoma drug delivery, that there’ll be others like Lycos and other companies, that will also be coming this space over time. But that’s a new pillar that’s important that we continue to invest in. And as you know, we also have a product and presbyopia first stropping, presbyopia, that we hope to have launch, or get approval sometime at the end of this year. So the innovation stream continues, and the investment stream continues with organizations back, I think with Abbvie on board as well. I’ve seen even exceria level of commitment investment into this business, right? Most times we come in organization, because usually people shrink, right? Not here, we actually are very present and very active. As you know, in all the spaces we play in dry eye, glaucoma, surgical retina, or whatever it may be our presence actually stronger than ever before. And that has to do with a couple of things. One is commitment a frickin solace and, and Elaine Sorg, who are the leaders within the Abbvie organization, Jack Dishon, she, you know, very well has been a great champion of this business. And he continues to champion on calls with within Abbvie and certainly on the innovation front, the r&d team still remains the same. Under his leadership, you know, Mike Robinson, who has our ophthalmology r&d, Business Unit, we continue to invest in all these innovations. And you know, our goal is as same as yours, which is, you know, to patient mean, that North Star is to continue to deliver innovation for not only practitioners but also for the patients who need vision saving therapies.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, I think it’s exciting that to see that recent acquisition of retina I think it shows clearly the long term commitment and it was a big acquisition. It was a bit it wasn’t a small one for those of you don’t know, it’s a pretty big one. You could see there was a press release on it. And obviously, it’s subject to federal, you know, federal right in regulatory approvals, but I think is exciting. I you know, and the other thing is, I love the new name for presbyopic drop, I thought that was a cool, cool name that you guys named it under? I don’t know it’s public, isn’t.

Ehsan Sadri: It is I saw, I saw a bill not a billboard. But one of those things in the booths. A picture of it is one of I think. I didn’t say it so I saw it. But I thought I mean, I gotta tell you that space is really intriguing. I think that’s gonna be you know, a space where Allergan can really make an impact. You know, I love the model up although the cash model I love the fact that it’s just a huge unmet need and just massive market, Ill bet there’s other people trying to get in, but I think you’re gonna be the first and I think everyone’s watching. You know, probably analysts ophthalmologists, investors are watching how this plays out. I think if Allergan, we are I’m sure he does a great job. It’ll just mean great things for everybody. And I think it’s gonna be fun.

Ramin Valian: My colleague, Glen Kern, who runs that business, I mean, he’s done a phenomenal job. Right? This is, you know, this business is all about always by creating new fun here, right? Yeah, you know, Restasis with a good example of creating a dry eye frontier, right, I think the launch of this and create a new frontier and press to solve our presbyopia, right, the risk that the new frontier in drug delivery, right. So I think, you know, this is something that we’re really good at, I think it’s something we’ve done before, but something also that we invest in, right and really think this through. So I think it’s, you know, I’ve shared this comment the other day with someone, you know, if you’re going to such a big Renaissance, right, and big innovation, you know, you have to mix in over the years as big innovation, spiritual devices. But you have other areas that you’ve retina, for example, that’s being innovative with gene therapy and drug delivery in glaucoma, and we just talked about presbyopia, but this innovation is really exciting. I think it’s great time in eye care.

Ehsan Sadri: For sure, for sure. And obviously, there’s a lot of challenges. You know, but I think it’s just fun. I mean, it’s exciting. It’s just, and time flies. I can’t believe you’re 16 years. I remember we met that was a Fleming’s? What a funny guy. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I can’t remember. I remember that. But I don’t remember what I did yesterday.

Ramin Valian: I remembered I really well. I remember that really well. Only thing I ever met in the country?

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, no, it’s fun. And I, you know, we’ve developed a really good friendship. And it’s an honor, I could talk to you for a lot much longer. You know, the last part of this is really just kind of you know, you and I both have had great mentors, right. We’ve had great teams and helping us really, if we’re truly a reflection of who our teams are, who our mentors are. But tell us about when you’re mentoring people, how do they what are some of the things that they can learn from you navigating a career in pharma, and, you know, corporate America, if you will, eye care, as you know, as an entrepreneur?

Ramin Valian: I know for sure, like I tell you, like, for me, mentor has been really exciting, because it’s also an opportunity for me to learn, right? Because I think there’s so much to be said back and forth with somebody or you’re giving career advice or professional advice, right? I think what I always keep reminding anybody I work with, in that regard is a couple of things. One is change is good, be open to change. Two is always connect the dots, right? So you may have a plan, but plans do change, right? We always talk about, you can have the best strategy to go to market, and then you really realize your strategy has not the right strategy, right. And that’s really important. People have to realize that you have to adopt and adapt. Right. And that’s really, that’s really critical and navigating anyone’s career. And the third thing about people, I think humility is really important to have, no matter where you are, have been really humble about your presence. But more importantly, it’s making it about the people you surround yourself with. Right? So surround yourself with the best people, but not the same people. Right. And that’s really critical. I think any venture particularly in eye care because I care, you know, you’re working with a lot of dynamic, different specialties, fast moving complex, regulatory complex reimbursement, environment, log complexity, right. But it’s all one of the best industries, one best specialty in which industry works really well. With the specialty, right? There’s a really good bond of relationship and context, right. So I think that’s something I want to always emphasize is really enjoy that connection but build on the connection. Have a purpose.

Ehsan Sadri: Those are all great points. For those of you listening. I mean that, you know, there is obviously, a lot of pearls there from many years of, you know, mentorship and also reading, you know, you read all the great books, that Ramin is just nailing all of them, you know, have a great team, but be humble. No one wants to work with a jackass. And I’m like, I think at the end of the day, people do business with people they like I like, right. So, and I think I read somewhere it was really interesting. I just read this book. You know, it’s basically a sort of, you know, the concept of this whole Japanese concept of just sort of having an empty cup to learn. So if you have a full cup, you’re not going to ever learn because you know, the analogy is Eagle, right? Like we’re just full and you’re, you know, everything. And to your point if you’re empty and you’re humble and you’re hungry, you’re always going to learn and it’s a fascinating, it’s hard. It’s hard to do. But in a large organization, I’m sure but I’m sure that you know, given your relationships, you’ve done such tremendous job of cultivating that culture. I see your team, and you just have a really great work ethic, and you work really hard, and don’t complain. And I think that’s, those are all great traits. I’d love to have you back. This is you know; I know you got to jump, but we’d love to have you back again. And maybe in a year and see how things are going because a lot of good stuff you guys come down the pike and it’s always a pleasure seeing you.

Ramin Valian: Same here, like and thank you for having me. And, you know, that said before, you’ve been such a dear friend, and a good mentor for me as well. So, you know, it’s been 16 years and you know, I’m looking forward for the next 16.

Ehsan Sadri: Yes, yes, for sure. Same. Yeah, I wish you and Margaret the girls Wonderful. Thank you. So happiness, brother, and I’ll see you again I’m sure if not an academy sooner, for sure.

Ramin Valian: Thank you!

Ehsan Sadri: Sure for sure.