Leading a Young Company with a Five-Generation History, with Jean-Frédéric Chibret



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France-based Théa Laboratories may be only 27 years old, but its legacy goes back 150 years. It reaches back to the 1870s, when ophthalmologist Paul Chibret became fascinated with trachoma. He would later help found the French Society of Ophthalmology. Five generations of Chibret doctors and entrepreneurs later, the Chibret family’s passion for eye care has led to the development of one of Europe’s leading eye-care companies.

Now led by chairman Jean-Frédéric Chibret, MBA, the company remains independent, family owned, and 100% ophthalmology focused. While honoring those company values, Jean-Frédéric stays focused on growth. Revenue has increased from €150 million in 2008 to €600 million in 2020. The majority of that—75%—has taken place outside France.

Théa’s next goal: commercialization in the United States.

Listen to Jean-Frédéric’s “fireside chat” with Emmetrope founder Joseph Sullivan to discover:

• Théa’s objectives for the next few years in both existing and new markets.
• The progress Théa Open Innovation has made implementing licensing agreements and capital investments with early stage partners. The subsidiary has already signed agreements that help advance treatments for myopia, wet and dry age-related macular degeneration and macular edema.
• How Théa became a leader in Europe and how it plans to continue to use its business formula to tap into the U.S. market.

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Joseph Sullivan: So by definition, there are very few young companies or a relatively young companies who have played an impactful role in the history and the legacy of ophthalmology in a continent, Europe in this case. But there’s definitely one of those companies. And I’m really excited to introduce Thea’s President, Jean-Frédéric Chibret to talk about the company. Its amazing history and plans for the future and innovation. So welcome, Jean-Frédéric, it’s great to see you.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Hello, very happy to see you.

Joseph Sullivan: Great. I want to jump right in, we want to hear about your version of Thea’s roots, the accomplishments, the plans that you have, as well as your outlook of you know, your outlook for ophthalmology in general. But first of all, we’d like to hear about you a little bit. Tell us a little bit about yourself about your background.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: So hello, Joe. Yes, with pleasure. So I tell you a little bit about myself. First, I studied the business school in Paris, and graduated in 1999. My Uncle Henri Chibret founded the company in 1994, and I joined Thea in 2000. And worked for two years in the Spanish subsidiary in Barcelona, where you are, and return to the headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand in 2002. And during this years, I worked in different departments, including finance, innovation, marketing, but then my main focus was really to develop our international expansion in Europe.

Joseph Sullivan: That’s great, but the company itself is only 26 years old, but it certainly has a much longer history in ophthalmology. And again, it’s a luxury, it’s great to have a member of the Chibret family here to be able to tell us a little about that. So walk us through a little bit of the history of Thea and more even so about the legacy of your family, in eyecare in Europe.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: So Thea is a relatively young company, with a long history. Young company because Thea was founded 26 years ago by my Uncle Henri. And then the long history because as my family has been present in ophthalmology for the last 150 years and five generations of ophthalmologists, entrepreneurs and major companies will have been dedicated to innovation in ophthalmology. So I’ll give you a few examples. My great great Uncle Paul Chibret was an ophthalmologist and founded the French society of ophthalmology in 1883. My grandfather, Jean developed Laboratories Chibret, in the 50s. And there were quite a few achievements at this time he developed the first the first antibiotic and ointments streptomycin ointment, the first ocular anti-inflammatories as well with cortisone, hydrocortisone, the examiners are later, he was the first one to introduce preservatives and impose a shelf life after opening. Now we’re trying to remove preservatives, but at the time, it was different. He sold the company to MSD in 1969, because as he said he was too big to be a small company and too small to be a big company. I think this well this acquisition video enabled the MSD to enter the field of ophthalmology and then become a worldwide leader in this market as you know. So, in ophthalmology, my father developed Biophysic Medical in 1974 and became a leader really in ophthalmic classes and ecography until his passing in 1989. And then is the company was purchased by Alcon. And then my Uncle Henri founded started in 1994. I, so I joined the company in 2000. And I became president of Thea in 2008. While he remains chairman of the holding and yeah, that’s it. That’s why Thea I think we can say that

Joseph Sullivan: Extraordinary. An extraordinary story to do hear. I mean, it’s not every day, you know, know somebody that’s related actually to having founded the ophthalmic society franchise just extraordinary. Tell us a little bit about Thea today. You know, what’s the journey been like you said you took over the helm the leadership presidency in 2008. Tell us a little bit about, you know, Thea today, what the journey has been like on these, you know, 13 years since you took the leadership of the company? Has it changed a lot? Is it? You know, is it the size of the focus changed different areas. Tell us a little bit about how you see it today and how it’s changed as you’ve taken the leadership.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: So I think that some things have changed, and some not, of course. So maybe what has changed, I think probably the size of the company, of course, the turnover went from 150 million euros in 2008 to six hundreds, a bit more than 600 million euros in 2020. Probably our international presence as well, as today 75% of our turnover is now done outside France, which was not the case, of course at the time, and our products are now available in 74 countries today, about 31 direct affiliates and 43 distributors. And probably premier saw product pipeline, I think just changed. We developed many products. And we entered many ophthalmic domains in the last 13 years. But I think we’ll come back on that. Come back on that later. But things are things have not changed. I think what is important, firstly, that we remain independent, and family owned. Allowing really Thea to have a stable ownership and management I think this is really important. We remain 100% focused on ophthalmology, no diversification outside of ophthalmology. Often people ask us, Do you want to go outside of ophthalmology? No, we remain in ophthalmology. And I think these two points to be independent and to be 100% focused, is really key points because it really brings us long term vision consistency and really continuity in the strategy of ophthalmology.

Joseph Sullivan: Oh, yeah.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: And yeah, this is really key, especially when I think the landscape has really the landscape in the ophthalmic market has really changed in the last 15 – 20 years. Those companies have lost patterns and abandoned of technology. There were also several mergers’ acquisitions, and some companies are so which were focused on ophthalmology before lost their focus. And by being integrated in very large and multidisciplinary organization as well. So I think this is really important points, I think really are so few those a few what is really keys or philosophy to reinvest profits of Thea within the company is not always the case, when you have other shareholders and you’re when you’re on the stock every three years to this really allows us to support our priorities, which are r&d, new products and international expansion. And so and what so what has remained, I think what is really important is we try to keep the same proximity with our customers and employees as well. It’s really key and we need to visit doctors, we need to be present in the field. And I think all those values, the company is growing, of course, but we really try, and we insist on keeping these values.

Joseph Sullivan: Now it’s amazing to see a company evolve the way certainly Thea has pledged to live calm at the same time to get the assets to have such a prolonged focus on an area and you know, to be able to build on something with you know, as the past that you described is just it makes it so unique. It’s an extraordinary company. I’m you know, I’ve been here in Europe for many, many years now 30 years and Thea has obviously been you know, a reference and most of that time I’ve spent a lot of that time in ophthalmology so extraordinary today. It’s an amazing. Let’s look ahead for a moment. You know, before we look at the company itself, you know, you certainly know the space Well, you know, the surrounding space. So having come through hopefully these last, say 15, 18, 20 months of extraordinary circumstances, as we all have with COVID. Trying to put that to the side just a little bit, you know, how do you see the prospects of the ophthalmic market in general for the years ahead, you know, particularly in terms of innovation, how, what’s your view on it? How do you think we’re in the attractiveness of ophthalmology in terms of innovations?

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Yeah, that’s not an easy question. But yeah, tell you little bit about some fields where which I think can develop one first, I think most the if we talk about retina. Now, because most, most biotech’s, and big pharma really are big pharma companies, they focus their r&d and retina and often tricky diseases lecture, we’re working wet-AMD, dry-AMD, jmH, Target or on those, I think, diseases. Probably the main reason is that while they’re still unmet needs, of course, and probably pricing is more attractive in those fields. I mean, they’re looking for big companies are looking for blockbusters really. And I think even if developments are not easy, because they were really recent failures in phase three of, of different civil retinal developments. In the last years, I think we can expect many innovation in these areas in the coming years. In the retina for sure. If we took another big domain is glaucoma, of course, so I can talk more about the pharmacological approach of local medical, they’re also the field but I think in terms of molecules, I don’t think they were major innovations since prostaglandins. were a new class rockiness case came recently came on the market, but I think it’s not really a game changer so far. But probably delivery systems and slow release, I think, new approaches and could be considered improved trying to improve compliance of patients of course. And in glaucoma, neuroprotection is really so new approach could be a possible approach. But the clinical trials demonstration is quite challenging and can be difficult to prove that there again, I think we can expect some new developments in those probably two main areas of ophthalmology today, which are retina and glaucoma.

Joseph Sullivan: Qualitatively, would you say that it’s, there’s exciting times ahead? Pretty positive about how you, you know, you’re out view of ophthalmology in general, you see it in a positive outlook, I guess, in terms of innovation,

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: And I think that still other unmet needs probably blepharitis inflammation as well. So I think there’s still a lot, of course, the eye is a small organ, but with a lot of different approaches diseases. And, yeah, I think there are many still many unmet needs dry eye as well is when we have unmet need. And I think there’s still a lot to do in innovation in ophthalmology.

Joseph Sullivan: So now that we, you know, you’ve provided us this, you know, I think, a pretty positive view of how you see the market looking, you know, in these areas that are going to be I think I agree with you, I think those are areas that are really going to be exciting to watch the exciting things happening there. You know, looking at that market, what role do you see that Thea, you know, occupying or playing in that space in these coming years?

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Well, first, I think we have quite a strong record in innovation in ophthalmology today. We offer that very modern ranch. in ophthalmology. We often say that we develop 20 or 25 innovations in 25 years in nearly all the fields of ophthalmology. Yeah, we were pioneers in developing preservative free products. We developed here the first rootedness preservative free bottle in 1994. There back we were pioneering 90-day gene ocular nutrition. We also developed the first intracameral antibiotics and addresses so and brought to some major advances, I think in the fields like glaucoma, dry eye infection. So, I think the objective for the coming years is really to try to maintain our leadership by continuing to develop our traditional classes like glaucoma, or dry eye, and also enter markets such as retina or Fedrick disease, as we said before, because we are not present in these fields in these fields yet. So, and this is the main reason why we fit in the tail open innovation to try to enter especially those new domains.

Joseph Sullivan: That’s great, because you that’s what the anticipating my next question because I mean, innovation in many ways, you know, has become your second name, and you quite literally made it your second name by creating Thea open innovation. Tell us a little bit about that. And the reasons behind creating that.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: So Thea Open Innovation is its sister company, of Thea, created in 2019. So it’s quite recent. It’s a dedicated team, fully dedicated to innovation. And the objective is really to try to put in place collaborations for innovative IKEA products developed by universities by biotech’s, or ophthalmologists, to really put in place collaborations. And partnerships can be based on developments, license agreements, capital investments, also. And we tried to bring once the nice history of financial funding to reach the human proof of concepts. And we also bring our expertise, I think in ophthalmology development, meaning our ability to drive clinical development, registration, market access. And the commercialization then through the Thea structure. And so we worked really through what we called Alliance management or partners, often they retain their expertise in house, and they remain leader of their projects, while they can benefit really from all know and expertise and funding as well. This is really the objective.

Joseph Sullivan: That’s fantastic. You know, it’s funny, because open innovation is something that those of us who have been around the industry long enough, you know, not just our industry, but we’ve been hearing it about something that’s been on that the frontier or something that will be coming sooner or later. And it’s interesting to see, one of the only organizations, that’s you know, really familiar out there, that’s kind of really made the bet so openly, in fact, even included in their name is Thea open innovation, this this sister company that you’ve created, so congratulations on that, well, you know, all eyes will be on to see how that goes. And then to participate in and to collaborate with it. So it sounds fantastic. So you know, as a historic player in the space, everybody certainly knows who you are, the attention of the stakeholders is on you, which is, you know, positive, it adds a little bit of pressure, I presume, but what should we be expecting from Thea in these in these coming years, you know, in terms of pipeline and strategy to the extent that you can share with us what, what’s coming down the pipe. I don’t know if there’s any new deals or any anything that you can tell us about, but we’d love to hear it.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Yes, we can mention? Well, again, the objective is rated, as I said to maintain or innovative leadership by continuing to develop our traditional classes like local dry eye. And also under trying to enter the retina markets and I can share maybe some examples of concrete and recent deals that we have done in the last six months. We partner with a Korean company called Olix. And we signed the first partnership in 2019. And the second one in September of last year. And this is in the dry and wet AMD, so they have two developments in these fields. We recently signed also partnership with Canadian company called the Ripple. It’s focusing on the diabetic macular edema and its entry face to, at the moments and, and more. And more recently, beginning of this year, we also signed an agreement with an American company US company called the Nevakar. We got European rights for this development, and it’s a low dose atropine from myopia. So different fields, retina, myopia.

Joseph Sullivan: That’s fantastic, what a great breadth, you know, for a portfolio for you guys to, to have promising projects. And that’s got to be, that’s going to be so motivating for the organization. I mean, especially coming up the time that we’ve just had, you know, the last, you know, and now coming up, we’re looking towards the two-year mark, you know, by the time we get through this, through this year, so, for an organization to have such, you know, promising kind of prospects to look forward to that, that has to be fantastic for the team.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Yes. And, and could also add that we, we are really taking implemented concrete measures to really bring about these innovations, because we are also trying to we’re going to objective really is to double our innovation, investment and expenses in the next five years, we currently spend around 50 million euros in innovation. And the idea is to bring it to more than 100 million euros per year in 2025. So, really, our lab in the Clermont-Ferrand, so yeah, and then with the creation of Thea Open Innovation or so we’re really trying to give a good innovation.

Joseph Sullivan: Good for you. That is that’s fantastic. It’s courageous. And it’s great for those of us who were in the space to hear things like that. Just change up for a minute towards internationalization because there’s, you know, as companies expand and grow, there’s different components, obviously, internationalization is one of the big pieces. Talk to us a little bit about, you know, your internationalization, Thea’s internationalization rollout, let’s say let’s call it that way. So far, what companies or countries I should say, or regions are you already present in and what’s ahead in terms of your internationalization.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: So we took around the 20 years to build and become a leader in Europe, Europe, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. took a lot of time because it’s time we need time to, to build step by step each country, different cultures, and to build credibility. So that took 20 years and in the last five years, we enter the Russian market, Ukrainian Canadian, Canadian Mexican, yeah, we crossed the Atlantic and the Chilean market as well. And, and more, more recently Now, the next objective is the US markets. I think the first step was 2019 were with the creation of four legal entities in Lexington. Plus, we were also nominated general managers Susan Benton.

Joseph Sullivan: Nice to hear, they’re from my hometown. I’m from Boston. So and Susan, so, it’s great!

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Second step, was last year we became minority shareholder, in the Swiss company called Similasan. They are present in the US, and they have a turnover of around 40 million US dollar. And the next step will be to try to develop and register future products to commercialize in the US from 2022 to 2023, both in the OTC and Eric’s markets.

Joseph Sullivan: So that’s the next kind of big frontier then, US Market.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: We maintain Of course, we will. We want to maintain our leadership and our focus in Europe as well because we come from, we are French we are European, and we don’t want to lose this focus. So we will maintain all our thoughts in the in Europe. And we also now want to try to consolidate while the summit We until recently, and the US will be the next, the next target and next objective,

Joseph Sullivan: Oh, that’d be good, it’ll be good to follow the track of that and see how things evolve over the next year or two. That’s a, you know, as lots of companies who’ve gone that path before, that’s a big, you know, ambition, that’s a big aspiration, a big heavy lift. So, hopefully that’ll go, Well, just switching around just a little bit. We’ve talked about strategy and portfolio and innovation. And now just now about internationalization. Just to switch for a moment about you know, what some people call the the soft stuff, you know, the people thing. What’s your view, you know, as you’re at the helm of this, you know, the leading organization in Europe, in Europe and taking on taking on new frontiers, like the US and internationalization, but there are components that have many enthusiasts doctor, like leadership and talent, team development and, and things like that. What’s your take on that? What’s your view on that? And is Thea doing anything particularly specific to address that?

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: I think when we start to country, and when we start in the country, there are two key factors for success, really great products and great people. So, well, great products, I think is a basis, we have talked about our innovation pipeline, it really is a basis. But I think great people is as important. You can have the best products, if you don’t have the right people, it would be a failure. And I think in in each country, we start finding the right person is really key. Most of our country managers are local people who know ophthalmology, who knows the local market, they’re close to doctors and key opinion leaders. And this is really key. And I think the people we walked on board with us, they should have really proximity with customers. One of the value I mentioned before they shouldn’t be sitting in their offices, or them by doing reporting. On the contrary, I think they should be in the field leading by example. This is really, really key to understand the unmet needs to understand the ophthalmologists’ expectations, this is really, really important. And so proximity is the first one and entrepreneurship, I’d say is also key. People are entrepreneurs and are accountable for their decisions and actions. It’s really, I think, this is really important.

Joseph Sullivan: I love that.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Family, and independent company.

Joseph Sullivan: Yeah, exactly. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s great to hear something like that, you know, a company that’s on the one hand that’s 26 years old, but that has 15 years of, you know, legacy behind it to be it’s almost ironic, and at the same time, it makes good sense, you know, you think that, you know, an organization like that had a company like that would be so consolidated that it would almost become functionary, and it’s great to hear that is one of the prime components, you’re you know, you’re looking to seek out and encourage entrepreneurship, that’s, that’s great. Love to hear that.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: I mean, you can make mistakes, you can, but it’s better to try to do things and doesn’t matter. I mean, you have to, you’re accountable. And you have to do things.

Joseph Sullivan: Good. That’s great. So let’s jump ahead, it’s, let’s imagine that you and I are here and another interview in the year is 2028. And you’re celebrating your 20th anniversary as president of Thea. You know, imagine we’re looking at, you know, a successful outcome, a successful portrait of all these years of Thea. You know, as you look at that as a successful portrait, what are you most proud of, you know, imagine, as I say we’re in 2028. And you’re looking at this portrait of what Thea has become a especially on your tenure, we have 20 years now as president of Thea, what are you most proud of? What do you what do you feel best about when you look at that portrait of success a few years from now?

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: I hope the way this is our objective is in case to, let’s say to keep our leadership in Europe and Africa. To be successful in new countries, especially in America is Mexico, with Chile with Canada with the US, which is our current objective, and also bring new products and innovation in the market. I think this is really the key factors of our growth, new products, innovations, and new countries and consolidating what, without forgetting what we have built today.

Joseph Sullivan: Yeah. Well, that’s great. I mean, it’s a shorter time that it’s that it seems so you know, I look forward to having that interview maybe with that, not what the screen in the middle about sitting together with a nice glass of champagne. And celebrating what you’ve achieved. But congratulations really Jean-Frédéric and all you’ve achieved so far, you and your team. And it’s great to have this chance to talk together and I look forward to seeing you in person. And the meantime, best of luck with the remainder of 2021. And in the years ahead and all your plans.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Yeah, hopefully general resume traveling soon and that we can meet in person can be much better.

Joseph Sullivan: Look forward to it. Thank you very much.

Jean-Frédéric Chibret: Thank you.

Joseph Sullivan: Merci. Bye.