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Takeda CEO: Japanese startups should go global from Day One

A European CEO's Challenge フランス人社長 老舗を背負う
Chiristophe Weber, CEO, Takeda Pharmaceutical


 By Daisuke Igarashi

What do you think Japanese companies need to do in order to survive in the global market?

I prefer to avoid giving a one-size-fits-all answer. What I can say is that at Takeda, for example, we have an executive team with members representing 11 different nationalities, and this team is primarily based in the United States, Japan, and Switzerland. I believe to truly embrace globalization, you need to have an international team that represents the global nature of the company. 90% of Takeda employees are based outside of Japan, so it makes sense to have an executive team that reflects that.

What do you think about the Japanese education system?

I think the education system in Japan is excellent. Of course, it's not perfect, but on the whole, I have been very impressed. Thinking forward, mathematics, computer science, and engineering will become crucial when you consider the breakneck advancements in AI technology impacting all areas of society. In addition to STEM curriculum, it is important to be able to study foreign languages ​​such as English; but more than just gaining language skills, it’s essential to have the ability to communicate effectively with other people in other parts of the world, including having cultural awareness skills and an open attitude to different working styles. Japan is still a bit behind in this area.

What I am more concerned about, though, is that the number of Japanese students educated overseas has halved compared to 20 years or so ago. It’s not a good trend to see such a declining interest in the world, especially against the backdrop of Japanese companies needing to embrace globalization.

One reason Japanese companies are needing to become more global is the huge issue of Japan’s aging society. What do you think about that?

Exactly. Japan definitely needs to implement a stronger policy that makes it easier for women who want to have children. Countries with more successful systems, like in Europe, have provided enormous amounts of support to families and women who have children, starting with childcare, but also economic support, living assistance, and of course, companies themselves have to make life easier for women with children.

A significant factor as to why many women are reluctant to have children is the negative impact it can have on their career development, and businesses need to be more proactively responding to that. I have recommended that women on maternity leave should also be considered for promotions – if they miss out on an opening because they were on maternity leave, once they return to work, they might have a long wait until the next available opportunity to move up the career ladder.

What do you think about the growing backlash against globalization?

To counter those voices, I think it’s important to have a clear vision of the positive contribution you can make to society. The key is to have a holistic approach to the role of your company.

In our case, we need to provide innovative life-changing medicines at a price that people can afford. But through achieving our vision, we provide jobs, working environments, tax revenue to governments, and good return to our shareholders – all of which are incredibly beneficial for society. The best results can be achieved when large companies and society work together.

Do you think the backlash has been gathering momentum recently?

I believe we are already in a phase where we need to rethink our contributions to society in many areas. In the United States, many companies have stepped up their commitments to corporate social responsibility initiatives, as a rule, to ensure that social contribution is happening. Efforts to serve as wide a range of stakeholders as possible are becoming more common among large companies.

The reaction to globalization is definitely a problem, but I don’t believe it’s a big one, to be honest. If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you can see that global companies are contributing a lot to humanity, and we are a global company. I mean, yes, there are, of course, also negative aspects to globalization, but the main problem is that it is only the shortcomings that are being discussed, and all the positive aspects are being overlooked. It is important for companies like us to try and rebalance that.

In our sector, especially, there is a constant increase in the volume of data, specifically patient data. Provided that this data is managed and utilized effectively, it can be hugely beneficial in terms of developing new drugs and finding better treatments. But on the other hand, even the slightest mishap in the management of that data, and you are facing a major problem with huge repercussions. I feel this is very similar to globalization in a way – there are so many benefits, but if mismanaged, you’ll face serious consequences and a lot of negative press.

The Global Headquarters of The Takeda Pharmaceutical

How do you see the future of your industry in the next 10, 20 years?

Medicines will still be available, but these will be highly targeted for certain diseases. Also, there will be incredible advancements in patient monitoring. Today, when someone gets sick, they go to a doctor, get a diagnosis, and get prescribed some medicine. If they still have symptoms after taking the medicine, they go back to see the doctor again, but I think that in the future, doctors will be able to monitor patients in new ways, remotely, and patients themselves will be able to monitor their own health – the possibilities will grow exponentially.

Digital medical devices will be embedded everywhere, such as under your skin, allowing you to understand your health in real-time and take the appropriate treatment, reducing the cost and resources on the entire healthcare system. Of course, new technologies such as gene therapy will increase, but above all, in the next decade, patient monitoring will reach a completely new plane. That's why patient data is so important and that for ethical reasons, amongst others, access to that data needs to be tightly controlled. Without this, such an evolution cannot happen.

Do you think there will be less demand for medicine, just like automobiles?

I think that the management of diseases will be optimized, and this will, therefore, reduce costs.

Do you have a message for Japanese business people?

Innovation is essential and the key to success. As I mentioned earlier, the level of education in Japan is so high, so there’s no reason why innovative ideas can’t be homegrown.

In today's world, I think you are successful if you globalize rapidly innovation. Over the past 20 years, the globalization of Japanese companies has been very slow. The first method was to develop products in the home market and, if successful, start developing them for foreign countries ten years later.

But today’s startups and biotech companies are fighting for their place on the global stage from day one. As soon as you invent something you need to have the confidence to make it global. No matter how good an idea is, if you leave it too long, you’ll lose out to the competition.

President Weber poses in a meeting room at the Global Headquarters building in Tokyo.

Lastly, I would like to ask about your personal life. How has your family adapted to life in Japan?

We have been in Japan for almost six years now, and we really enjoy living here. My wife is here and she speaks Japanese quite well now. She took Japanese classes two hours a day for three years. My 17-year-old son and my 21-year-old daughter are studying in the United States now, but my son spent four years in Japan and became a very good speaker of Japanese.

I heard you have a passion for skiing, do you still have time to hit the slopes?

I try every year to spend a few days skiing. It all depends on whether I’m traveling or not, what the weather conditions are, and other numerous factors. I grew up in the mountains in France, so I've been skiing for 40 years now. It motivates me not to put on too much weight and to stay relatively fit.