In the heart of Iceland’s life sciences industry, Jonina Gudmundsdottir, the CEO of Coripharma, is making her mark. With a deep understanding of the industry’s challenges and a relentless drive for excellence, Gudmundsdottir has steered Coripharma toward transformative success.
Iceland’s life sciences industry has thrived in recent years, propelled by its unique strengths. With a culture of innovation that has fostered a fertile ground for life sciences, Coripharma, under Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jonina Gudmundsdottir‘s leadership, has capitalized on these advantages as a new company in name, but not without history or experience.
While the name Coripharma itself is relatively new, the origins of the company actually date back to the 1980s, and a company named Delta hf. Fast forward to the early 2000s and a couple of mergers later, Delta hf. rebranded as Actavis in 2004. Later acquired by Teva Pharmaceuticals in 2016, Coripharma was then founded in 2018 and acquired Actavis from Teva.
“Though it has a slightly confusing history, I would say we are not totally regarded as a newcomer in the business, even though we have a new name,” Gudmundsdottir notes happily.
This fortunately also hasn’t hindered business opportunities for a company like Coripharma explains Gudmundsdottir. “Everyone is looking to reduce the complexity and reduce their number of suppliers. So I’m very happy to say that we have already signed with all of the big players in Europe and we are good partners for our customers, which we can prove again and again,” she says.
The right focus
Jonina Gudmundsdottir’s experience in the pharmaceutical industry has shaped her leadership style. As the CEO of Coripharma, she aims to position the company in a way that suits it, particularly in where to focus their business.
By positioning the company in this area, for a relatively small company there is no danger of competing with larger manufacturers, as this is where we are kind of putting our focus, not competing with large-scale manufacturing.”
“What is typically happening is that pharmaceuticals are becoming more specific, they only affect very specific cells for a specific disease. By positioning the company in this area, for a relatively small company there is no danger of competing with larger manufacturers, as this is where we are kind of putting our focus, not competing with large-scale manufacturing,” she explains.
Yet, like any industry, the life sciences sector faces its fair share of challenges. Gudmundsdottir recognizes the importance of overcoming obstacles and forging with the tools that they have. Having a strong team also helps make Coripharma such a good strategic partner. Gudmundsdottir explains that Coripharma has its own development team and its own portfolio selection and that they select their own products for development.
“Then we also have a list of products that we can offer to European pharmaceutical companies. With that in mind, the vision is basically to be a prominent player in the B2B field,” she says.
A powerful heritage
Obviously, being a new company means that some things will take more time than others, and drug development is no quick process. Gudmundsdottir is determined to make sure that doesn’t hold the company back.
“The development of a product takes almost five years, through the regulatory process into the market. So next year the first large-scale developed products will go to market,” she says.
Iceland has always been very strong when it comes to generic pharmaceutical development. In the beginning that was because of patent tolls. The patent companies were not applying for patents in Iceland as it is just too small, and that kind of became a growth area for the generics industry.”
After acquiring their R&D facilities in 2019, this speed is quite an achievement and something that Gudmundsdottir is not surprised by. She explains Iceland’s unique place, historically.
“Iceland has always been very strong when it comes to generic pharmaceutical development. In the beginning that was because of patent tolls. The patent companies were not applying for patents in Iceland as it is just too small, and that kind of became a growth area for the generics industry,” she explains.
While this is not the case anymore, what remains is this strong heritage and large talent pool, she continues. “We have people who are really experienced in generic drug development and we are very much building on this powerful heritage.”
Aside from having the support of the Icelandic government when it comes to R&D, there is the acknowledgement that Coripharma is very lucky to have a huge talent pool within the generic pharmaceuticals sector, says Gudmundsdottir. “But having said that, obviously we also need to attract young people,” she adds.
Attracting young people to the business is also not just about salaries, but there is a business reason for this too.
For anyone wanting to join the company, that is quite an exciting proposition.”
“I think we can safely say that we are really paying very fair and generous salaries compared to many countries around us, which then again affects the higher price. We acknowledge the fact that we will never be competing on these kinds of large-scale in general manufacturing. We are going for more difficult developments because we have such a strong R&D team. For anyone wanting to join the company, that is quite an exciting proposition,” she says.
That being said, Gudmundsdottir’s elevation to the CEO position came in 2020 when it was a strange time for many industries. I ask her how the COVID-19 pandemic affected her start in the position.
“Obviously it was a difficult start, but as time went on some changes have been for the better,” she says. “The pharmaceutical business is a very conservative field. It had very much relied on personal contacts. We were transporting agreements back and forth with courier services, and now everyone accepts electronic signatures, which aside from being a much faster way of doing business, also helps the company’s environmental goals.”
We are educating our customers about this because they are also looking for partners with our environmentally friendly conditions.”
Under Gudmundsdottir’s leadership, Coripharma has achieved significant milestones with its commitment to sustainability at the forefront of its operations, and a strong focus on environmental stewardship. “What we have here in Iceland is obviously the perfect spot in a way because our energy is 100% green,” she says. “We are educating our customers about this because they are also looking for partners with our environmentally friendly conditions,” she adds.
Through initiatives such as responsible waste management and a reduced carbon footprint Coripharma aims to continually minimize its environmental impact, and Gudmundsdottir explains that is also good for business. “We have been focusing very much on waste sorting, putting emphasis on that for all of our employees. Last year we published our sustainability report for the first time, which was a good achievement for a young company.”
Coripharma extends its contributions beyond the lab, actively supporting the local community, and this is important to the company, says Gudmundsdottir.
“We feel this is the responsibility of every company to contribute to the local society. As we are not in Reykjavik, we are in a different community and we are supporting the local sports club here, with a lot of emphasis on that,” she says with pride.
Bringing together teams
When I ask Gudmundsdottir about her management style as the CEO she emphasizes that it’s all about bringing together teams. “If I’ve learned anything, it is that you need to have the right people. If you have the right people, and the right teams that are working well together, then you’re doing something right,” she says.
If I’ve learned anything, it is that you need to have the right people. If you have the right people, and the right teams that are working well together, then you’re doing something right.”
Gudmundsdottir’s ambitious goals, commitment to sustainability, and contributions to the local community make her a driving force at the company, but she remains modest throughout, explaining that she sees herself as kind of the selector of the best people. “I’m lucky that a lot of people have wanted to follow me. I’m really grateful to have this new angle to the job because that has been a huge learning curve,” she concludes.
This interview was originally published in NLS magazine No 03 2023, out September 2023
Featured photo: Heida HB