Joe Knight reflects on a successful season of interviews
I was keen to create a series for the Venari Podcast – and, given the fantastic network of people I work with as Commercial Consultant for Venari Partners’ Life Sciences practice, it seemed only natural to invite some of them to take part. The guests for the first edition of the Chief Commercial Officer series were:
Over the course of ten fascinating interviews, we’ve had in-depth looks at the totally different journeys my guests have taken towards career success. We’ve heard their thoughts on commercialisation and what the future holds for their industries, and even received valuable advice for the CCOs of tomorrow.
Now that the first series has drawn to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect on some of the key takeaways from these podcasts – but what were they?
For Greg Gangemi, recently CCO at Baudax Bio, putting together an effective commercial team ahead of a product launch is all about hiring talent that complements each other’s strengths and breadth of experience. Inclusivity and culture start where the most recent hire enters, ‘because you should build on the diversity to strengthen the team.’
When building out your commercial team, it’s especially important to have a strong network of trusted contacts – because, as Johanna Rossell (Sumitomo Pharma America’s SVP, General Manager Rare Diseases) puts it, ‘you can’t afford to drag with suboptimal performance.’ Working with recruiters can be especially useful here; for Johanna, it ensures ‘that I can tell them the kind of talent I need’. However, you can’t expect things to fall into place just by hiring strong candidates. Alpha Cognition CCO Lauren D’Angelo noted: ‘Great culture and building great teams is a by-product of strong leadership. Full stop.’
In the pre-revenue, pre-commercialisation phase, ‘identifying people who are a good stage fit’ is key for Cognito Therapeutics CCO Everett Crosland. ‘You need the people who are energised, fulfilled by the opportunity to build the strategy, test the strategy.’ Separately, Vibrant Gastro CCO Cathy Collis believes that innovative products and commercial models go hand-in-hand – but you must have the right talent on board. ‘You need to bring in people who have had experiences in the old pharma model, but you also have to sprinkle in people who are complete disruptors’ – a mix that can yield ‘some really interesting and innovative marketing ideas’.
Eric Matthews, CCO at Arcus Sciences, thinks that in both biotechs and Big Pharma alike there is a misunderstanding that launches and commercialisation are the same. He calls commercialisation ‘a process of strategic decisions, timed investments, and communication around a portfolio that’s emerging from proof of concept into a registrational trial and then to launch.’ This can begin with early target identification, indications, and – if necessary – working with the right partners for a successful launch. Though not everyone thinks you need to partner up...
To co-partner, or go it alone?
SELLAS Life Sciences CCO Robert Francomano kicked off the series by telling us about his belief in going it alone – i.e., launching and commercialising a product yourself, rather than choosing to co-partner – and it certainly paid off for him. In his former role as CCO of Stemline Therapeutics, Robert took the company from a clinical-stage entity to an organisation with full commercial capability, leading to its acquisition by the Menarini Group. Furthermore, a report by ZS Associates showed that go-it-alone launches led to the highest stock value growth of all launches over a 10-year period – and Stemline reported the largest growth of all the companies surveyed.
‘I firmly believe that if you have the intellect and you have the cash,’ Robert says, then going it alone can bear very strong results. He admits that it is not for the risk-averse, or for the faint of heart: ‘It’s very scary, but boy, is it exciting’. However, that’s not to say that partnerships are not effective; Eric Matthews noted that planning for how to further Arcus’ links with Gilead Sciences and Taiho Pharmaceutical Group for the Asian market is a ‘really exciting’ aspect of his role.
Consensus about when to make the first commercial hire
Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, there was broad agreement across the podcast series that bringing in commercial talent sooner rather than later – indeed, often as soon as possible – is best practice for successful launches. When preparing a first product, Mycovia CCO Tiffany Ahlers believes ‘there’s a value of bringing on at least one commercial lead earlier on in the process’, as a strong commercial perspective can help you move from Phase 2 to Phase 3. Robert Francomano agrees: ‘Big Pharma always employs commercial staff at the earliest stages. So, I always would tell everybody to bring on a commercial entity to help inform that.’ For Cathy Collis, meanwhile, bringing in commercial teams at the R&D stage is not only ‘an important part of the overall corporate strategy’, but something that ‘has implications at every stage of development.’
Kirsten Detrick, recently CCO at Endpoint Health, advocates for involving the CCO as soon as possible in the launch, though deciding on when to bring in further commercial talent beyond this point can be tricky; for her biopharma business, someone with expertise in health economics and outcomes research, as well as ‘a sharp marketing person’, would certainly make sense as the next additions.
Trends in the commercial life sciences space
In biotech, the continuation of tech as an enabling force remains the most significant trend in the commercial sphere from Big Pharma to small and mid-sized companies. Roivant Sciences CCO Amy Mahery believes that this is manifesting itself in several areas: particularly, digital health, digital marketing, AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics, all of which she believes is designed to boost personalisation and customer experience to increase engagement. Amy is positive about the future and thinks that tech-led developments will add ‘more value to the healthcare world in general’.
Separately, Greg Gangemi stressed the importance for life sciences companies to adopt an omnichannel approach in this increasingly digitalised world. Johanna Rossell, meanwhile, predicted that Big Pharma will continue to look at smaller companies ‘that have a strong value proposition’, though many smaller businesses will nonetheless have offerings, as well as profit margins, that allow them to hold their own against larger competitors. This will largely depend on the business’ area of expertise; venturing into oversaturated fields will make it harder to compete, and so smaller firms may want to co-promote or work with a larger company.
Advice for the CCOs of the future
Kirsten Detrick believes that CCO is ‘one of the best roles in the entire sector’. As such, the journey to becoming one is competitive, though our guests had plenty of advice for people who want to take the leap. CCO is often a multifaceted position, but Greg Gangemi advises that understanding the specifics of what your company expects is essential. ‘In some organisations, your CEO might be externally facing, working with investors, working with the marketplace,’ he says. ‘The CCO might be inward facing, focused solely on commercial ops. But that could be very different elsewhere.’
As Amy Mahery notes, CCO life may involve drawing on knowledge and work ‘you probably haven’t done for years’, but that this is one of the ‘fun parts of the job’. The importance of a strong network – both for counsel as well as potential additions to your team – is something else that was a constant among the recommendations provided by the CCOs interviewed.
Separately, we’ve seen many executives moving from Big Pharma to take up new challenges in smaller biotech. In such situations, Eric Matthews recommends looking at the science first and foremost: ‘It has to be unique [...] The only way that the biotechs can really compete with the bigger players is to have something that’s unique enough to break through very entrenched incentives around how to develop those medicines.’ He also recommends that the culture fit for the CEO/founder(s) and executive team should feel right, as well as plenty of research into the key players backing the company.
Series Two coming soon!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast series – and I’m delighted to say that we’ve already started recording the next series of the Chief Commercial Officer programme soon! We have some fantastic guests lined up, including Patricia Drake, Christine Coyne, Kylie O’Keefe, Dipal Patel, and Anders Lundstrom. I can’t wait to hear their insights and share them with my network; more from me soon!