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'Commercialisation is a process' - in conversation with Arcus CCO Eric Matthews

Eric joined Joe Knight on the Venari Podcast

For the final episode of the Venari Podcast’s first Chief Commercial Officer series, Joe Knight, Commercial Consultant for our Life Sciences practice, spoke to Arcus Biosciences’ CCO Eric Matthews. His career has taken in some of the biggest names in the industry, tallying with a recurring theme of the series: the journey from roles in Big Pharma to a CCO position in a smaller biotech.

After a few years at GSK, he went to grad school to study business and public policy at Duke University before joining Genentech’s marketing efforts for the medicine Tarceva. This was Eric’s first experience of bringing a new, targeted treatment into the lung cancer space, after which he moved on to working with Avastin, where he was involved in various U.S. indications. ‘Ultimately, with the Roche acquisition of Genentech, [I] moved the family to Switzerland and for four years took on various roles with Avastin,’ Eric explains. He took on a Global Commercial Director role prior before returning to the U.S. with lifecycle leader and immuno-oncology with Genentech. Eric later joined AstraZeneca after some contacts he knew from Genentech invited him to work on their Stage III lung cancer therapy, staying there until becoming CCO of Arcus in 2019.



Arcus’ partnerships

So, how is Eric enjoying his time as a biotech CCO? ‘It’s been great...It’s definitely been a journey, as we’ve grown from about 200 people when I joined – now, almost 600 people,’ he notes. ‘The portfolio has really matured over that time. Business development, and building out the company’s partnerships, have been particularly gratifying for Eric, not least Arcus’ link with Gilead Sciences and Taiho Pharmaceutical Group for Asia. This programme predated his arrival at the company, though Eric credits working on it with helping him to facilitate and design the strategic partnership from an early stage. Alliance management was not technically in the job spec when he started at Arcus, though planning for how to further the partnership with Gilead as they commercialise medicines together is a large – and ‘really exciting’ – aspect of his role now.

Arcus’ partnership with Gilead is a 10-year, co-development and commercialisation programme for the U.S. market. ‘They have opt-in rights into anything in our portfolio that we plan to take forward,’ Eric explains; thus, planning on developing new medicines goes all the way ‘from proof of concept through to registration.’ The strategy behind their co-creation agreement makes for ‘a very dynamic day-to-day partnership’. Now, a few years out from launching, Arcus and Gilead have the space to think through dosing delivery, product design and communication: ‘we can build out how a full launch in a portfolio will look as we think about what they’ll have on the market and where the Arcus medicines will fit within that.’

Contrasts between Big Pharma and biotech

Eric knows, from firsthand experience, that ‘larger companies can have difficulty acknowledging their challenges or strategic mistakes. They can stay invested in programmes too long.’ By contrast, smaller businesses can’t afford such luxuries. ‘You can do more with less’ he says. He also stresses the importance of culture in the more intimate biotech space, ‘where people are working more closely together across disciplines and you really have to be rolling up your sleeves, getting the work done day-to-day.’ In Eric’s view, this area of the industry affords greater space to think about and do things differently, while also providing opportunities to attract candidates that you might not find in a larger company. The dynamism of the sector – from taking risks, the ‘push and pull of providing guidance, but also giving people lots of room to grow and experiment with doing things differently’ – make it ‘an exciting place to be.’

Making the transition

For any senior executives thinking about making the move from Big Pharma to smaller biotech leadership, Eric advises, first and foremost to look at the science, which ‘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 – e.g., the board, investors – and in-depth examinations of the company’s progress thus far and plans for the future. ‘Spend time laying out your vision for how you plan to build your team from day one through to launch,’ Eric says. Commercialisation is ‘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.’

However, solid strategy and understanding of the company’s goals aren’t the only factors that can smooth the transition from Big Pharma to biotech. Eric believes that his contacts have been a huge boost to his career, noting that your network is ‘one of the most important assets that you bring to any new position, especially in a biotech role.’ Gaining knowledge of launches is also key – Eric cites his early experience of being involved in Genentech’s early oncology launch as being ‘very unique’ – and finding these as you build your career is essential. Eric also recommends making the move to roles like global marketing, whether at home or abroad, as such positions build up your contacts and the experience will give you an extra dimension: ‘It’s one thing to talk about launching a drug in the UK; it’s another one to do it and to see the scrutiny that brings to bear on a clinical profile.’

Building commercial teams

When to bring in commercial talent ahead of a launch is another key question – and Eric has definite thoughts on when is too late, having had to build a team after a Phase III readout while at AstraZeneca, which was too late for him. For Eric, proof of concept phase – when you can think about indication selection, partners, therapy sequences, and building out into multiple indications from the initial proof of concept – needs ‘quite an intentional investment in commercial thinking and expertise you want to bring in’. Building the commercial team concerns not just the CCO, but also insights and analytics leaders with knowledge of particular disease states, epidemiology, and the competitive space for given targets. Eric also highlights the importance of portfolio marketing in launches:‘early positioning and communication and ultimately market access within that two-year timeframe’ is vital.

In Eric’s view, there’s a misunderstanding in both biotech and larger pharma alike that launches and commercialisation are the same. Launching is being ready and energised to offer new products to patients; commercialisation, meanwhile, ‘is a process of all the strategic decisions, investment timing, and communications that get you to that place.’ This can begin with early target identification, indications, and combinations of partners. At Arcus, the marriage of translational science and clinical development in their commercial efforts comes down to their vision ‘combining to cure cancer’, ensuring their combination decisions are as ‘meaningful and the most informed they can be – right from the beginning.’

Please get in touch if you would like assistance with commercial talent solutions for your life sciences business – we’d love to hear from you.


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