Kirsten spoke to Joe Knight on the Venari Podcast
With over 30 years’ experience in launching and leading multi-billion-dollar blockbuster drug launches, Kirsten Detrick is more than qualified to discuss what is needed for successful commercial strategies in biopharma. Having previously worked at BMS, Amgen, and Takeda – where she held a number of commercial roles at US, European, and global levels – Kirsten was recently Chief Commercial Officer at Endpoint Health. She has also been a board member at Orexo.
As part of the Chief Commercial Officer series for the Venari Podcast, Kirsten spoke to our Life Sciences Commercial Consultant, Joe Knight, about her journey towards becoming a CCO and how best to execute commercial strategies in biopharma.
Similarities and differences
As well as working on and leading the launch of products such as ENTYIO, Enbrel, Plavix and Prolia, Kirsten also has significant experience working with startups. She notes that this differs in many ways from working in Big Pharma – ‘large biopharmas obviously leverage their infrastructure, there are established ways of working. And startups are all about creating those ways of working in completely new and exciting and different ways.’ Still, there are more similarities between these two types of company than might be apparent; Big Pharma is not the no-holds-barred zone for funding that it sometimes appears to be. ‘There is constantly a competition for scarce resources at Big Pharma and a real need for creativity and innovation,’ Kirsten notes. ‘Which of course sounds an awful lot like a startup, doesn’t it?’
As CCO of a small biotech, she dictates much of the direction around infrastructure, such as guiding discovery and development teams to apply target product profiles, landscape assessments, long-term regulatory planning, and solid forecasting techniques. ‘But the job of a CCO in a startup is to apply those frameworks in ways that fit the culture, the mindset, and the approach’ of the company in order to develop new drugs for the benefit of patients.
What advice does Kirsten have for aspiring CCOs?
For Kirsten, CCO is ‘probably one of the best roles in the entire sector.’ Connecting scientists ‘who often don’t have deep experience with the complexities of late-stage drug development and commercialisation’ with the market is an exciting mission, if a challenging one. Presenting yourself as the credible face of your organisation is essential; furthermore, as CCO, ‘you’ve got to be willing to leverage your professional network of former colleagues, key opinion leaders, maybe industry experts, on behalf of your new employer.’ The company will likely attract more talent as it grows, so the CCO must be ‘a critical member of the C-suite team that is not only crafting but adapting and growing the strategic plan.’ That means raising money, finding collaborators, and partnering with larger businesses – while managing finances effectively to ensure that the company’s funds are going as far as possible. In startups, CCOs need to be ready to do all of this without the comprehensive structure and networks of Big Pharma, where ‘we’re used to calling up a pal, going next door to somebody’s office and saying, “Hey, can you give me a hint on this?”’ Kirsten notes. ‘You don’t have that when you’re at a startup.’
She describes juggling the various demands on the startup CCO’s time and resources as ‘a high-wire act’ – as well as ‘incredibly fun’ and rewarding. She has a number of useful tips for aspiring CCOs, including ‘a willingness to network incessantly, demonstrate genuine willingness to get out of your comfort zone and thrive in non-familiar settings.’ Startup founders might be sceptical about how candidates will fit into their culture, so showing openness and flexibility is just as important as the professional experience and specialisation you can bring to the table. Furthermore, Kirsten underlines the benefits of outside counsel – ‘a career advisor, a recruiter, someone who’s experienced in this field’ – for extra guidance and advice.
Team building for maximum efficacy
When to bring in commercial talent to small and midsize biotechs is an ongoing question – one that Kirsten believes is probably the toughest that any CCO will have to face. ‘One of my previous companies brought me in right as they were inking their first in-licensing deal,’ Kirsten recalls. ‘And I was able to advise them on that and then leverage my career network to identify the drug development pros, the regulatory CMC talks and all of the critical experts that enabled us to submit our pre-IND to the FDA on that lead asset.’
As such, in Kirsten’s view involving the CCO as soon as possible is best, though deciding on when to bring in further commercial talent beyond this point can be tricky. Someone with expertise in health economics and outcomes research, as well as reimbursement, would be the ideal subsequent hire for her, in addition to ‘a sharp marketing strategy person [...] someone who’s partnered closely with drug developers previously’. Fractional employment is another area of interest for Kirsten, who’s noticed that many highly skilled people in the space are drawn to roles that combine several career opportunities at once – almost like consultants. This is a cost-effective way for startups to attract seasoned professionals. ‘There are so many terrifically talented commercial people out there who are ready for a real pivot in their career,’ she notes, ‘and they’re excited by that opportunity and they’re eager to experience the energy, the delight, of a startup.’
Changes and developments in commercialisation strategy – what does the future hold?
Kirsten recently attended the BIO International Convention in Boston, as well as the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference in January. ‘You can feel the electricity and the excitement in the air from both Big Pharmas and these startups’, with total attendance at these events running into the tens of thousands. She believes the reason for this enthusiasm is large pharma companies’ efforts to find novel therapeutics; ‘unfortunately, finding those assets is super hard.’
In Kirsten’s view, these difficulties will continue to see pharma and startups coming together – albeit in new ways. She cites Scilentia, a new venture she’s working on, as an example: this organisation identifies startups in places that have traditionally been overlooked by Big Pharma. ‘There’s great science happening in places like Minnesota or New Hampshire or Illinois’, as opposed to the traditional strongholds of Boston and San Francisco. Scilentia runs participants through a six-week programme, using case studies cited by global experts who can then help the startups to progress even further. These mentors ‘coach them to build out really thorough drug development and commercialisation plans for their lead assets,’ Kirsten explains. ‘These are ready for the prime time. These are not just pitch decks that will eventually see their way to venture capitalists and Big Pharma.’ Several large pharma companies sponsor Scilentia’s efforts, and at the end of the programme they meet the startup participants to review asset plans, with a view to potential collaborations and partnerships. ‘It’s a win-win for everyone involved,’ Kirsten says.
Kirsten is particularly interested in hearing from startups located in areas that have previously struggled for attention, as well as ‘Big Pharmas that are excited about this approach to enhancing their pipelines and really bringing in new creativity, new science.’ She cites the impact of the pandemic in disrupting well-established paradigms about pharma talent; with the rise of remote work, focusing on two traditional biopharma strongholds will mean missing out on plenty of innovation in the long run. ‘That’s something that we’re going to bring to bear for both large pharma and the startups. And I’m really excited about it.’