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The commercial mindset: Rani Therapeutics' Kate McKinley discusses her career

Kate spoke to Joe Knight on the Venari Podcast

‘I’m a huge proponent for working in large, established companies earlier in one’s career,’ says Rani Therapeutics’ Chief Business Officer, Kate McKinley. With her enviable track record across Big Pharma and small biotechs, it’s worth noting what Kate has to say – which is why Joe Knight, Commercial Consultant for our Life Sciences practice, invited her to appear on an episode of the Venari Podcast. Read on for more on their conversation on commercial strategy in life sciences, as well as preparing – and hiring within – organisations for commercialisation!



Kate’s background

Kate has worked in the industry for almost a quarter of a century. She spent 17 years at Abbott before moving to AbbVie after the company split. In her final role at AbbVie, Kate led a 250-person unit within the oncology team prior to joining Dendreon, whom she describes as ‘pioneers in cell therapy’. During her time at Dendreon, Kate ‘was approached to join Elevar Therapeutics as Employee #20.’ She joined as CCO and built business development, alliance management, corporate communications, compliance, medical affairs, and the commercial supply chain for the startup. When the company was bought out, Kate ‘became the CEO prior to the full transition of the company to the parent organisation, who are based in Korea,’ she recalls. ‘After our acquisition, I launched a business serving as a Fractional Executive Advisor and Board Director to early-stage companies and biopharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and healthtech to support business development, fundraising, corporate and commercial strategy, and organisational scaleup,’ before starting her new role at Rani in May 2023.

Working at Rani

Kate describes Rani’s mission as being ‘to solve the problem that continues to plague biologics, and that is delivery via painful injections.’ The company’s response to the issue is ‘best-in-class delivery’ through their own proprietary technology, the RaniPill, along with treatments in various therapeutic areas. ‘The RaniPill is an intera-coated capsule that passes through the stomach and deploys an injection into the small intestine, which is actually one of the few sites in the human body with no sharp pain receptors,’ Kate notes. ‘So the patient feels no pain when the medication is delivered.’ The pill is drug-agnostic, and Kate notes that Rani have studied 15 molecules in pre-clinical trials, with everything they’ve examined demonstrating ‘comparable and even better bioavailability to the injection.’ They’ve completed two Phase I studies, with a third underway and a Phase II study slated for this year.

For Kate, the RaniPill, which she describes as ‘the furthest along of any robotic oral pill’, is proving just how valuable orally ingested medicine is. ‘Our research shows close to 90% of patients currently on a self-injectable would move to an oral if it were available. And the patients are at the heart of what we do, so this is a huge driver for us’. Rani are seeking to prove how taking a product that needs to be injected, whether monthly or several times a year only, can potentially be made more effective by more frequent oral dosage. ‘We have a lot of opportunities to pursue at Rani Therapeutics to deliver this technology to our patients,’ Kate says, ‘and I’m up for the challenge in my new role.’

From Big Pharma to startups

Working at Abbott early on her career was pivotal for Kate: it was there that she ‘learned the discipline of how to plan and execute effectively’. Still, during that time she also began considering her next steps, enjoying the challenges that new opportunities bring. She describes her move to Dendreon as being ‘strategic, in many ways,’ as it was good preparation for the change between working in Big Pharma and emerging companies. Still, it requires a lot of patience, and while Kate admits that the transition isn’t for everyone, she appreciates that working in an emerging company means you’re likely to meet people with very different backgrounds and experience to your own.

Joining Elevar was, in Kate’s words, ‘a no-brainer. My entire career was at these revenue-generating companies, and here I was, joining a privately held company with no revenue.’ She went from being their first business strategist to CEO, learning and growing ‘in more ways than I had previously thought possible’, and the process showed her that going from Big Pharma to a startup is an opportunity to learn as well as teach. She was so familiar with – and had had a significant hand in – how the company worked such that her team frequently told her she didn’t seem like a first-time CEO. ‘In my prior work advising companies, and now at Rani and even back at Elevar, one common theme we discuss is identifying and bringing in that commercial mindset as early as possible,’ she explains. This doesn’t have to mean that CCOs need to be hired in early development stages – but Kate nonetheless believes that companies must ‘ensure the commercial perspective is considered as the clinical development programme is being created’ along with regulatory strategy and trials. She sees this as being ‘paramount’ for a successful launch, with investors looking for commercial insights very early in the development process.

Commercial experience

Kate is a mentor to many high performers looking to become CEOs and advises commercial leads to ‘get as much exposure the business, even outside of the commercial role’, in order to bring in commercial nous to other areas. She speaks directly from her experience at Elevar, while acknowledging that business development and fundraising are essential for CEOs of today. ‘My advice to a strong commercial leader aspiring to become a CEO is: Don’t take another commercial role or product’: rather, take those opportunities outside the commercial team, and let that mindset influence the entire company. ‘In the process, you’re going to stretch yourself to learn and grow.’ Looking beyond commercial expertise doesn’t just go for CCOs, however. Kate advises VPs or SVPs who want to become CCOs in Big Pharma and biotech alike to gain greater breadth of experience – even if that means making a sideways or downward move – ‘to really make sure that you have a solid grasp’ of the business, as well as the confidence of your organisation, ‘to be able to lead the entire commercial function.’

Team building

When it comes to building out commercial teams, Kate reiterates that it’s never too early to bring in a commercial mindset. ‘Unfortunately, we have seen companies first think about and plan for commercial at some point during a Phase III, and I think we realise now that that’s a little too late.’ The first commercial hires don’t necessarily need to be in the commercial team; rather, as a company scales, executives need to be able to assess whether leaders in key departments like HR, finance, and IT, have experience working with companies that have launched commercial products on the market. This will ‘greatly support as a strong trajectory’, in Kate’s view, ‘and increase the likelihood of success at launch.’ As for hiring within a startup, by contrast, she swears by what she calls ‘a strategic doer’: that is, someone who can simultaneously strategise and do the grunt work. ‘I think it’s critical for companies that are launching – d particularly for the first time – really profile for this in many key roles’.

Do you need help with commercial talent solutions for your life sciences organisation? Please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!


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