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‘Understand the role. Know what a Chief Commercial Officer does’ – Acorda CCO Kerry Clem opens up

Kerry was a guest on Joe Knight’s Chief Commercial Officer series for the Venari Podcast


‘I’ve always had the attitude that whatever is needed, wherever you need me to fill in, just let me know and we’ll take it on,’ says Acorda Therapeutics CCO, Kerry Clem. ‘I think that was one of the main things that helped me to elevate and grow.’ He’s amassed a wealth of commercial life sciences experience over her 25 years in the industry, joking that 13 years at Acorda alone make him ‘a relic in this industry’ – and so he was a natural candidate for inclusion on the BioPharma Chief Commercial Officer series for the Venari Podcast, run by our Life Sciences Commercial Lead, Joe Knight.


Read on for Kerry’s insights on the use of AI in commercial settings, building teams ahead of launches, and the gap between failure and success when going to market – not to mention some great advice for execs looking to become CCOs themselves.


A quarter-century of experience

Kerry started his career in the commercial life sciences space as a sales representative at Schering-Plough, where he ‘carried the bag in the primary care space and was able to go into sales management’. However, he had what he describes as a ‘leftover entrepreneurial itch’ from having co-run his own business prior to entering the pharmaceutical industry, and this eventually led Kerry to try his luck with small pharma startups. He spent ten years accruing ‘great learnings, as well as bumps and bruises,’ working primarily with CNS and oncology startups before joining Acorda as VP of Sales.  


Growing responsibility

Having upskilled during her decade working in startups, at Acorda Kerry was able to take on numerous cross-functional responsibilities – including building out three separate departments – as the company grew. He attributes a can-do attitude as being ‘one of the main things that helped me continue to elevate and grow’ during his tenure at the company; a selection of progressively more senior positions culminated in Kerry taking on the role of Chief Commercial Officer. So, what advice does he have for other executives who would like this job for themselves?


‘It’s important first to really understand the role and know why it is you want to do what a Chief Commercial Officer does,’ Kerry advises. ‘Oftentimes it just seems like a natural progression that people want to get to. It’s a title, it’s a position, but you really need to understand why it is you want to do what we’re responsible for doing’. Thereafter, he notes that aspiring CCOs should expand their skillsets, whether through more dedicated study or on a more informal, ad-hoc basis, so that they can ‘begin to do the job, if you will, before getting the job.’ That way, candidates will be well versed in the particulars of the CCO role when opportunity knocks.


The effect of AI on commercial pharma

In Kerry’s own words, he is ‘probably at the lower end of the competency scale’ when it comes to using ChatGPT. While Acorda are at an early stage in their AI journey, they recognise its importance and have ‘begun to incorporate it in different areas of our business.’ Furthermore, he underscores the importance of good data integrity and making sure ‘we’re asking the right questions of our data’ – that is, using data to help solve problems. Kerry cites undertaking predictive analyses with historical data as an example. ‘If you’re asking questions around what happened last year, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to look at what’s going to happen next year and the year after, then you need to be asking a different set of questions of your data’. Kerry highlights the importance of managing data and maintaining its integrity (that is, ensuring its quality and trustworthiness). As he notes, ‘not all data is good data’.


Building successful teams

Kerry has led teams ahead of a number of launches across his career, and believes that success comes not just from building the team but also ‘the capabilities, infrastructure, processes, and systems’ that will enable the unit to operate effectively. It is not merely a question of hiring so much as laying the groundwork; as with data, he advises leaders to have an intimate understanding of what they’re seeking to accomplish prior to identifying ‘what kinds of skills and capabilities you need to be successful’. An important aspect of this process, for Kerry, is acknowledging early on that you won’t necessarily be able to hire for every skillset you need; accordingly, it’s essential to build a team with the right mix of strengths and experience who can nonetheless deliver your project successfully. To make this work, you should take into account that building successful teams for product launches is not just about hiring talent but also developing it – ‘identifying the people that you have on your team that have the potential to grow into those roles, and then investing in them and developing so that they can grow’.


Essential skills to separate success from failure

In Kerry’s view, one of the most important things to look for in a candidate is ‘general curiosity’, as it shows a willingness to learn and develop. ‘I think the other thing is just general business acumen,’ he notes, in addition to adaptability: ‘it’s important to be able to adapt to change, because the only constant in our industry is change.’  That much is certainly true. With plenty of successes and failures alike in the market in recent years, the line dividing a good outcome from a bad one can be thin. Many factors can influence these, though concentrating on the ones in the organisation’s control will certainly help your cause.


For Kerry, it comes down to a clear vision and effective communication of your strategy; having the right mix of skillsets in place so that your team can execute that strategy; ensuring your infrastructure is prepared for the team and the launch; and, perhaps most importantly, to be adaptable. After all, when change is the only constant, what else can you do?


If you need help sourcing commercial talent in the life sciences industry, we can be of assistance – please don’t hesitate to reach out!



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