Biotech: it's a people business

Natasha Cowan, David Cooney, Ditte Funding|30th May 2018

Biologic therapies have become a central part of modern day medicine and a key part of biotech and pharma portfolios. From Johnson & Johnson’s immunology treatments to Pfizer’s work on a stem cell-based remedy for age-related macular degeneration, pharma companies are quickly realising biotechnology is the future of healthcare.

However, big pharma is not just taking inspiration from biotech’s innovative scientific breakthroughs. During our research into the sector, we have found a simple formula for driving success in biotech organisations, which begins with a group of patients, often with a rare disease.

Biotech organisations make it their mission to fully understand patients’ needs through patient advocacy groups and innovative research. Crucially, it is not only the therapeutic solutions that are driven by the patients’ requirements – their needs also form the foundation for the organisational vision and structure.

Now the pharmaceutical giants are emulating this approach, restructuring to create new business units dedicated to biotech innovations. Often these organisations will employ dedicated research and development (R&D) teams, as well as business development and commercial experts, to help bring first-in-class drugs from the lab to market.

Here, Blue Latitude Health speaks to Nancy Hunter, Marketing Director at a leading pharmaceutical company, to find out how her laser focus on patients’ needs is propelling a first-in-class biological therapy out of the R&D phase into commercial success, and how her early experiences have shaped her approach to healthcare marketing.

Why did you embark on a career in the biotech industry?

NH: My mom had cancer when I was really young, so I spent a lot of time at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I have early memories of being at the Clinic, talking with Dr Silverstein and being around science.

At that point, the Mayo hadn’t built out into different sites so there were patients flying in from all over the world. There were sheikhs and people from Europe and South America – it was a mix of cultures, languages, interpreters and high science. I grew up in a very small town in Eastern Montana. It was such an eye-opening experience for me. I got to see what medicine, science, and people could be and could do. Looking back on that experience, I saw people coming together to solve problems regardless of race, sex or age. None of that mattered. Everybody was very focused on getting better. Now, as an adult, I’m motivated because we are making a difference for families and for people – those families aren’t any different from my own.

How did you get to where you are today?

When I started out, I was working for Lilly as a sales representative, while completing my MBA. I have been so lucky in my life to have had good coaches and good mentors all along the way – it makes such a huge difference. I started out in big pharma and then moved into biotech. Now, I’m working in an organisation that’s moving from the R&D phase into its first commercial project. There’s just something about pushing the envelope and being involved with pioneering drugs, that is interesting and challenging to me.

Have you noticed a difference between the approaches taken by big pharma and biotech when making that transition from R&D to commercial?

Every organisation, regardless of industry, has a certain kind of DNA. For example, are you an organisation that empowers people to make decisions and to take calculated risks? Are you about growing and really developing your people? One of the plusses about being at a start-up type company is the system can be built from the bottom up and designed in the way the company would like it to be. The people building our new systems now know what works and what doesn’t. They’re coming at the problem with previous knowledge and experience. That’s the up-side of not retrofitting legacy systems. I enjoy that about my industry in general – my colleagues are highly motivated, very knowledgeable and always pushing innovation.

The lines between big pharma and biotech are blurring as we see pharmaceutical companies turning their R&D efforts to biological therapies. How will this impact marketing professionals?

There are always challenging moments for marketers when the business is growing or changing. A good marketer has to do a lot of internal selling, apply understanding to budgets and manage interpersonal relationships well. Regardless of the blurring of lines between pharma and biotech, practical experience and the ability to manage through the ups and the downs will remain valuable. If you have a chance to create a carved-out business unit, which is dedicated to a drug, go for it. It’s a great learning opportunity. It’s a smart way to incubate a new type of drug and bring it to market. By developing a team of people who specialise and focus on the product, a company can nurture it along – often a small, novel or complex drug needs that in the beginning. 

This idea of incubating a business with a drug is new, how was the model structured?

It was a carved-out unit within a larger pharma structure. The model existed in Europe but we had links back to global. It was a multi-country model and something the company could scale up or scale down. We had a lot of input from medical teams and from global. There was an emphasis on communication flow – with input coming from medical, executive and global teams. The process made it a lot of fun, but the spark really came from medical and the sales representatives. We were building something new and they trusted us to get it right.

That’s really interesting, did you face any challenges?

A lot of extra work goes into creating a model like this. If I was part of a team like this again, I would spend more time figuring out the structure and the systems up front. How does that funnel down into our favourite topic – dealing with patients?

Because of my mother, I was on the other side of the chair at a very early age. It matters that you’re being authentic. To me, it matters that everyone in the business is meeting patients’ needs to the best of his or her abilities. Beyond the compliance and legal considerations, I like to think of what it’s like to sit on the other side of the doctor’s desk. The tone the industry takes, the language that is used is vital – we need to be really sensitive as an industry.

Thinking about what a pharma company should or shouldn’t be commenting on is important. What is your advice for understanding and addressing the real needs of patients in the rare disease sector?

Patient Advocacy Groups (PAGs) are crucial because a company can’t develop and meet patients’ needs unless the organisation understands what the needs are. It’s more important to ask a few questions and then listen than it is to do most of the talking. It really does impact how you shape the offering, either for HCPs, for nurses, or for patients, depending on country rules, regulations and compliance. This is a people business to me because patients could have a better life due to this innovative science. My belief is that I’m here to serve the patients and the physicians. An organisation can set the tone but ultimately you, as an individual, should have your own set of values and efficacy. As a leader, I think it’s important to say: “listen, in my shop, in my camp, in my team this is how we are.” If you keep a focus on other people first, then you’re on the right track.

At Blue Latitude Health, we know your success today will fuel the innovations and breakthroughs of tomorrow, which in turn crucially improves the quality of life of patients and their loved ones. That’s why customer insight sits at the heart of everything we do – so we can make sure you truly get to the bottom of patients’ needs, even at global level. Get in touch with to find out how we can help you.

Our content has moved

Blue Latitude Health|18th November 2020

We’re posting all new articles on our parent website

read more

Fishawack Health launches Delta Magazine

Blue Latitude Health|17th November 2020

Our parent company Fishawack Health has launched a new magazine with a first issue unpacking rare disease.

read more

In the precision medicine era, the line between products and services is blurred

Amit Sheinholtz and Ilektra Safari|27th August 2020

Precision and personalised medicines are more than products, they are services in their own right. So, how should pharma approach this uncharted territory to ensure targeted therapies work for patients?

read more

The landscape of healthcare has changed. So have we.

Blue Latitude Health is now Fishawack Health

Redirecting you to in 5...