I recently sat down with John Sjovall (past-President of LTEN) to interview him about his transition from heading up T&D at Daiichi-Sankyo, to working with a small startup (Collegium Pharmaceuticals). If you’ve ever been curious about what such a move might be like….well, read on!
Profile of Collegium Pharmaceuticals:
Collegium as a commercial organization is a little over one year old, with approximately 230 total employees. The sales force is about 160 sales reps and managers, broken out into three different teams: Therapeutic, Institutional, and LTC.
Collegium is focused on developing and launching products that use a proprietary DETERx manufacturing process. DETERx takes a drug API and makes it extended release (Q12 dosing), and manipulation resistant. In late June of 2016 the company launched its first product: Xtampza ER is an oxycodone opioid indicated for the treatment of chronic pain requiring around the clock treatment.
What has been Collegium’s biggest challenge launching this new drug for pain?
Launching a new product and new commercial entity at the same time, particularly with a product in the opioid pain space, has been a very interesting and challenging opportunity. Besides healthcare organizations that are stricter than ever in controlling their formularies, we have found that access to the prescriptions in pharmacies is a real challenge due to the nature of the product. Pharmacy chains are now less inclined to auto-ship new products at launch, especially for opioids. In addition CII opioids require vault space (which is limited) at local pharmacies, and they have monthly opioid quotas for CII’s as well; it is a very intensive “hands-on process” where sales representatives must walk HCP offices and local pharmacies through the steps to make sure that prescriptions are available when they are written. An account management approach to sales is a mandatory mindset for the sales representative in an opioid market.
Lots of people who have been in larger pharmaceutical companies dream of moving over to a startup. The perception is lots of freedom and excitement. What’s the reality?
Joining a start-up has been very exciting, enjoyable…and a challenge as well. I describe it as building a rocket ship after it has already taken off from the launch pad. You are building internal processes and systems at the same time you are fielding sales forces and launching products. The pace is fast, hours are long, and the whole adventure is very fulfilling. One caution I would append is to go into it with your eyes wide open; things are lean, budgets and personnel are tight!
For example, when I was at my last company I had a training team of 30+; teams were focused on new hire training, training development and training technologies. At a startup it was initially a team of three (me, myself and I). Yes, I was doing everything – strategizing, designing and editing training materials and content, while at the same time finding and launching an LMS and other training technologies. I was able to add a second position last spring four months before launch. If you are not willing to work in an environment where you need to roll up your sleeves and be a doer and planner, then a start-up may not be for you.
You joined Collegium Pharmaceuticals as they were preparing for their first launch. What was most surprising to you about the experience?
The biggest surprise was the need to be flexible and build the process when it is needed, because it doesn’t exist. At an established organization, processes and procedures are embedded and are already part of the organizational culture. In a start-up, you have small teams with everybody engaged in building their own rocket ship. For instance, Medical-Legal review may be a brand-new process, so you have to make sure you understand what someone is intending, because they may not be available later when you may need additional clarification.
Of course, there are differences between very small start-ups and more mature companies, but what are the issues that are pretty much the same?
Interestingly enough, there are many aspects that are quite similar. The same set of priorities drive large and small companies in our industry. Despite the size difference, a SmartCar and a stretch limousine fundamentally work the same way.
The time and cost to build a workshop or a product learning module is the same whether you are building it for 10 or 10,0000. The assumption that we are small and nimble may allow decisions to be made quickly; but the execution/process time is still the same. And effective communication is just as critical; the fact that you are small doesn’t mean teammates will absorb information or know what you are doing. You still need to keep stakeholders informed and check in that your activities are tracking with the organization’s priorities and initiatives.
What have you learned about yourself as a professional through this new role?
The first thing I learned was that I could be more flexible; those who know me understand that I like to follow the process and have a plan in place! In the past I liked to start planning the training for a product launch 18 to 24 months ahead of time; in this new role, I did it in less than 11 months, including the onboarding and training of 142 new sales hires! “You can teach an old dog new tricks!” I have had fun this year dusting off old unused skills and knowledge, and creatively applying all those years of experience into a new and dynamic setting.
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