Seattle Genetics, On the Verge of Going Commercial, Seeks to Keep Its Scientific Soul

7/5/11Follow @xconomy

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partially or completely shrink tumors in 75 percent of Hodgkin’s patients who had relapsed after getting prior therapies, and that it did the same for 86 percent of people with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. About 30 percent tumor response rates would have been considered good enough to seek FDA approval. The results sent Seattle Genetics stock soaring, and forced the company to quickly put together its commercial game plan.

All that commercial prep work is likely coming to a climax soon. Seattle Genetics will make its case before an FDA advisory panel on July 14, and the FDA’s deadline to complete its review of the drug is August 30.

Given the abysmal effectiveness rate of typical cancer drugs, Seattle Genetics has had no trouble attracting commercial talent that wants to be a part of a product launch like this one. The company sifted through 1,600 applications for the 100 slots on its commercial team, which includes sales, marketing, and reimbursement specialists, Siegall says. The company has recruited people from a number of big names in biotech and pharma—Genentech, Novartis, Celgene, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, to name a few—and has been careful not to get too many people from one place, to avoid too much cultural carryover from people’s previous employers. More than 90 percent of the commercial team has already been hired and started work at Seattle Genetics—a sign that the company wants to make sure it hits the ground running on approval day, and that it is confident it will get the FDA green light on time.

“I wanted to make sure that we had the right commercial team on the ground to do an effective, strong robust launch,” Siegall says. “There are a lot of patients in need, and we don’t want to be the holdup.”

Siegall wouldn’t be so crass as to say it in so many words, but Seattle Genetics seemingly wanted to avoid going the route of the stereotypical pharmaceutical commercial team full of pretty young women straight out of college who wink at doctors and hand out leaflets. It’s been putting together a small, experienced team of people with experience dealing with hematologist/oncologists who treat patients with blood malignancies. It has drafted medical experts who will answer the phone and provide a medical answer, fast, when doctors call. And Seattle Genetics has written up training manuals for its sales reps, and forced them to pass exams before they are cleared to go in the field. Training typically takes the sales reps a couple months, Siegall says.

“What happens in some organizations, is that when doctors ask sales reps a question, the sales rep will have to say, ‘I’ll have someone call you.’ You can say that now and then. It’s OK to say that sometimes. But the doctor, who is very busy seeing patients, when they have a question, they want an answer. We wanted to be the type of organization where our sales reps are very knowledge and understanding of the questions that get asked,” Siegall says.

That means R&D and sales need to know each other, and what each of them does to the make the company go. The scientific team can’t just take a backseat to the new rainmakers in commercial. As the company grows far beyond its Bothell, WA headquarters, Siegall says, it has put thought into making sure certain people in certain departments don’t end up getting marginalized. Every Friday, the company holds an hourlong companywide teleconference, in which groups take turns making short presentations about what they’re working on. That means a sales rep in Houston will see what colleagues are doing in chemistry, toxicology, finance, or business development. “You can see the passion, you can hear it, and you can understand what Seattle Genetics is trying to do,” Siegall says.

Siegall is certainly one who wears his enthusiasm on his sleeve, and he continues to even as the company has gotten big enough that he doesn’t personally know everyone in the company anymore. He says he remains “very hungry.”

He often gets asked whether Seattle Genetics will end up getting acquired, like so many biotech companies do. While he’s artful in ducking that question, he’s also not taking the kind of actions that executives often do—like cutting back R&D—when they are getting their company dressed up for a sale. The day we talked, he sounded like he’s having fun right where he is.

“I’ve always had a strong drive to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients, but something else I found I enjoy doing, which I didn’t appreciate before, is that I enjoy building a company, and building careers for people,” he says. He adds: “With our first drug, we think we can be a very good company. With our second and third drug, we can become a great company.”

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