By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL
Santosh Vetticaden had an unconventional approach to getting to the c-suite. With the ink barely dry on his Bachelor of Pharmacy degree, in 1980 he emigrated from India to Richmond, VA, to begin the pursuit of a Ph.D. in pharmacy and pharmaceutics. According to a 2009 report issued by the National Science Foundation, the average age of life sciences doctoral program graduates is 31.5. Vetticaden completed his in 1985 at the age of 26.
After working for about five years for a consultancy which evolved into a CRO, Vetticaden realized he wanted to gain a greater understanding of the drug development process and enrolled in medical school at the age of 32. When he arrived in the states, he thought he would finish his Ph.D. and return to his home country. Thirty-one years later, Santosh Vetticaden, Ph.D., M.D. — U.S. citizen, husband, and father of three — is the SVP, chief medical and development officer for Cubist Pharmaceuticals, one of the fastest-growing companies according to CNN Money. Vetticaden attributes Cubist’s success to having strong fundamentals, i.e., leadership, cash position, a promising pipeline, and disciplined business development activities. At the time of this writing, Cubist has Michael Bonney in his seventh year as CEO, a cash position (i.e. cash, cash equivalents, and investments) of over a billion dollars, two antibiotics with positive phase 2 result announcements, and reported growth of 21+% in the United States alone. Vetticaden’s own success, however, has come via what he describes as calculated risk taking, which is what I would describe as a nontypical, challenge-seeking career path with a great deal of self-confidence in his abilities for achieving his goals and aspirations.
Not Your Typical Career Path
Only 10% of American Ph.D. life scientists land tenure-track academic jobs after completing their training. So it should come as no surprise that when faced with the decision of choosing between industry and academia, Vetticaden landed in industry. What is surprising is where in the industry he landed. For most newly anointed Ph.D.s with a similar background, the path is to start out with a midsize to large pharmaceutical company, spend a few years at the bench, and slowly begin working your way up the corporate ladder. This was not the case for Vetticaden, though. He says he had considered pursuing jobs in academia or large industry, but ultimately felt that a riskier, more challenging, entrepreneurial environment would be the best fit — a consistent theme even in his future career choices. Thus, his first job was working for Biopharmaeutics Research Enterprises — a small regulatory consultancy group started by a couple of former members of the FDA.
According to Vetticaden, “It was great exposure because they were a big consultant to all of Big Pharma. Here’s a guy, 26 years old, fresh out of completing his Ph.D., now sitting around a table with VPs of Big Pharma getting exposed to a variety of drugs in varying stages of development and deciding or discussing everything from strategy to implementation.” Because they were a consulting company, a lot of times they would subcontract necessary studies to various CROs. Before long, the company realized that instead of subcontracting the work, they could provide better service by setting up their own CRO with analytical services via their own Phase 1 unit. Here Vetticaden was exposed to the nitty-gritty of how to set up a CRO, trial design, and its subsequent implementation. “I was exposed to everything from Phase 1 to Phase 4,” he says.
This experience also exposed him to a personal realization. “I lacked the clinical skill set in the drug development process to completely and adequately assess drug safety and efficacy in patients,” he contends. Thus, after working in industry for five years, he decided to go to medical school, a highly unusual step when one considers that most M.D.s complete their Ph.D. after finishing their medical degree, not the other way around. Another reason it was unusual is he was starting medical school at an age when most students are finishing their residency programs. Upon completion of his internal medicine residency program, Vetticaden would be just shy of 40 — a bit late to be starting one’s career. Undaunted by these prospects, he took the plunge, reentering the drug development and discovery workforce with M.D. in hand, mid-1997.
The takeaway is this — if you lack a necessary skill set to move up in your desired field, go get the necessary credentials and experience to improve. This might not require as dramatic a move as Vetticaden’s decision to go back to medical school, though. For example, he is in a very senior leadership position, yet has never had any formal business training or been part of a leadership mentoring program. Much of the leadership techniques, such as the skill of persuasion, providing vision, driving and executing on strategy, making sure people follow up, and knowing when to intervene and escalate appropriate issues, he picked up by observing fellow colleagues who he felt had skills sets more advanced in certain areas than his own.
The Benefits Of Tackling New Challenges
Many of Vetticaden’s current leadership techniques also can be attributed to his penchant for taking on new business challenges. For example, his first job upon completing medical school was working as a clinical research director for Whitehall-Robins Healthcare, a division of American Home Products. In this role his focus was on the OTC side of the business with an emphasis on preparing prescription drugs for the OTC space. The whole reason he went to medical school was to gain a better understanding of patients. Now, here he was, creating medicines which most often did not require a physician’s prescription for the patient to use. Vetticaden found this process to be very beneficial in his career development. “It extended my understanding of safety and efficacy considerations for these medications, where the standards had to be even higher than those on the prescription side.”
After spending three years at Whitehall-Robins, Vetticaden left to join Aventis Pharmaceuticals to gain global exposure to drug development, which he lacked. He considers his experience at Aventis to be the job where he learned the most and the key to developing his current leadership style.
As a global project team leader, he was in the unique position of managing a global team with no direct reports for a drug he would help grow to be a blockbuster — Lovenox. “When building a high-performing team, there arises a variety of situations — from strategic to execution — which each require you to adapt your leadership skills in order to achieve your desired results,” he says. For example, with the Lovenox team, he found he had to lead by influence, considering none of the members directly reported to him; some of the team worked on more than one project or had other priorities. Leading by influence involves using persuasion, inspiring a shared vision, fostering collaboration, recognizing contributions, and celebrating accomplishments. He had to rally the team behind challenging initiatives, such as the new indication for the drug, while also convincing team members to relegate some of their other activities to a lesser priority. “It’s really about galvanizing the team around a common need and vision,” he affirms. The initiatives he implemented and the results his team achieved got the attention of the heads of development and R&D — Sol Rajfer and Frank Douglas. Being only a senior director at the time, Vetticaden found it very beneficial to have two senior members of management backing him to provide indirect influence over the team.
If involved in a corporate change initiative, Vetticaden emphasizes the importance of being able to develop and articulate a clear vision so every member of the team knows exactly what they are signing up for, understands where the company is going with the initiative, feels important, and wants to take part. With Lovenox, the message was the development of a new indication in acute myocardial infarction that would save lives and reduce the number of repeat heart attacks. Not only would this impact millions of patients’ lives, it would have a significant impact on cardiology since Heparin had been used for decades. A victory would also ensure the drug’s trajectory toward a multibillion-dollar product. The drug continued on a successful trajectory and became a greater than $4B product over time.
The Consummate Optimist
While at Aventis, Vetticaden was limited to leading a team focused on one drug in one therapeutic area. He began to yearn for the greater challenge of being able to lead drug development in a broader sense. “I wanted to utilize my skills, have a greater impact on developing drugs and making a difference,” he explains. He also wanted the opportunity to learn additional skills in leadership by managing people directly. He felt the best opportunity to do this involved moving over to a small biotech. There was just one problem; the small biotech for which he was interviewing, Scios, became the acquisition target of Johnson & Johnson. Nonetheless, he took the opportunity, relocating to the West Coast. Within three years, J&J decided to restructure its operations on the West Coast and essentially shut down Scios. “What I wanted for myself, being in an entrepreneurial environment and having a greater impact, was not something I saw as being possible within J&J following the restructuring,” he explains. Vetticaden took a position as SVP & chief medical officer with Maxygen, and after a year and a half, in his most senior position to date, did the unthinkable — HE QUIT — leaving without having another job lined up. He explains that when he started, Maxygen was a great fit. “I was hired to get drugs developed and move them through their pipelines.” As the company grew, Maxygen’s leadership team recognized that the clinical drug development process can be very risky and expensive and made the strategic decision to license out the process. It became clear to Vetticaden that the process he so much enjoyed, developing drugs and getting them out in the marketplace and having an impact in the medical community, was not something he would be able to do if he stayed at Maxygen. As a result, he decided to create his own company, Global Drug Development Consulting. “The timing was not great,” he admits. “But in retrospect, I made the right decision.” By consulting with VCs and biotechs, he was exposed to a variety of prospects. Opportunity came knocking in the form of Cubist Pharmaceuticals, and hence, relocation of his spouse and three children back to the East Coast. “I’m very fortunate in having an incredibly supportive family,” Vetticaden states. Through their trust and support and his own self-confidence, he survived restructuring, starting his own company, and more than one coast-to-coast relocation to again arrive at a position he would find fulfilling — the SVP and chief medical and development officer for Cubist. Vetticaden’s advice is have confidence in yourself and your abilities and don’t waste time second-guessing past decisions which cannot be changed.
Overcoming Adversity & Achieving Good Life/Work Balance
Overcoming adversity is nothing new to Santosh Vetticaden, SVP and chief medical and development officer for Cubist Pharmaceuticals. As a youngster, Vetticaden suffered from childhood asthma. For many, this would result in a lack of participation in athletic competitions. Vetticaden’s parents took a different approach, getting him involved in sports at a young age, which helped immensely in overcoming what can be a very debilitating ailment. As a result, one of the hobbies he enjoys today is physical fitness, and he is an avid jogger.
And as with most top executives, achieving a good life/work balance is important to Vetticaden, who strives to maximize the time he spends with his family. “Since my kids are between the ages of 5 and 10, I feel it’s important that I try to maximize my time with them,” he asserts. “As an example, I wake up quite early and tend to work when they are asleep or out of the home on other activities. If I work at home while my kids are around, I try to have them be with me in my home office working around me doing their activities, whether it is reading, drawing, or something else.”
Some Impactful Books
One of the books Vetticaden states as having the greatest impact on his life is “Winning through Innovation – A Practical Guide to Leading Organization Change and Renewal” by Michael Tushman and Charles O’Reilly III. “It is a wonderful book which is a guide to leading organizational change and renewal,” he reflects. Another book he recalls as important in his life is “Freedom at Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. “It is an epic about India’s road to freedom, and each time I read it different parts of it fascinate and appeal to me,” he states. “For example, the different styles of leadership with Gandhi and Nehru, the different tactics employed by the leaders to realize common objectives, and the trade-offs to achieve the goal, just to name a few, are fascinating.”