Spotlight on Leadership: Michael Fath, PhD – Grifols

Marketing, medical affairs, and strategic planning roles with Abbott Laboratories make up the backbone of Michael Fath’s industry experience, before moving to Grifols (then Talecris Biotherapeutics), which is a leader in the plasma protein therapeutics. Now Senior Director Global Marketing Immunology and Neurology at Grifols, Michael’s career started with a PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from Harvard, a post-doctoral research fellowship in Molecular Genetics at the University of Chicago, and position as a strategic consultant with McKinsey & Co.. For Michael, these experiences have given him valuable insight into the important attributes of good leaders, and he believes strong skill-building methodologies are critical to the industry’s evolving future; which he sees in the exclusive IAOCR ELIACR program.

How did you get into the Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industry?

My fascination with Molecular Biology started in high school. It was the appeal of unravelling the details of human existence through DNA and molecular technologies that was the area of real interest to me and that carried me through university, graduate school and a post-doctorate. During my post-doc, I was given the opportunity to join McKinsey & Co. to use my analytical, scientific background to solve core business problems.

As a PhD, I was able to bring to McKinsey a scientific perspective which can be used to provide custom solutions for business clients beyond a ‘cookie-cutter’ framework. All business benefits from people who can look at problems in different ways and that was the opportunity for me. They provided tools and a mini-MBA training program, much like the ELIACR program, which allowed me to build my skill-set beyond the scientific basics. I was applying these learnings to solve real business problems every day.

Do you feel you are able to apply these skills in your current role?

Yes, as Senior Director for Global Marketing Bioscience, our largest division at Grifols, our primary business is plasma therapeutics and Grifols works with CROs all the time. In my role, I partner with our clinical leadership teams to define which studies we should be working on, and where to invest the research: with our current products, with new formulations, or new investigational agents.  It’s really exciting because we are able to examine the business, look at patient unmet needs, and the changing competitive landscape. We have our great immunoglobulin products, Gamunex and Flebogamma DIF, which have been approved by FDA, EMA, and around the world. These products help improve the lives of many patients, but we can do more. What’s the next disease that we want to treat with our product?

How would you describe yourself?

Scientific, analytically driven and strategic Leader.

What do you think is the most challenging aspect for you in your current role?

The first thing that comes to mind is communication. Not just here but at any company I have been a part of, whether as an employee or as a consultant. Clear communication is essential both across functional areas but also up and down vertically to executive management.

Being able to bridge across the organization is really important; I believe my scientific background and consultancy experience have trained me in this. My understanding of the ELIACR program is that it will directly address this important issue of communication. It is critical to be able to cross those bridges; to speak one language, be it the business or technical language.

Do you think enhancing communication is something you can affect in your current role?

Absolutely, my experience allows me to relate and speak the language of the different stakeholders. I try to position my communication to ensure all stakeholders understand, especially the Leadership, because that vertical upward education is so important. We have very busy executives, who are dealing with many facets of the business and if you give them too much information it can paralyze the decision making process. If it’s not the right information, the decisions can get side tracked; it’s essential to target the right message to the right audience.

How do you think the ELIACR program will help this challenge?

As a targeted professional education program, ELIACR will help train employees to understand the language of their clients (the pharmaceutical clinical teams); help employees be more effective and be successful. For example, in some companies, there can be a perception that CROs just take orders and conduct tactical activities. A good CRO will get all the tactics right. However, a great CRO will get all the tactics right and will also be a great strategic partner to the industry partner. They will say, “you asked us to do this but perhaps if you look at it this way or consider these alternatives, here’s what could help you.” This foresight and communication can make a big difference.

What challenges are there for your industry as a whole?

As a biopharmaceutical manufacturer, we have challenges from many fronts. One of them is pricing controls, especially outside the US. Our products can cost a lot to develop and when customers call for price reductions (e.g. in Europe), it can hinder innovation. It is essential that we clearly demonstrate the value of our products to physicians, purchasers, government agencies and large hospital systems.

Beyond that are the challenges of limited R&D investment money, identifying the best place to make investments; how to make a meaningful clinical outcome and how to prioritize the limited R&D budget.

Are there any other challenges clinical R&D is facing? 

In the biopharmaceutical industry, it is not uncommon for clinical development projects to fail; that is the nature of the business. Some programs do not succeed because of the inherent risk of clinical development – studies that look good in Phase 2 just do not make it through Phase 3.  Programs can also fail if they are not executed well and that should be addressed in a business setting to make sure that the stakeholders learn how to increase efficiencies and improve decision making. We should also be able to separate those out. As a good leader, we want to identify and call it out when a program is not working. The challenge is making sure that we uncover the source if something didn’t succeed as planned.

How do you think the industry has changed since you entered it?

There has been a lot of change over the past 20 years – our company, like many across big pharma and biopharma, has put more structure into the decision-making process. We strive to bring together the right decision-making group, develop the right strategic priorities, and utilize the right methodology for opportunity assessment. You need to ask: where is unmet need the highest? is there a clear clinical path? is there a clear regulatory path? is there a patient population that will benefit? An experienced team can decide if a new program is going to be a risky investment and if the potential reward is worth the risk. In addition, a good portfolio management process will help management decide whether to kill a clinical program quickly if it is not producing the anticipated outcomes, because the biggest costs come in the Phase 3 clinical trials.

Is there anything you would like to change about the industry?

At times, the pharmaceutical/biopharmaceutical industry has had a negative reputation. But if you look at the reputation rankings sometimes you see that pharma and biotech companies are not viewed favorably. I am very proud of our industry – we make products that save people’s lives. I don’t think there is a simple answer but it is clear that BIO and PHARMA are working to increase stakeholder education. I think that all of us, as members of the broader industry community, can talk to our family and friends and help them understand the value that we get from our medicines.

You know that IAOCR have developed the ELIACR program in partnership with Kellogg School of Management in Chicago to support the shift for individuals from scientific background to a commercial Leadership role. What are your thoughts on the program?

I think it’s badly needed, and that there is a real interest in it. I am also adjunct faculty at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  In this role, I have the opportunity to talk with students about their interests and I see their strong interest in careers beyond academia.

Programs like ELIACR are very valuable and help introduce students to a range of career options whether its clinical research, industry R&D, or as a pharmacist or physician. Although ELIACR isn’t an entry-level program; it is valuable for ambitious individuals entering the industry to know that programs like ELIACR are available. It demonstrates that a company participating in ELIACR can offer them a real career. I think it would be a real selling point for a CRO to say that ‘we invest in our people, there are opportunities for growth by participating in this program’.

What do you think benefitted you, over and above the McKinsey experience, in making the transition from your scientific background to an Organizational Leadership role?

Personally, I have found on-going training to be very valuable. I think it is essential for companies to continue to invest in talent development opportunities. As a new employee, the initial training I received at McKinsey gave me a solid foundation. But on-going training is imperative for continued success. After several years, once you know your company and learn its dynamics, you should seek out additional training opportunities to help you develop and move into more senior roles.

What key piece of advice would you give someone transitioning from a scientific background?

One piece of advice I have is “we can’t know everything; so build on your strengths and not your weaknesses”. If you’re educated and trained as a clinical researcher then this is your strength – build on that. You can learn the additional skills in new areas as you progress in your career, but you also want to surround yourself with people who have complementary skills. For example, make sure you have a strong finance partner if this is not an area of strength. That is how you build the strongest team. Don’t worry if you are not the best financial analyst; instead find the best and make them part of your group.

Would you endorse our ELIACR in partnership with Kellogg Program? 

Absolutely, it’s just the sort of program that you want to have for people coming from a scientific/clinical background to try to expand your skills. The ELIACR program can provide valuable skills for you to grow and expand your career.