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Commercialization: Timing the Talent Ramp

Posted by Lauren Kendall on April 25, 2018
Originally published in by Dave Melville, CEO and Founder at The Bowdoin Group.

Launching a new drug is a pinnacle moment for any pharmaceutical company. In the US, it takes an average of 12 years[i] and $800 million dollars[ii] for a drug to make it into the hands of patients, so the importance of getting the launch right cannot be overstated, especially because organizations only have one shot to make a lasting impression.

Having the right talent in place to manage the commercialization process is essential. With deadlines constantly shifting and the need to make smart investment decisions, it’s difficult to know when to hire to ensure you’ve got the right people in place at the right time.

In this article, we’ll share practical advice, best practices, and real-world examples of how to hire talent for a successful commercial launch.

A hiring timeline for commercialization 

The most ideal timing for hiring to begin for commercialization is 18-24 months from the PDUFA (Prescription Drug User Fee Act) date. Working backwards from that date, a successful hiring timeline looks something like this:

  • Two plus years out: Many organizations (specifically orphan drug companies) have recently begun building their digital communities to help the commercial team and physicians understand the audience better before the launch. This new trend means that digital marketers, online community managers, and website development teams are in place often before the commercialization strategy has been finalized.
  • 18 months out: Organizations are ideally putting together a shell of a team to build the commercialization strategy, which may include the Chief Commercial Officer, managed care team, and sales operations. Handling the complexities of the managed care market is often more difficult than anticipated, so don’t wait too long to hire this team—playing catch up when the drug goes to market is not a great strategy.
  • 12 months out: Medical Science Liaisons are hired to begin creating the ecosystem in the medical community.
  • 4-6 months out: Front line managers are hired to set the stage for the expansion of the delivery teams (e.g. regional sales managers). Make sure that sales managers know the importance of getting the sizing of territories right early. When territories continue to shift as organizations get closer to the PDUFA date, hiring slows down.
  • Launch: Ideally, hiring is finalized either just before or after the launch with the hiring of the sales reps, who either lay the groundwork for selling or actually start selling the product. Organizations that aren’t ready to hire the sales team all at once may want to phase the expansion. Consider bringing in reps from top territories before you’re ready to hire the next.

The entire hiring process normally takes approximately two years, but we’ve seen some companies ramp up in a shorter timeline. If your timeline is particularly tight, don’t downplay the importance of logistics.

Take AMAG Pharmaceuticals, for example. After acquiring the US commercial rights to Intrarosa™, an FDA-approved product for the treatment of moderate to severe dyspareunia (pain during intercourse), AMAG needed to ramp its entire Women’s Health division in just four months. When the timeline is that tight, the project requires flawless execution. Partnering with companies that handle logistical support for the interview process, which includes scheduling, making travel arrangements, and coordinating recruiting events across the country is preferred by many companies over redirecting internal resources who must be dedicated full time to the initiative.

Three best practices for ramping successfully

When you consider the potential negative impact of one bad hire, the hiring of tens to hundreds of individuals for a commercial launch can seem daunting. Here are some best practices from the field to make it easier:

  • Be obsessive about planning – Set clear goals, have a well-developed project plan with clear roles and responsibilities, and establish a protocol for evaluating talent so that there is consistency across the team. Like any project, it requires discipline, great management, and constant communication.
  • Build flexibility into your budget – Many organizations set a fixed budget at the outset and either end up with an unbalanced team or go over budget. Typically, the first few employees end up being referrals who are paid more; companies have then hired 25% of their team and spent 45% of their budget. Remaining hires end up being lower quality because budgets are squeezed, so set a budget range instead of a fixed number.
  • Keep the company’s long-term needs in mind – In the pharmaceutical industry, companies are bought and sold frequently. In the case of Ariad Pharmaceuticals’ commercialization, it was public knowledge that the company could be sold at any time. That changed the hiring strategy. Instead of bringing in individuals for reasons that could change if the company was sold—their boss, peers, or their territory, for instance—they hired individuals who had a real passion for the drug, patients, and the cause. Stay focused on what the organization will need in the long run.

With all of the timing and budgetary pressures, the commercialization process can be a stressful one. Using the timeline and best practices above as a guide for when and how to hire successfully will help ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible.