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“The consumer is your boss” — Kirsten Flowers learned this business philosophy early in her career at Procter & Gamble. “It’s so important to understand the voice of the customer and always use this as your North Star,” she says.
Since those early days, Flowers has incorporated this motto into every role she’s held — from product development to launching blockbusters to developing analytics, trade and distribution programs to leading medical affairs.
“It’s important to understand what payers need, what patients need, what providers need and what will really help all of these stakeholders,” she says. “I’m always thinking about what I can do to maximize the number of patients we can help five to 10 years from now when a product gets to market.”
Looking to the future is key to her current role as chief commercial and corporate strategy officer for Kura Oncology, an early stage precision medicine company with three oncology-based products — ziftomenib, tipifarnib and KO-2806 — in clinical development. Flowers believes it’s never too early to think about the decisions that will have a huge impact on the life cycle of products before they are brought to market. For example, she says it’s important to outline the full strategy starting with what indication should come first, what the formulation looks like, what the endpoints are and what data will support market access and reimbursement.
In today’s Woman of the Week podcast, Flowers details her experience in launching two blockbusters — Ibrance and Inlyta — while at Pfizer, how “embracing discomfort” can lead to career success and why leaning into a “full-cup” philosophy — experiences that come from different parts of one’s personal and professional life — can help build a better leadership toolbox.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive. In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Kirsten Flowers, chief commercial and corporate strategy officer, Kura Oncology.
Taren: Kirsten, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Kirsten: Thank you. I am delighted to be here.
Taren: Well, I’m delighted to speak with you. Let’s start from the beginning. What drew you to the life sciences industry initially?
Kirsten: So in undergrad, I was a molecular and cellular biology and psychology double major, and I was very interested in medicine. I spent some summers doing some internships in the medical field. And then between my junior and senior year, I actually did an internship at Procter & Gamble in their pharmaceutical division. And then during my senior year of college, at the last minute decided that I didn’t want to go to medical school. I thought my parents might disown me and so quickly tried to find a fulltime role and ended up back at Procter & Gamble in their pharmaceutical division.
And really, what I learned in the summer that I was there is how much I loved helping people but also the business side and the cross functional collaboration, all of those things are really what initially drove me. I think more recently, as I now have three kids, I just can’t imagine doing anything else with all of my time if I’m going to spend it away from children and family is helping people live healthier, hopefully longer lives.
Taren: It’s such an admirable goal. So there’s a little bit to unpack there if you don’t mind. I would imagine that the conversation with your parents is probably the first time you had to figure out how to do real conflict resolution as part of your career strength or job strength. But also that P&G, really working for a consumer goods company, a behemoth consumer goods company, even if it’s in the pharmaceutical division, had to be a great learning place for you.
Kirsten: It was amazing. I always tell people that that was one of my most formative roles. They are a powerhouse at training people. They bring in thousands of people and do a lot of deep training before you even start working full-time. Things from you write memos on one page in Word documents, not in PowerPoints like different ways of communicating. But I think that one thing that really always resonates even to this day is they’re very consumer-focused. Despite being in pharmaceuticals or anything else, their motto at the time was, the consumer is your boss. And so that’s something that has always stuck with me is always being very customer-focused.
Taren: That’s awesome. We’ll dig in to that a little bit later on as we continue on our conversation about some of those things that you’ve done throughout your career. And then you also spent some time at Pfizer? Tell me about that experience?
Kirsten: It was also a great experience. So I joined Pfizer after business school and had the opportunity to work in worldwide marketing, US marketing, commercial planning, chief of staff at US business. The great thing about large companies is the opportunity to do different roles and learn from a lot of amazing people who have expertise and who have done things before. So it was a great experience to be at Pfizer.
Taren: Fantastic. As you’ve just noted, you’ve had all these different experiences and a varied career. Roles in product development, US and global, marketing launch strategy and execution, market access, contracting, analytics. My goodness, trade and distribution, medical affairs leadership, all of those things which is fantastic. So all those things now led you to your current role as Chief Commercial Officer and Corporate Strategy at Kura Oncology. Tell me about your current role. What does a typical day look like for you?
Kirsten: Yeah, it’s a great question. So we are a pre-commercial, oncology-focused company. And so much of my focus since I’ve joined has been more on the strategy side, thinking about which indications, which assets, where the focus could be. And in fact, we just finished a corporate strategy project. And so my day could be one-on-ones with members of my team, one-on-ones with my peers, a leadership team meeting. We have a strategic plan working group. It could be any of those things. I also sit on two boards. And so I also could spend time checking in on, do I need to do anything for those boards or just reading what they’re doing in social media. It keeps me connected to those boards in between board meetings. That’s pretty much a typical workday and I surround that morning and evening with three very active, fun kids as well.
Taren: That’s awesome. That’s a very full day packing all of that in. I find it interesting that you are a Chief Commercial Officer at a company that is pre-commercial. Tell me about that strategy because it’s not usual to have somebody in your position when we don’t have a drug on the market yet.
Kirsten: Yeah. I think it’s becoming more common. When I joined, it was one of the primary reasons I joined Kura is between Pfizer and Kura, I also was at a biotech that went commercial called Array Biotech. But that company had many business-experienced people. At Kura, I was really the first commercial hire for Troy Wilson, who is the CEO there. And the idea is really thinking about all of the things that impact the success of a product as well as the company. So some of the things we talked about before about which indications are so important – the biotech has limited resources. So thinking about where to really focus and have the opportunity to help the most patients given limited resources is so important.
The other thing I would say too is, a lot of the decisions early on have a huge impact on the life cycle for these products and bringing them to market. And things like, which indication is first? What does your formulation look like? What are the endpoints? Do you have all the data you need to support market access and support reimbursement? Are you getting the data from patients that you will need to help with advocacy groups or make sure the product you bring to market is one that is really valuable for patients and providers? So I think it’s really important and it’s more common. Even when I was at Pfizer, the big companies I would say started moving more on this business lines earlier. And I think biotech is also doing the same because often biotech has even fewer resources than the larger companies.
Taren: Absolutely. I think those were some great points. Let’s dig in to it a little bit deeper, if you don’t mind. And leading some of these commercial teams and have been part of transitioning from R&D to companies like Array and Pfizer, what are some of the key lessons you’ve learned? You’ve touched on some of them about market access, making sure the product is properly positioned in the field. What about working with key thought leaders? What are some of those tips that you could provide to some other folks who are looking to really carve out a career in commercial?
Kirsten: Yeah. So thinking about that transition from R&D to commercial, I just touched on just having that early business lens, the comparators, the unmet need. You have to think about where is the market going in 5 to 10 years for something that’s in phase 1, not where the market is today. So really bringing that business lens I think is very important. The second thing I would say is the voice of the customer. What you just articulated and probably goes back to what I said about my experience at Procter & Gamble. Is that’s so important to understand and always use as your North Star is, what to the payers need? What do the patients need? What do the providers need? And what will really help all of those stakeholders? You can think about how do you inform those things at different places even as early as preclinical. Thinking about what do you need to compare against or if you’re doing a combination drug, what do you need to combine with in order to maximize the number of patients you can help 5 to 10 years from now when that product could get to market? So those are a couple of things.
I think another thing too, for a company like Kura or even Array is, not to try to bring the best of big company but also the benefit of a small company. Sometimes that’s one area where I see some challenges is, sometimes people have learned everything they know from a Pfizer, BMS, or Merck which is fantastic. But a small company often can afford a little bit more agility and a little bit more focus on that customer, being closer to the customer than big companies. Not always but that’s what I found. At Array, for example, we were introducing a product that was third to market and the primary competitors were Novartis and Genentech.
And so if we had used a model that was exactly like Novartis or exactly like Genentech, I think we would not have been as successful. We were able to be much more patient-centric. We could make decisions a lot faster, I think. I know there are areas of Novartis, Genentech, Pfizer, all the companies that can make decisions very quickly, but I think at a biotech you’re able to do that more consistently. And so those are a couple of things really is the early business lens, finding the benefit and maximizing the benefit of being small and really focused on the customer.
Taren: I think those are such great insights there. And that voice of the customer, I mean, obviously, we’ve been tracking the trend now for the last six, seven, eight years where companies were talking about being more patient-centric. And it’s become such a buzzy word. We don’t even know what it means anymore. But that voice of the patient is so important. And it’s always been so puzzling to me is to why that hasn’t been a North Star forever. You know what I mean? Because who are you developing drugs for but patients. So I love the fact that Kura is taking that stance and it’s about the voice of the patient and being specific to those patient needs. So kudos to you and your team. And I do think that’s a fair argument to say that biotech’s going to be generally more agile than big companies. They’re just harder to turn, let’s face it, right?
Taren: They’re big cruise ships and small biotechs might be clippers, so it’s just a little bit easier to navigate. When you’re talking about your Pfizer days, you were involved in the launch of a couple of different blockbusters such as Ibrance and – am I going to pronounce this right? Inlyta?
Taren: Inlyta. What was that experience like? Because that had to be very exciting, I would think.
Kirsten: It was. I mean, the first thing I would say that everybody said is blockbusters are built not born and that both of those were the case especially Inlyta. When Inlyta first launched, it was in later stage renal cell carcinoma and really was a small market, small opportunity. What made Inlyta a blockbuster was really thinking about what could the future be and what are life cycle opportunities? But then thinking about Ibrance, Ibrance was an amazing experience. So Ibrance is for metastatic breast cancer and that was the first time that I was able to build a team from scratch. Even to the point that I was participating in the interview process for the hiring of my counterpart, the medical lead for Ibrance. And so, it was a great opportunity to have all of the strength of Pfizer. Everybody was so supportive because Ibrance going into breast cancer was a huge opportunity for these women and for the company.
And so we essentially were told, you have what you need. Tell us what you need to be successful and to get to market quickly, and we will support you. And so that was an amazing experience and we saw so many innovative things come to light which now are benchmarks. Even to this day, I have people calling me from Pfizer that say, we used the Ibrance launch plan as our model for creating launch plans for new products. But it really was a great experience from building the team, being able to use all of the strength and experiences from a large company and do innovative things. This is funny to say but Ibrance was the first product that talked for Pfizer in oncology. That talked to payers before our approval. And that took a lot of discussions at that time. Would it be perceived as some sort of premarket marketing, preapproval marketing?
And we had a lot of discussions and we all decided it was the right thing to do and we did things like that. It was the first time that Pfizer oncology did direct to consumer TV advertising which made sense for Ibrance. It was a phenomenal experience. And obviously, also being a woman with a mom who has experienced breast cancer, a grandmother who has experienced breast cancer and many friends, it was just phenomenal to be able to introduce something so novel and so important for these women. We partnered very closely with the advocacy organizations. The breast cancer community is one that’s very engaged and really wants to help other women who are experiencing this disease. And so all around from a personal side, it was fantastic. The success we had was fantastic and just being able to build a team from scratch was also a really great experience.
Taren: That’s awesome. It’s such a profound and personal experience that you had. So again, kudos to you. Let’s talk about when you were putting that team together. And that and now, what are some of those key characteristics you look for in those team members?
Kirsten: Great question. I think number one is a culture fit. And I think that was important on that team because of the need to act quickly, be innovative, all of those things. But even more important at a place like Kura or Array or a smaller environment is the culture fit. Is can people fit into the culture of the company? And like we just talked about, be really patient-centric and patient-focused. So that’s definitely number one. I think the number two thing I look for is diversity and I think diversity is another one of those buzz words. But when I think back to that Ibrance launch team, we had diversity from functional experience, skin color, sexual orientation, education, all types of diversity.
And that made the thinking and the group better. We did so much better because we had different ways of thinking about things. To be honest, I may not have been thinking about it as much when I was in my second leadership position in Ibrance. But I really think about it now because I’ve learned time and time again that when you have that diversity on the team, you end up in a much better place. You’re able to see the voice of the customer also in a much stronger way because you represent such diversity in the different potential customers.
Taren: I absolutely agree with you. I think there’s study after study that show exactly what you’re talking about. That diverse perspectives from diverse people lead to better business result. I’m glad to see that’s proving out in real time with you. I want to touch back also on Kura and what it’s doing in terms of the oncology space. What is it about the pipeline of your company that gets you excited right now because you have some really promising things in the pipeline?
Kirsten: We do. So what first attracted me to the company was what Kura was founded on which is the drug called tipifarnib which has been around for decades now and was essentially sidelined because it didn’t hit the endpoints in their phase 3 studies. And Troy Wilson who is our CEO, had the idea and realized that tipifarnib worked really well in certain patient populations but not all patient populations. And so he licensed it in to develop in a specific type of head and neck cancer. And the company now has a Menin inhibitor, a potentially best in class, first in class therapy for certain types of leukemia. And then is also working on an IND for a later generation of a farnesyl transferase inhibitor which would also be for targeted oncology indications like lung and potentially other areas. So the company is all about targeted oncology.
Taren: And that’s quite a differentiator because when we look at the oncology space, there are so many drugs that are in development right now and taking so many different approaches. That’s also going to be very exciting.
Kirsten: Yeah, I really like working in a targeted space. It enables you to be more focused. And I think enables a smaller company to also be more successful because you can be more innovative in finding the patients, thinking about smaller clinical trials because it’s a specific type of patient who’s likely to respond. Using data once you commercialize to really target your commercial activities. So you don’t need a customer-facing team of hundreds but you can be really focused and specific. So I think targeted oncology is very interesting from both helping patients and scientific advances and also the business side.
Taren: Absolutely. Hopefully the drug makes it to the market and all the clinical trials are successful. And when you go to reach those physicians especially in the oncology space, you are talking about a smaller pool of customers at that point. And it’s got to be easier but harder I would think in some ways to get their attention.
Kirsten: Yeah, it is. You’re right. It is easier and harder. So if you take a drug like Keytruda in immunotherapy which is for so many indications and so many patients that pretty much anyone that knows about it knows how to use it. Patients are familiar. Likely know another patient who have used the drug. Well, if it’s for a smaller indication, really have to educate patients, physicians, payers, diagnostics. There are other things that you need in order to make sure the patients who could benefit get the benefit of that therapy. So that is a little harder but to your point about being easier, there are ways where you can identify these patients. If there’s biomarker screening, you can know when a patient with a – in our case, we’re looking at HRAS mutation. Know when somebody has been diagnosed, where they are, what they’ve been treated with. So there are ways to be more focused. There’s a smaller group of physicians potentially that need to be educated and so there are definitely some ways to be more efficient.
Taren: Fantastic. Kirsten, now that you’ve made it to the C-suite, how would you describe your leadership style?
Kirsten: Maybe I hope but I think I try to adapt my leadership style based on the situation. I think it’s really different based on if I’m sitting as a board member or sitting as a member of leadership team or sitting with my team or doing something in my community with a non-profit. I tend to be most comfortable probably in more of that democratic leadership style where I really want to help the people around me do what we need to do, be successful, grow, learn, be really engaged and happy. So I think that’s where I’m most comfortable but I do really try to think about this situation and try to adapt to that leadership style for the situation.
Taren: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much. I like that, democratic. And we’re going to touch on your board roles in just a moment too. But I’d also like to ask you a little bit more about your leadership tendencies. What are some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Kirsten: There’s one piece of advice that I’ve gotten multiple times in different ways. The first time I got it actually was at Procter & Gamble from a woman, Nora Zorich, who’s this phenomenal MD, PhD, had numerous leadership roles in the R&D side of Procter & Gamble. We were talking about doing an expat assignment in Europe. We had launched a drug in the US and they wanted some of those involved in the US launch to go to Europe and help with the launch across Western Europe. And I had raised my hand, said I wanted to go. And then as the time got closer, I was more and more hesitant. And she took me in a room and she said, “You got to embrace discomfort.” Anything that is worthwhile is going to be hard and make you uncomfortable. And it was something that that experience, it proved to be true. I really learned so much and loved my time in Switzerland. And I’ve heard that advice over and over, whether it’s, have a hard conversation with somebody who’s maybe not performing or has a different opinion or do a new role that’s a little bit out of your wheelhouse. So I think that is one that really resonates and seems to time and time again can be useful in different situations.
Taren: I love that, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, right?
Taren: That’s perfect. Is this the advice that you provide to others as well or do you have something else that you lean into?
Kirsten: I lean into that one. I also tend to get a lot of things from my kids actually, funny enough. And there’s one that I’m leaning into quite a bit right now. We kind of call it the full cup analogy, is getting leadership experiences from all different parts of your personal and professional life, whether it’s in your community, whether it’s serving on a board, whether it’s doing a leadership role in your church or school or a non-profit important CEO. All of those things really help. And I think back of times where I pulled from my leadership toolbox and a lot of those things have come from other areas, not just doing your day-to-day job which is so important. But certainly, I’m learning so much about leadership from these boards, from managing with my kids, helping with my older parents. All of those things are really important to take the time and build your leadership skills. I think post-COVID, that’s becoming even more important is checking in and making sure every member of your team, your peers even have their cup full professionally and personally.
Taren: I love that full-cup analogy. I think that’s wonderful. Let’s talk about your cup, because it is very full. You’ve mentioned serving on boards now a couple of times. Do you want to tell me about those board positions and the companies that you’re serving on? And how did you arrive at those board positions?
Kirsten: I would start with giving a shoutout to the Women In Bio board readiness program. It’s a group of 20 women every year, 20-ish. I think they change the number slightly every year, who get together and you go through a couple of months educational program on what’s your role as a board member. How do you get on boards? Help writing your board résumé, all sorts of things. But one of the most valuable things about it was, you’re with 19 other women. In my case, I didn’t know any of them beforehand and they’re all phenomenal in different parts of healthcare, whether it’s tech or diagnostics or they’re a chief legal officer or they’re a chief medical officer. And so that was a phenomenal experience to help give me the confidence to serve on a board and to just grow my network. Also now that I’m on a board, that’s a group of women I can go back to and say, oh, I have this question or this is – just get some advice if I need it. So that’s number one.
And then I really have the support of my current board members who help network, suggest, throw my name in the hat when there were open board spots that met my background. So eventually, I joined a private company’s board. It was called Reform, now it’s called Comera Life Sciences. It’s a drug delivery company. And then I’ve now also joined a public company’s board, PMV Pharmaceuticals, which is another targeted oncology company. And both are phenomenal experiences, very different from each other. The private board actually went public via SPAC. So I’ve never worked in a company that early, that small and going through that process. So that was such a phenomenal learning experience as well. I hope that I really helped the company think about their strategy and how to articulate it. And the PMV board is just a phenomenal group of individuals as well and I really get a lot of learning as well as I – again, I think I helped that company. They actually don’t have any commercial experience on their team yet. And so a lot of the questions are about, how should we think about designing the study, the target product profile, the pricing, things like that that they just don’t have a person on their staff to do yet.
Taren: That’s fantastic and congratulations on those board roles. You talked about that Women In Bio experience and that 19 other women that you now share this experience with. What a tremendous way to build your network or continue to build your network. So you all are part of this now class together and can rely on each other. That’s wonderful.
Kirsten: Exactly. And they’ve done now I think six years of it and they bring the cohorts together at least. So far, it’s been virtually. We haven’t had the opportunity to be in person quite yet because of COVID but they also expand the network to other cohorts as well, so it’s fantastic.
Taren: Wonderful. We are drawing near to our end of our time together unfortunately. So I do want to touch on, what is that WoW moment that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you. You’ve talked about so many of them so far. So I’m going to challenge you to pick one.
Kirsten: I might cheat a little and just say sponsors.
Kirsten: Is that cheating? It might be cheating. It’s just the people who have helped or pushed me, who have taught me, it’s not the last play, it’s the next play or let me really help you do something. And I just am so grateful when people take the time to help, whether it’s one of our board members, whether it’s my boss, Troy or other colleagues at Kura or people on my team. The people I’ve mentioned so far like in the Women in Bio program. I just think that people – we all want to help patients in this biotech community. And so, I really am grateful when people take the time to help each other and help all of us be more successful.
Taren: That’s a very kind and humbling thing to say. I mean, we didn’t touch upon mentoring or sponsorship but I’d love to be able to talk to you a little bit more about that and how important it is to have sponsors to get you into those positions because as you said, it’s when they’re having those conversations when you’re not in the room that people who are willing to throw your name into the hat, that’s how you really make some progress. So are you a sponsor to other women? How are you helping widen that road for women to come behind the next generation?
Kirsten: I hope so. I like to think so. I always, when people reach out, again, if they don’t know me, I always take those reach outs. And it’s not just women. I mean, especially women I want to support but people that maybe I worked with or worked for me many years ago who are thinking about what is their next move. You mentioned mentorship and sponsorship, and I definitely do a lot of mentorship. And sponsorship I think is what you said is a little different is, okay, now I know person X really wants something like this. Is using my network to help get them that, whether it’s a board seat or a position, move from big pharma to small pharma or move from one function to another, but it is truly different to have that sponsorship. I think Troy, I had mentioned him a couple of times now, as a CEO, he also, when I wanted to be on a board, getting that first board seat is difficult. He connected me to a wide number of people to just try to help facilitate getting that first board seat. So I think it’s so important for all of us to do and I really try to do it for women and men or anybody who reaches out.
Taren: That’s very generous of you. It really does take a village to move us all forward. So I want to thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fascinating to get to hear about your career story and all of the successes you’ve had. And I want to wish you continued success as you move forward with Kura and your exciting pipeline. So thank you so much for what you do on behalf of patients.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.