Takeda's Oncology Taskmaster - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Takeda's Oncology Taskmaster


Pharmaceutical Executive


PE: How is the recent decision to globally integrate R&D activities at Takeda headquarters in Tokyo impacting the work at Millennium? How does this new reporting structure ensure liaison between the science and commercial functions?

Protopapas: In a practical sense, the changes had very modest effects on us, except that Millennium is now more tightly associated with the Takeda name and brand. On the commercial side, we are now known as Millennium: the Takeda Oncology Company, while our formerly autonomous R&D operation now reports to Takeda's global organization headed by Dr. Tachi Yamada. Nevertheless, all of the company's oncology work is consolidated in a new Therapeutic Area Unit [TAU] still based here in Cambridge. The TAU proposes the strategy, sets investment priorities and manages R&D projects for its designated area according to budgets approved in Tokyo. It was felt that with such a critical mass of expertise here, Cambridge would be the best place to execute while benefiting from the scale and efficiencies derived from managing globally.

With reference to the relationship between my commercial responsibilities and our science and clinical development colleagues, our work served as precedent for what Dr. Yamada is trying to do for other therapies, through the new TAUs. Millennium always depended on a team-based approach; we paid little attention to reporting lines. I meet every two weeks with colleagues in the R&D operation to address all the key strategic decisions, from business development, to stepping up the pace in a clinical program, to brand planning for Velcade. I just spent two days with them going through our budget submission; Takeda, like all Japanese companies, operates on the basis of an April 1 fiscal year. The key point is we do it all as a team. In oncology, you really get to know the people you work with, because product development does not cease when the product is approved. That's actually just the start of a necessary relationship between clinical and commercial that endures right to the end of the product cycle.

PE: The ascent to the "c suite" is not exclusively the result of hard work. Culture, personality – and, yes, luck – are often more important determinants. Can you describe how you handled some of the transition points that led you to the position you hold today?

Protopapas: I was born and spent my childhood in Cyprus, in the midst of a civil war. It was my earliest formative experience, teaching me that nothing should ever be taken for granted. My parents lost everything and the cold reality was such that I had no choice but to take risks. The experience shaped both my personal and professional life, expressed in a mindset that makes me very open to change and to trying new things.

Luck was also an element. After deciding to leave Cyprus, I applied for a US government scholarship to attend university here, but found I was disqualified for having a working mother. What happened next is an example of that random act of good will that you think only happens in the cinema: a staffer at the US Embassy in Nicosia glanced at my application, invited me in to meet him, and then at his own behest helped me file applications independently to a number of US universities, adding in his own – and entirely unsolicited – letter of recommendation. This led to my admission to Princeton as a scholarship student. I never saw that man again, but I would not be here today had he not seen something in my application that induced him to make this extraordinary effort to help me when I needed it most.

The immigrant experience has prodded me to embrace change at crucial stages of my career. After graduate work in engineering at MIT and Stanford, I worked for many years in the engineering business. But I wanted more exposure to smaller start-ups in growth industries. I became interested in pharmaceuticals after meeting the founder of Millennium, Dr. Mark Levin, who sold me on his vision of a future in which the mapping of the human genome would transform biology and create an entirely new class of medicines to treat incurable diseases. Science in the pursuit of a social mission appealed to me, so when he offered me a job I took it, even though a small voice in my head cautioned that Millennium was not yet a sustainable business; my job, as is the case in many start-ups, would require me to make it up as I went along. That was 1997, and I have been here ever since.


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