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A storied climb from chemist, to Middle East sales rep, to master of product launch.
Launch is an essential term when it comes to describing the professional growth and career of Charmaine Lykins, chief commercial officer at Karuna Therapeutics. She has never hesitated to dive headfirst into new challenges, and her career in pharmaceuticals is essentially a succession of launches for very successful branded psychiatric treatments.
Raised in Muncie, Ind., by “hardscrabble parents who were very bright,” Lykins can remember her dad returning home from work each day. “He worked in a hundred-degree factory every day, in an engineering type of role” she says. “And he hated his job.”
This impacted Lykins. Though she liked the idea and spirit of building something, much like her father did at the factory, she wanted to do it her own way. She metaphorically began her countdown to launch by being the first in her family to go to college, and enrolled at Ball State University. She took part in a college honors program funded by Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly.
“I honestly thought I was going to be a chemist or go to medical school,” Lykins muses. “But Lilly had me working on an anti-cancer molecule, and I found that very interesting.”
The more she encountered people at Lilly, the more they got to know her and encouraged her to seriously consider trading in her lab coat for a suit by embracing a marketing role. Lykins took the advice to heart and added a minor in marketing. After graduating college, she accepted a job that would send her far from middle America, both geographically and culturally, to Saudi Arabia. Off Lykins went, bachelor’s degree in hand, tasked with setting up a pesticides research program for the royal family at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre in Riyadh.
Today, Lykins is an incredibly experienced leader who has specialized in global commercialization. She has launched many well-known psychiatry and neurology treatments over the past 25 years, from Lilly’s Cymbalta® to some of today’s largest branded agents including Otsuka and Lundbeck’s Abilify Maintena® and Rexulti®, Sunovion’s Latuda®, and Acadia’s Nuplazid®—therapies generating well over $1 billion in annual revenue across the lifecycle.
At Karuna Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company driven to create and deliver transformative medicines for people with psychiatric and neurological conditions, she’s building a commercial organization as the company advances multiple late-stage clinical trials evaluating its lead candidate, KarXT (xanomeline-trospium). KarXT is a novel investigational medicine with a differentiated mechanism of action compared to currently available therapies that Karuna hopes could provide meaningful relief for people living with schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric conditions.
Lykins is very excited about KarXT’s potential to address such a severe and debilitating condition that affects more than 24 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. “I’ve worked on several therapies that address schizophrenia, such as Latuda and Rexulti, as well as Zyprexa®,” she says. “The schizophrenia agents available today all have a similar mechanism with small differences from one another, but with KarXT, we believe we could potentially have a schizophrenia treatment that works like no other antipsychotic.”
According to Lykins, delivering studies with positive data is certainly important, but one of the biggest challenges for a marketer is finding a way to differentiate a therapy from others in a very crowded market—and employing a strategy to “use positioning to wedge yourself into a place which may look like a niche on the surface, but gives you a platform from which to expand.”
Lykins’ experience with pharma commercialization stems back to her time in Saudi Arabia. When she was working as a chemist there, Prozac® was big news and featured on the cover of Newsweek. She encountered many untreated depressed people in Riyadh and a high level of stigma with the diagnosis.
She started as a sales representative calling on female doctors, who made up about half of the country’s medical professionals. On a whim, and without knowing if Prozac was even available in Saudi Arabia at that time, she reached out to her former sponsor Lilly to see if she could possibly help by promoting Prozac to those suffering. Her letter somehow made its way into the right hands, and the company reached out to her. The rest is history, as Lykins became the first female pharmaceutical representative in Saudi Arabia.
On June 25, 1996, Lykins was calling on doctors at the local hospital when badly wounded victims of the Khobar Towers terrorist bombing in Dhahran were being admitted. The bombing killed 19 US airmen and injured more than 400 US and international military members and civilians. This was enough to send the 25-year-old back home to the US.
“My time in Saudi Arabia did more than teach me some of the basics of what I do today,” says Lykins. “I was told that the role that I had invented for myself and got hired to do was impossible. I did it, was successful, and proved it could be done—they ended up bringing on more women after I was gone to continue the work. In the end, the experience showed me that a lot of things people think are impossible, really aren’t. I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career in supporting roles and as a leader.”
As a leader, Lykins enjoys making others believe that they can also do things beyond what they may initially believe is possible, and she often accomplishes this by cross-functional collaboration and experimentation.
“When I see potential, I like taking those people and providing a safe environment to try different projects,” she explains. “One of the things I find most rewarding about what I do is mentoring. There are people who don’t even realize what they can become—they’ve told themselves a story about what they can achieve and what’s possible. I often learn as much from them as they do from me.”
Lykins, a chemist turned marketer, firmly believes that good ideas and execution can come from anywhere. She intrinsically keeps an open mind and door and is always happy to engage in debate. Being challenged allows Lykins to learn from others, sharpen her arguments, slowly build consensus, and form a truly engaged team from top to bottom.
After her early stint in Saudi Arabia, Lykins decided she needed more formal training in business. With Lilly covering tuition and employing her as a sales rep, she obtained an MBA from the University of South Carolina while working full-time. After her time in South Carolina, she was brought back to the home office in Indianapolis. She was added to the Cymbalta team (before it was called Cymbalta) to address major depression, under the tutelage of a very strong mentor, a “pharmaceutical marketing legend” named Jim Lancaster.
“I learned so much from Jim Lancaster,” she says. “He had a ton of experience and had a very practical way of teaching through storytelling. He was the guy who launched Prozac and Zyprexa. Cymbalta was my first product launch, and it established a lot of relationships with thought leaders that I still have in the field of psychiatry today. It really was that defining role and experience that led to other future opportunities throughout my career.”
Working with Lancaster on Cymbalta, the goal was to build a team of key opinion leader (KOL) advisors. These advisors were not only leaders in the area of depression but people who could give the marketing and medical affairs teams a perspective that included a culturally diverse view accounting for the differences associated with the stigma around depression, something she was very familiar with from her time in Saudi Arabia. The insights gained from having the opportunity to learn from these KOLs about brain diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder sparked a lifelong passion to bring treatments to market to help people living with these debilitating conditions.
Leading successful launches remains of the highest importance to Lykins. Much like she followed the data and science in her early days as a chemist, she now follows the science when it comes to her career choices and trajectory. This lifelong determination and attitude took her from Muncie, Ind., to Saudi Arabia and back, working 14 years in various roles at Lilly. She’s held a number of brand and commercialization leadership roles at Xanodyne Pharmaceuticals, Sunovion, Sunovion Europe, Lundbeck, Acadia, and now Karuna.
Summing up her leadership style and approach to work and life, Lykins tells Pharm Exec: “I really like to run, and I’ve always viewed myself as the captain of the cross-country team, not just the person leading from the sidelines. I actually like doing the running. I like doing the work and building things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m at a company like Karuna. Aside from the pure joy of spending time with my grandchildren, I can easily say I love what I do.”
Fran Pollaro is Pharm Exec's Senior Editor. He can be reached at