Inquiry-Based Leadership

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 5

Academic-focused leader advocates questioning and communicating to advance science.

The daughter of two academic professors, Karen Akinsanya, executive vice president, chief biomedical scientist, head of discovery R&D at Schrödinger, is happy to get lost in scientific research. In fact, in her erudite British accent, she admits that one of her recreational activities is reading academic journals much later into the night than she should.

“I am a prolific reader,” she says. “And I don’t like sleeping, because it robs me of the time I need to keep up with all that’s going on in the world and the journal space. It’s something my family, friends, even colleagues comment on, because I do go to bed very late. My kids say that I’m quite an original geek.”

Open to opportunities

In her family tradition, Akinsanya began her career as an academic, earning her PhD and completing her first postdoc at Imperial College London. She then moved on to a second postdoc at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, where she read a paper published by a team at Regeneron that made her realize top-notch research was being done at pharmaceutical companies. That piqued her interest and led her to pursue a career in pharma.

When Akinsanya joined Ferring Pharmaceuticals in the mid-1990s, she became responsible for endocrine physiology research. During that time, she read about the use of genetics to identify the root causes of diseases. She wrote a white paper about this and presented it to the head of R&D at Ferring, who sent her to the US to collaborate with the Salk Institute and Stanford University on the identification of new targets.

Akinsanya later joined Merck & Co. in clinical pharmacology, where she stayed for 12 years, ultimately leading one of the larger discovery labs for cardiovascular and metabolic disease. She was also involved with Merck’s outsourcing model and collaborated closely with academia to bring new targets into the company. Her collaboration experience led her to working in business development and licensing. She was also exposed to many functions of pharma as part of the company’s emerging leader program.

“I had a fantastic rotational opportunity to go through different departments at Merck,” she says. “Once I had completed that, I had all these different skills, business development, basic science, drug discovery, and early clinical development, as well as understanding a little bit about how to get drugs through the FDA. I wanted to move to a company where I could wear many of those hats.”

That brought her to Schrödinger, where Akinsanya has been responsible for developing an internal pipeline from scratch. She and her team will be entering the clinic with their first molecule next year.

Thirst for knowledge

At Schrödinger, Akinsanya has created a cross-functional team of drug discoverers that includes people from every function needed to bring a drug to the clinic. She leads a group of 92 people, providing a strategic path to execute her team’s ambitious goals. She is proud of Schrödinger’s deep roots in science and cross-divisional collaborative nature.

“One of the reasons I joined Schrödinger was that there is this belief that we can be more efficient in how we do drug discovery, and that permeates through the whole group,” she says. “It’s a collegial culture and a great place to work.”

The ability to call on others within the company to help solve problems is something Akinsanya values. “I’m not shy to call people in commercial, regulatory, even animal health [while at Merck],” she says. “I would call them if I thought they were doing something interesting. It’s just my personality. I feel like you learn something from every single conversation. Even if you’re the most junior scientist in the group, you may have an insight that the senior folks haven’t seen. You should never be shy about reaching out and sharing that insight.”

Akinsanya supports this idea outside her company, too. Her love of mentoring has led her to teach in the Wharton life science MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania and start her own company called My Tech Learning, which brings real-world science to schoolchildren, from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“Teaching is my second passion,” she says. “Just because you’re 12 years old and love science doesn’t mean you have to only operate within your school environment. You can benefit from interacting with real-world scientists.”

Pharma’s future

Over the past 20 years, Akinsanya has been pleased with the way technology has been incorporated into drug discovery and development, and she says it’s just the beginning. “I think there is going to be an exponential change in the way we understand disease, how we discover and develop drugs, and how we monitor how well drugs are doing once they’re in the marketplace,” she says. “The biopharma industry has changed because we’ve embraced technology and incorporated it with our understanding of pharmacology in ways that are not just broad but also scalable. The scale and longitudinal insights from health through disease is going to be the basis for the future of biopharma pipelines.”

Looking toward the future, Akinsanya hopes to one day lead a cross-functional biopharma team, from understanding disease and interrogating targets to discovering molecules and running trials. As a leader, she believes communication and clarity are key, especially when answering the “why” of what is being done. Translating corporate objectives effectively into team objectives and relying on two-way communication that incorporates staff feedback can streamline the road to success. “Drug discovery and drug development is very much a team sport,” she says. “A good leader pays attention not just to their function or division but thinks collaboratively about how the whole enterprise works. Good leadership embraces cross-divisional learning and removes silos.”

Akinsanya’s open-minded attitude permeates her life both on and off the job. When she’s not engrossed in journals or teaching herself how to code and build websites, she enjoys traveling and learning about new countries and cultures. Another way she has fun with her 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son is through gaming. “I love spending time with my kids,” she says. “I always had this bias against gaming, but they’ve encouraged me to try out games like Animal Crossing, which I really enjoy.” Sometimes all it takes is being open to possibilities.

To read the profiles of all 2021 EPL winners, click here.

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.