Q&A with Kasha Witkos, SVP, head of International Region, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals

Witkos discusses her achievements during her first year as SVP, International Region head, and her long-term goals in helping to maintain Alnylam’s leadership in the RNAi field.

Alnylam (Cambridge, MA) is a RNAi therapeutics company whose ONPATTRO® (patisiran) became the world’s first approved RNAi therapeutic in 2018. Since then, the company’s RNAi therapeutics GIVLAARI® and OXLUMO® (lumasiran) have received approval. Alnylam continues to advance a pipeline of innovative RNAi-based medicines in four therapeutic areas: genetic medicines, cardio-metabolic diseases, infectious diseases, and central nervous system (CNS) and ocular diseases.

Kasha Witkos joined Alnylam at the end of 2020, the same time as Chief Commercial Officer Tolga Tanguler (who is interviewed by Pharm Exechere). Witkos started her medical education at Medical Academy of Wroclaw, Poland, before transferring to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she completed her degree in genetics. Prior to Alnylam, she held several commercial roles in rare diseases at Takeda and its legacy organizations (Baxter, Baxalta, Shire). Here, Witkos talks to Pharm Exec about her achievements during her first year as SVP, International Region head, and her long-term goals in helping to maintain Alnylam’s leadership in the RNAi field.

Pharm Exec: What motivated you to join Alnylam Pharmaceuticals?

Witkos: I joined Alnylam Pharmaceuticals a year ago and am responsible for Europe, Canada, and Japan. With a background in science and genetics, I have always been interested in the concept of gene silencing. Being able to take it from plants to animals to human health is truly fascinating. As a company, we can impact so many potential disease areas—and patients in need—through gene silencing, and that's what excited me and drew me to Alnylam in the first place.

The culture of the company is also something which is unique, informed by our “Challenge Accepted” mindset. As a business, we have faced—and as every business does, will continue to face—many challenges, but we believe that patients shouldn’t have to wait for hope, that every “no” takes us one step closer to “yes.” Pioneering science combined with the right mindset and innovative culture are very powerful.

Pharm Exec: What have been your key priorities since joining?

Witkos: When I joined, I wanted to build on the strong foundations already in place as well as maintain the collaborative culture that has been built over time.At Alnylam, we embrace big ambitions with our P5x25 mission and aim to become one of the top five biotechs globally by 2025.

Our focus is on bringing new medicines to patients with more prevalent conditions such as hypertension, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, gout, and Alzheimer’s. We intend to build on our learnings from rare disease and apply our innovations to develop new first-in-class or best-in-class medicines for targeted disease indications.

Pharm Exec: Alnylam is hoping to achieve a company profile rarely achieved in the biotech sector. What are the biggest risks to achieving these ambitious goals?

Witkos: You’re right. We are firmly focused on growth of our portfolio and pipeline. We’re committed to our P5x25 strategy while maintaining a laser focus on patients: What are their needs and how can we improve their outcomes?

As we scale the company to deliver these ambitions, it’s critical that we maintain the values and culture that make this such a special place to work: our “biotech grit,” hunger for success, and focus on innovation across the organization.

Excitingly, Alnylam retains many qualities of a startup and we work with an entrepreneurial mindset. We have an opportunity now to influence and improve outcomes for thousands of patients around the world, but we also have to consider our roadmap to growth carefully. We need to retain and protect the values that set Alnylam apart, but also plan for how our business will evolve and what impact that may have.

Pharm Exec: You talk about growth and scaling up of Alnylam to meet your ambitious goals. What does this mean for Alnylam’s culture?

Witkos: Recognizing the contribution that culture plays, we are invested in building and shaping it. We know that our collaborative, patient-focused, and innovative mindset drives how we act and deliver for patients, and so we work hard to make sure our new hires understand and embrace it from their first day.

If you want to be part of an organization that aims to change the trajectory of healthcare, then you are by nature a “change the world” kind of person. We think we do a great job of ensuring our culture works and is the reason for our success. We are regularly recognized across Europe as a great place to work, and last year our team in Switzerland was ranked No. 1 as best small workplace. Our internal culture survey highlights positive employee feedback across a variety of areas, including how we live and uphold our core values, how we embrace a patient-focused mindset, our sense of community and camaraderie, and our pride and motivation in the work we do. Of course, there are also areas we need to strengthen and build upon, so understanding our employee perspectives and experience is critical to help us do that.

Integral to our work in promoting a culture that drives individual and business success is our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Pharm Exec: What is your long-term ambition for Alnylam culture in the DE&I space?

Witkos: Diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a nice-to-do, it’s a right-to-do, and it has a clear impact on our continued success as we grow and evolve. We are committed to embrace and embed DE&I across every function and build a globally inclusive and bias-free company where everyone can fulfil their potential. Our employee resource networks focus on different aspects of DE&I and all our employees are empowered to be part of these networks. DE&I starts with our leaders and is the responsibility of every member of the organization. Being curious and educating ourselves about diversity makes us better colleagues, better managers, better leaders, and better people.

As an organization committed to meeting the needs of patients, it’s imperative that our business reflects the diverse world we live in. We also know that if we are to continue to innovate, we need to bring together people with diverse perspectives and lived experience, who can respectfully challenge themselves, each other, and the status quo. It’s on us to pay attention and listen, and to be in a position to speak up when it’s required.

There are also some practical aspects to DE&I—for example, our focus on increasing clinical trial recruitment and retention among minority ethnic communities, to generate data that is more reflective of the overall patient populations we are aiming to reach with our transformative therapies. We’re guided by our patient access philosophy: No patient should have to wait for hope.

Pharm Exec: How is Alnylam going to maintain its leadership in the RNAi field with so many large and small companies interested in this area? What strategic shifts have you seen with a new CEO coming on board?

Witkos: Alnylam’s new CEO, Dr. Yvonne Greenstreet, has been at Alnylam for six years and has played a huge part in developing our business strategy and culture, so we don’t expect a change in direction. She brings a vast amount of experience, having previously worked across diverse markets and various areas of pharma, including medical, R&D, and regulatory, which gives her a uniquely well-rounded perspective.

Alnylam is still the only company that has both developed and commercialized an RNAi therapeutic, and that’s something we can be very proud of. More broadly, the growth of RNAi therapeutics is a validation of the pioneering work we’ve already done. Patients are waiting for treatment and we’re confident in the potential of our pipeline to meet their needs with an entirely new standard of care.