Smaller Pharma, Bigger Challenges


The experience of moving from the big leagues to a ground-floor opportunity.

By David Baker, Chief Commercial Officer, Alcobra, Inc.


For 24 years, I worked in this industry at both Shire and Merck, working in marketing and business development, and holding titles from Product General Manager to VP of Innovation and Imagination. I saw both grow immensely in portfolio and global reach. My main responsibilities at Shire were in the marketing of its ADHD products. Throughout that journey, I experienced a lot of the excitement and high points that pharma has to offer.

And then, in the midst of a satisfying and successful career, I accepted a position as Chief Commercial Officer of Alcobra, an emerging pharma company with a single ADHD product which is still in development. Even in a business famous for multiple career steps, you may be wondering what I was thinking – to go from a secure position working on name brands with a global leader to a startup with no track record to speak of.

In fact, that was exactly the attraction.

Everybody in this business wants to do the best for our patients. That’s what gets us out of bed every day. I am proud of the work my teams at Shire did to help hundreds of thousands of people. Still, I was at a point in my career when I felt I had something to offer to other companies who didn’t have the expertise, staff and leverage that a Shire has. Looking at Al-cobra, I saw the chance to bring all the lessons I had learned to an exciting ground-floor enterprise.

What I didn’t realize in making this move was how much it would demand of me, and how much it would reveal to me about my own capabilities.

What’s the difference in culture, capabilities, atmosphere and scope between a Shire and an Alcobra? Here are a few contrasts:


BUREAUCRACY: At Shire, necessarily a lot. At Alcobra, so little that I know everyone at the company, and we all depend on each other as key players.

PACE: Like any large company, Shire has tiers of approval, especially for major decisions. That might take weeks, or even months, and involve a lot of paperwork, committee meetings, calls and other communication. At Alcobra, we can get everyone’s stamp of approval in a couple of half-hour phone calls. That doesn’t mean the process is any less professional or that the results are any less successful. But a flatter organization does tend to get things done in record time.

SUPPORT: With a cornucopia of departments and titles, I had someone to handle or help me with nearly every task imaginable. I could call Jenny in Business Information and have a spectacular PowerPoint presentation in my in-box within a week. Now I wear the presentation hat, and several others, although my years of experience working with top professionals prepared me to do all of it pretty well. The results are good, and the demands are exhilarating.

STRATEGY AND TACTICS: It sounds paradoxical, but I am both more tactical and more strategic in my new role. There is scarcely an aspect of our operations that I don’t have a role in. I have to get into the weeds of negotiating contracts and filling out paperwork with IMS. I am listening to one-on-one interviews for primary market research. I am posting individual stories on a LinkedIn company page. Yet I am also involved in the most existential decisions on how we are going to develop our lead compound, what life cycle indications we are going to pursue, and I’m presenting at investor conferences.

SCOPE: I am learning more, faster, and with more complexity, than I ever could have at a larger company. At Shire, the considerations about Wall Street and financing were just headlines or rumors to me, not something I was in the thick of. Now I’m immersed in those issues, and I’ve picked up more in the last year than in the previous 25 years of my career or during my MBA training.

PRESSURE: Shire could have a product go off-patent, or endure some significant competition, but make it up in the success of others. It had the time to let a launch product gain visibility and acceptance. Not so at Alcobra.

The “biotech mentality” is that if we aren’t at our best all the time in what we do, our company may not exist a year from now. So every action, every decision, every person becomes much more important on a day-today basis.

ECONOMICS: Shire could also invest in more ideas and ventures and extras without breaking the bank. Marketing budgets, vendor expenses, conventions and other needs were always comfortably financed. At Alcobra, we’re much more focused on what everything costs, from R&D to thumb drives. I negotiate price for almost every service, because even if we have budgeted for an expense, every $100 matters to us, to our investors, and to our ability to complete our development program.

I also don’t have the luxury of getting 100% of the information I’d like to have on some questions. Decisions often have to be made with 80% of an answer, and my experience and intuition have to supply the other 20%. It’s a combination of certainty and gut instinct, but I take that as both a challenge and a compliment. The company trusts me to make the call even when I can’t take the time or spend the money to have all the data I’d like. And, of course, everyone around me has a similar challenge and is operating at an impressive level of professionalism.

Being at a smaller company with limited resources and a short history may seem like jumping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down. But isn’t that the entire history of our industry? Entrepreneurs with great ideas and bold visions were at the heart of nearly every company that today is a world-beater.

We all have our risk tolerance limits. I thought I had experienced many of my own limits throughout long stints at Shire and Merck, but I now realize that was only the beginning. Experienced, hard-working, intrapreneurial people can be found at any size company, and are valuable in all kinds of positions. What I see now is that, whatever your background or assignment, you can not only make a significant contribution but continue learning and growing throughout your career. •



David Baker joined Alcobra in 2014 and is responsible for all pre-launch commercial analysis and preparation for MDX, as well as leading business development efforts and supporting investor relations. Prior to that he had spent ten years at Shire in roles from Product General Manager to Commercial Lead of the ADHD Business Unit and Vice President of Innovation and Imagination for Behavioral Health. While there, he identified, evaluated, licensed and developed novel products and services for patients with behavioral health disorders such as ADHD, autism and depression. He previously served as Senior Director of Marketing for Merck. Since 2009 he has been Board Chairman of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a non-profit working to improve public education in the Philadelphia region.

Alcobra Ltd. was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is an emerging pharmaceutical company focused on the development of new medications to help patients with cognitive disorders including ADHD and Fragile X Syndrome. Metadoxine Extended Release (MDX) is the company’s lead investigational product candidate. In addition to its headquarters in Tel Aviv, Alcobra has a U.S. office located outside of Philadelphia in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.

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