‘Gilead exists to innovate – but there are many failures on the way to success’

14 Jan 2020

Killian MacDonald. Image: Gilead Sciences

Killian MacDonald of Gilead Sciences discusses how he got into a career in commercial healthcare, and how his company is working with ‘some of the most challenging areas of medicine’.

Killian MacDonald is a director with Gilead Sciences and is responsible for Gilead’s commercial operations in Ireland. He has worked for more than 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry, both in Ireland and internationally, following on from his father who worked in the commercial pharmaceutical industry in Ireland since 1969.

MacDonald studied business and law at UCD and holds an MSc in marketing practice from the UCD Smurfit School of Business.

‘Gilead is investing, not only in the traditional ways of R&D and M&A, but also in some interesting initiatives that are at the cutting edge of treatment discovery’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m the lead for Gilead’s commercial operations in Ireland. Working together with our leadership team, functional and customer-facing colleagues, we are setting and implementing strategies to try to ensure that every Irish patient who needs access to our medicines can get access to them.

In the past, someone in my role would have interacted almost exclusively with healthcare professionals, but the role now requires effective engagement with a broader range of stakeholders including the HSE and non-Governmental organisations. Part of my role is to ensure these stakeholders understand who Gilead is, what we do and why we do it, as we work to transform and improve treatment in areas such as HIV, hepatitis C and oncology.

Additionally, Gilead has chosen to invest significantly in our bases in Cork and Dublin, not only in commercial operations but also in manufacturing, distribution and shared services, serving geographies across the globe including Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

At Gilead, our priorities centre around the needs of the patients that could and do benefit from appropriate access to our medicines. This drives everything we do as a team.

Day to day, like most people, I manage with the help of family, colleagues and apps! My wife enjoys a similarly demanding career and we have three daughters all under eight, so have no choice but to be organised.

Gilead is a great place to work and appreciates how family and life works these days. Gilead has implemented flexible working policies and has invested in technological solutions including video-conferencing solutions, which help to contribute to a better work-life balance for employees, greater job enjoyment and, I think, greater productivity.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Gilead exists to innovate and, in doing so, brings transformative medicines to patients in some of the most challenging areas of medicine including HIV, hepatitis C and oncology.

HIV was once a terminal diagnosis and then considered one that could be managed with a high daily pill burden and with treatment that could be challenging to adhere to. Gilead continued to innovate to improve treatments with the ultimate goal to cure, and now most living with HIV can take just one pill per day to render the virus undetectable and therefore untransmittable. These days, HIV patients with access to the latest medicines can expect to have a normal life expectancy.

There are many failures on the way to success, however.

Our sector’s greatest challenge is to work with healthcare systems to bring these innovations to Irish patients in a sustainable way, as we are only one of many interdependent stakeholders. The focus can often be on the price of a medicine rather than on the broad economic and human benefit of incentivising innovation, and our sector does not set prices of medicines in Ireland.

We have to work effectively together, therefore, to ensure that Irish patients are not deprived of innovative treatments that are available to other EU citizens. We have a job to do in developing relationships and trust, ensuring we have robust governance in place and ways of working with the HSE and with Government departments, so that not only does the Irish economy benefit from the net surplus investment from our sector, but also that Irish patients can expect to be amongst the first and not the last in the EU to benefit from new innovative medicines that are sometimes, ironically, manufactured here.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Gilead is investing, not only in the traditional ways of R&D and M&A, but also in some interesting initiatives that are at the cutting edge of treatment discovery. As an example, Gilead and Verily Life Sciences, an Alphabet company, are collaborating to identify and better understand the immunological basis of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and lupus-related diseases.

Incorporating AI into treatment discovery has the potential to exponentially increase our effectiveness in solving unmet patient needs and potentially reducing the time, effort and cost involved in doing so.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

As a teenager, I worked summers in a distribution centre that fulfilled pharmaceutical and healthcare products, where I met people working in the commercial side of the business. This led to a summer marketing internship opportunity while I was still at university, and when I finished my master’s I took a role with a start-up fintech company and then worked with Vodafone for a time, before reconciling myself to the fact that my heart would be more in a commercial healthcare career.

I enjoy being part of the difference that we make tooling prescribers and patients with treatments to challenge what would otherwise be a terminal prognosis. Given the areas in which Gilead innovates, I find working at Gilead to be particularly rewarding in this regard.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I once applied for a role that turned out to be more senior than I had originally understood it to be. I called the recruiter back to clarify, but they put me forward notwithstanding. I got the job and was subsequently was promoted. I learned that, yes, it’s important to be realistic, but don’t limit yourself!

How do you get the best out of your team?

At Gilead, every member of the team has the opportunity to be a leader by earning trust; by being clear and consistent in communication, expectations and behaviour; by taking on the actions and by doing your level best to deliver effectively and on time. Gilead is a lean organisation, which means exposure to a breadth of responsibility, experience and opportunity. It means that there is nowhere to hide but, equally, ample opportunity to shine.

Our core values include integrity, inclusion, teamwork, accountability and excellence. I love their succinctness and practicality, which have enabled them to be readily assimilated into our cultural DNA and underline our effectiveness, whether working individually or within teams to align with and achieve objectives.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Gilead recognises, particularly in a sector that is driven by innovation, the strength in being able access diverse input from contributors who are coming from an array of backgrounds, experiences and points of view. We added ‘inclusion’ as one of our core values in 2016 and there are many initiatives underway that are led by employees and sponsored by leadership, as we move enthusiastically along our own journey to become an increasingly diverse organisation.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I have been lucky enough to work in organisations, especially in Gilead, where there is a real emphasis and effort put into people development. This includes well-organised mentorship programmes, where mentees are matched with the right mentor and where the programme is well supported.

I’ve also been fortunate to work for some very inspiring bosses – mostly female, as it happens – who put their people’s development and the value that contributes, not just to the individual but to the organisation, above their own resource needs. One individual will always stand out for me when they championed me for a global marketing role in the US, which turned out to be an incredible experience and career opportunity.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I’ve always enjoy reading and, these days, also listening to audiobooks and podcasts when travelling. My recommendations would include You, Only Better by Nicholas Bate; The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni; and the enduring classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My colleagues, my coffee, and my iPhone!

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