In this article we shine the spotlight on Dr Mel Walker. Mel recently joined NDA and has extensive experience in strategies that enable companies to achieve success by integrating commercial and patient access requirements at earlier phases of drug development.
Combining Passion with Purpose
How much are you willing to pay for a year of life enjoyed at full health? Can you really put a price on life? Even if you try to avoid this kind of thought experiment, there are others who face these decisions on a daily basis. In fact, every decision about where to allocate health resources is likely to have life-or-death consequences. Since limited resources are a healthcare constant, Mel Walker, Advisory Board member at NDA, is the person you want to have on your team when these decisions are being made as he is driven to help as many patients as possible gain access to life changing treatments and has developed the skills and experience to deliver on this mission.
Mel found his purpose early in life. He wanted to help people in need, people suffering from diseases. Guided by his father’s successful career in the pharma industry, Mel graduated a pharmacist and immediately continued with a Research Doctorate in patient reported outcomes. For Mel, the patient is always the focus, because what was the use of new, innovative medicines if the patients who needed them could not get access?
Today, patient reported outcomes are commonly measured in clinical studies but at that time, it was a new, budding area and decision makers were not asking for this data routinely. Whilst doing his PhD, the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was established, providing guidance and recommendations on the effectiveness of treatments and medical procedures, and patient reported outcomes became an absolute requirement for patient access.
“I felt somewhat fortunate in my early career choices” Mel explains. “For me, a worthwhile way to earn a living is to be able to make a difference in people’s lives. Here I showed up with a PhD in an area that suddenly was extremely relevant, and it was a springboard into the industry.”
Timing is everything
Right after his graduation, Mel was offered a position doing health outcomes strategy at Roche where he worked on multiple Health Technology Assessment (HTA) submissions to NICE for first-in-class oncology products including rituximab, trastuzumab, and bevacizumab, all of which revolutionised patient outcomes and as a result became blockbuster drugs. Mel eventually moved on to a second big pharma company, GSK, this time in R&D, and then a mid-sized Pharma, where he took on broader commercial leadership roles while maintaining a focus on creating value during clinical development and communicating this effectively during product launch. But taking on new responsibilities or changing jobs were never decided on a whim.
“The key driver for my career choices always boils down to the people, he says. I tend to gravitate towards good people - if I don’t feel connected in some way on a personal level, it is likely that I would pass on the opportunity. That doesn’t mean I surround myself with people that agree with me, quite the opposite in fact. I really appreciate having my ideas challenged as this almost always leads to better outcomes.”
Mel is not only developing pharma businesses, but also people. He has a relentless passion for building highly skilled and collaborative teams and promotes creativity and personal growth in the people he works with. Another driving force is around intellectual challenges and learning new things.
“I have always been curious and love finding out about topics where I don’t have existing knowledge, not just in science or pharmacology. I need challenges to keep myself engaged. If I am not passionate about a project, I will count myself out because I can't be at my best if I'm not passionate about what I’m doing. When there are less new challenges, my learning curve starts to plateau, and I need something new to get me back on that steep learning curve again.”
In other words, if there is not enough variety, Mel becomes bored. But by working with the right people and facing new experiences, this has, to a large extent been avoided.
On the edge of experience
The next phase for Mel, after 20 years in the business of patient access and commercial, he is exchanging large corporations in favour of working with small companies to enhance the value of their assets in development. In this new setup, he can work with a range of different products, different therapeutic areas, and different business models.
“It has been interesting to move towards pure strategic advisory roles,” he reflects. “I must make sure that I stay out of the operational aspects which is sometimes hard as I like to roll my sleeves up. I am learning how to be an effective strategy advisor as opposed to being a good executive leader within a company. I believe that leadership is a lot about vision and engagement so there is definitely an aspect of leadership in consulting as well.”
As important as it is for Mel to be able to have impact, he also knows when to step away. His mission is to create value for new products during development, making sure that the value is effectively communicated, always with the patients in mind. After product launch, someone else who specialises in commercial operations should take over. The same goes for working with clients. If Mel doesn’t think he has the right skill set for a project, he recommends someone who does.
“It could be an opportunity that is super exciting,” he says, “but if I don’t have the right combination of skills to address that challenge, then I’m not going to take it on. You must be genuine about having the best interests of the company in focus at all times. Whether it is you working with them or somebody else, companies should have the right advice to maximise their chances of success.”
A biotech that puts the patient in the centre of drug development will almost certainly achieve better outcomes. By aligning product development with the most important stakeholders early on in the process, Mel ensures companies are on track for downstream commercial success while also making a difference to the chances of patients actually receiving medicines following regulatory approval. One thing is obvious – this is more than just work for him. It is his passion and his purpose, and he is enjoying every minute.
Dr Mel Walker
Advisory Board Member