The Path to Becoming a Chief Medical Officer in the Biotech Industry

August 2, 2021 - 6 minutes

Life science researchers with an entrepreneurship inclination are often attracted to leadership positions with a focus on medical science. Daniel Chung shares his journey to becoming the Chief Medical Officer of the biotech startup SparingVision. 

Within a biotech company, a Chief Medical Officer (CMO) typically oversees and sets the company’s strategy and direction regarding the clinical development of its drug candidates, diagnostics, or other medical technologies. The paths leading to this position within a biotech’s management team can be varied, but typically start with an academic career as a physician or medical researcher. 

Daniel Chung followed a similar path to become the CMO of SparingVision, a French company developing gene therapies for eye disease. He trained as a pediatric ophthalmologist and later joined a gene therapy research group at the University of Pennsylvania. Their research resulted in the creation of a spinout company, Spark Therapeutics, where Chung was in charge of the global medical strategy for ophthalmology, overseeing the development of Luxturna, the first gene therapy to be approved in the US.

What steps in your career were key to becoming a Chief Medical Officer? 

I think my time at the University of Pennsylvania really helped me to be more of a leader. You got your hands dirty. You’re kind of in the weeds, doing a lot of the operational aspects, so you knew how preclinical research was done. You knew how a perfect trial was run; you knew how to do the endpoints. It gave me a lot of background as well as my clinical training. I think both put together is really what put me in the role where I am today. 

There are pros and cons to both academia and industry, but I think it’s the idea that you can marry those two together, really get a great experience from both of those settings. That kind of makes you a hybrid who can be an effective CMO or a leader in medical or clinical development. 

I’m always going to be a clinician and a scientist first. Obviously, being in industry you have to have some business savvy and understand the motivation or at least the setting of industry and that we’re there because we want to bring a therapy to patients. But we also know that we’re part of a company and to be viable, there are financial responsibilities as well. Sometimes that could put some pressures on timing or what you can do.

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What lessons can you draw from your CMO experience so far?

As a chief medical officer, you are heading medical affairs. You’re the trainer or the educator for your constituents in the company. You’re also the external face of the company to prepare the ground for the hopefully eventually approved product, so people understand what it is and what it treats and why we’re doing that and what impact it may have. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve enjoyed, kind of sharing that knowledge internally. 

Early on, as CMO, you get to be a part of things that you may not if you’re not in leadership, such as discussing medical and clinical matters with funding sources or investors. It’s really kind of the best of both worlds. You get to stay in the science and the medicine part of that; you still get to educate and train and share the news of what you’re trying to do. 

You’re making sure that everything is geared for the patient and making sure they’re safe, but you’re able to branch out into a little more of the non-medical non-clinical things, such as giving your input in business development and investor relations. It’s been a really good experience so far to broaden the experience that you have. 

What is the most important skill that you have learned on this job? 

You have to have really good communication and interpersonal skills. I think medical affairs is really about that, and clinical development, not quite as much, but definitely a component there is relationship building. You’re managing a team and you’re looking for sites that you have a collaborative relationship with; you want to obviously make sure that the clinical trials are done well, and really develop relationships with those centers. I have a vast network around the world of individuals with different expertise that I feel very comfortable calling up anytime. 

What’s your leadership style?

I like to be collaborative. Sometimes I like to be operational. I don’t necessarily like to only be strategic: there are times I like getting my hands dirty and getting into the weeds, but at the same time I don’t consider myself a micromanager. I let those who report to me work to the best of their ability. I really try to let them do their jobs and just help them out. 

I’m not somebody who is just looking at strategy—and when you’re in a small company, it’s a little easier to do that. You can actually get down and intervene if you need to, with key opinion leaders or principal investigators. Sometimes that gives you a different insight into what’s going on as well. 

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What advice would you give to somebody who is considering becoming a CMO? 

I think it really depends on where you’re going. When you’re an academic, you have a lot of freedom. You can freely exchange ideas for the most part. You’re very much in an academic setting where you’re giving a lot of talks and conferences. 

If you’re going into a small startup that is still private, you have a little more flexibility. When you jump into the industry, and especially when you go into a publicly traded company, you have to be very careful what you say. I think for myself, at the beginning I really needed to learn how to incorporate compliance and legal departments and consult them as to what I’m putting in a presentation and things like that. So things are a lot more controlled that way, and that’s something you have to get used to as an academic.

Coming into a company that is highly regulated, or an industry that’s highly regulated, you have to relinquish some of those freedoms that you have. For the betterment of the whole industry and the company, you don’t want to say anything that you shouldn’t or anything that’s proprietary or anything like that. That was probably the biggest adjustment for me. 

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