Company: Akero Therapeutics
Title: Chief development officer
Kitty Yale has played a role in some of the most impactful R&D projects of recent times. During a 17-year spell at Gilead, Yale worked on the HIV antiviral Viread, plus follow-up single-tablet regimens, that helped to turn the infection into a manageable chronic disease and led to the first pre-exposure prophylactic.
Yale followed that up by working on another high-profile, high-impact virus: hepatitis C. The work led to the blockbuster Sovaldi and forever changed the treatment of hepatitis C, safely curing hundreds of thousands of patients in the U.S. alone
“The world was watching the HCV drug development process at that time,” Yale said. “There were so many people actually that you met who were cured in that period. Random people, friends of friends, would come up and hug you. That was a phenomenal experience.”
Yale’s path to Gilead began in the “very rural environment in Scotland on a farm” where she grew up. Coming from that background, getting into biotech wasn’t “by any means a natural thing,” Yale said. But Yale did well in science at school, leading her to do an applied biology degree and shortly after that to take a job at Pfizer’s site in Sandwich, England.
Pfizer led to Quintiles, Roche, Gilead and eventually to Akero. The background sets Yale apart from her peers, many of whom pursued more advanced degrees and further education. Yale, in contrast, opted for a “university of life” approach, doing “on-the-job training up through Big Pharma” to gain knowledge and skills she sees as complementary to those of her peers.
“You may have a Ph.D. or you may have an M.D., but there are other experiences that are equally important,” Yale said. “If you're interested in continuous improvement, hands-on experience can be more invaluable than anything else because in clinical development, we’re constantly refining things to do it better.”
The potential problem with gaining hands-on experience rather than academic qualifications is it can leave you without the credentials needed to get a position. Yale thinks some people do view skill sets too narrowly but has benefited from “great mentors” who have recognized her capabilities and put them to good use.
That experience has convinced Yale that people starting out in the biopharma industry should follow their passions and not get deterred by thinking they need a defined skill set. Taking that approach may lead to teams with the mix of academic and real-world experience needed to succeed.
“The truth is that the best teams are the most diverse teams where you have diversity of thought, diversity of skill sets and where you lean on each other to maximize your roles,” Yale said.