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With more than 20 years of clinical development and medical affairs experience in senior roles at large pharma and small biotechs, Dr. Katharine Knobil has been advocating for patients at every turn. In her new role as the first chief medical officer at Agilent Technologies, she is dialing up the focus on improving patient outcomes as she looks to lead the precision diagnostic company to the next level: liquid biopsy, an alternative to more invasive testing.
“We’re moving into the liquid biopsy space, which is really exciting because it allows another modality to understand what the best treatment for patients would be,” she said. “In the future, it will help us understand the evolution of that cancer in the patient. Cancers are sneaky little things. They can evade chemotherapies or immune therapies, change and become resistant. With liquid biopsy we can also understand how that tumor is evolving and whether or not a (patient) needs to change therapy.”
Knobil is excited by the future possibilities of what liquid biopsy testing can mean for patients, but recognizes that it might not be the right first step for everyone — at least for now.
“As the technology gets better and as we understand the mutations and the different manifestations of the cancer that can be shed into the blood, I think it will become more of a first-line diagnosis,” she said. “Again, the science is not there for everyone today, but because it’s less invasive, because it’s easy to do, because we can do it multiple times during the course of a patient’s disease, it makes it a really exciting way to go.”
Knobil, who has had the opportunity to build high-performing teams in different functions and countries, is not afraid to try something new, and she encourages her teams to flex their muscles and explore opportunities outside of their comfort zone. Taking her own advice is what led her to Agilent.
“This is one of the reasons why I took the role — cancer diagnostics is something I’ve never done before. But I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool, it has a huge impact on patients and I’m going to learn something new, so I’m going to go for it,’” she said.
In this episode of our Woman of the Week podcast, Knobil shares how a family health emergency led her to switch her focus from veterinary to human science, how she advises mentees to prioritize career goals beyond titles, and how she overcame being an introvert to find her voice.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive. In this episode Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Dr. Katharine Knobil, chief medical officer, Agilent Technologies.
Taren: Welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Katharine: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Taren: It’s our pleasure to speak with you. Dr. Knobil, you are Agilent’s first Chief Medical Officer. Can you share how you are defining this role for yourself and for the organization in terms of your responsibilities?
Katharine: Yes, it’s really exciting to be the first Chief Medical Officer of a company where we can really define the role, really understanding the needs of the company. Now, it’s important to understand that the role of Chief Medical Officer, while it’s similar in principle across companies each company the role is going to be a little bit different. What’s similar is that the defining principle is that patients are at the center of every decision that they make and they remain part of our central mission. Now, the differences are defined by the needs of the company, the needs of the stakeholders. We really need to understand how that mission supports the needs of the company. That’s where we start.
Taren: Sure, I mean I think every company would like to say they’re patient centric. How do you define patient centricity for your organization?
Katharine: It’s a great question because every company does say that they’re patient centric. I think it’s a good thing in general. For Agilent, which is a leader in cancer diagnostics, the mission manifests itself by making sure that we have the highest quality diagnostics, that we make decisions based on how it has an impact on patient care or even healthcare systems. Sometimes the healthcare system can play a big role in how physicians actually practice medicine. It’s not necessarily intuitive. So we have to bring that patient focus and bring that physician need into how we end up designing our products.
Taren: I understand, speaking of diagnostics, that Agilent is working on a liquid biopsy diagnostic tool.
Katharine: Yes, that’s right. Agilent is already a leader in cancer diagnostics. Millions of patients in over 100 countries have already been tested with Agilent’s diagnostic testing platform over the last 20 years. Now, in order to extend the role of Agilent in precision oncology we have moved into liquid biopsy. Liquid biopsy has an advantage in that it doesn’t require a tissue biopsy. You can take a blood sample and then look at the blood sample to see what kind of cancer someone might have and what kind of medicine might be the best to prescribe for that particular cancer. So it’s a really exciting area.
Taren: It sounds exciting. Talk to me about some of your short-term and then your longer-term goals in terms of the company’s strategic direction and for your role specifically, too.
Katharine: Yeah, thanks. Short-term my goals are probably not as bespoke to being a Chief Medical Officer as just coming into a new role. For example, number one, you’ve got to understand what the business needs and what the stakeholders are expecting from the new organization, since it is new at Agilent. Then, once you understand the priorities then you have to prioritize the activities that you’re going to do because you can’t do everything at once at the beginning.
And then because our group is so new I need to bring in the right people with that best expertise and also, probably even more importantly, the right cultural fit. Agilent has been a well-established company for a while and I want to make sure that our people fit in and can actually influence the others in the company.
And then, finally, as part of the short-term goals the education of the organization is so important. Since we are new it’s just not automatic that people in the organization know what we do or when to include us in decision making. That’s what we’re doing right now, we’re on that education phase. We’re getting a very good reception so far.
Taren: That’s fantastic. So you talked about bringing in the right people and having the right cultural fit. Obviously being smart, being passionate about it are the table stakes. What are those other things that you look for when you’re building a high-performing team?
Katharine: That’s a really great question. I’ve had the opportunity to build high-performing teams in different functions and actually even in different countries. What you look for is a drive to do good. That sounds kind of silly, but it’s really got to be central to someone’s being. So that’s the first thing that I’m looking for is what is that person’s motivation to join the team that I’m building.
And then, of course, as you said, expertise is just assumed. Then I look at how that person interacts with other members of the team. Then, of course, how they interact with our key stakeholders. And then, finally – well, not finally, there’s so many different things, but the last thing I’ll just talk about here is having that credibility so that we are able to communicate clearly and concisely what we’re doing. Then we generate the trust in others that we’re going to do what we’re going to do, that we’re going to do what we say that we need to do. That credibility actually has to be built very quickly so that in the longer term we can actually establish our organization in the company.
Taren: That’s exciting. Well, thank you for sharing those insights. You touched on this a second ago, that Agilent is really focusing on precision oncology. It’s such a hot topic right now. One of your goals is to improve patient outcomes. Can you share how you all are going about that and what that would mean then for patients in the long run?
Katharine: Yeah, so we touched on it a minute ago in that we’re moving into the liquid biopsy space, which is really exciting just because it allows another modality to understand what the best treatment for patients would be. And it will also, in the future, help us understand the evolution of that cancer in the patient. Cancers are sneaky little things. They can evade chemotherapies or immune therapies and change and become resistant. With liquid biopsy you can also understand how that tumor is evolving and whether or not you need to change therapy.
That’s one of the really exciting things about what we’re doing here, because we’ll have the liquid biopsy option. We already have the immunohistochemistry options that we’ve been established in for a long time. Having multi modes to actually understand how patients should be treated is an area that I think Agilent is pretty unique in that we have all of these different modalities available at our fingertips.
Taren: With that liquid biopsy with a blood draw it feels far less invasive for patients than having to do it through the tissue. Is that a big selling point for you all?
Katharine: Well, it is in that it is another way of understanding the best treatment for a patient’s cancer. It’s not the right first step for everyone, at least in today’s medicine. But, as the technology gets better and as we understand the mutations and the different manifestations of the cancer that can be shed into the blood, I think it will become more and more a way of first-line diagnosis. Again, it’s not there for everyone today, but because it’s less invasive, because it’s easy to do, because you can do it multiple times during the course of a patient’s disease that makes it a really exciting way to go.
Taren: Well, congratulations and continued good success in moving this forward because it is an exciting area of technology and science right now. Before joining Agilent you served as CMO and head of R&D at Kaleido Biosciences. I hope I said that right. Before that you were at GlaxoSmithKline for a number of years. Can you share some of the highlights from these experiences? I understand when you were at GSK you led multiple health agency initiatives, here and in China.
Katharine: Yeah, I am very fortunate to have had experiences in large pharma as well as small biotech at Kaleido Biosciences. And, as you just mentioned, while I was at GSK I had the opportunity not only to work in the US where I started, but I had opportunities to spend three years in Europe, as well, as head of a group there. And three years in China to build the late-stage clinical development group in that country.
All of these experiences have been extremely rewarding for me. The experience in China was especially exciting because not only did I get to build a new team across multiple therapy areas in China, I got to experience the amazing culture in China and the cultural differences and how you manage teams through those different cultural differences that some are evident and some maybe not so much. And then, also, having the ability or the opportunity to interact with different regulatory agencies across the world really, in Canada, Europe, China.
Having the breadth of those experiences has really been helpful. Especially when it comes to what the next role is. Many companies, including Agilent, are looking to China as a new market where healthcare is booming and, at least at Agilent, our diagnostics and actually our whole range of products is something that we want to expand in that country.
Taren: Do you think that global perspective has given you an edge within the C-suite?
Katharine: Well, I think so. It’s one thing that especially for global companies they look for that kind of experience. They’re always looking to at least have the ability to register medicines or products in other countries, not just the United States. But also to understand where the pitfalls could be or where the challenges could be that may not be that apparent to someone who hasn’t actually lived in those areas. So I do think it’s an advantage. But, again, it depends on the company.
Taren: Have you always been interested in medicine? What drew you initially to life sciences?
Katharine: It’s an interesting question. When I was growing up both of my parents actually worked and were professors in a medical school. So I learned through osmosis a lot about how at least medicine is taught to medical students. As I grew up as more of an introvert than an extrovert I was gravitating towards veterinary medicine. I really love animals and I thought that would be the best thing for me to do. I love interacting with dogs and cats and horses and all the rest. So my sights were set on vet school.
In the middle of college I kind of changed my mind, I guess. It wasn’t like at one point or one thing that I can say that’s where I changed my mind, but my mother actually was diagnosed with breast cancer in my sophomore year of college. Then I started to think about all the things I was doing with animals and preparing for vet school. I pivoted because I was taking all the right courses anyway, I pivoted towards medical school. While I can’t really put my finger on one exact moment, I do believe that the illness in my mother really had a huge impact on me. So, yeah, then I went to medical school instead.
Taren: That sounds like that was a pretty sophisticated pivot for somebody who was in their 19 to 20 years old, to make that change in direction. I’m sure that the animals are sad, but us humans are glad that you did that. Sitting in the C-suite you are really a role model to other women. What does this responsibility mean to you and what advice do you have for other women who are looking to move into the corner office?
Katharine: Yes, so one thing that I make sure of is that whenever anyone, men or women, approach me I never turn anyone down if they want to have a mentor or just have conversations about career development. I think that’s extremely important. One advice I give people is that don’t make the title a goal, you really need to prioritize what you want to achieve and then move in that direction and be the best you can be in doing that. That is so incredibly important. Someone when they come to me and they want to be a Vice President my first question is, “To do what? What do you want to do with that?” So it’s not the title, it’s really about what impact you can have.
Then, second, especially for women I always tell them not to feel like they have to have all of the qualifications to fulfill a role. I think women generally look at a role spec and they say, “Well, I can do this but I don’t have these.” Really it’s about putting yourself forward. If you feel like that’s a role that you want and you have sort of the basic qualifications, go for it. And then if you don’t have everything and you don’t get the role learn from it and then get those qualifications that you need. I feel like men are more likely to say, “Hey, I can do that, I’m going to put myself forward.” Women are going to hold back and maybe not have the confidence to do that. That is, I think, a really important thing for women especially to overcome.
Taren: I think those are great pieces of advice. I often talk to women who have learned to have to find their voice when they’re sitting at the table. How did you find your voice sitting at the big table?
Katharine: It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, I have to say. So I was one of the -
Taren: Especially because you’re an introvert? Sorry, about that, because you’re also an introvert, so that’s even got to be more challenging.
Katharine: Yeah, so I am pretty much an extreme introvert. While I cover it up well it takes energy to do so. As you say, sometimes it’s hard to speak up at the table. I’ve been part of groups where I felt everyone else around the table knew more than I and were smarter than I. If I asked a question it would be felt as being a stupid question or it would reflect badly on me or whatever. Then I found out that over time I’d be thinking of a question or a comment and then someone else would say it around the table. I’d be like, “Oh, I should have said it. Why didn’t I bring it up earlier?”
After a while I just got over it and said, “Okay, it may be a stupid question but I’m going to ask it anyway.” Sometimes what I would do is I’d say, “This may have been stated already or this may be a naïve question, but I just want to know more about this.” Oftentimes what I thought was a stupid question people were like, “Oh, wow, hadn’t thought about that before.” That gave me the confidence to continue to do that. I would be prepared when you’re sitting around that table, but don’t necessarily hold back if you feel like you have a question that needs to be asked. It’s hard at first, but it gets easier over time.
Taren: That’s great advice. Thank you so much. You mentioned that you’ve lived in a couple of different countries and you’ve traveled around. That can put a strain sometimes on your family, on your personal life. How do you balance that life and career? Any tips?
Katharine: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a family that was willing to travel with me all over the world. That is not always the case and that’s a negotiation with your family if you’re able to do that. In terms of balancing career and life, it’s so individual. There are a few principles that I would apply. One is that your family is the most important thing and put your family first.
The second thing is that you, yourself, are incredibly important and don’t forget to take care of yourself. You will work hard, people work hard all over the place, but how do you recharge? How do you refresh yourself? For some people it’s exercise. For other people it’s having a hobby, which unfortunately I don’t have but I do exercise every day.
The other thing for me as an introvert is that if I am having a full day of meetings I need time to not be talking. Sometimes I just say to people, “You know what? I’m going to take some time and I’m going to stop talking.” That is something that’s important for me, is to take that time to refresh and recharge and get some exercise or else I’ll pay for it in one way or another. And maybe that payment is just having less of a positive outlook. I want to maintain that positive outlook because that’s what my team is looking for. If I don’t have it they’re not going to have it.
Taren: I get it. I love that you give yourself a self-imposed time out. Take a moment to breathe through and to come out the other side positive. That’s great advice. Speaking of advice, what is some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received that’s helped you along your career?
Katharine: That’s a good one. I’ve done a lot of leadership courses and I have some cynicism about some of these leadership courses. But there are a couple of things that I think are important. One is authenticity. If you’re not yourself people can tell. If you’re trying to play a role that you don’t believe in people are going to see right through that. So that’s incredibly important.
The other thing is that just being generous with your time. We kind of referred to this a little bit earlier, is making time for others actually reflects well on you and also makes your team a much more well-oiled machine.
Then integrity. Integrity in speaking up, integrity in standing for what’s right has been noticed in my career, actually. Where one of the roles that I was going for I had to gain the approval of some of the most senior people in the company. They remembered me standing up for a principle in the recent past and they said that was one of the main things that allowed them to be just completely supportive of my taking that next role.
So, these things don’t necessarily get noticed at the time or they don’t get acknowledged at the time, but they are noticed I should say and people remember you for those things.
Taren: Doing the right thing is never a bad thing.
Katharine: No, it’s not, but sometimes -
Taren: It’s hard.
Katharine: It’s hard because you’re pressured to do something that maybe you don’t think is the right thing. Sometimes you just need to say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” It’s a hard decision to make, especially when somebody more senior than you is asking you to do it.
Taren: Absolutely. You said you make time for folks when they call and you’ll pick up the phone and you’ll make the time for them. Is that a formal mentorship thing that you do? Or is it just sort of informally? And are you a formal mentor to anybody right now?
Katharine: Yeah, not right now. Most of what I have done in the past has been informal but I’ve also been part of formal mentorship programs where it’s mentorship and sponsorship. There is a difference there. Let me go back. Mentorship, of course, is being that sounding board and helping people think through their situations, their challenges. Sponsorship is really standing up and behind someone and having a more formal relationship where you’re helping them out but they’re also supporting you in one way, shape or form.
I’ve found that a very exciting place to be as a sponsor for someone in the company. One of the reasons why I think that is so important is that I never had a formal sponsor in my career but I found after thinking about what sponsorship means I had a sponsor during my time at GSK. I just didn’t realize it. And that person I worked for and I enjoyed working for this person. But he also stood up for me in venues where I wasn’t present. He was advocating for me for different roles behind the scenes. I think that made a huge difference in my career.
Taren: Interesting that you didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect now it stands out for you. Very interesting. And you’re right, there is a difference between mentorship and sponsorship. Sponsorship is when that other person puts their skin in the game for you. That makes a big difference. You talked earlier about that pivotal time in your life where you changed from veterinary school to medical school. I’d like you to identify – I don’t know if that is your wow moment or not, but we do end all of our podcasts with this question. What is that wow moment that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you?
Katharine: I’ve had so many, and that could have been one where I changed where I wanted to go in terms of my career. But, there’s one that I’ll talk about where I was in China on a global assignment. When I came back from that assignment you’re not guaranteed any role when you come back from assignment. Although it’s expected that you’ll find something. The head of R&D at the time asked me to take on a role as the head of health outcomes, which is health economics and outcomes research. I am not formally trained in that area. I have worked with that group, but really not that closely. I said to the head of R&D, “Are you crazy?”
Katharine: I did. And I immediately sort of clapped my hand over my mouth thinking, “That wasn’t the right thing to say.” But, I did. I realized at that moment that I had done that at two other times in my career in terms of telling people that I wasn’t the right person for the job. It kind of gets back to the advice to women. I felt like I wasn’t qualified, I didn’t think it was the right job. And so I said, “Are you crazy?” and he said, “No, I want you to do it. I really want you to do it.” Then I said to him, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
It was one of the best decisions in my career, actually, because not only did I finally get it that I didn’t necessarily have to have every qualification for a certain role, but I went into this role that was pretty much new to me and I learned so much. I learned a whole new area, I learned how important it was for healthcare. And at the same time I refreshed the team, I got it to a different place in the organization. Really I created a little slogan for this group that was, “From optional to essential in the company.” And it actually worked. They felt optional to be included, and now they are essential in every project team. This was kind of the time where I said, “Okay, I get it. I can do something new.”
That is one of the reasons why I took the role at Agilent. Agilent in this area of cancer diagnostics is something I’ve never done before. But I thought, wow, this is pretty cool, it has a huge impact on patients and I’m going to learn something new so I’m going to go for it.
Taren: That is a fantastic story. I love that slogan of going from optional to essential. I think that’s something that we could all take away from our roles, no matter what we’re doing, right? So that we do provide value, that we are finding our voice and we become essential to an organization. That is awesome advice. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Thank you so much for being part of our WoW podcast program. It was such a delight to speak with you. I am glad you gave up the animals and you came to the human side because the work you’re doing is so important, so thank you so much.
Katharine: Well thank you. It was a fun conversation.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes visit PharmaVoice.com.