Building a global medical team from the ground up

August 01, 2022
About the Author

Kelly Covello is Vice President, Head of Medical Affairs at Mirati. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of New Jersey and her PhD in molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She has broad professional experience in leading Research, Development and Medical teams to discover, develop and deliver oncology assets.

Kelly is passionate about helping patients with cancer and her work at Mirati leading the Medical Affairs team. Below, she answers questions that offer a holistic view of her role as the Head of Medical Affairs at Mirati and details why she decided to work for the company.

Q. Did you always want to be in STEM, or in biotech more specifically, and was there something that drew you to it?

A. I always knew I wanted a career in science and healthcare. I transitioned from training in academia to pharma and biotech because I enjoy working more directly on science that is making a difference for treating a disease. My day-to-day now involves leading a team to communicate the science to different audiences, such as patients or physicians, to help address questions and generate data that continues to inform and support clinical practice and access in the real world. It is crucial that I understand all the data and science extremely well, so I am able to apply my background and have the chance to see the impact on the day-to-day with the patients and physicians we work with.

Q. Considering the breadth of the biotech industry, why did you choose to work at Mirati?

A. Firstly, Mirati is an oncology-focused company, where the lead indications of both main assets at the time were for lung cancer. I have a strong background in and passion for lung cancer, and I was excited to bring that to the company. Secondly – the science. I am a scientist by training, and I need to truly believe in the drugs I work on. I find both sitravatinib and adagrasib interesting for their own reasons and believe they will fill an unmet need in lung cancer. Thirdly – the role itself. The opportunity to build out a team and new function for the company from scratch doesn’t happen all that often. I was very intrigued to have this unique experience.

Q. What were you most excited about when you first joined Mirati?

A. Beyond the science and pipeline, I was most excited about the people and culture. Everyone I met had the same passion for working hard and working together to do good things for patients and the investigators we work with. People were down to earth and fun, but also very competent and hard working. Mirati has a good challenge with many opportunities for a relatively small biotech and I love the fearless nature of people and the teams are determined to make anything happen – including what may seem impossible.

Q. Can you explain your role at Mirati in relation to the KRAS programs?

A. I lead a team that touches several different facets of the KRAS program. We help support enrollment in the trials, including working to remove any potential barriers to enrollment. We help communicate the data. There are many workstreams around this. Communication can include one-on-one in the doctor’s office, engagement with payers, meeting with patients or patient advocacy groups, presentations at medical conferences or data dissemination in peer reviewed journals. Our team also established a call center for inquiries and will be supporting continued medical education. Additionally, our team had a big role at American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2022 where we engaged with >250 physicians and patients/groups and had 2 oral presentations with a simultaneous NEJM manuscript. Finally, we also help to generate data against any gaps that exist such as understanding the activity of the drug in patient population excluded from the clinical trials, providing evidence to support how the adverse events can be managed and demonstrating the value of our drugs. We have done all the above for our current lead asset; from driving the enrollment of the various KRYSTAL trials and we also now have ISRs, an early access program, and other studies-whether be clinical, economic, or real-world evidence-to generate data to inform practice and support access to our assets.

Q. When you were hired, you were essentially a team of one and then slowly you grew your team. How did you build a high-performing Global Medical function for the company from the ground up?

A. It has been crazy how fast two years has gone by and the amount of growth and change that has occurred in that time. I came here to build something from scratch, so it is incredibly rewarding to see how the team came together. I am biased but I think we have a best-in-industry team.

As we built out the team, we were deliberate in hiring for key behaviors and values – team players who will work hard and together to figure things out do good things for the patients, physicians, team and company. We were deliberate in building a diverse team hiring PhDs, PharmDs, Nurses, and MDs that had different experiences across pharma, biotech, targeted therapies and immuno-oncology. While building out my team, it helped tremendously that Mirati has incredible science and late-stage assets, but also the pipeline we are looking to build. It is exciting. The incredible people and culture already at Mirati helped us recruit an amazing team that is a great fit with the company culture.

Q. As someone with leadership experience yourself, how would you define leadership? And in your experience, what makes a strong leader?

A. For myself, I am learning to be authentic and embrace my style. First and foremost, a leader should be kind and care about the people. Good leaders are results driven, competent and confident but also has a learning mindset because nobody is perfect or knows everything. I try to encourage a fearless culture where everyone has a voice and opportunity to express ideas. Strong leaders hire good people, empower them and get out of their way but are accessible and offer support when needed. I am transparent – teams and people do their best when they know as much information and context as possible – and I’m direct – setting clear expectations on outcomes and not afraid to advocate for my team or speak the truth in tough circumstances when tensions or barriers arise. Finally, a good leader is someone who can stay positive with a calm demeanor and upbeat attitude, especially through challenging situations.

Q. What would you say is the best part of being in a leadership position?

A. The best part about being in a leadership position is being able to support and empower people, especially those who don’t believe in themselves as much as I do and who are still growing and developing. I have had great leaders throughout my career, and the ones I’ve gravitated toward and remember are those who not only strive for results, but who genuinely care about and believe in people. I enjoy giving others new opportunities, coaching and feedback to be able to continue to grow professionally and achieve new heights in their careers.