Episode 257: Sophia Ononye on scientific storytelling

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April 12, 2020

[Note: this episode was recorded prior to the coronavirus pandemic.]

Our guest today is Sophia Ononye, who earned a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Connecticut and did a postdoctoral fellowship in oncology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Sophia is the founder of The Sophia Consulting Firm, and her focus is in creating value via scientific storytelling, primarily serving pharmaceutical and biotech firms.

In this episode we discuss several of the service lines she offers, including strategic marketing, medical affairs, public relations, and scientific communications.

You can learn more about Sophia’s firm at https://sophiaconsultingfirm.com/


Will Bachman: Hello Sophia, welcome to the show.

Sophia Ononye: Oh, I’m excited to be here. Thank you.

Will Bachman: So tell me about scientific storytelling and some of the services that your firm provides.

Sophia Ononye: Yes, thanks for asking me that. So my firm’s tagline is “Amplifying Scientific Innovation” and that’s something that I feel very strongly about, and it is based in my roots culturally. Growing up in Nigeria and having a vision where I wanted to be influential and impactful. But taking it on to my experiences here in the U.S., having worked for companies like Pfizer and being trained at the University of Connecticut as well as the Yale University School of Medicine, one of the things that I’ve found lacking whenever I communicated with people, whether it was my family members or whether it was industry colleagues, even people outside of the industry, they felt that we as scientists, we talk at people. We don’t talk with people. We don’t use language that people can understand. We don’t find a way to make what we say relatable.

And so the whole venture for me around scientific storytelling is how do you take very complex scientific material and break it down into two questions: Why should patients care and why should physicians care? And ultimately I think if we focus on those two angles, it becomes very impactful, because the work that we do is to provide often lifesaving therapies for patients and to provide physicians with additional tools that can enable improvement in how we treat patients in both quality as well as an access perspective. So the whole idea for my firm is to take all that scientific knowledge that I gained from my PhD, my MPH, my MBA, and all of the trainings that I’ve done subsequently, and to think cohesively about how I can take scientific narratives, innovations, whether it’s CAR Ts or cell therapies or gene therapies, and to build out that story around what is the clinical value, what is the economic value, and how can we improve patient’s lives while also providing physicians with additional tools for how we treat patients? And so that’s really what I mean by scientific storytelling, and that’s where my passion for innovating as well as amplifying the way that we tell the scientific stories, that’s why it was founded.

Will Bachman: And what type of organization is your typical client? Are you mostly serving pharma companies, medical device companies?

Sophia Ononye: Yeah. I will probably say that 60 to 70 percent of my business is in the pharma space and primarily large pharmaceutical companies. I think oftentimes they have more resources to engage with boutique firms like myself. And I also of course work with emerging biotechs that sometimes have smaller budgets, but they still have the same challenges that large companies face around how do we position our drugs? How do we market this drug so that people get it? What I mean by “it” of course is what I mentioned earlier around the clinical and economic value. Now that doesn’t mean that I could not partner with a device or diagnostics company. I was actually quite fortunate to work with a small diagnostics company in San Diego that is doing some really interesting work where they are looking at point of care diagnostic tools.

And they partnered with the Gates Foundation to see how we can make it easier, especially in developing countries, for people to find out if they have infections like tuberculosis. And so I think that the realm of the work, even though it’s rooted primarily in the pharmaceutical space, has the potential to apply to diagnostics and device companies. Because ultimately as as I shared earlier, we all sort of face the same challenges around value communications and how we can help to amplify the value of our assets to a broad audience. And when we think about our stakeholders, we have the public at large, but more specifically, we have to think about payer communications. We have to think about patients. Patient advocacy is becoming a very important topic, obviously, in today’s world. We also have to think about physician marketing, which that one is fairly well established, but then what are the different customers in a hospital setting? Demonstrated teams, the site coordinator, cell labs, things of that nature.

So it’s about thinking cohesively about all the different players, but then the one thing that all my clients have in common is they want to find a way to message a little bit differently to hit the nail on the head a little bit more sharply and to do it in a way that is more concise. Because no one really has the time to waste to go through volumes and volumes of articles and publications. It’s about very succinct messaging across multiple platforms, whether social media for example, and how you can take a video on YouTube and market it to the rest of the world. So I love what I do. I think it has the applicability to work in several different settings, but my primary focus of course is in the pharmaceutical space.

Will Bachman: Great. Let’s talk about some specific services that you provide. One that I know is on your website, which I was intrigued by, is live coverage of scientific or industry conferences. Tell me an example of that. Are you going there and blogging about it or tweeting about it or …? What are you doing when you do live coverage? That’s fascinating.

Sophia Ononye: Yes. So probably my easiest and my best example is the CNS, stands for Collaborating for Novel Solutions, and I was invited by the curator …

Will Bachman: And for listeners who aren’t … that would be Central …

Sophia Ononye: nervous system. Yeah, you would think that the CNS would just be about a central nervous system, and that’s why I went ahead to spell it out. That actually when the conference was founded 10 years ago, it was all about the central nervous system. But today what the chief creator, who is Dr. Amir Kalali, so one of the things that he discovered was that a lot of conferences was around high-level academic talk. What they should be versus what they actually are. And they decided a few years ago to shift the focus to collaborating for those solutions and make it sort of disease-area agnostic and think about it as sort of a gathering place for some of the leading thought leaders. More of the main talk leaders in the space and how can we come together a) to foster collaboration and b) to think about solutions using technology, for example.

So when I was asked to cover the CNS Summit, I was doing exactly what you thought it would be, which is tweeting about it, and eventually I wrote a blog post-conference about what I thought about the conference itself. And I really enjoyed that angle. It’s different from say when I go to an ASH or ASCO, some of the major medical meetings where it’s really more about attending the seminars and the publications, and it’s not so much about the additional surround sound generation. But I like that angle where as a scientific person, you go out to a conference and you think about what you’re hearing and you tweet about it to an audience. And I cannot emphasize enough about how under-utilized social media is by the pharmaceutical industry. I think that other industries are way more ahead of us.

If you look at YouTube, for example, it’s the second-most used channel outside of Google, and I think that it’s under-utilized by the industry. So one of the things that I care about is innovative ways to engage. So if I go to a medical conference, I don’t want to just sit there and listen to one presentation after the other. I want to share with other people what I’m learning. And it’s that openness to sharing information, that’s what I truly enjoy. And that’s why that is one of the services that my firm offers.

Will Bachman: And who is the entity that’s hiring you to go and tweet at a conference? Is the conference itself hiring you to spread awareness?

Sophia Ononye: Yes, and in this case, that was the CNS Summit that basically asked me to come on board and to help to build that awareness and also to get a different take. I think if you’ve been running a conference for several years, it’s always good to get a fresh set of eyes on it that says, “Okay, what are we doing well? What are we not doing well?” But if we keep having these closed scientific meetings where we share everything privately between our peers, I do not think that the public’s perception of the industry will ever change.

And as you probably know, the life science industry is the most hated industry in America. And part of that is probably a lack of what they perceive to be transparency. And so if we can open the vault a little bit and share our knowledge with the public in a way that is simple, which is really that scientific story telling that I’m talking about, then I think it makes it easier for people to get what we do and to be more open. And it also makes it easier for Company A to know what Company B is doing. I don’t think that us competing or whatever the case might be, I don’t think that’s the right angle for the 2020s. I think it’s more about collaboration and that’s why this particular conference, Collaborating for novel Solutions, is one that I fully support and I will continue to support.

Will Bachman: Another thing that you work on is mechanism of action video production. So give me an example of that and how you’d get involved in a mechanism of action video production and how those kind of videos are used.

Sophia Ononye: Yeah, so one of my first responsibilities when I was the head of investor relations and corporate communications for a small biotech in San Diego was to produce its mechanism of action videos. In fact, that was my recommendation, because I feel like technologies these days are so much more complex. Think about a CAR T. Most people don’t even know what it stands for. Let’s talk about what it does. And so I could spend 20 minutes, 30 minutes trying to explain to you what a chimeric antigen T-cell receptor is about, or I could build a 30-second, 60-second video where you can see it for yourself. And I think visually, that’s why I mentioned YouTube earlier, you see companies outside of obviously the life science space, using YouTube videos to engage their audience. And I feel quite strongly that by building these MOA videos, it makes it easy for the public, whether you are an investor that is thinking about buying stocks in a company, whether you are a journalist or someone from the media that’s trying to write an article about a company or whether you are just a patient that is trying to find novel solutions for a rare disease that you might have.

And you go to these websites and you see these beautiful 3-D mechanism of action videos, I enjoy them. And my specific role in MOA videos is to think about a script itself. What are we saying and how are we saying it? And then I partner with other vendors that will sort of do the mock-up and help me with the actual schematic and the visuals and together that type of collaboration leads to what I will call again, an innovative solution that makes it easier for people to understand what the value proposition of a therapy is going to be. And I cannot emphasize the importance of these mechanism of action videos enough.

Will Bachman: Talk to me a little bit about the spokesperson media training that you provide. What are some of the tips and tricks that you’d provide to a spokesperson?

Sophia Ononye: Yeah, so this one I really enjoy and I think a lot of times when some of my clients have a big Phase 3 Data announcement, they have to make sure that everyone is aligned on the messaging. Because it’s very important to ensure consistency and continuity in the messaging, and also to ensure that you provide some kind of amplification from that news story. I don’t believe in just issuing a press release for the sake of it. So part of that is how do you train the internal spokespeople as well as the external spokespeople? And I enjoy this particularly for smaller biotechs. Oftentimes you have these founder/CEO types, which are PhD or they’re extremely good in the science. They know it so well, but when they start to talk, you don’t understand what they’re saying, because they’re using a lot of technical jargon.

So some of my cases, how do you keep that message simple? And so I would start out with a three-by-three key messaging. So three-by-three, if you hear something three times, you’ve heard it once. It amplifies itself by the multiplicity of how many times you’ve heard it. And it’s like what are the three main things you want to say to your audience? Make sure you repeat it long enough that they hear it. And also think about your tone, your tonality and as much as possible when you have someone over the phone or a person asking you questions, how do you create a dialogue with them, so that it seems engaging and natural versus feeling like you’re be talked at for 45 minutes nonstop? So I think part of that coaching is not just about the content, but it’s also about how it is delivered and building some charisma along the way.

I think everybody likes to listen to someone that they feel has something charismatic. And I like to watch a lot of late night shows and how engaging these late night hosts are, and pick your favorite. I think they all have that same ability to engage with the audience. And whenever they meet a guest, they act like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen or heard of them in their lives. But that engagement is really what needs to, what I call surround-sound generation, because people are going to want to talk about it and they become interested in these companies and ultimately that’s what she wants. She wants to have a level of continuity beyond the actual press release or data disclosure or whatever the case might be. And so that’s where I come in.

Will Bachman: Now another area that you work on is medical affairs and strategic marketing. For listeners who aren’t in the pharma world, explain to us what does “medical affairs” mean for a pharma company?

Sophia Ononye: Yeah, so I think some pharma companies call it “commercial development.” There are different terms that are sometimes used, but essentially what it comes down to is when you have an asset that is a clinical development, most pharmaceutical companies, especially the larger ones, are thinking one step ahead about how to prepare the market for the drug and the drug for the market. So in the simplest terms, that’s what really the function of commercial department or medical affairs is to do those two things I mentioned—prepare the market for the drug and the drug for the market. So what does that involve? It involves quite a lot. Oftentimes it starts with a scientific communications platform, which is … think about it as a foundational messaging platform where you can articulate four things. One is the unmet medical need that the company is trying to solve with this specific assets. Secondly is the company profile itself. Does it have a technology platform? Does it have industry execs that are fairly well respected that can drive that platform technology? Or whatever the case might be. So what is unique about this company? So that’s that second pillar.

The third pillar is around the lead candidate, and this often happens with smaller companies. I can’t think about a company like Pfizer, that doesn’t apply in this instance, because they have over 120 or so assets that are in clinical development, so it’s more about those smaller companies that have maybe two or three assets. One is the lead candidate and then the rest of the story, the fourth pillar is what is the pipeline story? And ultimately what that scientific communications platform does is to help us to articulate the clinical and economic value of the drug and perhaps the company at large and in a very cohesive manner.

And then how do you prepare your speakers? There’s usually a speaker where you think about who are some of the champions in your space? The leading physicians and such that are very well-spoken and being asked to speak at multiple medical conferences. You want champions, eventually you want to create brand champions that can speak for your drug and sort of vouch for it. Not just from an efficacy and safety perspective, but more operationally what that economic value for that drug might be. And there are so many other things that get involved in that, including the medical conferences, but as I mentioned, preparing press releases or providing foundational material for press releases, for data disclosures and things of that nature. But the complexity of that medical affairs and commercial development function is something that I think is very well understood, but I think where we are is making sure that people understand the process and how tedious it is to bring a new drug into the market.

And how do you take these brilliant scientists and physicians that understand the clinical and the technical know-how, but how do you make sure that they communicate that in a way that the stakeholders, whether they actually know, or someone from the press or an investor can fully understand. But in summary, really what that medical affairs and strategic marketing function is is around preparing a new drug for the market and preparing the market for the drug. And obviously there are multiple markets, most of the time, 40% or so of most profits that companies make is seen in the U.S. market. So you can imagine, a lot of companies tend to focus first here in the U.S. and then secondly in the E.U. and the complexity around pricing dynamics, reimbursement dynamics, etc. makes it a very, very satisfying job. But it also makes it a very difficult job. But at the end of the day, I think that when you put in that work and that drug gets approved, you get super excited about what it’s value is going to be.

Will Bachman: Great. You mentioned that part of the medical affairs is building a group of physicians who are respected, maybe known as key opinion leaders, who will be advocates for that drug. What are some specific tactics that are used in the industry to do that process? Is it a matter of just paying these individuals to go give talks? Or if not, how do you recruit them and get them excited about the drug? What’s in it for them and how do you build that group of key opinion leaders?

Sophia Ononye: It’s a very intricate process. When you think about what it takes to bring in a physician to play a role in the speakers bureau or to potentially be a brand champion. I think it starts first at some level of fair market value analysis, because you have to make sure you abide by the Sunshine Act, but you also have to make sure that physicians are paid based on their experience. So the first process which my firm actually does is it’s around identifying the KOL. So who do you want? Do you want a very well-established doc that is 20, 30 years into their practice? Do you want the young doc that is 5, 10 years in that and there are advantages to either. I think the very well established physician, you enjoy the clout that they’re bringing, but oftentimes they are going to support multiple companies and that’s just the way that it’s going to be.

: But if you want someone that is sort of an ingénue, so to speak, that is just going to be almost exclusively an advocate for your brand, and of course the younger physicians come to mind, then you have to find out what institutions that they are part of and if the institutions are actually open to allowing them to play a role in terms of advocacy and then you reach out to them, you have conversations with them, and then you go from there. But there’s also a lot of training that is involved, as I mentioned before, to make sure that these physicians are well-versed on the messaging, the clinical and economic value of the asset, and that when they speak, they speak with a level of credibility. And obviously the FDA has rules around what physicians can or cannot say, especially around a drug that has not been approved. Because you don’t want to be accused of being too promotional in your marketing or talking about claims that have not been validated yet.

So it’s quite complex. But I think once you find the right cadre of physicians that are aligned with the company in terms of their vision, their ability to articulate the right points, their level of engagement with the organization beyond just the project or the conferences they’re asked to speak on, if you can find real advocates that believe in what your value proposition is, especially for the company, the smaller biotechs, it will definitely be a difference maker. A I think we have quite a lot of work to do in that space, but I’m happy to see that we have more influence and I’m slightly biased, because I want to see younger physicians get some level of visibility, because they do have a point of view and they are still able to influence. They may not be as “influential” as the more established docs, but we have to give them a seat at the table to see what they can do.

Will Bachman: How do you go about identifying the set of potential key opinion leaders? Is it literally someone has a spreadsheet of every oncologist in the country and what institution they’re at and then what drugs they’re already advocating for? And then whether their institution allows advocacy or not? How do you actually filter it down to a set of people that you would reach out to?

Sophia Ononye: Yeah, I mean I think some people have that sort of master list approach where you do a search maybe once every year or every other year of the top oncologists in the country and you call them in. My firm’s approach is slightly different. We try to be more tailored. So for example, I worked with a company, and this was a few years ago before I launched my firm, I worked for a company that was working in the EBV-PTLD space, which is a very rare disease and there are probably 20 or 30 key opinion leaders in the world. And we were very fortunate to identify 20 or so of the physicians and they came from all over the world, not just saying in the U.S. or Canada, from several European countries and we gathered at the European Hematology Association meeting. And what that effort was was thinking very cohesively around the criteria.

So are you looking for physicians that are solid organ transplant experts? Are you looking for physicians that are bone marrow transplant experts? And then how do you also identify people that have professional associations, right? So are they part of the ASBMT or whatever other professional organization? Because that’s another criteria. Then you look at the number of publications that they have, because you want to make sure that if you’re really influential, you can’t just publish once every 20 years. That doesn’t show that level of influence. But these are people that publish regularly on very relevant topics within the space around bone marrow transplants and solid organ transplants. And then you rank them. You rank them in terms of who you want first, who is your top-tier physicians.

Then you have a second tier, third tier, fourth tier, etc. And depending on the resources that you have, because a lot of times in my opinion, the thought leaders are probably the most influential with smaller companies versus with larger companies. Once you’ve identified who these right thought leaders are, you reach out and there’s a possibility that the first-tier docs, the top-tier docs might not have availability to even work with you, and that’s why you have to have a second tier and a third tier. And it doesn’t mean that these docs are any less, I would say, attractive. It’s just based on perhaps what we call the level of influence that they might have in terms of leadership, professional affiliations, and publications. I would say those are the three main criteria that probably helps us to decide what makes one physician a top tier and the other one the second tier.

So it’s a fairly organic process. I try to tailor the KOL identification depending on what disease state my clients are working on, because as you know, cancer is a very heterogeneous disease. So if I have one master list that includes colon cancer specialists as well as kidney cancer specialists and then you think about stomach cancer, breast cancer, it’s a little bit all over the place to my liking. So I prefer tailored lists that are based specific on the disease space that clients are looking for and then evaluating the physicians based on the three criteria that I mentioned, their professional affiliations, their publications, as well as their leadership in professional organizations and within their academic centers, et cetera.

Will Bachman: Great. One thing that you do, which I find fascinating, is that you really can pull together a virtual team. You have built a set of partners including venture capital firms, investment banks, public relations, investment relations professionals, scientific animation producers, graphic designers, legal and regulatory partners. Tell me a little bit about the process that you’ve gone through to build these relationships with partners and how you bring them into projects that you’re working on.

Sophia Ononye: Yeah, I mean probably that’s my favorite question so far. I’ve loved every question, but this is about the way we work and the future. And you know this very well, right? Virtual collaborations are the way to go, because it’s a little bit more cost efficient for me. I’m not in a position where I’m going to hire like 50 people, because I got a big project, I hire a bunch of people, and then six months later I lay them off. I believe in being as cost effective as possible, but perhaps this stacks with the most important philosophy that I have, which is to build relationships, number one. As I am speaking with you from Austin, Texas, I’m here for client meetings because I’m trying to extend my footprint beyond just the East Coast, but to see what I can do in this region as well.

And I think it just starts with finding a way to build relationships with people based on your work ethic. I believe first that if you want to lead a team, you start first with leading yourself, you start first with understanding fundamentally what it is that your client is looking for, and then you think about those white space opportunities beyond the product at hand. That’s how you have a level of continuity. And I’m pleased to work with a network of some of the best consultants in the country that are very good at what they do. And I gave an example earlier around the mechanism of action videos. I’m not a graphic designer, I’m not a scientific animation producer by any chance, but I do know people that do that. So if there’s a project that comes up where I need some scientific animation support or I have to build social media cards for some of my clients … the messaging, I’m great at it, I can do it. But then the visuals, I might need support. I will still have some direction obviously around what that visual would be. But then I can call up a graphic designer friend of mine and say, “Hey, can you help me with this?” And within a few days, we’re done.

Or if we’re thinking about the venture firms, I like them very much so because they work a lot with growth stage companies that are really in need of that message amplification. And oftentimes these companies have a slide decks already that they are presenting at medical conferences or even at investor conferences and they need a second set of eyes. They say, “Hey, Sophia, just based on your expertise, can you look at this and tell me what do you think?” And I’ll give them my honest feedback and then evolve the material accordingly.

But I think in this virtual world, a) building relationships and b) identifying the white space opportunities where you can really add value. And those white space opportunities often involve intel from other people that maybe see things differently than you do. And I see that as sort of a two way street where there are some times where I need other people to sort of opine on the work that my firm is doing to make sure that it’s fresh and it’s relevant, and some other times, it’s the other way around. But I think if we can continue to foster collaborations in this virtual manner, it’s cost effective, number one. But number two, the reach is beautiful, it’s enormous, quite frankly. I could work with a partner that is in Europe and maybe because of the time difference, by the time I wake up, they are done with their part and I continue my part. It becomes somewhat of a relay race, and I really enjoy that.

Will Bachman: Well, it’s such an important lesson I think that any consultant listening to this show can really take a cue from you on this of building out a virtual team of other professionals that provide complimentary services that you can bring into a project. And it sounds like you’ve done a really amazing job of that. Sophia, for people that wanted to get in touch with you, learn more about your firm, what’s the best place for them to go online to learn more about what you do?

Sophia Ononye: I think the easiest place is sophiaconsultingfirm.com. So that’s just sophiaconsultingfirm.com. I have a presence on LinkedIn as well as on Twitter, but I think it starts with my website, and I’m very proud of it because I designed it from scratch and then I found some great partners that gave me tips on how I can present images and a little bit differently. So I have a pretty big presence online. I mean I can be emailed, called, all that stuff is on the company website. And most importantly, I would always love to have virtual coffee chats. That’s becoming a way to go in this space, because we can’t all afford to get in a cab, get on a plane to have those face-to-face meetings. So I welcome that opportunity for anyone that really wants to continue to dialogue offline.

Will Bachman: Great. So sophiaconsultingfirm.com. Okay, we’ll include that link in the show notes. Sophia, thank you so much for joining. Really appreciate you being on the show today.

Sophia Ononye: Thank you. You made my day. I’m super excited.