By Michael M. Morrissey, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, Exelixis, Inc.
The Covid-19 pandemic radically altered 2020 for the biopharmaceutical industry and, of course, for society as a whole. Aspects of our industry’s business that had long been viewed as standard operating procedures — visits to qualify potential clinical trial sites, and the tightly scheduled delivery of medication, assessments, and follow-up care for study participants, for instance — suddenly became multidimensional challenges with the potential to derail a company’s long-term strategies. Even for an industry known for methodical planning, it was uncharted territory.
In early January 2020, Exelixis, an oncology-focused biotechnology company, laid out an ambitious slate of corporate priorities, kicking off what we intended to be 12 months spent laying the groundwork for our future growth. After years spent as a single product company by design, we outlined plans to broaden the development program for our lead marketed product, cabozantinib, while also expanding our pipeline to build a next generation of Exelixis medicines with the potential to improve the lives of patients with cancer. In our presentation at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, we discussed how we’d deliver data from multiple phase 3 trials, start new pivotal studies, and file several Investigational New Drug applications. It was an ambitious to-do list and we were more than ready to dig in.
As the first quarter of 2020 progressed, Covid-19 intensified and became a global concern. Recognizing the urgent clinical and business need to continue making progress toward our stated goals, Exelixis, like most other companies, had just days or weeks to reinvent processes that had been in place for years. Pivoting quickly, we embraced several tenets to make it through:
• A tight focus on execution: As the pandemic intensified, our Product Development organization quickly convened a Covid-19 task force drawn from key functions across the entire company. For the first few months, this team met daily to assess the impact of Covid-19 on all aspects of our clinical trial roster, digest the evolving guidelines provided by the relevant regulatory agencies, and roll out policies and protocols to keep our trials on track. Our top goals were to ensure patients’ safety and uninterrupted access to care and study medication. Sites enrolling patients for Exelixis-sponsored studies globally responded very positively to these efforts as they valued our responsiveness and proactivity in this regard.
• An emphasis on culture and values: Resilience is a critical corporate characteristic at Exelixis as we’ve had our share of disappointing trial results, financial constraints, and other challenges over our 26+ year history. Working collaboratively and innovatively to address challenges is baked into our culture, and helped us collectively carve a path forward in 2020.
• Communication and community: Faced with the prospect of months of remote work, we knew we had to do everything possible to foster and reinforce connections and teamwork across our newly virtualized and continuously expanding workforce. We significantly enhanced internal communications, including regular virtual all-hands meetings and a weekly email from me to all our employees highlighting our progress, challenges and the impactful ways our teams kept the company moving despite the distance between them.
• Long-term perspective: While addressing the immediate needs of operating during a global pandemic, we never lost sight of our longer-term objectives for the future after Covid-19 is contained. We increased our headcount by 25% over the course of the year — including 130 virtual on-boardings — and also maintained progress on the expansion of our Alameda campus, including our new headquarters under construction. We have plans to continue this growth trajectory in 2021 and beyond.
As we enter 2021, all of us at Exelixis consider ourselves fortunate to be able to say we made it through a challenging year and advanced our drug discovery, development and commercial efforts on behalf of the patients we serve. During 2020, we were able to deliver positive data from multiple pivotal trials that support our plans to seek label expansions for our lead product. We launched several additional phase 3 trials for our flagship medicine and were able to achieve our enrollment goals for existing studies. We brought multiple early-stage compounds into or on the verge of phase 1 clinical testing. And we built out our strategy and meaningfully advanced the clinical development of XL092, our next-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitor, which we believe has the potential to become the next oncology franchise for Exelixis. Our corporate priorities announcement further details how we’re building on these milestones to make even more progress on our mission.
Of course, our ability to even envision a post-pandemic future is made possible by the hard work of the scientists and biopharmaceutical companies that raced to evaluate Covid-19 therapies and develop vaccines in record time. Their commitment to ending the pandemic is a testament to the power of science and teamwork, and will enable Exelixis and the rest of our industry to continue meeting our commitments to the patients we seek to serve in 2021 and beyond.
The statements in this article relating to business plans and commitments are forward-looking statements. Actual results and the timing of events could differ materially from those anticipated in the forward-looking statements as a result of the risks and uncertainties discussed under the caption “Risk Factors” in Exelixis’ filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. All forward-looking statements in this article are based on information available to Exelixis as of the date of publication, and Exelixis undertakes no obligation to update or revise any forward-looking statements contained herein, except as required by law.