As Sara Turken was traveling all over the country completing successful transactions for the acquisition-heavy Stryker, she started to see herself on the other side of the businesses she was working to absorb. “I would meet the general counsels of these small companies and it really seemed like they did everything,” Turken remembers. “I had this narrow focus and so their work really stuck with me.”
Turken’s interest in science and biotech would ultimately lead her to NYC-based gene therapy specialists Rocket Pharmaceuticals where, if the now senior director of compliance and corporate secretary was interested in widening her breadth, she’s taken on the equivalent of asking for a glass of water and being given the Hudson River.
The expansion of Rocket has provided Turken and her small in-house team with wide ranges of challenges galore. The director, initially taken on for contract work, now oversees all of Rocket’s governance, FCC compliance, and is preparing a commercial team to hit the ground by 2022. Turken has worked to master the art of keeping a fast-moving company at its preferred pace while still making sure Rocket is compliant in all the ways it needs to be in order to get new treatments to patients at, well, rocket speed.
Speed Isn’t Enough
While Turken had amassed significant experience working on behalf of medical device companies, she laughs now when she thinks of her interview at Rocket. “The interview team kept telling me that this is gene therapy; it’s a whole different environment,” Turken remembers. “I remember thinking ‘Yeah, I’ve got this. It can’t be that complicated.’ Every little device company thinks they’re completely different.” That’s where Turken stops laughing. “It turns out gene therapy is pretty complicated.”
Turken credits the leadership team not only with enabling her growth in a very concentrated period of time, but with the passion they bring to the office every day. “In my interview I could tell that these were seriously smart, dedicated people,” the senior director says. Discussions move fast, as do most things at Rocket, and Turken says the amount of variety that comes with her job provides endless interest.
“So many pharmaceutical and little biotech companies are built to be sold. Rocket is trying to build a long-term company, and so we’re focused on growing with that in mind.”
The speed of Rocket is where Turken has the hardest needle to thread. “Compliance at a fast-moving company is a bit of a challenge,” the senior director says. “We obviously want to get drugs to patients as quickly as possible, and it can often seem like, if you’re trying to do compliance, you might be in the way of that.”
Turken’s job, though, requires her to frame the issue for the long game, not the short win—an admittedly tough challenge. “Do we really want to have a drug approved and then pulled from the market or be in a situation where bad press means that a good drug isn’t made available?” Turken asks. “We want to make sure that a drug that works is vetted the right way, so when the FDA comes to look at it, it will be approved and will get to patients. We’re all trying to get to the same place in the end, but sometimes you have to zoom out to see the bigger picture.”
Outgrowing the Nest
Turken’s enabling of Rocket’s product line has provided the global company with expansive growth which is great news for the company and mostly great news for Turken’s small legal team. “We’re at a really interesting transition point where it’s no longer possible for me and my team to try to talk through every issue with every person all of the time,” Turken says. “We’re right in the middle of transitioning to more systematic approaches, not just in compliance, but across the company.”
The challenge this provides for Rocket is unique given its field of expertise. “We’re an R&D company, so legal is obviously not going to grow as fast as R&D, but everyone also knows that legal is required to bring life to these new technologies and research.”
The complexity further increases because of the burgeoning field of gene therapy in which Rocket is one of the pioneers. “The challenge is that it’s a complex area with a supply chain that is not at all straightforward,” Turken explains. “Even with our suppliers, we’re all sort of working through this area together, an area that’s truly in its infancy.”
Turken says that Rocket’s philosophy and commitment make it a true differentiator in its field. “So many pharmaceutical and little biotech companies are built to be sold,” Turken says. “Rocket is trying to build a long-term company, and so we’re focused on growing with that in mind.” That growth might mean Turken finds herself negotiating a lease for a new manufacturing facility in Cranbury, New Jersey, or running complex gene therapy IP by trusted outside counsel. It may be outside Turken’s wheelhouse, but it’s exactly what she wanted.
Bringing Awareness to Rare Diseases
Sara Turken says one of the benefits of working for a gene therapy company is the opportunity to help bring awareness to diseases that aren’t as prevalent in wider society. Together with partner RTW Investments, Rocket’s recognition of Rare Disease Day includes over two hundred members of the rare disease and broader New York City biotech communities coming together to learn the impact of these conditions on patients and family members. The event also includes the lighting of the Empire State Building in Rare Disease Day colors (green, blue, and pink) to honor those affected and stand in solidarity with that community.
Semler Brossy has had the distinct privilege of working with Rocket Pharmaceuticals. The company is at the forefront of companies seeking gene and cell therapies for patients with devastating diseases. Rocket’s compassionate leaders think strategically and creatively about talent and human capital management to achieve these critically important goals.