The very first role Reena Desai had in the pharmaceutical industry was a temp job as a legal file clerk at oncology company SUGEN Inc., which Pfizer Inc. later acquired. She made a strong enough impression early on to get hired as a patent agent and then attorney––and to receive a call about an executive opportunity at a different company, some twenty years down the line, with many familiar faces.
Several former SUGEN/Pfizer employees had gone on to become executives at Desai’s now employer, Mirati Therapeutics, where she serves as chief legal officer and corporate secretary. “All of these folks had known me in the infancy of my career,” she says. “I hadn’t kept in touch with them after I left Pfizer, but there I was, seeing their names again. It was a real full-circle moment.”
In the interim, Desai had learned the ins and outs of in-house legal work and effective teams, from the roles she held at various pharmaceutical and biotech companies, everything from what is needed to build an effective team to the need for a strong partnership with the business for it to be successful. She uses these skills every day at Mirati as the company prepares for its first product launch and looks to make its transition to commercialization.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Reena Desai credits her parents with instilling in her an independent spirit––even if her choices didn’t always align with their expectations. That included switching career paths from medicine to law after studying molecular and cellular biology and genetics in college.
“I quickly realized I did not want to continue in that area, but I still really enjoyed the science,” she explains. “I thought becoming an attorney in biotech/pharmaceuticals would be a great bridge, because it would allow me to keep the science aspects, while getting me away from the day-to-day lab work.”
Desai spent several years in the patent law arena at Pfizer and a smaller biotech company, known today as Ionis Pharmaceuticals. She broadened her scope to encompass transactions and corporate matters where she further pushed her boundaries through roles outside pharmaceuticals at BP and Synthetic Genomics (now Viridos). She ultimately returned to the pharmaceutical industry as associate general counsel at Acadia Pharmaceuticals, where she remained until joining Mirati in April 2020.
Since then, Mirati has grown from just over one hundred employees to over six hundred. Desai has matched the company’s growth percentage within the legal team, while also cultivating a supportive relationship with the business and the board. “Rebranding the function was something that we worked on very carefully,” she confirms. “Changing the impression of legal is always hard, but we’ve made that turn to where the business is now comfortable coming to us for guidance.”
That shift in attitude proves more important than ever as Mirati draws closer to the commercialization of its first drug. As the launch date approaches, Desai remains focused on not only implementing the necessary processes and structures to ensure Mirati remains fully compliant but also laying the groundwork for the company’s follow-on assets and global footprint.
Beyond Mirati, Reena Desai actively participates in programs in the legal community. “Being involved with the local and national legal community, including diversity groups, gives me a better perspective on the ongoing challenges new lawyers face and how DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] is an essential component to the profession’s success,” she says. “The support system of these networks is really important.”
Over the past twenty years, Desai has witnessed the beginnings of a change on the DEI front. However, the efforts are still at the beginning. “Companies are realizing the importance of DEI initiatives and committees, which is great, but there is still a lot to do there,” she emphasizes. “As a first-generation Indian woman, it’s not lost on me that my background has provided me a unique perspective on how I approach everyday situations, something I leverage every day to keep things moving forward in the right direction.”
Desai certainly kept moving––a drive that brought her all the way from file clerk to chief legal officer.