In this edition of the Career Perspectives series, I interview Allison Luccock, Director of Business Operations for Cytel’s Real World and Advanced Analytics (RWAA) group. Allison is based in Quebec, Canada, and she played a pivotal role in the integration of Purple Squirrel Economics and Cytel. In this interview, we learn about her professional journey, her insights on industry trends including the cutting-edge LiveSLR® platform, and the necessary qualifications to work in Cytel RWAA.
What is your role at Cytel and what excites you most about it?
I am a Director of Business Operations for Cytel’s RWAA group. The most exciting part about my job is how every day I get to collaborate with so many different functions within Cytel, such as IT, Legal, Marketing, and others. The purpose of my role is to build great relationships with these teams, and our strong communication ensures we have things moving in the right direction. I also get to work closely with some of our clients in specific circumstances as my team handles the contracting process.
You were managing operations at Purple Squirrel Economics (PSE) when it was acquired by Cytel. The coming together of the two companies diversified not only our quantitative capabilities but also the cultures and languages spoken at Cytel. Could you speak to the process of integration and the impact this has had on inclusiveness at Cytel?
One of the important reasons why the leadership at PSE chose Cytel is because we saw a similarity in our cultures. We wanted our employees to be able to come and work at Cytel and keep the same spirit of collaboration, and we were happy to see a similar work environment here, which made the transition a lot easier. The PSE researchers did not feel it was a big shift in their day-to-day responsibilities as they transitioned to become Cytel employees.
I essentially handed over most of my assignments to the Operations Manager, Stephanie Lepage, and became the integration point of contact. It was my almost full-time role for six months and I worked very closely with the Finance, HR, and Legal teams at Cytel as we integrated into this global company. Some of our practices, such as our onboarding process, were appreciated by Cytel leaders and are being adopted by the company at large. There were many other cultural shifts more specific to the RWAA group because the business unit is built on acquisitions. Since PSE was always a remote working company, it was much simpler for us to integrate into Cytel’s remote working environment during the pandemic. We did bring a little French flavor to Cytel as many of us are from Quebec, Canada. There were some Quebec-specific HR and tax rules that had to be taken care of but, overall, it has been great fun.
We spent the whole of last year getting to know each other, understanding our connections and planning on how to serve all our clients globally. I would say PSE’s acquisition by Cytel went smoothly and was quite successful. We have been able to retain most of the PSE employees and they are thriving and growing in their own career paths and are happy being a part of Cytel. I too really enjoyed the experience as we all got to learn from each other.
Have you observed any interesting industry trends recently?
One of my responsibilities at PSE was to lead the development team of our LiveSLR® software. I continue to stay involved with the team on the broader aspects and thus most of my readings are related to systematic literature reviews (SLRs), which largely involve machine learning (ML). The living evidence generation plan pathway is a trending topic in the industry as more companies want to have elements of machine learning in their evidence generation and in their SLRs. LiveSLR® is not fully supported by ML yet, but we have an internal product that is supported by ML. All its algorithms are developed in-house, and it is entirely a Cytel product. ML makes the process faster and increases accuracy once the ML model is trained. It can also increase team capacity by performing a review alongside a person in a two-person reviewer process. However, it takes time to build and train ML models and the guidelines around the use of ML in evidence generation can also pose as limitations. Our teams have been using the internal tool to increase efficiency and accuracy, while still following the guidelines necessary for submission and other requirements. It is really exciting to be at the forefront of a trend in the Health Economics and Outcomes Research (HEOR) industry today.
When should sponsors seriously consider turning to an HEOR specialist for their projects? When is it of clear benefit?
In a clinical development process, HEOR supports the reimbursement process and the clients usually do not prepare for it until the end. Most pharmaceutical companies tend to focus on getting approvals from regulatory bodies, such as the FDA and other agencies around the world. Clients usually come to us after their Phase 3 trial, which leaves us with a short time to get everything done. However, it would be of great benefit if clients could come to us as they are preparing for their Phase 2 trial, so that they can take advantage of early economic modeling. Cytel offers an Early Value Framework product, which is quite popular and provides our clients with a systematic literature review of what is already happening and delivers early predictive economic modeling to guide them on the reimbursement process. This helps our clients decide on the direction they should take, and it can potentially alter their path through Phase 2 and as they go into their Phase 3, if they find any gaps in the assessments that they would need to cover. It is great to think ahead, and we love to help our clients be more prepared for the reimbursement path in advance.
Can you share an example/project to showcase how we push boundaries in evidence generation and enable confident development decisions?
In evidence generation, the biggest challenge is that after only six months, your SLR goes out of date because very often the speed of scientific discovery outpaces the ability of researchers to aggregate and integrate new insights into existing SLRs. Our LiveSLR® software offers the efficiency of a machine with the knowledge of an expert to ensure that every regulatory and payer submission contains the latest insights and discoveries. The most exciting thing about LiveSLR® is that it is a “living model,” meaning it can continuously update as new evidence arises. It is new, innovative, and quite different from what our competitors are doing. We are really proud of the results and how simple it is for our clients to use and benefit from it.
What combination of knowledge, skills, and technical competencies are required to work at Cytel RWAA?
The RWAA business unit at Cytel requires a wide variety of talent, skills, and purpose. We have the Value Communication and Real World Evidence teams who deal with patient-level data, which is analyzed and represented in several ways. Then there is the Global Health team who have a more R&D focus as they try to push statistics beyond what is the norm in simulated trials. So, it is quite interesting to see the range of talent we have in the RWAA group, and while recruiting, we look for diverse backgrounds. We are always looking for skilled biostatisticians and people with a background in health sciences who are also interested in economics. Candidates with a master’s degree and a strong bioscience background are usually preferred. It is important that you are ambitious, intellectually curious, and have the right education and skills for the job. Cytel has internship programs for those who do not have the experience but are willing to learn and are the right cultural fit. We also have employees who have switched from other domains to health economics. So, the doors are wide open for people who have interesting backgrounds and are curious about health economics and the drug development process.
What inspires you most about working within this field?
I was not always a part of the life sciences industry. I was working in technology before joining PSE and worked with developers on a variety of projects. I had to learn the basics of life sciences and realized that it all comes down to the patients. Our department typically never meets the patients or knows who they are. But we get to be a part of drug development that affects an entire population and that is the most exciting part of working in this field. We do a lot of work in oncology and many of us know someone in our friend or family groups with cancer, which makes our work even more meaningful. Our biggest joys are when we hear a submission has been approved and we celebrate along with our client. In the end, it is all about the patients and they are the ones we are here for.
What are your main interests outside of work?
I am a mother of a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. Most of my time is spent doing things with them and making sure they grow up to be responsible, educated, and good people. But if I had all the time to myself, I would be playing a lot of soccer. I come from a very athletic and competitive family and have grown up playing the sport. I am also a very social person and enjoy spending time in my backyard with my friends. In Canada, the weather is usually quite cold for most parts of the year, and it is only in the summers that we get to see each other more often. It is summer now and we are making the most of it!
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and sharing your journey.
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About the interviewer:
Mansha Sachdev specializes in content creation and knowledge management. She holds an MBA degree and has over 12 years of experience in handling various facets of marketing, across industries. At Cytel, Mansha is a Senior Content Marketing Manager and is responsible for producing informative content that is related to the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries.