Ann Cunningham is the Chief Commercial Officer and Board of Directors member at VistaGen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: VTGN). Prior to joining VistaGen, Ms. Cunningham served as Managing Partner of i3 Strategy Partners, where she guided senior pharmaceutical and biotech executives in planning and executing successful portfolio strategies and brand launches. Her experience in the pharmaceutical industry includes numerous instrumental roles in the successful commercial launch and sales of multiple CNS brands, including Lilly’s product, Cymbalta, for which she led the development and execution of the “Depression Hurts” consumer campaign, and the Otsuka America product, Rexulti, serving as Senior Director, Global Brand Lead. While at Lilly, she also led psychiatry sales teams as Area Sales Director, responsible for Cymbalta, Zyprexa and Strattera. More recently, Ann led commercial development of a portfolio of products as Vice President, Neurodegenerative Disease and Psychiatry, at Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. Ms. Cunningham holds a B.A. in psychology from Yale University and M.B.A. from the University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
I had the opportunity to interview Ann recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: VistaGen’s board of directors is currently predominantly female led. What qualifications did VistaGen have in mind when recruiting other women to the board?
Ann Cunningham: We sought individuals with talent and experience to complement existing strengths on our Board, such as regulatory science, drug development, brand marketing and patient engagement. We wanted to make sure we recruited highly qualified candidates, but equally as important, VistaGen made diversity of that candidate pool a top priority with representation from women and individuals of color. The team at VistaGen wanted to ensure that talent and expertise, along with diverse demographics, were central to the Board recruitment process. In addition, we focused on candidates who thoroughly understood the needs of diverse patients and shared a passion to improve the standard of care for mental health.
Griffin: Why is diversity important? What are the top reasons as to why VistaGen pushes having a diverse board?
Cunningham: Data overwhelmingly demonstrates that diverse boards and executive management teams drive better business outcomes. There is a greater diversity of thoughts and ideas from a team with different life experiences and perspectives, which leads to better, more creative and thoughtful problem solving. At VistaGen, we believe social and professional diversity are essential in creating a work environment and culture that fully leverages the power of diverse viewpoints. This, in turn, leads to greater insights into a diverse population here in the U.S. and abroad, better solutions that meet the needs of varying audiences and ultimately, better outcomes and performance.
MORE FOR YOU
Griffin: What is currently in VistaGen’s pipeline?
Cunningham: We have two ongoing Phase-3 trials – PALISADE-1 and PALISADE-2 – for our lead asset, PH94B, which is a drug in development for the acute treatment of anxiety in adults with social anxiety disorder (SAD). In phase 2 trials, PH94B, an as-needed nasal spray suppressed the fear and anxiety response within a few minutes. Earlier this month, preclinical data demonstrated that unlike Benzos (Xanax), which are currently prescribed off label for anxiety disorders and are absorbed into the bloodstream and release chemicals in the brain that can further lead to addiction, PH94B, when administered, was almost exclusively confined to the nasal passages and quickly eliminated from the body through the gastrointestinal tract. Additionally, PH94B targets central nervous system activity via nasal chemosensory receptors, which may decrease the likelihood of benzo-like side effects, such as sedation, cognitive impairment, abuse liability or systemic exposure.
Individuals who suffer from SAD want a treatment option they can use when needed, rather than a daily pill that often takes several weeks to work, if at all. Patients want something that will help them get through a stressful situation – similar to how a rescue inhaler is used to treat Asthma – without the negative side effects. We’re hoping that our ongoing Phase 3 clinical trials demonstrate that PH94B has potential to fill that gap.
Griffin: What is VistaGen working on in the Clinic that you are excited about? What projects make you excited to work every day?
Cunningham: The surge in global mental health challenges is undeniable. There is growing awareness about the need for better treatments for mental health and specifically, anxiety disorders. Right now, the current standard of care to treat mental health is unsatisfactory. COVID-19 has contributed to skyrocketing incidences of anxiety, and heightened demand for better solutions. There is an alarming use of benzodiazepines — the FDA released information stating there were 92 million prescriptions filled in 2019 alone. Benzos are highly addictive, and unfortunately, they can start a spiral that’s worse than the initial anxiety.
When VistaGen speaks with patients about the types of medications and treatment they’re looking for, patients say they can often predict when they’re going to have a problem and want something fast-acting that will prevent problems before they happen. The ability to meet unmet needs in the area of mental health makes me excited to work with VistaGen and its mental health portfolio – and to be able to do that in collaboration with a diverse board makes it even better.
Griffin: Tell me a little bit about your background and what ultimately led you to join VistaGen’s Board of Directors, as well as its leadership team? When did you find your passion for this kind of work?
Cunningham: My passion for mental health care and striking down fear is a personal one. It stems from my previous experience and my belief that fear and anxiety are at the root of so many ills in our society and at a personal level. Anxiety can be extraordinarily debilitating, impacting not only mental health but also one’s physical health. Freeing people from it can make a big difference in helping people live a fuller life.
I started as a Psychology major at Yale and spent four years as a social worker in a county jail where I saw almost every aspect and stage of a mental health crisis. The drain of human potential was really alarming, and I believe a lot of that was rooted in mental health issues, particularly fear and anxiety. I wanted to facilitate change on a larger scale, so I went to business school at University of Michigan and studied marketing to later go into pharmaceuticals. Lilly had a huge mental health portfolio, so I joined and helped work on Prozac and Cymbalta, among others. I also worked at Otsuka and Teva in their mental health portfolios. Again, I wanted to help people address the fear and anxiety that holds so many people back from achieving their full potential.
When you’re in a position like mine, you’re also charged with fighting the stigma around mental health. Many people don’t want to talk about or share what they may be going through, so they don’t address it, which just makes it worse, ultimately impacting their family, community, and society. We’ve got to destigmatize anxiety and depression by helping people understand it’s a physical illness that just happens in the brain. I’ve had my own bout with social anxiety disorder since I was a child, and I am open with people about it to help demonstrate there’s nothing to be ashamed of and we can overcome these issues if we face them head on. Working on potentially game-changing medications that may help do that is really exciting for me.
Griffin: What advice do you have for other women and men who want to rise to your level in the biopharma industry? How can they follow in your footsteps?
Cunningham: You can’t do it alone. You need people to advocate for you when you’re not in the room. That’s hard to make possible if you have your head down focused only on getting work done. You want to ensure people understand the value you bring and the contributions you make.
Ask people overtly if they will mentor and/or sponsor you. A sponsor must know their protégé’s talent and work ethic and help them learn how to put it on display. I personally sponsor individuals of many different genders, backgrounds and races, and what’s great about that is it’s mutually beneficial because I get the opportunity to learn from them and their experiences, too.
Griffin: As C-suite executives in the biotech / biopharma industry remain predominantly male today, what steps do you believe need to be taken to ensure that companies in this space hear, appreciate and foster their female leaders’ voices and opinions?
- Bring your passions everywhere you go. Our passions and energy get us through some of the natural obstacles we are faced with every day. They allow us to be exceptional at what we do.
- Take advantage of the natural spotlight. There are many situations in my professional life where I have found I am the only woman and/or person of color in the room. In those cases, I like to take advantage of that spotlight and use the opportunity to demonstrate what people like me can bring to the table.
- Speak up for yourself. Oftentimes women fear we may be perceived as bragging when we openly discuss our contributions. I don’t believe it’s enough for us to do an exceptional job, keep our heads down and hope that people will notice our good work. We need to keep our heads up and ensure the value we’re bringing is clear to others around us.
At VistaGen, if we do all of these things well and together, we increase the likelihood of advancing the standard of care in the mental health field and will have a meaningful impact on the quality of patients’ lives.