An accomplished senior pharmaceutical executive and thought leader, Hakan Sakul has a distinguished track record in drug development, companion diagnostics development and commercialization, statistical genetics, human genetics, pharmacogenomics, and translational medicine across therapeutic areas. A Turkish native, Sakul received his B.S. and Master’s Degrees from Ankara University, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, where he was a Rotary Foundation Scholar, and conducted his postdoctoral studies at the University of California, Davis. He is a seasoned people-manager and visionary leader who is passionate about the application of technologies to improve human health and well-being.
Sakul has spent 21 years in a variety of top leadership positions at Pfizer, where he has served as Vice President and Head of Diagnostics since 2016. Prior to that, he served in leadership positions in translational oncology, molecular profiling, molecular medicine, clinical pharmacogenomics, statistical genetics, and human genetics groups at Pfizer. Sakul serves on the Board of Directors at Progentec Diagnostics, Inc. and the Personalized Medicine Coalition. He is also a member of the Advisory Council for the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine (CIAPM) , Oncology Advisory Board for Luminex Corporation, and serves as a scientific co-chair of BloodPAC, an industry consortium aiming to accelerate the development, validation, and clinical use of liquid biopsy assays to inform patient care.
Slone Partners: Your work at Pfizer has spanned a wide scope of roles and functions since you first joined the company in 2001. Has there been a natural progression to your career arc or were there elements of serendipity involved?
Hakan Sakul: I started my pharma career in statistical genetics and pharmacogenomics at Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals in 1998 after working in the biotech industry for a few years. With the merger of Pfizer and Parke-Davis/Warner-Lambert in 2000, I became a Pfizer employee and joined the brand-new clinical pharmacogenomics (PGx) group as a Site Head based in Connecticut. My short biotech career had focused on statistical genetics and human genetics, and I was involved in projects looking to identify genes causing common and complex diseases. Moving into PGx at Pfizer was a natural progression in that genes identified by statistical genetics methods still needed to be validated in clinical trials. Along with a group of other accomplished leaders, I helped to develop and implement our PGx programs for several years. Then, a rare opportunity to be involved in a team review of Diagnostics (Dx) for Pfizer’s Board presented itself in 2007, which evolved into the development of the enterprise-wide program that I now head. I have viewed this as an extension of my previous work, as it has allowed me to make significant contributions to our pipeline, with the ultimate goal of patient treatment, utilizing precision medicine. My career moves inside Pfizer have been both serendipitous and planned, but they would not have been possible without the tremendous support and encouragement of those leaders around me.
Slone Partners: You earned both your undergraduate and graduate degrees from Ankara University before coming to the United States to earn your PhD from the University of Minnesota. Please tell us how your academic pursuits helped prepare you for your career in the life sciences.
Hakan Sakul: My undergraduate degree was in agriculture and livestock genetics, which inspired my interest in quantitative genetics and ultimately my pursuit of a Master’s degree in the subject. When I completed my Master’s and my English training, I was granted a three-year Rotary Foundation Scholarship, which brought me to my PhD program at the University of Minnesota in 1986 – little did I know how cold the climate and how warm the community would be! Even though I had not planned to stay in the US beyond my PhD program, the quality of post-graduate education, the rich cultural diversity, and opportunities for scientific pursuits in the industry convinced me to pursue a postdoctoral program and eventually a career in life sciences here.
Slone Partners: Do you find that your background and perspectives as a native Turk have helped you advance along in your career? What lessons can young men and women from other countries who are trying to break into the life sciences heed from your experiences?
Hakan Sakul: My parents, brothers, and extended family members imparted to me core values and an appreciation for Turkish culture, all of which has contributed significantly to who I am today. Growing up with unconditional love, a nurturing environment balanced for education and adventure time, empathy for others, and gratefulness for each other make one feel the “world is your oyster,” regardless of financial means. My upbringing has certainly influenced what I eventually pursued and how I handled the many obstacles along the way in starting and building my career – and even today. I like the adage, “if there is a will, there is a way.” My advice to those trying to build a life sciences career is to find ways to differentiate themselves from others, just like a company trying to differentiate itself from its competitors with unique offerings. We all have something to contribute, but it is important to find the right places where such contributions will be appreciated and adequately valued. In my experience, I have found that your energy is better spent trying to identify problems and offering solutions, be it in science or business, rather than allowing your ego to get the better of you. Don’t be an island – establish a network and be a part of a team. Find your niche and look for a way to build a career around it.
Slone Partners: Did you experience a particular ‘a-ha moment’ (or two) early in your career that had a significant impact on your subsequent career development? How did those moments shape your own leadership model?
Hakan Sakul: Among the valuable lessons I have learned is that true leaders appreciate work delivered with quality and integrity. That lesson has helped to shape how I approach many situations. For example, when I was given the responsibility to form a Dx group, I set the expectation with my team that “project is premier,” and building lasting confidence is best achieved through focused work in areas that matter to the company’s core businesses. Following the lessons I’ve learned over the years, I aspire to hire only the best and those who will fit the culture of our group. I try to proactively remove barriers to their successes, coach them to take steps to develop their careers, and let them express their potential without any micro-management.
Slone Partners: Working with Pfizer’s senior leadership team, you have helped develop the company’s diagnostics strategy and founded the Diagnostics Group. And under your leadership to date, companion diagnostics tests have accompanied six Pfizer drugs to global markets. What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome to achieve this track record of success?
Hakan Sakul: When I assumed leadership of the Dx group, I viewed my career trajectory from statistical genetics to pharmacogenomics as a natural path to companion diagnostics in a pharma environment, but the first obstacle I faced was a detailed understanding of the diagnostics business. I was a geneticist by training and needed to learn diagnostics from all angles, including the steps to develop a diagnostic test, development timelines, global regulatory considerations, effective commercialization alongside our drugs, policy considerations, differences in business models, to name a few. I needed to learn these to be able to effectively communicate with our partners and to ensure development of quality diagnostics tests synched with our drug development timelines. I am thankful to so many colleagues and collaborators in the diagnostics business for helping me to become a better and more equal partner to them in our programs.
Slone Partners: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced life sciences companies to become even more agile and innovative as they work quickly to develop, test, and bring to market new diagnostics tools, treatments, and vaccines. The biopharma industry has been particularly impacted in this regard. How do you feel the industry has responded during these unprecedented times?
Hakan Sakul: In these very difficult times, I believe the pharma industry has answered the call to follow the science and bring forth potential breakthrough solutions to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a strong sense of urgency and an unwavering commitment to quality. I am proud of my colleagues, here at Pfizer and across the industry, for their tireless pursuit of treatments that can help to save, protect, and extend lives.
Slone Partners: What are the things you make time for in your personal life that bring you the most joy?
Hakan Sakul: I draw the most joy from the time I spend with my three kids, family members, and friends. Over the last year, human connection has assumed an even a more important meaning, so I continue to focus on that and not to take anything for granted. I am an avid cyclist and a lifelong soccer player. I take regular beach walks and do paddle-boarding when I can to remain energized and healthy. I live by simple principles, believe happiness is a choice, choose to be positive, express empathy toward others, and practice ‘people need love the most when they deserve it the least’ to the extent I can. It gives me joy to make new friends as I believe ‘strangers are friends you haven’t met yet,’ though the lack of travel and group activities for the past several months has put a bit of a damper on that for now!