After a productive career as a retina specialist, Tom Ciulla, MD, MBA’15, decided to do something very different. He’d completed the Physician MBA Program at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and was ready for something new: He moved into the biotechnology sector to help bring new retina therapies to market.
“Many subspecialists think and stay within the silo of their specialty, but the Physician MBA Program teaches you to think more systematically. I have been using it to link the science with unmet clinical needs to determine if there’s a way to forge ahead with a clinical trial,” he says. “There are so many questions about bringing a new therapy to market: Can you prove efficacy of a treatment with a clinical trial? Will it interest investors? Will it be competitive in the current environment? Is there intellectual property to protect? The industry is very risky, but the Kelley School taught me to think methodically like this, as opposed to remaining within a very deep, specialist silo.”
The Physician MBA Program teaches you to think more systematically.”
Dr. Ciulla is the chief medical officer and chief development officer at Clearside Biomedical, Inc., where he helps to bring new retinal therapies from clinical trial to market. In his role, Dr. Ciulla links scientific principles with unmet clinical needs to determine if there’s a potentially viable therapeutic asset to develop, and then how a clinical trial program could be structured to best demonstrate safety and efficacy. If the clinical trial program is successful, it may become a sustainable therapy.
In a similar, prior role at another biotech company, Spark Therapeutics, Inc., Dr. Ciulla was involved with the approval and launch of the very first FDA-approved gene therapy for an inherited disease, which happened to be a retinal disease. While he’s experienced high peaks in the industry side of medicine, he’s also survived low valleys.
“Trials can fail; stocks can crash; career opportunities can change. I’ve realized how comfortable, stable and protected our roles are as physicians—challenging as they may be—in clinical medicine. In clinical medicine, longevity in a practice generates value, while in industry, successful transitions to new roles and responsibilities generates value. To go from that clinical stability to this rollercoaster of transitions in biotech was risky, but the Physician MBA Program gives you the confidence to do this, to opportunistically manage career transitions,” says Dr. Ciulla. “These opportunities came to me at the perfect stage of my career when I could really learn and contribute to my work on a different level because of how the Kelley School and its executive coaching program prepared me.”
Part of that Kelley training is the collaborative, peer-learning at the center of the physician-only MBA program. Dr. Ciulla says that most physicians are trained in the hard skills: learning the physiology of a disease, how to diagnose it and how to treat it medically or surgically. But where he feels medical school ends, business school can help fill the gaps in leading teams through change.
Where medical school ends, business school can help fill the gaps in leading teams through change.
“What the Kelley School did for me was to foster a much more systematic way of thinking. You take classes in operations management, leadership and negotiations in the Physician MBA Program, and there’s a lot of team-building projects that force you to collaborate and synergize your skills with the people around you,” says Dr. Ciulla. “It sets you up for success for these rapid transitions you experience in the industry.”
In fact, Dr. Ciulla says the “soft skills” he gained at Kelley were among the greatest takeaways from the program. Whether it was collaborating with teammates, managing projects or applying leadership and negotiation skills, the interpersonal tools are the ones he uses the most. He says it also extends to presenting ideas in a way that convinces, inspires and even entertains, rather than only informing an audience.
“In science and medicine, there’s a tendency to do a lot of data dumping. In industry you must know the data while also being able to distill it down in a simplified presentation that helps people you manage or report to see the big picture and clinical relevance,” he says.
Dr. Ciulla continues to publish research (He previously published with Kelley faculty members.) and sees patients in clinic weekly. He says the MBA helped him combine his love of medicine with the business of healthcare, which allows him to impact more patients than the one sitting in front of him.
“I love what I do. I love caring for patients with retina diseases one patient at a time, but this has allowed me to serve in another role where I’m working on entire diseases or entire therapies at a time,” says Dr. Ciulla. “It’s very different, but you’re always learning. It’s a fascinating process.”
Ultimately, Dr. Ciulla says physician MBAs are well suited to lead change in healthcare because they deeply understand the science of medicine while also understanding the business implications. All the while, they are often the ones with the greatest insight into patient-centered care.
Being an MBA-trained physician gives you credibility.”
“Being an MBA-trained physician gives you credibility. At Spark, a colleague referred to me as the senior ophthalmologist. I had to look around, but I realized they were talking about my role. By virtue of being a physician, you already are a leader, and you are often called upon to provide a clinical voice for the entire company,” says Dr. Ciulla.
“Being a physician leader does that as well — you can speak to your experiences with patients. That’s how we drive change in healthcare. We must be the voice of the patient in these industry roles.”