He tries to generate heat with Fuzeon
People – July 2005
When he took the top job at Morrisville-based Trimeris Inc., some said Steve Skolsky was asking for trouble. “A lot of people outside of Trimeris advised me that taking the role of CEO and keeping the former CEO on board was something I should avoid.” Didn’t he have enough to worry about trying to sell a drug that could keep people from dying of AIDS — and his new employer from drowning in red ink — if only people would take it?
When it won federal approval in 2003, Fuzeon looked like a blockbuster. It’s the only drug that prevents infection of white blood cells, but it must be injected twice a day. Needle-nervous patients shy away, and some users develop bumps and other skin irritations around injection sites.
One of Fuzeon’s creators, Dani Bolognesi, became CEO in 1999 and got it to market. But he’s more scientist than executive, and last year he told the board that Trimeris needed a CEO who could develop a better sales strategy.
Enter Skolsky, 49, who started his career in the lab before moving into sales and marketing. He grew up in Media, Pa., and went to UNC Chapel Hill, where he got a bachelor’s in biology in 1982. Before graduating, he took a job in Research Triangle Park as a researcher for British drug maker Burroughs Wellcome.
Two years after graduation, he joined Glaxo, another British drug maker with an RTP operation, as a clinical researcher and became a product manager for its respiratory treatments. Later, as a vice president of sales and marketing, he helped launch the anti-AIDS drug Epivir in 1995. In 2001, he became senior vice president of global commercial strategy. He felt he had reached the top of his career ladder at what is now GlaxoSmithKline, so he was ready to listen when a Trimeris recruiter called.
Like many salesmen, Skolsky is adept at breaking down difficult concepts into layman’s terms and builds a sense of authority by using simple, declarative sentences. Trimeris, which has about 100 employees, has been trying to build sales by touting studies that say AIDS patients can benefit by using Fuzeon earlier, not just as a last resort. And to make the drug less troublesome, the company is experimenting with narrower needles and a needle-free injector that shoots a gaseous form of the drug beneath the skin. Long-range, it is trying to develop medicines that are more potent, more easily absorbed and more difficult for the virus to develop resistance to.
First-quarter revenue was up 72% to $23.3 million in 2005, and Trimeris cut its first-quarter loss from 46 cents a share in 2004 to 25 cents, but Skolsky won’t say when he expects to see a profit. Since he arrived in September, he has gotten none of the predicted conflict from Bolognesi, now chief scientific officer. “He has probably become my biggest cheerleader.”