Alumni Spotlight: Michael Cunningham

Meet Michael Cunningham, PharmD ’81, Founder of Rx 2020, a company that provides advisory services in the specialty pharmaceutical marketplace. In this spotlight, Michael talks about his extensive career as a strategic healthcare executive, successful entrepreneurial ventures and what it means to embrace change.

Michael Cunningham, PharmD ’81

Please describe a few of your career highlights and your current work at Rx 2020.

While I was pursuing my PharmD at USC School of Pharmacy, I worked in a community hospital pharmacy and thought it would be a setting I’d enjoy for the rest of my career. After pharmacy school, I completed a one-year clinical pharmacy residency at UCSF. I always held an interest in the administration side, and once my residency was over, I asked UCSF if they would allow me to pursue a 2nd year residency in administration. I had the best possible experience during this residency and learned all aspects of how to manage a large academic medical center pharmacy.  After completion of my 2nd year residency, I stayed on at UCSF for 12 years as the Associate Director, Pharmaceutical Services at the Medical Center and Associate Clinical Professor in the school. While at UCSF, I was given the opportunity to pursue an MBA degree from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley which I finished in 1993.

In 1995, I was approached by a VC-backed start-up company, Oncology Therapeutics Network (OTN),  that recognized cancer care was transitioning from hospitals to physician offices.  OTN believed that there were significant unmet needs that clinical providers had as this transition was taking place. With encouragement from my mentor and wife, I decided to take the job as a senior executive of business development.  I was primarily responsible for managing and negotiating contracts with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of our network of oncology physicians from across the country.  Although I had some training in oncology, I quickly pushed myself to learn everything I could about cancer and cancer therapeutics to better serve the internal needs of the OTN team and the customers we supported.

OTN was eventually bought by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), the leading oncology pharmaceutical company at that time.  After several years under BMS’ ownership, I convinced BMS executives that an independent group purchasing organization (GPO) business would further enhance the OTN business due to emerging marketplace trends (e.g. increased competition, increased number of chemotherapeutic and supportive care agents, etc.).  With this, I rejoined with two of my colleagues from UCSF, and started National Oncology Alliance (NOA), a nationwide, oncology-specific GPO providing services to community-based oncology practices.  NOA had success from the start and we eventually sold the business to McKesson in 2006.  I stayed on as the Vice President and General Manager, GPO Services at McKesson Specialty until I retired in June 2016.

Upon retirement, I started Rx 2020 to provide advisory services to pharmaceutical, payer, financial and healthcare based organizations surrounding the specialty pharmaceutical marketplace.  I am also serving as a Board Advisor for a venture capital-backed start-up pharmacy, Alto Pharmacy, with current locations in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

How did the resources and faculty members at USC help prepare you for what you are doing now?

My pharmacy degree has been an integral part of my success and has prepared me well for my professional journey.  I received a fantastic education while at USC. I graduated from USC thinking that I would spend a career in hospital pharmacy practice, yet a solid foundation had been put in place that allowed me to continually grow professionally and evolve throughout my career. I am very thankful and appreciative of the education I received.

You’re on the board for two nonprofits – thesecondopinion and the David Benzer Strike Out Fear Foundation. Could you tell us what interested you in them? And how are you working with them?

After retirement, I wanted to find a way to give back.  Cancer is a disease that impacts everyone, either directly or indirectly.  I’ve personally lost both parents, a maternal grandmother, a paternal grandfather and a best friend since high school to cancer.  thesecondopinion (TSO) provides free, comprehensive second opinions to patients in the San Francisco Bay Area diagnosed with cancer. TSO’s goal is to provide clarity, compassion, and choice to cancer patients and their families by helping them better understand their diagnosis and treatment options. The David Benzer Strike Out Fear Foundation was created by David Benzer, a head and neck cancer patient survivor, who wanted to improve the patient experience as they underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  This foundation has provided an impact by easing fear and providing comfort to thousands of patients in cancer clinic waiting rooms across the country.  I have been humbled to serve on the board for these two nonprofit organizations that serve cancer patients in need.

What advice do you have for students who may be interested in following a similar path to yours?

Embrace change, be prepared to take some chances and carefully evaluate opportunities as they present themselves to you.  Establish a relationship with a mentor who can help shape your professional development. Don’t underestimate the power of networking, be passionate about your work and always look forward.  I encourage students and young alumni to never give up learning. I consider myself a lifelong learner. I am still a licensed pharmacist and actively participate in various educational activities, not because it is required, but because I want to remain current and relevant in my profession.