At the time he started pondering a career in health, Mark Verratti was a wrestler at Penn State University whose performance was hindered by his asthma. “I wasn’t medicated properly,” he says. “So yeah, it definitely got in the way.”

Verratti had pursued a pre-med undergraduate degree and took the MCAT. But after filling out some med-school applications, he had a change of heart, one that ultimately set him on the path he has traveled for some three decades.

It’s not an uncommon origin story for pharma’s sales and marketing superheroes: Early physician ambitions fade, superseded by an interest in a different facet of the healthcare business. What distinguishes Verratti’s history is the unconventional approach he took toward getting his foot in the door.

Keep in mind that, back in the 1980s and 1990s, information about asthma treatments was far scarcer than it is during the current era of empowered and educated patients. Verratti, who knew that his health was holding him back, took matters into his own hands. He merged his job search with his quest for asthma relief — and, in the process, found his way into the business.

“If I was passionate about anything back then, it was asthma medications. So I started calling companies and saying, ‘Hey, I have asthma, I need your product, I’m a big proponent of what you’re doing,’” Verratti recalls. “Frankly, I didn’t know pharma sales was something you could do. I applied because I thought that, at a minimum, I could get free samples.”

The organizations to which he reached out bought Verratti’s pitch; he reports that he secured job interviews with every one. “I had no idea how hard it was to break into the industry,” he continues. “I knew there were local managers in Pittsburgh and I cold-called them. They were like, ‘How did you get my number?’”

Verratti landed at Forest Laboratories, maker of the Aerobid inhaler system, and his education kicked into high gear. He credits his Forest peers with having impressed upon him the importance of culture and mission-centricity. Some two decades later, he remains slightly in awe of the way the company’s commercial leaders always sweated the minutiae.

“It’s just percentage points or adverse events that make one drug better than another. It’s rare that you get some huge breakthrough,” Verratti says. “In connecting with consumers, they used the smallest things to differentiate.”

Verratti spent 10 years in the pharma world — Forest had 250 sales reps at the start of his tenure and 2,500 when he departed — before shifting over to the device space. In 2016, he accepted a sales and business development role with Assurex Health, which moved him into the realm of diagnostics.

The company’s main product was Gene-Sight, a diagnostic test designed to guide medication decisions for behavioral health conditions. The goal: to better understand how an individual’s genetic makeup might affect outcomes with drugs prescribed to treat anxiety, ADHD, depression and more.

Returning to the mental-health space made Verratti feel like he had come full circle. After all, over the years Forest had marketed numerous antidepressants and, famously, collaborated closely with Lundbeck on the blockbuster SSRI drug Lexapro. Still, his role at Assurex presented a very different challenge.

“Molecular diagnostics and genetic testing were so new and cutting-edge,” he says. “The idea was to start bringing even more professionalism and commercial and scientific rigor to the space.”

After Myriad Genetics bought Assurex, Verratti slid over into his current role of president, mental health. “We both joked that we had just arrived — we needed this gig to work out,” says current Immunovia CEO and former Myriad chief marketing officer Jeff Borcherding, who joined Assurex about the same time that Verratti did.

Over the course of the six years they worked together, Verratti impressed his colleague with both his coolness under pressure and his authenticity — two traits that often don’t go hand in hand.

“As I watched Mark work the room, it was clear that he has a unique ability to connect with people in a very genuine way,” Borcherding says. “People are drawn to Mark. He’s like E.T.: You see him talking to someone and you can practically see their heart start to glow.”

Adds Kavita Bhat, VP of lab operations at GeneSight, whom Verratti hired four years ago: “Mark’s leadership style is to pull in leaders and stakeholders to figure out how we can best get the work done. This signals that he cares about our opinion and expertise.”

Verratti’s current challenge is one that, like so many others, was massively complicated by COVID-19. GeneSight testing needs to be ordered by a physician, which means that Myriad very much wants to get it in front of the million-plus prescribers of antidepressants. But Verratti says that awareness remains relatively low: “There’s only a 30% awareness level of what a PGx is,” he notes, using industry shorthand for “pharmacogenomic.”

Even before the pandemic, Myriad had little interest in deploying a 3,000-strong army of sales reps to doctors’ doors. So Verratti and team developed a three-pronged strategy that tapped a host of digital tactics to generate leads.

“The question we asked was if we could bring people with ADHD and anxiety and depression to our website, then connect them with physicians?” he explains.

Myriad set up an internal sales team to facilitate those connections, then charged a smaller group of reps to focus on top clinicians and prescribers. Verratti did everything in his power to ensure that the three groups worked in concert, because “the worst thing you can do is try to separate everybody into their own lanes.”

Early results are promising: Verratti reports that 1.4 million people visited the site last year, with 15% of GeneSight’s business originating through the digital marketing channel. At the same time, he stresses that “we’re only just beginning. We’re still probably less than 10% penetrated.”

Look for Myriad to expand the Gene-Sight push on both the access front (through continued presentation of clinical evidence) and via content offerings (such as the GeneSight Mental Health Monitor). Verratti also hopes to refine the broader customer experience with diagnostic testing — though he says that familiarity with the process has increased in the wake of widespread COVID-19 testing.

Mostly he wants to see people who need help get it more easily — and with more of a guarantee that certain medications will produce better outcomes.

“There are a lot of people struggling,” Verratti says. “When I wasn’t medicated properly, I saw what happened. I don’t want to see anyone hindered from performing at a high level like I was.”