In today’s ever-evolving life science industry, it is more important than ever for CEOs to have a strong understanding of both science and business. With the rapid pace of innovation, CEOs need to be able to make informed decisions about how to best position their companies for success, now and in the future. That’s why having a PhD or MD degree can be a valuable asset for anyone looking to transition to a career on the business side of the life science industry.
GEN recently chatted with a number of CEOs who have made the transition from academia or medicine to CEO. They have faced challenges along the way, but they have also achieved great success and their stories are an inspiration to the next generation of life science leaders.
GEN: What was your impetus for transitioning from academia and/or medicine to industry and what has this experience been like?
Philipp Spycher, PhD, CEO of Araris Biotech: Since I first started my career on the academic side of the antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) field, I was fascinated by the idea of helping patients by creating more targeted and highly specific drugs. I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland when I began my research that showed transglutaminase could be used for antibody conjugation with peptide linkers. I found the linkers could attach any drug payload directly to any antibodies without the need to engineer the antibody, in as quickly as just one day. I knew this could have great potential in the ADC space, as historically, “off the shelf” antibodies had to be modified for precise conjugation, which slows down the time and increases the cost it takes to manufacture these types of drugs.
Despite enjoying my research in the lab, I felt I could achieve more in potentially bringing this science to the bedsides of patients. Many pharmaceutical companies and investors who I asked for feedback about these findings showed a strong interest, so I wanted to take this promising research further and apply it to actual drug development. My goal was to build something from the ground up, surrounded by a team of highly experienced experts in the field, to bring new and effective ADC therapeutics to people in need of different cancer treatment options. I believe the biotech industry offers more possibilities in terms of applying research findings to the real world, so it felt like the right fit for me to transition my career. Based on this realization, I co-founded Araris in 2019.
My experience in the industry has been extremely rewarding. I’ve learned so much in just a few short years, and I’ve been lucky to work together with such a highly skilled team as we aim to build the next generation of ADC therapeutics. Working in this industry allows you to see the direct impact of your decisions as you work toward improving the lives of patients, but it also requires a great deal of determination and stamina. As with academia, patience is so important, but the promise of developing treatments with the potential to positively impact someone’s life is well worth the time and hard work.
Volker Herrmann, MD, MBA, CEO & president of Sonata Therapeutics: I was led to a career in medicine and eventually, the pharma and biotech industries, through an appreciation for the power of science and medicine to change lives. The inspiration came from my father, a world-renowned pharmaceutical researcher who contributed to the development of medicines that helped millions. It was the scale of his work and the impact it had on patients that initially inspired me to pursue medicine. After receiving my MD from Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg, I went on to specialize in cardiology, before deciding to change my career.
My transition to the pharmaceutical industry was driven by the same motivation I felt to become a doctor: making a meaningful impact on the lives of patients. I knew that if I were able to use my expertise to contribute to the innovation of new medicines, I could help many more patients than I could by treating them as a single physician.
One of the most noticeable differences between practicing medicine and entering industry was the shift to a team mindset. In medicine, you’re trained to be an expert with the knowledge to make the right decision, but in industry your expertise is just one facet. There is a wealth of value brought from differing perspectives. As you take on more of a leadership role, you must understand how to motivate people and address failure in an industry where bringing a new medicine to patients is a relatively rare but incredibly rewarding occurrence.
As a doctor, I have helped patients to cope with many different health conditions. Many of these bring life-altering consequences to patients and their families. As a leader in the biotech industry, I also have seen firsthand the profound impact that effective treatments can make on the lives of patients and their loved ones. These experiences continue to motivate me every day to find transformative medicines for patients in need.
Ian Walters, MD, CEO of Portage Biotech: I cruised several waters before exploring immuno-oncology in large pharma and leading Portage Biotech. I have a passion for music and actually planned to pursue performing arts, but eventually went on to pursue medicine. What I noticed from my medical practice is that patients still had suboptimal responses to current standard of care. I wanted to be a part of innovative approaches to improve patient outcomes. This led me to academia, where I dove into translational research at Rockefeller University. Ultimately, academic research, while fundamental, can take time before actually reaching patients and funding is an ever-changing endeavor. This led me to the business side of healthcare and I returned to school once again to study at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I had the opportunity to join an emerging biotech while completing my MBA.
I loved the challenges of working in an R&D organization where I could utilize my medical, research, and business training all at once. With consistent dedication and willingness, I was able to see firsthand patients who had initially been given a few months to live develop perfect health because of innovative treatments being developed in the industry. In my 20-year experience I have been fortunate to have held leadership positions at several pharma and biotech companies and contributed to the approval of five blockbuster oncology products, including the first two approved immune checkpoint inhibitors that led to a revolution in cancer treatment.
James McArthur, PhD, president & CEO of PepGen: It was purely a matter of chance, as I had intended to return to Canada and take a position at McGill University in Montreal, my alma mater. I was a postdoctoral student at University of California, Berkeley and someone handed me the phone telling me that a recruiter was interested in people with an immunology and oncology background. That led me to my first biotech role at a gene therapy company working on immuno-oncology, during a very exciting time in the gene therapy revolution.
It’s been a wonderful experience. I love being able to take my training and work to translate exciting science into therapies that could potentially help people who have been dealt a bad hand of cards in life. Every day, I get to work with an amazing group of individuals from different backgrounds who are steadfastly dedicated to a shared goal. It’s been a wonderful career and life so far.
Paula Ragan, PhD, president & CEO, X4 Pharmaceuticals: From quite a young age, I knew I wanted a career that focused on helping people. I was also drawn to science. In college, I started thinking about how I could combine my passion for both and ended up with a degree in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and then a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Boston University. I then received my PhD in biomedical engineering at MIT where I became more interested in discovery research supporting novel drug development. While a postdoctoral trainee at Harvard, I faced the choice of whether to remain in academia or to pursue a career in biotech. Ultimately, I chose industry, because I saw this as the best opportunity to combine my leadership and problem-solving skills, and my passion to bring positive change to those in need.
Prior to founding X4 Pharmaceuticals, I held leadership roles at several life science companies, including Genzyme, where, importantly, I learned that a company can put patients first and still achieve great success. I have carried this lesson on to X4, which I launched in 2014 to focus on finding solutions for people with rare diseases. We have now successfully advanced our first potential therapy through a Phase III trial in a rare disease for which there is no approved treatment. The success and impact of our trial are in part due to our relationships with both affected patients and treating physicians; with their support, we were able to succeed in delivering on this transformative study. Now on the cusp of potentially delivering on a new solution for this underserved group, I can’t help but look back on the path I’ve taken and the decisions that brought me here. While it has not always been a smooth road, I have found that connecting to the patients who we ultimately aim to help and surrounding myself with people who share my vision and passion for patient progress has given me the inspiration needed to stay positive and help the company move forward.
Judy Chou, PhD, president & CEO, AltruBio: With a strong desire to harness science and innovation to help patients, I went to medical school, obtained my PhD from Yale University, and then started as a research faculty at Harvard Medical School. When I was unexpectedly offered the opportunity to work for a biotech company, I thought it might be the chance to finally bring science and innovation together and directly help patients. It was, however, uncommon at the time to leave my position at Harvard when academic jobs were viewed to be superior to positions in biotech, as the industry was still fairly young. Many of my academic professors were concerned I was throwing my career away.
Diem Nguyen, PhD, MBA, CEO, Xalud Therapeutics: I’ve always been passionate about the sciences where I could make a positive impact on people’s lives. Toward the end of my graduate studies in biochemistry, I started thinking about how I could use my scientific expertise beyond traditional academia and strive to make an impact on a larger scale. I’m thankful to mentors who advised me to consider earning an MBA because this additional education provided me with an opportunity to expand on my existing skillset. It has also served as the foundation for a broadened career path, intersecting both science and business and opening doors to work in the pharma and biotech industries.
After receiving my MBA, I worked at Deloitte, and then, I eventually began a decade-long career at Pfizer. It was here that my experience navigating complex science while understanding the fundamentals of business was instrumental across my many leadership roles. Building the Pfizer biosimilars global business from scratch is one of the accomplishments that I’m most proud of in my career. At the end of my time at Pfizer, I was Global President, Americas, Pfizer Essential Health and Global Sterile Injectables, which was a division that represented over $11 billion in revenue and a third of Pfizer’s profits.
Today, as CEO of Xalud Therapeutics, I lead an accomplished team dedicated to advancing our plasmid DNA delivery platform that could potentially shift the paradigm in how chronic inflammation is treated. I’m grateful that my work in this industry has allowed me to fulfill the goal I set out as a graduate student to build a career that has transformative potential.
GEN: What are or have been the challenges, successes and motivations?
Walters: Large pharma does move slower due to red tape and bureaucracy, and I felt the nimbleness and flexibility with smaller companies would allow for identification and advancement of novel products and technologies in a faster and more efficient manner. My experience in the immuno-oncology field has provided me with the necessary knowledge to develop medicines that could potentially overcome treatment resistance. Our motivation at Portage Biotech is to address the potential of immune cells to coordinate a multi-pronged attack on cancer, to overcome treatment resistance and eventually to improve clinical benefit.
McArthur: What motivates me is the sense of responsibility I have to the people living with these devastating diseases and the sense of responsibility I have to the people who give us capital and trust us to create valuable and impactful drugs.
The successes have included coming up with novel ideas that could potentially be used to treat several devastating diseases. I’ve had wonderful opportunities and successes throughout my career. I was founding CEO of Imara, a public company developing therapies for sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia; Co-founder and President of R&D at Cydan, a rare disease accelerator, and founding CSO of Synovex/Adheron, a rheumatology therapy company acquired by Roche.
The challenges are typically thought of as being scientific in nature or the difficulty with raising capital. I would say I truly enjoy the scientific challenge of solving the very complex problems that present themselves throughout the drug development process. But I view the greatest challenge as the building of a team that consistently works well together and a team that can achieve the herculean task in front of us. It’s something I believe we have done here at PepGen.
Chou: The challenges were even bigger when I first transitioned to industry, I started in bioanalytical and bioengineering disciplines which I was not familiar with at all. Despite being strong academically in the past, I felt like the biggest idiot in the entire organization due to my ignorance both in the industry and in the new fields. I had to forget about my degrees and past titles, and instead worked closely with colleagues from different levels to learn and ensure I had a true understanding. What kept me going was the trust in myself that this experience will come to be useful someday and allow me to make the biggest impact.
I made up my mind and was committed to focus on the key deliverables the organization needed and equip myself to take it on. I adapted. This mentality had huge influence on my whole industrial career and kept me concentrated on making a difference in patients’ lives, not just my own personal interests. I had no idea the first industrial project I worked on would become today’s biggest blockbuster medicine, Humira (adalimumab). Later on in my leadership roles in various biotech/pharma companies, I had the amazing opportunities to introduce even more new medicines for patients across many diseases.
GEN: What advice do you have to offer for peers or the next generation of leaders?
Walters: I’d say to follow your passions and satisfy your curiosities. You can always learn and expand your skillset. Every direction I went, my interest in people and ability to communicate helped me to succeed. I was able to leverage these skills to gain more knowledge, more experience, and make new connections and that got me to where I am today. In my current role leading a company that develops new drugs, it is especially important to foster good working relationships, as no one person can do it alone. Even now I strive to work collaboratively with my company’s internal and external stakeholders as well as with fellow scientists and other leaders in the field. This is the foundation of our business model, as I firmly believe that it helps to advance research and development and creates a faster path to providing treatments to patients that need them the most.
McArthur: Find great people to work with, who share your vision and values. Let your passion drive you. But always let the data guide you.
Chou: My advice is to remind yourself what gives you passion and keep focused on the big picture. Follow your passion but not a defined path. It will open doors and opportunities, strengthen character and help to advance your career.
Nguyen: Like any other career, working in this industry can have its challenges. I have two pieces of advice for those who are looking to transition from academia to working at the intersection of life sciences and business. (1) Build an excellent support team and network around you. No one can do this kind of work alone. (2) Be bold. Don’t be afraid to think big and venture down untrodden paths.