The right mix mat­ters in bio­phar­ma lead­er­ship

Break­ing the bio­phar­ma glass ceil­ing isn’t just a moral is­sue; it’s a share­hold­er is­sue. McK­in­sey re­port­ed in a re­cent study that com­pa­nies in the top quar­tile for gen­der di­ver­si­ty are 15 per­cent more like­ly to gen­er­ate fi­nan­cial re­turns above the in­dus­try av­er­age; those in the top quar­tile for racial and eth­nic di­ver­si­ty are 35 per­cent more like­ly to do so.

The right mix of ex­pe­ri­ence, per­spec­tives and back­grounds is al­so a pa­tient is­sue. Whether it’s choos­ing the right end­point for a prospec­tive ther­a­py or mar­ket­ing a prod­uct in a way that will en­able physi­cians and pa­tients to ac­cess the right med­i­cine at the right time, more com­pa­nies are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand the need to di­ver­si­fy their ranks and groom lead­er­ship teams as di­verse as the clin­i­cians and fam­i­lies they’re try­ing to reach. It’s good busi­ness and it’s good for pa­tients.

There are bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies mak­ing in­cred­i­ble progress in the di­ver­si­ty and in­clu­sion space. Oth­ers want to di­ver­si­fy and are ask­ing for help to broad­en ex­ec­u­tive and board search­es out­side of what are of­ten ho­moge­nous per­son­al net­works. That’s why the Biotech­nol­o­gy In­no­va­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion — the world’s largest biotech trade and ad­vo­ca­cy group — is launch­ing a new in­dus­try­wide ini­tia­tive called The Right Mix Mat­ters.

Based on my con­ver­sa­tions, a crit­i­cal mass in biotech al­ready knows that we have a pipeline prob­lem. We should be fas­tid­i­ous in our ef­forts to pro­mote more women, mi­nori­ties and LGBT ex­ec­u­tives up the ranks. Many of us in C-suites and board rooms do feel a sense of ur­gency: More in­sti­tu­tion­al in­vestors and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist are look­ing at lead­er­ship di­ver­si­ty as a fac­tor in where to put cap­i­tal. Frankly, this needs to be a wake-up call for our sec­tor.

Na­tion­al­ly, on­ly sev­en to nine per­cent of CEO po­si­tions at biotech com­pa­nies are filled by women, ac­cord­ing to na­tion­al sur­veys by Lift­stream. It still hap­pens that when I go to net­work­ing events with my fel­low CEOs, I’m of­ten the on­ly woman in the room.

Like al­most every fe­male physi­cian of my era in Scot­land, I re­ceived my med­ical train­ing dur­ing a time when it was as­sumed we would quit our jobs or work part-time when start­ing a fam­i­ly. As a doc­tor in train­ing, I lost count of the num­ber of times I was asked to make a cup of tea for every­one while my male col­leagues talked about their ca­reer paths with the con­sul­tants.

I be­came a doc­tor be­cause I care deeply about the wel­fare of pa­tients, and be­came a rheuma­tol­o­gist be­cause I’ve al­ways been at­tract­ed to the most con­found­ing ar­eas of med­i­cine. I dis­cov­ered help­ing pa­tients suf­fer­ing from vex­ing con­di­tions al­most al­ways re­quired more than even the most de­ter­mined doc­tor’s best ef­forts. The in­ter­ven­tions of the rheuma­tol­o­gist, nephrol­o­gists and oth­er spe­cial­ists might be life-sav­ing, but it was the phys­io­ther­a­pist, wound nurse and oc­cu­pa­tion­al ther­a­pist who made pa­tients’ lives liv­able. This recog­ni­tion that di­verse back­grounds pro­duce the best so­lu­tions has lived with me ever since.

My ca­reer took me to the Unit­ed States for a role in the bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try in clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. I put in for a trans­fer on the com­mer­cial side, where­upon the head of mar­ket­ing and sales in­formed me, “You are fe­male, Scot­tish and an M.D. You’re just not the right fit.” For­tu­nate­ly, that com­pa­ny even­tu­al­ly got new lead­er­ship, and I found a cham­pi­on in the C-suite who saw some­thing in me. He spon­sored for a com­mer­cial lead­er­ship role even though I didn’t yet have all the ex­pe­ri­ence of the “per­fect” can­di­date. With­out a cham­pi­on will­ing to open the door to that first crack at broad­er lead­er­ship roles, many women and mi­nori­ties in cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca lan­guish in mid­dle man­age­ment in per­pe­tu­ity —un­able to move up and in­to the C-suite.

But I did move up. When I be­came a can­di­date for my first CEO role, I hired a coach to help me in­crease my ef­fec­tive­ness as a com­mu­ni­ca­tor. I pos­sessed that fa­mil­iar fem­i­nine trait of fail­ing to take enough per­son­al cred­it for my role in the suc­cess­es of teams I led. My coach helped me un­der­stand that in­ter­view­ing with boards is not the time to be mod­est. He was right. I learned how to bet­ter sell my cre­den­tials, ex­pe­ri­ence and abil­i­ties, be­com­ing one of the for­tu­nate few to crack the glass ceil­ing in the bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try.

As the cen­ter­piece of BIO’s ef­fort, BIO Board­list went live this month. It’s a search­able on­line data­base of di­verse tal­ent where ex­ec­u­tives can nom­i­nate promis­ing tal­ent and where search com­mit­tees can find lead­er­ship can­di­dates that meet their busi­ness needs. The tool was de­ployed by the high-tech in­dus­try in 2017 in the wake of a firestorm ig­nit­ed by the con­tro­ver­sial writ­ings of a Google en­gi­neer that sparked an in­dus­try­wide dis­cus­sion about sex­ism. Now, BIO is bring­ing this tool to the bio­phar­ma sec­tor.

We al­ready have near­ly 50 out­stand­ing, pre-vet­ted can­di­dates who are search­able in BIO Board­list. Our job now is to add more high­ly qual­i­fied, di­verse lead­ers to the data­base. Once we do, BIO Board­list will be es­pe­cial­ly help­ful for small­er and emerg­ing bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies that do not yet have a ro­bust hu­man re­sources func­tion or the means to hire ex­ec­u­tive re­cruiters. BIO Board­list can help com­pa­nies iden­ti­fy, lift up and in­clude di­verse ex­ec­u­tives with lead­er­ship qual­i­fi­ca­tions and as­pi­ra­tions.

BIO al­so launched a sec­ond re­source — a di­ver­si­ty and in­clu­sion toolk­it. We have pooled to­geth­er the best re­sources from suc­cess­ful pro­grams across BIO mem­ber com­pa­nies. Com­pa­nies will find spe­cif­ic HR tem­plates that can be down­loaded and schol­ar­ly pieces and train­ing cours­es on such top­ics as un­con­scious bias, men­tor­ing and spon­sor­ship.

As a prac­tic­ing rheuma­tol­o­gist, I learned that it can take a vil­lage to give pa­tients a life worth liv­ing. Work­ing my way up the ranks to the CEO’s of­fice in bio­phar­ma, I have dis­cov­ered the same of­ten holds true to de­vel­op a med­i­cine worth tak­ing or a clin­i­cal pro­gram worth fund­ing. If you’re lead­ing a biotech com­pa­ny and want to do right by your con­sumers, in­vestors and share­hold­ers, the right mix re­al­ly does mat­ter.


Dr. He­len Tor­ley is CEO of Halozyme Ther­a­peu­tics in San Diego and chairs BIO’s Com­mit­tee on Work­force De­vel­op­ment, Di­ver­si­ty and In­clu­sion. Biotech Voic­es is a con­tributed col­umn writ­ten by se­lect End­points News sub­scribers.

Elizabeth Nabel speaks at a news conference, Oct. 7, 2019 (Elise Amendola/AP Images)

Brigham and Wom­en's pres­i­dent Eliz­a­beth Nabel fol­lows Mon­cef Slaoui off Mod­er­na's board

Amid recent scrutiny on how Moderna’s top executives have been cashing out their increasingly valuable shares, the biotech is parting ways with a board member who’s also heading a hospital where its Covid-19 vaccine is being tested.

Elizabeth Nabel — the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital — has followed in Moncef Slaoui’s footsteps in resigning from Moderna’s board of directors. She took the role in 2015, two years before the Operation Warp Speed leader did; and as with Slaoui and MIT professor Robert Langer, her term was due to expire in 2021.

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Tony Coles, Cerevel Therapeutics CEO

Adding $445M, Tony Coles and his big Pfiz­er neu­ro spin­out hitch a ride to Wall Street on Per­cep­tive’s SPAC

Two years ago, after Pfizer abruptly shut down its entire neuroscience division, Bain Capital bet $350 million that those assets were still worth something and packaged them into a new biotech: Cerevel Therapeutics. A year later, they got seasoned executive Tony Coles, who had recently jumped back into the C-suite of another neuroscience startup, to run the company.

Now Coles is steering Cerevel public, in what he says is the largest ever transaction of its kind. Cerevel has agreed to merge with Perceptive Advisors’ specialty acquisition company ARYA II. Between the roughly $125 million Perceptive raised through ARYA and an additional investment of $320 million Bain Capital, Perceptive and — yes, really — Pfizer, among others, Cerevel will now move forward with an added $445 million in its coffers.

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Roche de­clares a PhI­II fail­ure for Covid-19 as the IL-6 re­pur­pos­ing the­o­ry bites the dust

Another big IL-6 drug has failed to move the needle for Covid-19 patients, leaving that particular field of repurposed drug R&D on the ropes for the pandemic.

This morning it was Roche’s turn to outline a Phase III failure for Actemra, adding compelling data that have now all but extinguished the theory that an IL-6 drug could significantly help the most severely afflicted patients. That comes just weeks after Regeneron and Sanofi hit the red light on their trial for Kevzara after getting back-to-back readouts that made Roche’s trial a long shot at best.

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Robert Nelsen (Illustration by Emma Kumer for Endpoints News)

Af­ter Big Phar­ma aban­doned in­fec­tious dis­eases, 5 biotech con­trar­i­ans de­cid­ed to go all in. Then Covid-19 changed every­thing

Bob Nelsen had been quietly wondering how to eradicate viruses for years, before one day in 2015, he welcomed a pair of immunologists into the ARCH Venture Partners offices on the 34th floor of Seattle’s Wells Fargo Building.

Louis Picker and Klaus Früh, professors at Oregon Health & Science University, had by then spent 5 years running around the country in search of funding for their startup, TomegaVax, and Früh, at least, was nearing wit’s end. The Gates Foundation was interested but told them they needed other investors. Investors told them to come back with more data, pharmaceutical executives said they’re in the wrong game — too little money to be made fighting infectious disease. Still, a well-connected board member named Bob More landed them a meeting with the coveted venture capitalist, and so, in a narrow conference room overlooking the Puget Sound, Picker prepared to again explain the idea he had spent 15 years on: re-engineering a benign microbe into the first vaccines for HIV and better ones for hepatitis and tuberculosis.

“This lightbulb went on his head,” Picker recalled in a recent interview. “Most of them just didn’t get it. And Bob’s hit.”

By that point, Nelsen was more than just a venture capitalist. Scraggly and greying but no less opinionated at 52, he was mobbed at biotech conferences, having earned a reputation for crass wisdom and uncanny foresight, for making big bets on big ideas that changed medicine. Those ideas included DNA sequencing, which he first cut a check for in the 90s, and leveraging the immune system to tackle cancer. He earned millions making billion-dollar companies.

Yet for years he had harbored an almost singular obsession: “I hate viruses,” he told Forbes in 2016. He told me he was “pissed off” at them. The obsession drove him to his first biotech investment in 1993, for an inhalable flu vaccine approved a decade later and still in use. And it drove him to invest in CAR-T as a potential cure for HIV, years before it proved a wildly effective treatment for some cancers.

Now, listening to Picker talk about T cells and antibodies and the curious biology of cytomegalovirus, Nelsen began wondering if it was time for another bet. Picker’s technology was not only promising, he reasoned, it could be the basis of a company that changed how researchers approached viruses. Instead of trying to come up with an antidote for every pathogen, you could do what cancer researchers had learned to do, and harness the immune system to do the work for you.

This wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. “It’s like the least trendy idea in the world,” Nelsen told me. “People would say, ‘Why the hell are you going into infectious disease?’”

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Sanofi and GSK say they're near a vac­cine deal with EU hours af­ter fi­nal­iz­ing Warp Speed con­tract

On the heels of landing the largest Warp Speed contract to date, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline continued to make moves Friday afternoon.

The two companies announced they are in advanced discussions with the EU to supply up to 300 million doses of their Covid-19 vaccine candidate, coming just a few hours after securing their $2.1 billion deal with the US. Should the agreement be finalized, all EU member states will have the option to purchase the vaccine.

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President Trump speaks during an event to sign executive orders on lowering drug prices, July 24, 2020 (Alex Brandon/AP Images)

Trump’s ‘rad­i­cal’, ‘hor­ri­ble’ ex­ec­u­tive or­ders on drug pric­ing earn a C-suite back­lash this week — with one threat to do more over­seas

Once the pandemic erupted in the US, Big Pharma enjoyed a brief period of detente — if not actually warm relations — with the Trump administration.

After years of criticizing high drug prices and threatening legislation that would curb the industry’s pricing freedom, the president warmly encouraged the industry’s commitment to a pell mell race to new vaccines and drugs to fight Covid-19 — often at speeds that would have been considered impossible back in January. And it raised the possibility that biopharma could finally find a way to achieve some kind of popularity after years of public toxicity.

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Paul Hudson, AP Images

Sanofi and GSK grab largest Warp Speed deal yet, se­cur­ing $2.1B for a vac­cine that might come next year

Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have become the latest members of Operation Warp Speed, landing a $2.1 billion contract to scale up manufacturing for a vaccine that is on track for completion next year. The deal secures the US 100 million doses, with an option for 500 million more.

It is the largest contract the White House has given yet in its hunt to make 300 million doses of a vaccine available to the US public by January, although Sanofi has not committed to supply vaccines by that time, potentially opening the door for other developers with longer development paths to gain funding. The cash will help Sanofi scale the vaccine, which combines their recombinant DNA technology with GSK’s immune-boosting adjuvant, to a billion doses next year.

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Sandy Macrae, Sangamo CEO

No­var­tis turns to Sang­amo with a $795M-plus deal aimed at us­ing zinc fin­ger tech for the neu­ro pipeline

When Novartis recruited Ricardo Dolmetsch from Stanford to lead its neuroscience group, great emphasis was placed on decoding genomics and the brain circuitry to find new breakthroughs for the beleaguered field. Seven years and a failed Fragile X therapy later, he has a new tool to go after some of these targets his team has unearthed.

In a new collaboration, Novartis is paying Sangamo Therapeutics $75 million upfront to leverage zinc finger protein transcription factors in the regulation of three genes ties to autism — a core focus of Dolmetsch’s academic research days — intellectual disability and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Another $720 million in milestones are on the table, alongside a pledge to reimburse all of Sangamo’s research work.

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Ludwig Hantson, Alexion CEO

UP­DAT­ED: The lead drug in Alex­ion’s $930M buy­out deal last fall just flopped — adding in­jury to an­a­lysts’ M&A in­sults

When Alexion $ALXN put down $930 million in cash last fall to buy Achillion, the biotech’s top execs were particularly proud of 2 clinical-stage assets, with a spotlight on the lead drug danicopan (ACH-4471) in Phase II. That drug, along with a companion therapy in Phase I, fit right in their R&D wheelhouse, noted CEO Ludwig Hantson.

But now the lead drug, redubbed ALXN2040, is being washed out and repositioned after failing 2 Phase II trials for C3 Glomerulopathy.

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