Susan Desmond-Hellmann - The 25 most influential people in biopharma today

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A tough leader with a nice touch

Susan Desmond-Hellmann
Chancellor
University of California, San Francisco

At Genentech, Susan Desmond-Hellmann supervised one of the hottest streaks in drug development history. Left independently wealthy when she resigned after the big Roche takeover, Desmond-Hellman put a rich retirement on hold and pursued a new career as chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, where she has been molding a drug development hub by the Bay with help from industry heavyweights like Sanofi ($SNY) and Pfizer ($PFE).

This time, she's relying on top investigators at the university to help mold a new style of early R&D efforts. At a time Big Pharma wants to reorganize discovery efforts around leading campuses, UCSF has been busily hatching a string of new academic pacts. And she's been doing it all with a sunny disposition, remaining cheerful even during some high-wire restructuring efforts at the university.

"She's a very nice person, so this did not come naturally to her," Arthur Levinson, the legendary ex-CEO of Genentech, recently told The New York Times. "She became a tough leader, tough in a positive sense. She was willing to make tough calls without much difficulty."

By putting herself at the head of one of the biggest trends in research, Desmond-Hellmann will inevitably help craft a template for academic/corporate partnerships that others will follow. Long-term success would also help provide a new and important source of research funding at a time federal subsidies are flagging.