JPM: 4 women discuss culture shock between Big Pharma, smaller biotech and their first CEO role

Three people looking at a display of black and white photos depecting a diverse group of people
Four women we interviewed at this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference felt varying levels of culture shock when they moved from Big Pharma to biotech as well as from senior roles to CEO. (Gerd Altmann)

SAN FRANCISCO—Big pharma has seen its fair share of executives jump ship to smaller biotechs, whether to take the helm, oversee R&D or lead efforts to transition from a clinical-stage company to a commercial one. At this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, we caught up with four women who had moved up the ranks in biopharma and are leading companies in their first CEO role. 

Dr. Aoife Brennan said she felt no culture shock when she left Biogen for the much smaller Synlogic. But she did feel the shock when she stepped up from the chief medical officer role to the CEO role at the synthetic biology company. 

“Though Biogen was the biggest company I’d been a part of, I’d spent some time at a company called Tolerx, so I knew what small company life was going to be like,” Brennan said.

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“As a chief medical officer, I wasn’t a domain expert, but I knew if the regulatory person got sick, I could run [that unit] … I was comfortable, kind of,” she added. “When I stepped up to CEO, I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about finance—I'm not an accountant! I don’t know about manufacturing.’ It creates a sense of anxiety not to be a domain expert in everything I'm accountable for as CEO.” 

RELATED: 2018's Fiercest Women in Life Sciences | Aoife Brennan—Synlogic

As a CMO, she had imagined her journey to CEO to include serving as a chief operating officer and learning the ropes of every leadership position in the C-suite—yes, including accounting. But the board approached her for the job before she had a chance to accumulate that experience, and good thing, too: “If I was waiting for that to happen, I’d be 102 or something!” she said with a laugh. 

She started the job on an interim basis, while still performing her CMO duties, before going full-time. It may have taken her a year to “not feel like a complete fake” in the role, but great support and mentorship—not to mention hiring a new CMO—has let her “embrace the CEO role.” 

The transition was different for Athena Countouriotis, M.D., who, like Brennan, had been her company’s chief medical officer before stepping up to CEO. She had been CMO at several companies before that—Adverum Biotechnologies, Halozyme and Ambit Biosciences—and had already guided one through its IPO. 

“I had been a public officer as a CMO across multiple companies for many years and worked for multiple CEOs. I saw enough of the role to appreciate it was something I thought I could do, making sure I had the right support,” said Countouriotis, CEO of kinase inhibitor player Turning Point Therapeutics. “I don’t see it as very different, really. I had always been externally facing as a CMO—I was speaking at J.P. Morgan every year.” 

For Countouriotis, the bigger shock was when she left Big Pharma for a biotech company.

“I had led large organizations as a team leader, but I had so many resources around me and now, I was at a 40-person private company navigating all the things I had to do,” she said. “Ambit was very similar to what Turning Point looked like when I came. But we didn’t have the pipeline depth we have here, for sure.” 

Like Countouriotis, Pearl Huang, Ph.D., had a smooth transition to CEO. An alum of Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Roche, she signed on as CEO of Cygnal Therapeutics early last year. 

“I’m just going to sound really lame, but I didn’t feel culture shock at all,” Huang said. “A CEO is there to create culture. It was irresistible to get to create a culture that not only you will thrive in, but also the people you attract.” 

To those who may be hesitant about taking a CEO role, she said it’s an opportunity to change the culture if you care about it. 

“If you’ve seen a situation where you might have done something differently as a leader, this is your opportunity to do it right—so go do it,” she said. 

RELATED: 2017’s Fiercest Women in Life Sciences | Patricia Hurter—Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Huang is busy building a company culture while Cygnal advances its exoneural medicines, but Patricia Hurter, Ph.D., walked into Lyndra Therapeutics to find a company that was 50% women across the board. Half of the company are women, 50% of the leadership team are women, 50% of the board are women, and the previous CEO, Amy Schulman, was also a woman, she said.

She spent the last 15 years of her career at Vertex, which will soon also have a female CEO: Reshma Kewalramani, M.D., another chief medical officer. With groups like IWILL—Inspiring Women in Leadership and Learning—Vertex is well known for diversity now, but when Hurter joined, “the entire executive team was men,” she said. “My department was mostly engineers and chemists, with more males than females. We wanted to be even, but we didn’t completely succeed.” 

Diversity—not just gender-wise—was ready-made when Hurter arrived at Lyndra, which is working on an “ultralong-acting” pill for various applications, such as treating schizophrenia, malaria and HIV.

“I didn’t have to do anything. I just walked in and that was the way it was. It’s something I’ll work to make sure we maintain. It was refreshing for me,” said Hurter, who goes by Trish.

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