Andrea Pfeifer - Women in Biotech 2012

Andrea Pfeifer
Company: AC Immune
Title: CEO
Industry experience: 25 years
Focus: Alzheimer's disease

Growing up, Andrea Pfeifer learned firsthand how a chronic disease could profoundly affect someone's life. Both of her parents suffered from chronic ailments, and that experience proved a formative influence, putting her on a career path that would eventually lead her to confront one of the biggest health challenges of our day: Alzheimer's disease.

"This very much interested me in dedicating my life for a disease where nothing is available," says Pfeifer about her parents. But her career path would wind around the globe before she tackled Alzheimer's.

A graduate of the University of Würzburg in Germany, Pfeifer journeyed to the U.S. and continued with post-doctoral work in molecular carcinogenesis at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. She went on to helm Nestlé's Global Research in Lausanne, Switzerland, managing more than 600 people. And when AC Immune was founded in 2003, German software billionaire Dietmar Hopp came in to back the company with other investors. She also serves as chairwoman of the BiotechMedInvest AG Investment Fund, a venture group in Basel, Switzerland, that has invested in about 30 life science companies.

"One of my biggest mentors was my former supervisor at the NCI, Curtis H. Harris, head of the human carcinogenesis unit. He supported me." There were a number of encouraging colleagues at Nestle as well. And Henri B. Meier, a former member of the Roche ($RHHBY) executive committee who's now chairman at HBM Partners in Basel, has been a big help, offering advice on the venture front that has contributed to their success. But one of her biggest inspirations was her father, who always encouraged her to pursue her dreams.

Then there's the influence that Swiss business values have had on the CEO, a country with a decidedly conservative approach to finances.

"Switzerland is very solid," she says, "and AC Immune is extremely solid. We always have financing for more than 3 years, now more than 4 years."

But if you poll the biopharma community in Switzerland, you won't find many women at the helm.

"I had quite some interesting experiences," says Pfeifer, who vividly recalls being the only woman in the room during one of her presentations to industry execs. But after a lengthy stay in the U.S. and a stint at Nestlé, where there were a number of women in senior roles, it didn't matter so much.

At the time AC Immune was founded in Lausanne close to a decade ago, being careful with money meant limiting the biotech to two programs, with a clear plan to take one into the clinic in four years. Now AC Immune has 11 programs and the money needed to work on all of them.

"I think it's very important to have a long-term plan for the company," says the CEO. "It's not enough to say that we have the technology. You need to know what you're going to do with the technology. At AC Immune we always have a 5-year plan; a strategic plan, not just a business plan. We revise it every year based on the market, finance and science, which changes every day. It's very important to be cost conscientious. I see it over and over. Companies get 10 million or 20 million from investors and then they hire people. And then they hire more people. When you cross the line of 25 people, things become very expensive. Then you have to go out every year and ask for more money, and then IPO exits become uninteresting."

Don't spend money on nice offices or plush carpets, she advises entrepreneurs. Be thrifty, and your employees will learn how to be thrifty as well. One other bit of advice: "You have to be the best in science."

That's what attracted Genentech to the small biotech. Earlier this year, the big Roche subsidiary announced a groundbreaking study that will test AC Immune's crenezumab in a new study that will enroll a pre-Alzheimer's population, bringing the drug to people before toxic proteins do their destructive work. And soon after that study was announced, with significant support from NIH, Genentech in-licensed AC Immune's second program, a preclinical anti-tau antibody that looked promising in rodent studies.

Pfeifer, meanwhile, doesn't limit her mentoring role to staffers.

"You become a little bit of a model for young people," she says. "I do coach some of the female students" at the big university campus near her company. Maybe one day one of them will also wind up leading a notable biotech company, with a reputation for great science and great thrift.

-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)

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Andrea Pfeifer - Women in Biotech 2012