Embracing risk with Big Pharma in the rear view
Company: Dimension Therapeutics
Annalisa Jenkins spent about 20 years building an exemplary career in big-time biopharma research, on track for a perch in one of the industry's well-established C-suites. But the allure of the startup world led her to abandon the corporate side of drug development and take a risk on a small, promising upstart with some interesting technology.
Starting at Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) in the 1990s, she worked her way up through the R&D ranks amid the company's halcyon days of invention, an era that produced Eliquis, Abilify and Plavix, among others, plus the $2.4 billion deal for Medarex that brought in the game-changing cancer therapy Opdivo.
After about 15 years at Bristol-Myers, she decamped to Germany in 2011 to lead late-stage drug development at Merck KGaA's biopharma division, stepping in to help a legendary but foundering drugmaker right the ship. By 2013, Merck's Serono division promoted her to head of all R&D, giving her the reins to the company's pipeline and a front-row seat to its reclamation effort.
But within about 6 months, Jenkins had decided to leave behind Big Pharma, with its endless conference calls and inescapable portfolio reviews, to take a gamble on a Fidelity Biosciences-founded startup tackling gene therapy.
In Dimension Therapeutics, Jenkins found a small, nimble team of researchers and investors committed to a single goal: delivering corrective genes to provide lasting--if not permanent--relief from serious diseases. And the transition was "like a breath of fresh air," Jenkins told FierceBiotech last year. Dimension had just 49 full-time employees as of September, 38 of whom work solely on R&D.
"It's an environment where you have a sense of urgency about taking that science and translating it into medicines for patients, and having that really clearly in focus every day," she said. "I think that is sometimes challenging in the big-company environment."
For Dimension, the focus is now hemophilia B, with the company's top candidate on track to enter the clinic this year. And thanks to a $252 million deal with Bayer, the company has an early-stage gene therapy for hemophilia A in the works, as well. The biotech pulled off a $71.5 million IPO in October to fund its future and is also advancing treatments for the rare indications of ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency and glycogen storage disease.
Jenkins' round trip through the many tiers of biopharma is becoming less and less unique as more executives from large drug companies feel the pull of startup culture. Over the past few years, Biogen ($BIIB) R&D boss Doug Williams resigned to become CEO of a fledgling biotech, as did AstraZeneca's ($AZN) Briggs Morrison, Pfizer's ($PFE) Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos and erstwhile Biogen exec Michael Gilman.
Jenkins' experience throughout the industry has made her a frequent recipient of career-minded questions from biopharma newbies surveying the probability of success in the drug development world, and to them Jenkins preaches an approach that is as applicable in companies with payrolls in the thousands as those with employee rosters that can be counted on a single hand.
"I'm very keen to help young people learn the lessons of history, but also to be optimistic," she said at last year's GapSummit. "But to understand that embracing ambiguity, to looking at their careers in the long game--as a marathon, not a 100-meter dash--and to view the future as one of an ecosystem where culture and leadership--those qualities are going to be key to future professional success." -- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)
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