Linda Slanec Higgins - Women in Biotech 2012

Linda Slanec Higgins
Company: Gilead Sciences ($GILD)
Title: Vice president of biology
Industry experience: 21 years
Focus: Multiple therapeutic areas, including oncology

Linda Slanec Higgins endorses taking a long view in biotech, and her dedication to exploring new ways to treat illnesses for more than two decades has led to a long list of accomplishments, most recently at Gilead Sciences, where she's helping the biopharma powerhouse deepen its expertise in areas such as oncology.

Higgins isn't one to boast about her own accomplishments, but her record speaks for itself. She rose from the humble position of postdoctoral fellow to head of research during her 16-year stint at Scios, a biopharma unit of Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) since 2003, where she worked on its congestive heart failure drug Natrecor. After leaving Scios, she spent several years in C-level posts, including CEO, at the privately held biotech InteKrin Therapeutics. Cap those feats with the at least 50 peer-reviewed papers to her credit.

Biotech doesn't award R&D pros with overnight successes: Lab discoveries often take more than a decade to mature into approved medicines, with lots of failures along the way in trials, and the ultimate winners compete more like marathoners than sprinters. (Or distance swimmers: Higgins frequently swims 2.5 miles.) Her advice to those seeking to advance in the industry: "Find something you are passionate about, focus on the long view priorities, and don't let any of the rest perturb your [path]."

At Foster City, CA-based Gilead, the world's top provider of HIV meds, Higgins has been a player in the biopharma powerhouse's expansion into research of drugs for cancer, the world's top pharmaceutical market. She's spearheading Gilead's $100 million collaboration with Yale University in oncology as the scientific lead from the company and a member of the joint steering committee. Gilead and Yale have committed to join forces for 10 years to pinpoint targets and advance new drugs against cancer.

"We can achieve things together neither group can alone," Higgins said via email. "We have complementary scientific, medical, and technical expertise. Gilead is new to oncology while the Yale group is well established with deep experience and a broad network. Their leadership has an intuition for cancer biology that comes through being steeped in the field. Gilead brings similar value to the collaboration on the drug discovery and development side."

Gilead has already dazzled investors with its HIV and hepatitis C programs, which have fueled a 65% jump in its stock price this year. This puts the company, and Higgins, in a cozy position to explore new territory in areas such as oncology and fibrosis.

Nobody succeeds in biotech for 21 years without setbacks along the way, yet what distinguishes Higgins is her ability to gain valuable experience from both wins and losses. At InteKrin, for instance, the company ran into a funding wall after investors balked at the high costs of taking its lead diabetes drug, which generated upbeat evidence in a mid-stage study, further into development. One investor told FierceBiotech that "InteKrin is a tragic story" as the data were "unequivocally positive."

Even though InteKrin didn't become a commercial success, Higgins appears to have picked up the respect of her industry counterparts and some valuable lessons.

"I learned so much from the InteKrin experience," Higgins says, including "how to present the same information to very diverse audiences such that they could understand the message; how to manage a board of directors, how to execute the nuts and bolts of a development program, how to run a business, and that how much more can be done on far less than ever seemed possible if one has a good idea and a dedicated team."

-- Ryan McBride (email | Twitter)

Linda Slanec Higgins - Women in Biotech 2012
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