Maky Zanganeh, Pharmacyclics

Maky Zanganeh
Most important: Have faith

Company: Pharmacyclics
Title: Chief Operating Officer

It is not something that Dr. Maky Zanganeh recommends, but as it turned out, political upheaval steeled her for a successful biotech career.

Zanganeh was a little girl when the Islamic revolution swept through Iran more than three decades ago, splintering her family, and sending 10-year-old Maky to live with family friends in Germany. She later joined her sisters in France.

"You are always in surviving mode," she said of the revolution. "When you see all the bombs coming on your head, for sure, is not an easy one, but it builds you, and you become stronger and stronger, and nobody can break you."

What emerged from that trying childhood, according to Zanganeh's boss and mentor, Robert Duggan, is a "make it go right and do what needs to be done" entrepreneur.

"It is true what he says," she said. "I am very, very focused on what I am doing. Nothing can stop me."

With Duggan as chief executive officer, and Zanganeh as chief operating officer, they have reversed the death spiral of Pharmacyclics ($PCYC) and emerged as one of the most promising biotechs in the industry. The Sunnyvale, CA, firm is on a path to revolutionize treatment for B-cell cancers like chronic lymphocytic leukemia and mantle cell lymphoma.

Its investigational drug, ibrutinib, is an oral therapeutic that allows patients to avoid the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. The FDA conferred "breakthrough" status to the drug earlier this year, a prelude to an early approval for a new drug analysts say could have peak sales of around $6 billion. The success has driven Pharmacyclics' market cap to $10 billion.

Few could have foreseen this turnaround when Duggan and Zanganeh took the helm of the company 5 years ago. At the time, its lead product Xcytrin, a cancer agent, had failed. The company stock had dropped to 57 cents a share.

With the global financial crisis beginning in late 2008, Zanganeh set out to raise capital for the floundering company.

She reconnected with Les Laboratoires Servier in France, which had shown interest in the company under the previous management, and secured a $40 million investment. That might seem like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but it was standard fare for a woman who relishes standing apart.

"I was always unusual," Zanganeh said. True to form, Zanganeh's biotech career has been anything but linear.

The product of a medical family, she started her career as a 24-year-old assistant professor of pediatric dentistry at the University of Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France.

Through a friend, however, Zanganeh learned of Duggan and the innovative work he was doing in medical robotics at Computer Motion. In that field, she discovered the perfect way to meld her interest in science with an emerging entrepreneurial streak. She earned an MBA in 15 months while working for Computer Motion.

After the company merged with a competitor in 2003, Duggan put her in charge of business development for his investment firm. It was there that Zanganeh first encountered Pharmacyclics.

As the single mother of a 7-year-old boy, Zanganeh knows full well the challenges that women executives face in balancing their work and home lives.

Gender has not been a detriment at Pharmacyclics, she said, where women comprise 80% of the executive team. So, Zanganeh said, the recipe for success in biotech--or any industry, for that matter--is gender neutral.

"We are in a world with unlimited possibilities. Take it and make the most out of it," she said. "Have vision, take a controlled risk, have the courage to confront even the uncomfortable facts, be flexible, willing to accept changes, do not compromise your goal, ensure open communication and transparency, maintain clarity of vision, stay focused, and most important: have faith."

For more:
J&J, Pharmacyclics win early approval for 'breakthrough' cancer drug ibrutinib
Pharmacyclics bounces higher as J&J wins third 'breakthrough' cancer drug coup
Pharmacyclics' success with ibrutinib spawns a rare biotech billionaire
Pharmacyclics impresses (again) with improved leukemia data on blockbuster hopeful

-- Mike Sherry (email)

Maky Zanganeh, Pharmacyclics
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