FierceBiotech's 2011 Women in Biotech - Plexxikon President and Tesaro Co-founder Honored

News | 11. 29. 2011

Female biotech executives have been key players in many of the biggest events in the industry this year--Takeda Pharmaceutical's buyout of Nycomed, the merger of Alkermes ($ALKS) and Elan Drug Technologies and the sale of Plexxikon to Daiichi Sankyo. Should we be surprised? No, women in this industry defy the odds when they rise to key positions in the male-dominated biotech game. Of course we're seeing them accomplish big things. But they deserve recognition.

So, we're excited to bring our readers FierceBiotech's much-awaited-and belated-Women in Biotech feature. We had an overwhelming response to our call for nominations this year, with more than 130 great submissions and an amazing slate of candidates. True to our mission of providing readers the top news in biotech, many of the honorees here are women who drove some of the big stories we covered this year. We also wanted the women featured this year to represent the best of the global biotech industry, and you'll find women here who are making an impact for organizations based in Asia, Europe and here in the U.S.These women are inspiring, not just to women, but (at least speaking for the males on our team) men involved in the industry, too. Our profiles will bring you up to date with what each of these female movers in biotech are working on these days. Some are rallying scientists at young startups, gearing up for important late-stage trials or leading research of serious health concerns such as HIV. For each of the honorees, there are unique stories about how impressive women have gotten ahead in the competitive biotech field."

I think that the potential interesting little extra that you get from speaking to some of the women in biotech is we've probably been challenged with thinking a little bit more about how to cultivate our careers," said Abbie Celniker, chief executive of Eleven Biotherapeutics and one of this year's Women in Biotech. "As a result, we can be a tiny bit more self-reflective because we've had to do lots of course correction to make sure we could compete in the days when it was more predominately male."

Kathleen Sereda Glaub
President, Plexxikon

In the biotech business and at her home garden, Kathy Glaub likes to plant seeds and watch them grow. Of course, the seeds of biotech involve investments in R&D and carefully crafted financing strategies. In those regards, there's been a bumper crop this year at the drug discovery firm Plexxikon, and Glaub has been able to savor the fruits of her 10 years spent helping to shape the business strategy and firming up lucrative partnership deals.

Berkeley, CA-based Plexxikon has been a breakout success this year, during which the startup was sold to Japan's Daiichi Sankyo in a nearly $1 billion deal closed in April and its lead drug Zelboraf gained an FDA green light for treating melanoma. Glaub has been heavily involved in the action; she hammered out the details of the buyout pact with Daiichi, which has kept Plexxikon intact as an independently operating discovery and development shop. She also helped field a sales team this year for marketing Zelboraf, which is partnered with Swiss drug giant Roche.

Success like this is a rare thing in biotech, where even companies that raise gobs of cash and boast hot science often tank. So it's worth taking note of some of the moves Glaub and her colleagues made at Plexxikon. For one, the group brought more than $200 million in non-dilutive funding through a series of pharma collaborations, dwarfing the nearly $67 million in equity the firm sold to raise capital for its programs. The company has also kept a relatively lean team on its full-time roster, and the company's prudent fiscal management allowed it to operate in the black--and, yes, paying taxes--for several years before the approval of Zelboraf, Glaub said.

To come out on top at Plexxikon, Glaub has more than two decades in the biotech field, getting her start in the industry with Genentech during the mid-1980s. She rose to treasurer of the famous biotech (now a unit of Roche, of course) in 1988, managing the company's cash during a time when capital was scarce compared with reserves in later years. She then jumped aboard Cell Genesys, where she was financial chief from 1993 to 1998. (Cell Genesys, a therapeutic vaccine developer, was sold on the cheap in 2009 to BioSante after running into financial trouble.) Glaub's track record at Plexxikon speaks volumes for the wisdom she's gained and applied during her years in biotech.

"Wherever I have gone, I have placed my bets on the people I would be working with," Glaub said. "Secondly, I always ask how could we do something better, and why not? I have never been one to follow and rather enjoy bucking the trend or the models that people talk about. In part, that is how we were successful at Plexxikon."

Mary Lynne Hedley
President, CSO, Co-founder, Tesaro

Mary Lynne Hedley's latest biotech adventure has her exploring multiple paths to find and develop new therapies and supportive care drugs for cancer patients. Hedley, the president and chief scientist at Lexington, MA-based Tesaro, is now leading the company's excursion to gain FDA approval of its lead compound, rolapitant, which aims to prevent nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and is ready for late-stage trials. At the same time, she's responsible for hunting for other drugs for cancer patients that fit the company's in-licensing strategy.

It's a big job, but that's part of the joy for Hedley. Rather than take a comfy post at an existing biotech after doing post-doctoral work at Harvard, Hedley and her colleagues decided to license technology from the venerable university and start their own company, Zycos, which focused on cancer and anti-viral drugs. She eventually became CEO of the venture-backed startup, leading the company through its sale to MGI Pharma. One of her proudest moments was handing nice bonus checks to her Zycos employees after the MGI buyout and a series of ups and downs that challenged the team, she said.

There's no reward for her quite like seeing how the drugs she develops help patients. MGI, where she led R&D after the company bought Zycos, was sold to Eisai for a nifty $3.9 billion in 2008. While she was heavily involved in the deal, and upbeat about its outcome, a more personal triumph was listening to the stories of patients who benefited from MGI's drug Dacogen for myelodysplastic syndromes, she said.

Taking a drug all the way through clinical trials and regulatory reviews takes great stamina. "I like to do things that are extremely important and physically challenging," said Hedley, who, outside of her work in biotech, went with her family on a demanding trek down the Inca Trail to explore Machu Picchu in Peru this year and wants to climb Kilimanjaro next year.

"Reaching higher has been critical to my success [in biotech]," Hedley said. "Doing the hardest thing I could, meaning taking the hardest career path because I was going to learn the most. It's the biggest risk because you can fail and if you fail you fall really hard. But sometimes in failure you pull yourself back up. Trying again makes you stronger. And when you succeed you strengthen the belief and confidence in yourself to go to the next level."

Read more: FierceBiotech's 2011 Women in Biotech - FierceBiotech