Millennium's Deborah Dunsire: Woman of the Year - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Millennium's Deborah Dunsire: Woman of the Year


Pharmaceutical Executive


Novartis: Building an Oncology Empire


Growing Pipeline
An ad in the newspaper pointed her in a new direction. Sandoz needed someone to implement Phase III studies for specialty drugs. At the time, it was just what she needed: a paycheck to tide her over until the fellowship began and a chance to learn something new—plus a company car.

Working in the pharma industry wasn't, at first, a pleasant experience. Dunsire felt like she was just biding time; she really missed working with patients. "A GP sees a different patient every 10 to 14 minutes; it's intensely interactive and personal," says Dunsire. "I remember sitting in the office and wondering, 'Doesn't anybody ever talk to you in here? What am I doing?'"

But as the days went on, the big picture clicked into focus. "I finally understood that by bringing new medicines forward, you can touch so many more lives than you can in a practice, where you're more personally engaged with patients but your universe is much smaller," says Dunsire.

The starting date for the ophthalmology fellowship arrived, but Dunsire decided to stay at Sandoz. By that time, she was working in transplantation, Sandoz' largest division and a place where it was possible to see new drugs make dramatic improvements in patient's lives—something that would always stick with Dunsire.

She took on sales and marketing responsibilities, and directed commercial development for all specialty products, determining which data packages and clinical studies would optimize the drug's market share. She was successful, accountable for 35 percent of corporate sales and 68 percent of the profitability of the local affiliate.

Dunsire's success opened doors. The company invited her and her husband to work in their headquarters in Switzerland and three years later, in their North American offices in New Jersey. Dunsire was put in charge of portfolio management of oncology drugs, though the company's portfolio wasn't much to speak of. "At the time, Sandoz was a real 'wannabe,'" says Dunsire. "We really wanted to be an oncology company, but we weren't quite there."

Then, in 1996, Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy, at the time the largest corporate merger in history, forming Novartis. Dunsire saw opportunity in the chaos. There were stronger oncology companies than Ciba-Geigy, but it did have Aredia (pamidronate), which helped build bone, particularly in patients with multiple myeloma. The drug made a big difference in patients' lives, and it was enough to give Novartis a real platform in oncology. Dunsire teamed up with David Epstein, Greg Burke, Alex Matter, and others to make a case for the importance of investing in oncology—for patients and the company alike. The team proposed a global business unit, where the decision-makers would be close to the business, science, and thought leaders. "At the time, it was a really different way of thinking for Novartis," says Dunsire. "But Daniel Vasella saw what it was doing for patients and the fact that it was good for business, so we got more support."

In 2000, Dunsire was named senior vice president and head of North American oncology. "I was really fired up about it, and I couldn't do any harm because it wasn't big business for the company."

There, Dunsire helped craft the business from the ground up. She led teams through six new product/indication launches, including Femara (letrozole), Gleevec (imatinib), and Zometa (zoledronic). Over the span of a decade, the unit grew from $50 million in sales to $2.1 billion—and Novartis became one of the most important oncology companies on the planet. (Novartis also nominated Dunsire for the WOTY Award, the first time a woman was backed by two companies.)

Dunsire could see just how much she'd learned at Novartis. But she was getting comfortable. So when opportunity knocked in 2005, in the form of an offer to become CEO at Millennium, she answered, realizing it was time once again to push her boundaries. "One always has to grow," she says.


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