Reaching for the Top—On the Double Bottom
Line — Nima Farzan, PaxVax
In an industry where progress is measured in cycles that can
stretch for decades, Nima Farzan is that iconic first mover, with a background that shines for
being swift, sharp, and distinctively of the moment. At 37, he has already hit the career
trifecta, with stints in top-drawer consulting, senior line positions in Big Pharma, to his
current role in growing a new California-based company—PaxVax—focused on the
commercialization of vaccines to confront the global challenge of infectious disease.
Nima Farzan, Executive Vice President and Chief
Operating Officer, PaxVax, Inc.
Buttressing this basic biography is the unsettling transition
of his early years, when in 1979 his family was forced to flee their native Iran to the US.
Education is the salve that drove his assimilation. Farzan graduated from Stanford University
with honors in biology—while also serving as president of his senior class—and later
adding an MBA degree from Harvard. He has worked to stay close to his roots, adopting with his
wife Christine a baby girl, Ziba, from Iran just last year.
Farzan took his first job as a management consultant at
Boston Consulting Group, where he benefited from the mentorship of partner Rob Williamson, an
expert in financing and business development. "I was a biology major and knew nothing about
business. I could not have made the transition from academics without him." Confirming the
premise that a good mentor relationship works both ways, Farzan persuaded Williamson to join him
when he was offered a job at a small start-up company in bioinformatics, Double Twist, where
Williamson's operational expertise was sorely needed. "I imported my mentor into being
the boss at my next job – the best form of insurance against failure."
The next stop, after winning the MBA, was as a product
manager for Novartis, where he lucked out by being assigned to what became the company's
top-selling product, the anti-hypertensive blockbuster Diovan. This led in turn to a second
mentorship, with one of Novartis' top marketing executives, John Glasspoole, who gave
Farzan a pivotal assignment in new product development for the diabetes and metabolic group.
Farzan found himself, at 32, as a vice-president with responsibility for one of the
company's key therapeutic growth franchises. "I was the first non-scientist to hold
this role but more important it was a global assignment, which considerably extended my
A year later, at 33, he switched course and accepted a
promotion to vice-president of marketing for the US vaccines business. This was a "going
for growth" challenge which Farzan accomplished by conceiving a new retail marketing
strategy for Novartis that quadrupled sales in this channel, becoming the federal
government's largest single contractor of H1N1 flu vaccine; and entering the pediatrics
market with the successful launch of a new vaccine for meningococcal meningitis.
After eight years in the crowded corridors of Big Pharma,
Farzan opted for an equally big change, accepting in September 2011 the position of chief
operating officer at PaxVax, which has a unique "double bottom line" business mission
to develop and commercialize vaccines against infectious diseases. The goal is to address the
unmet patient need in the US and other mature markets, delivering strong financial returns to
investors, while leveraging this strength to advance a social objective by expanding access to
vaccines for neglected populations in low- and middle-income developing countries. The model
also rests on a unique processing and manufacturing technology platform that enables cost-
effective and rapid scale up of production outside the traditional confines of cold chain
distribution, such as an oral coated pill. A vaccine for cholera is now in Phase III testing
along with a vaccine for the H5N1 flu, in Phase II; two GMP-certified facilities have been built
in preparation for commercial launch.
At PaxVax, Farzan leads a 40-person team with responsibility
for marketing, product and process development, quality control, finance, licensing/business
development, and regulatory affairs. "What attracted me to PaxVax is the opportunity to do
what I could not do at Novartis, which is to manage hands-on the full spectrum of activities
required to take a promising compound and push it forward all the way to market launch."
Farzan rates PaxVax CEO Kenneth Kelley as his third career mentor, largely because Kelley can
connect all the dots. "He's done the things you don't learn in Big Pharma, such
as convincing skeptical investors and raising money."
Right now, Farzan has the critical task of shepherding the
anti-cholera asset through regulatory review and eventual launch. "It's the final
proof point that will seal PaxVax's transition from an early-stage R&D operation to a
sustainable, independent business that is making a difference to global health, and that
doesn't depend on the sponsorship of Big Pharma."
Farzan is already using what he contends is the one essential
skill for any future manager: the capacity to adapt and relate to the expectations of
increasingly diverse audiences. "What I've needed most in building this new company is
to create messages and models that bridge those different worlds—of the investor, the
regulator, the scientist, the marketer, the payer, and the patient. You have to be a continuous
learner, flexible and open to change. In this business, it's a career buster to just take
the position this is the way it's always been done." His best career advice?
"Think deep, test well, persuade often, aim high—and always beyond your own comfort