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Myrtle Potter is no stranger to overcoming adversity. As CEO of Sumitovant Biopharma, she has used her entrepreneurship, determination, and inclusive attitude to help her persevere and achieve her highest goals while overseeing five companies—Myovant, Urovant, Enzyvant, Altavant, and Spirovant.
As a child, Myrtle Potter acquired a fascination with health and medicine from her father, who was a medic in the army.He was the family’s first responder; “I was really intrigued by all the things I saw him do,” she says. “He even delivered my baby sister on the side of the road when my parents didn’t make it to the hospital in time.” Potter also loved watching Perry Mason on TV. So much so, she decided she wanted to be a trial lawyer. But when she enrolled at the University of Chicago to study political science, she found that she liked her part-time job as a ward secretary at the university hospital more than she liked her studies. Working on the inpatient floor, she was thrilled to be on the medical team. She worked Saturdays and Sundays, getting up at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. even after late socializing with classmates the night before. “That’s how much I loved the job,” she says.
Meanwhile, she was less and less attracted to the idea of pursuing law as a career. “I would’ve been a horrible lawyer,” she says now. “I didn’t wake up every day thinking, ‘Oh, I just can’t wait to look at another law book.’” She completed her studies in political science, but after graduating in 1980, she focused on securing interviews with drug firms and hospital supply companies. She got her first job at Procter & Gamble, selling adult disposable briefs to nursing homes and hospitals in Wisconsin and Michigan. In 1982, Potter started her biopharma career at Merck, where she would stay for 14 years. There, she led the commercialization of Prilosec, the industry’s first $5 billion drug. She also started the company Astra/Merck, which, through a series of transactions, became a part of the company that operates as AstraZeneca today. After rising to the position of vice president, Northeast Region Business Group, US Human Health, Potter left Merck in 1996 to join Bristol Myers Squibb and would soon be named president of its US cardiovascular/metabolic business. Under her leadership, that group became the largest, fastest growing, and most profitable of all BMS units. In 2000, she was recruited to Genentech as chief operating officer; in 2004, she became the company’s president of commercial operations. “I’m really proud of the fact that when I was at Genentech—at a pivotal time in its history—I led the company through 19 of 20 record quarters of consecutive sales and earnings growth,” she tells Pharm Exec. “The only quarter I missed was the quarter when I first joined.”
Potter looked set for a long career on the top team at Genentech. But then came a twist of fate. In her free time, she rode horses competitively. One day in 2004, as she was getting ready for a show on an unfamiliar horse, she misjudged the distance of a jump as she was testing the course. “I came flying off the horse from about eight feet in the air and crashed down squarely on my right shoulder.” She tore her rotator cuff and sheared off 80% of the cartilage in the joint. “I’m fortunate that I didn’t break my neck,” she says. But after a couple of surgeries, she developed serious scar tissue and, without knowing it at the time, she was “deathly allergic” to the medication she was given to treat it. Her kidneys, lungs, and liver started to fail. “To cut a long story short,” she says, stoically, “it took a while to get me diagnosed, and it certainly took me a while to recover.”
When she did recover, Potter wondered what to do next. She could have gone back to Genentech, but she had left things in very good shape there; she didn’t want to upset the dynamics of the leadership team now in place. Instead, she became excited about the prospect of taking her expertise on driving value in the pharma industry “and building a business around it, with the ability to touch more than one company.” So, in 2005, she launched Myrtle Potter & Company to advise public and private firms in the life sciences industry. The company quickly became successful. It still operates today; among its clients have been some of pharma’s most prominent organizations. “I’d never have thought about becoming an entrepreneur, but I loved running my company and did it for many years, until 2018,” Potter tells Pharm Exec. During that time, she had opportunities to leave the business and take up leading positions at major firms, but, she says, “nothing really intrigued me until I got a call from Roivant and was really taken by the business model.”
Founded in 2014, Roivant focuses on applying technology to drug development and on building subsidiary biotech and healthcare technology companies. “I really was impressed with the technology platforms they were developing,” explains Potter. “The confluence of business and technology was extremely interesting to me. It’s what got me to say, in July 2018, ‘I’m going to let my business be run by others, and I’m going to New York to play on the front lines again.’” Potter was recruited to Roivant as Vant operating chair, and in this role served on the boards of nine biopharma companies in the Roivant family, including rare enzyme deficiency company Enzyvant; women’s health and prostate cancer company Myovant; pulmonary arterial hypertension company Altavant Sciences; gene therapy company Spirovant; and urology company Urovant Sciences. In this role, Potter oversaw the testing of more than 30 investigational drugs and 11 therapeutic areas in over 50 clinical trials around the world.
In December 2019, Roivant formed a $3 billion partnership with Japanese-headquartered firm Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, which bought five of Roivant’s biotechnology companies. Potter was asked to launch the newly formed Sumitovant Biopharma, which now serves as the parent organization to the five companies purchased from Roivant—Enzyvant, Altavant, Spirovant, and Urovant, as well as Myovant, of which Sumitovant holds the majority of shares. Through the deal, Sumitovant also took ownership of two technology platforms, DrugOME and Digital Innovation. DrugOME is a computational ecosystem for “fast, high-quality, and customized answers to critical R&D and commercialization questions.” Digital Innovation enables the development of bespoke apps, data science models, and easy-to-read dashboards that visualize critical data sets. Sumitovant leverages these platforms “to develop potentially first- or best-in-class therapies across multiple indications and to speed delivery of new medicines to patients who need new treatment options.” The platforms “make us unique in that we can swiftly adapt technology capabilities in-house to deliver business and scientific insights across the spectrum,” says Potter. “They’re embedded in our business and really serve as an accelerator for us.” In 2021, Sumitovant and its five subsidiaries achieved several business milestones, including multiple FDA approvals. One recent development success she points to is Enzyvant’s RETHYMIC, which in October 2021 became the first and only FDA-approved treatment for immune reconstitution in pediatric patients with congenital athymia. Children with congenital athymia are born without a thymus, causing severe immunodeficiency and immune dysregulation. Enzyvant’s one-time, regenerative tissue-based therapy “literally saves the lives of babies with this condition,” says Potter. “These are babies who would not live beyond the age of 2 or 3 years old. In our clinical trials leading up to the FDA approval, survival rates were analyzed with the longest follow-up period of 25.5 years.”
Shortly after Potter was tasked with building and launching Sumitovant, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. No stranger to confronting adverse situations, Potter took the disruption and the changing dynamics of daily business in her stride. “We became very deliberate about looking after our employees, going beyond the usual health benefits into overall well-being,” she says. “We deployed apps for meditation and exercise and self-care really early on, because we understood that the pandemic was stressful to all of us.” Nearly two years on, Potter welcomes some of the imposed changes to the work-life balance. “The pandemic enabled a very clear perspective about our personal and working lives. We saw them blending together, but we developed a real appreciation of the importance of drawing a definitive line between the two,” she explains. “At the same time, we’ve also seen that there are more ways to get the work done. Before, our industry was on autopilot in terms of the meetings we’d go to physically. We’ve learned great technological lessons about how to interact, how to speed decision making, and how to be more efficient.” She adds, “When I hear people say, ‘I can’t wait for things to get back to normal,’ I challenge that, because we just showed that we could go beyond normal. There should be no going back now—only forward.”
Potter was also moved by how the industry and the country stepped up to the crisis. “There was an understanding of the greater good,” she says. “When you think about how fast those vaccines were developed and how the American people stepped forward to take them, even as they were still under FDA evaluation, it shows people putting trust in our industry and putting some semblance of trust in the government.” Among large parts of the population, however, trust in US institutions was severely tested at the same time, when the killing of George Floyd brought the country’s racial tensions to the surface in an explosive way. “We faced critical questions around diversity and the treatment of people of color within and outside the industry that made for some very intimate conversations within our company,” says Potter. “I’m proud of the fact that we talked openly about the issues of race.”
As a person of color herself, Potter has experienced discrimination in her career. “I’ve been in meetings where I have heard everything said. Things that would shock you—racist language, off-color language,” she says. When she walked into meetings as a pregnant woman, “people couldn’t take their eyes off my belly,” she adds. “I was probably one of the first pregnant women people had seen working as an executive.” Policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) did not feature prominently in the industry’s 1980s’ playbook, but Potter became “a leading example from the first time I became a manager.” Gradually, things began to evolve, but Potter had to learn as a young executive “how to champion my beliefs and how to ensure that the companies I worked for stood by the values that they espoused,” she says. “Did they walk the talk? It’s one thing to have it on a piece of paper; it’s another for a company to take action when they see things need to change in the organization.”
As a leader, Potter can say she has “a pretty solid track record in terms of the diversity of my teams, the hiring of women, etc.” At Sumitovant today, there are more female employees than male, and its commitment to hiring underrepresented minorities pre-dates the California law mandating diversity on company boards. This approach also makes business sense, Potter explains. “The people who take our medicines are diverse. They come from all walks of life, all races, all socio-economic backgrounds, and sexual preferences. I think it’s our obligation to look like our customers, so that we can be in a position to best serve them.” She continues, “I also believe that companies make better business decisions when there are different voices at the table who can help assess a problem or opportunity from various vantage points. I’m passionate about this and I’m committed to making more progress.”
Back when she was a student, with growing self-confidence Potter “talked her way” into a business school internship at IBM, even though she was still an undergraduate at the time. She realized at IBM that if she could combine her love of business and medicine, she’d be “happy for the rest of my working career.” She has gone on to achieve this and much more, even in the face of some major obstacles. Helping her through has been a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of positivity, resilience, and fearlessness, qualities she continues to draw on to be a force for good in the industry. Going forward, there is still more work to do, Potter points out. “And I am happy to do it.”
Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.