From Cyprus to Cambridge: The Rise of Anna Protopapas, Millennium Takeda's New President

February 2, 2014
William Looney

Pharmaceutical Executive

Millennium Takeda’s new president, Anna Protopapas, explains to Pharm Exec’s William Looney the life choices that brought her from Cyprus to Cambridge.

Takeda’s Oncology Taskmaster Millennium Takeda’s new president, Anna Protopapas, explains to Pharm exec’s William Looney the life choices that brought her from Cyprus to Cambridge-and a lead position in the hotly contested search to make cancer a treatable disease. PE: The ascent to the “c suite” is not exclusively the result of hard work. Culture, personality – and, yes, luck – are often more important determinants. Can you describe how you handled some of the transition points that led you to the position you hold today? Protopapas: I was born and spent my childhood in Cyprus, in the midst of a civil war. It was my earliest formative experience, teaching me that nothing should ever be taken for granted. My parents lost everything and the cold reality was such that I had no choice but to take risks. The experience shaped both my personal and professional life, expressed in a mindset that makes me very open to change and to trying new things. Luck was also an element. After deciding to leave Cyprus, I applied for a US government scholarship to attend university here, but found I was disqualified for having a working mother. What happened next is an example of that random act of good will that you think only happens in the cinema: a staffer at the US Embassy in Nicosia glanced at my application, invited me in to meet him, and then at his own behest helped me file applications independently to a number of US universities, adding in his own – and entirely unsolicited – letter of recommendation. This led to my admission to Princeton as a scholarship student. I never saw that man again, but I would not be here today had he not seen something in my application that induced him to make this extraordinary effort to help me when I needed it most. The immigrant experience has prodded me to embrace change at crucial stages of my career. After graduate work in engineering at MIT and Stanford, I worked for many years in the engineering business. But I wanted more exposure to smaller start-ups in growth industries. I became interested in pharmaceuticals after meeting the founder of Millennium, Dr. Mark Levin, who sold me on his vision of a future in which the mapping of the human genome would transform biology and create an entirely new class of medicines to treat incurable diseases. Science in the pursuit of a social mission appealed to me, so when he offered me a job I took it, even though a small voice in my head cautioned that Millennium was not yet a sustainable business; my job, as is the case in many start-ups, would require me to make it up as I went along. That was 1997, and I have been here ever since. PE: You made your mark at Millennium by building the business development function. What learnings can you share from your many years on the front lines of pharma licensing and M&A? Protopapas: Business development has been critical to the growth of Millennium and is also a high priority for Takeda as it seeks to become more global, so throughout my career in both companies I have never been far from the center of decision-making. Prior to the merger with Takeda, I led numerous discussions on partnerships, which were pivotal to Millennium’s pipeline strategy. This resulted in Takeda CEO Hasegawa asking me to run business development for the entire company, a position I accepted because achieving the vision of globalization depended on a well executed acquisition strategy. Again, it was not without risks, as I was aware of being the first non-Japanese executive to supervise this important activity. Since then, in addition to purchasing Nycomed, we have acquired five other companies. These acquisitions have literally changed the face of the company. While Takeda was clearly innovative, it lacked the global commercial infrastructure necessary to bring these innovations forward to more patients. Plugging this gap became our priority objective. Subsequently, we identified Nycomed as an acquisition target because it had strong commercial roots in Europe and the emerging country markets, areas where Takeda was weak, without duplicating our strength in the US and Japan. Nycomed proved to be a more complicated transaction than we had anticipated. It took six months of very intense negotiations requiring extensive due diligence because Nycomed was a private equity operation. We had to move step by step to compile the evidence to secure internal – and external – support for the transaction. I knew we had to build a story that allowed others in both organizations to reach the same conclusion about going forward, on their own, especially in light of Takeda’s consensus based decision-making. This was different than the top down stance of simply saying “we’re doing this, so get on board.” The inclusive approach strengthened my conviction that the acquisition would create two productive synergies. The first was the cost and efficiency gains. These have been completed and the savings have far exceeded our expectations. The second is “top line” enhancements from the expansion and redesign of commercial infrastructure, moving Takeda products through the Nycomed distribution channels, and vice versa. This is still a work in progress, but as more new products come on stream, the value of a bigger development, sales and manufacturing network is going to become apparent.

Anna Protopapas

Millennium Takeda’s new president, Anna Protopapas, explains to Pharm Exec’s William Looney the life choices that brought her from Cyprus to Cambridge-and a lead position in the hotly contested search to make cancer a treatable disease.

PE: The ascent to the “c suite” is not exclusively the result of hard work. Culture, personality – and, yes, luck – are often more important determinants. Can you describe how you handled some of the transition points that led you to the position you hold today?

Protopapas: I was born and spent my childhood in Cyprus, in the midst of a civil war. It was my earliest formative experience, teaching me that nothing should ever be taken for granted. My parents lost everything and the cold reality was such that I had no choice but to take risks.
The experience shaped both my personal and professional life, expressed in a mindset that makes me very open to change and to trying new things.

Luck was also an element. After deciding to leave Cyprus, I applied for a US government scholarship to attend university here, but found I was disqualified for having a working mother. What happened next is an example of that random act of good will that you think only happens in the cinema: a staffer at the US Embassy in Nicosia glanced at my application, invited me in to meet him, and then at his own behest helped me file applications independently to a number of US universities, adding in his own – and entirely unsolicited – letter of recommendation. This led to my admission to Princeton as a scholarship student. I never saw that man again, but I would not be here today had he not seen something in my application that induced him to make this extraordinary effort to help me when I needed it most.

The immigrant experience has prodded me to embrace change at crucial stages of my career. After graduate work in engineering at MIT and Stanford, I worked for many years in the engineering business. But I wanted more exposure to smaller start-ups in growth industries. I became interested in pharmaceuticals after meeting the founder of Millennium, Dr. Mark Levin, who sold me on his vision of a future in which the mapping of the human genome would transform biology and create an entirely new class of medicines to treat incurable diseases. Science in the pursuit of a social mission appealed to me, so when he offered me a job I took it, even though a small voice in my head cautioned that Millennium was not yet a sustainable business; my job, as is the case in many start-ups, would require me to make it up as I went along. That was 1997, and I have been here ever since.

PE: You made your mark at Millennium by building the business development function. What learnings can you share from your many years on the front lines of pharma licensing and M&A?

Protopapas: Business development has been critical to the growth of Millennium and is also a high priority for Takeda as it seeks to become more global, so throughout my career in both companies I have never been far from the center of decision-making. Prior to the merger with Takeda, I led numerous discussions on partnerships, which were pivotal to Millennium’s pipeline strategy. This resulted in Takeda CEO Hasegawa asking me to run business development for the entire company, a position I accepted because achieving the vision of globalization depended on a well executed acquisition strategy. Again, it was not without risks, as I was aware of being the first non-Japanese executive to supervise this important activity. Since then, in addition to purchasing Nycomed, we have acquired five other companies.

These acquisitions have literally changed the face of the company. While Takeda was clearly innovative, it lacked the global commercial infrastructure necessary to bring these innovations forward to more patients. Plugging this gap became our priority objective. Subsequently, we identified Nycomed as an acquisition target because it had strong commercial roots in Europe and the emerging country markets, areas where Takeda was weak, without duplicating our strength in the US and Japan.

Nycomed proved to be a more complicated transaction than we had anticipated. It took six months of very intense negotiations requiring extensive due diligence because Nycomed was a private equity operation. We had to move step by step to compile the evidence to secure internal – and external – support for the transaction. I knew we had to build a story that allowed others in both organizations to reach the same conclusion about going forward, on their own, especially in light of Takeda’s consensus based decision-making. This was different than the top down stance of simply saying “we’re doing this, so get on board.”

The inclusive approach strengthened my conviction that the acquisition would create two productive synergies. The first was the cost and efficiency gains. These have been completed and the savings have far exceeded our expectations. The second is “top line” enhancements from the expansion and redesign of commercial infrastructure, moving Takeda products through the Nycomed distribution channels, and vice versa. This is still a work in progress, but as more new products come on stream, the value of a bigger development, sales and manufacturing network is going to become apparent.

For the full version of this interview, see the February 2014 issue of Pharmaceutical Executive, or click here.

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