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Trading Big Pharma for Small Startup


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-04-01-2018
Volume 38
Issue 4

Senior leaders in the life sciences share stories on making the jump from the pharma to biotech worlds-and the innate drivers behind such moves.

Senior leaders in the life sciences share the varying intangibles and motivations driving career leaps from pharma to biotech  


After speaking with at least a half-dozen C-suite level executives who made the leap from big pharma to lesser-known startup or biotech companies, it’s very clear that there is something deep down in their personalities that propelled them to make the move. 

Some of them were at the top of their field when they made the switch. Some were presented with an opportunity they couldn’t turn down. Others were searching for something different from what they had done for a majority of their life and were ready for a change. While still others were finally experiencing some financial stability that allowed them to quit the corporate rat race and follow their passion. In each situation, executives were compelled to push out of their comfort zones and embrace change. 

Forward thinking  

For Dr. Maureen Cronin, the opportunity to join startup Ava, a medical technology company focused on innovations in women’s reproductive health and best known as the creator of its cycle-tracking sensor bracelet, hit a number of personal and professional buttons for her, including passion and flexibility. 

Cronin has strong pharma roots. She was a member of the executive committee at Vifor Pharma, reporting directly to the CEO, and at Bayer HealthCare, she was a member of a select task force that created the global medical affairs organization after the merger of Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Schering AG. One of Cronin’s core interests has been directing numerous large, Phase IV epidemiological studies, mainly in the women’s health field, to better understand the medical needs of patients worldwide.

Ava approached Cronin about joining its team full-time as the organization’s chief medical officer when the consulting project she was working on with them was over. The San Francisco and Switzerland-based company ended up being a perfect fit for Cronin, who at the time had been running her own consulting business from her home in Europe. She was hired by Ava in February. 

“In big pharma, I did some really fascinating things,” says Cronin, recalling being on stage with the likes of former secretary of state and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, working in Africa to help women get access to contraception, and creating incredible growth in the area of female reproduction. 

But, for Cronin, leaving big pharma allowed her to have a better quality of life-both personally and professionally, she says. “I don’t have to wear a business suit anymore,” she jokes. “I can get up, go do a sport, take a shower, and then go to work in jeans. I like the informality of a startup world and the relaxed atmosphere, while still having the ability to work with highly responsibly, hard-working, and motivated team members who believe in what they do.” 

Now, Cronin has swapped big meetings for Skype chats and corporate bureaucracy for the ability to make quick decisions with less red tape.

A natural progression  

Cronin’s story-a big pharma executive being courted to stay on after a consulting project or flat-out poached away from a pharma company-is what a majority of people think of when discussing someone joining a biotech or related startup. However, such scenarios are not always the case. 

According to recruiters, such as Alyse Forcellina at Egon Zehnder, the C-suite business skills most desired by biotechs or early startups are those tied to experience with mergers and acquisitions, bringing a product to market, and business development. But, after talking with executives who have made the move, there may not be as much of an active talent grab happening as one might initially think. In fact, many of the people Pharm Exec spoke with made the switch on their own because of a career desire that kept gnawing away at them. 

Take, for example, Luca Santarelli, the CEO and cofounder of Therachon, a rare disease startup based in Europe. He is also a venture partner at Versant Ventures. Previously, Santarelli was senior vice president and head of neuroscience, ophthalmology, and rare diseases, as well as small molecule research, at Roche, where he spent 12 years. Prior to joining Roche,  Santarelli was a faculty member at Columbia University and a co-founder of BrainCells Inc., a biotech focused on the discovery of novel antidepressants that are able to stimulate the growth of new neurons. He started the company with Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, Rene Hen, and Fred Gage. Santarelli also previously cofounded Synosia and Flexion, two of Roche’s asset spin-offs, and led the company to multiple in-licensing deals.

Santarelli has continuously reinvented himself professionally as his desire to be challenged and learn has grown. For the executive, being able to create something from the ground up has been rewarding. As a trained psychiatrist and keen to understanding human behavior, Santarelli knows the type of person who will thrive in a startup biotech environment. After all, he is one of those people. 

“It is very hands on,” he says. “In big pharma, it’s very compartmentalized. In biotech, you do everything. I had to find space [for the office], deal with rental agreements, find an accountant, do payroll, find a lawyer to deal with intellectual property.”

Santarelli adds of the distinction: “You don’t just do what is on the job description. It’s about getting up in the morning and knowing I own the consequences of everything I do.”

A successful switch

To make the leap from corporate pharma to a biotech startup environment, it requires a certain type of person. Someone, Santarelli says, who takes motivation one step further, and is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and dive right into areas they might have no previous experience in.

That approach might very well describe Lara Sullivan, president and founder of SpringWorks Therapeutics, who could have one of the more unique stories when it comes to making the jump to biotech from big pharma. SpringWorks was conceived out of a project she was working on while at Pfizer. Sullivan, who holds an MD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, an MBA from UPenn’s Wharton School, and a BA in comparative literature from Cornell University, had joined Pfizer from McKinsey & Company, where she was an associate partner in the pharmaceutical and medical products practice, advising biopharma clients on a variety of strategic and operational issues, with a particular emphasis on R&D productivity.

During her time at Pfizer, Sullivan headed up strategy and portfolio operations for the company’s early-stage pipeline. While in that position, she saw, first-hand, programs at various stages of development that held a lot of promise, but through no fault of their own, couldn’t be continued. 

Pfizer’s chief medical officer at the time noticed this, too, and tapped Sullivan to help figure out if something could be done to help these promising therapies stay alive within the pipeline. About two years later, the result was SpringWorks, the startup spun out of Pfizer.

“When we started out, we weren’t thinking we would end up with a new company,” says Sullivan. “Actually, we didn’t know what we would end up with.” Once it became clear a new company was the way to go, they conducted an executive search to staff the startup, and Sullivan threw her hat in the ring. 

“I thought to myself, ‘okay, I could pull this transition off,’ and it felt really exciting and invigorating to have more of a direct impact in a small company, where we have to perform all the functions,” she says. “We have to do everything from clinical trial design to deciding how to perform HR reviews and talent management. We don’t have to do it at the same level of formality that big pharma does, but we have to

have enough of it to guide a team.” 

That transition Sullivan was referring to was the ability to have enough experience, knowledge, contacts, and confidence to get her through any situation that was hurled at her or her team. It’s the reality that a startup may not have a regulations expert, a team to conduct interviews of candidates, or someone to order business cards at their finger tips. 

In fact, Sullivan recalls a story where the team was on a conference call and a conversation started about who was going to design their business cards-something most employees don’t think twice about when working for a large corporation. Soon after, the clinical operations person who was on the call took it upon herself to jump right in, design the cards, and then send them to the rest of the team. 

“You don’t need a job title change for the chance to be stretched professionally,” says Sullivan. “You don’t need to worry about stepping on someone else’s role. No one will tell you to not do something.”

Today, SpringWorks is made up of about 50% pharma legacy and 50% biotech, which Sullivan calls “a great balance.” She says sometimes pharma alumnae in biotech laugh about the layers and layers of committees they had to previously go through to get things done, as they now usually have a hand in almost every aspect of the company-but quickly adds it’s something most employees take for granted when they are in those positions.

Ultimately, Sullivan says pharma and biotech have more similarities than differences, which is why so many people are drawn from one to the other. The fundamental desire to deliver an impact and help patients is the motivating factor in both settings; it’s the culture and business structure that is the biggest difference.


Michelle Maskaly is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at michelle.maskaly@ubm.com and on Twitter at @mmaskaly

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