Hightable with Sarah Holland, Global Head of Strategic Partnering at Roche
Sarah Holland is currently Global Head of Strategic Partnering at Roche Pharmaceuticals. She has had an extremely successful career in the pharmaceutical industry; and has held varied roles including business development, commercial and strategic roles, and sales and marketing. Sarah received her D Phil in Chemistry from the University of Oxford and her MBA from Manchester Business School. Sarah was kind enough to share her wealth of experience with OBR and answer our questions on how young scientists can transition from academia to industry and how Roche chooses partners.
HOW DID YOU TRANSITION FROM ACADEMIA TO INDUSTRY?
I made the transition early in my career, by taking part in the “milk round” organised by the Oxford careers centre when I completed my D.Phil (PhD). I was offered several positions – in the Civil Service (Dept of Environment), human resources at Dow Chemical and a role in sales and marketing at Amersham International, a British science based company. I chose Amersham because it was closest to science, medicine and business and I think it was the right choice!
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO INDUSTRY?
I’m afraid I found life at the bench somewhat repetitive and lonely, I was looking for more collaboration and teamwork, with more human interaction. I also wanted to be involved in turning scientific innovation into real products that benefit patients. What is amazing is how much science I have learned since entering industry – especially in business development – it’s a very fast learning environment, even now.
WHAT MADE YOU DO AN MBA AFTER DOING A PhD?
I had been in industry for about 8 years, worked in 3 companies, in UK affiliate, European and global settings, worked in the UK and overseas, across diagnostics, biotech and big pharma. So I had a range of experiences and a lot of excellent training, particularly in pharma where I learned to think strategically. Even so, I was conscious that other people were able to draw upon frameworks and adopt structured approaches and I wanted to be like them. The Guardian newspaper ran a competition for scholarships for women to do an MBA at Manchester Business School – I went in for it and won one!
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THAT YOUNG SCIENTISTS LOOKING TO GO INTO INDUSTRY DO AN MBA?
There are many science-based roles in industry that do not require an MBA, and where other skills and qualifications are far more relevant, so it is worth thinking about career goals. An MBA helps to make a gear shift and switch career in a more generalist business direction, but it takes time and costs a lot of money. It’s worth going to a good school full-time because of the connections you make that last a lifetime. I believe it is better to do an MBA after some exposure to business, so it is relevant to real personal experiences not just theoretical, and there is a clear motivation for doing it. I would try to get maximum benefit by going to a school located in or near a strong biotech cluster.
WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN ROLES AS GLOBAL HEAD OF STRATEGIC PARTNERING FOR ROCHE PHARMACEUTICALS?
My team takes on a range of projects. We assess pharma merger and acquisition (M&A) opportunities, explore late stage partnerships on our own pipeline and look to bring in late stage assets, where we tend to look outside our usual focus areas.
HOW DOES ROCHE CHOOSE WHO TO PARTNER WITH?
We are driven by excellent science, so it is critical that there is a good scientific hypothesis being properly tested. We look for game-changing innovation that has the potential to make a clinically meaningful difference for patients with serious diseases.
ARE PARTNERSHIPS MOSTLY IN THE FORM OF MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS?
Quite the opposite! We believe that diversity drives innovation, so there is real benefit in partnering with a variety of external organisations that approach problems differently and bring a distinct perspective. Occasionally M&A is the best approach. That is usually driven by venture capital investors who have invested patiently over many years and are now looking for their reward.
ARE YOU ONLY INTERESTED IN LATE STAGE TECHNOLOGY?
Not at all. Most of our deals are early stage collaborations and licensing deals.
DO YOU WORK WITH ACADEMIC INSTITUTIONS OR MAINLY BIOTECH/PHARMA?
We work with both. We are proud of our innovative umbrella agreements with academic institutions, which are designed to test ideas quickly and seed new companies where they succeed. We also have numerous academic collaborations on specific programmes or technologies. We go wherever we can find the best science.
HOW HAS THE OVERALL PARTNERING STRATEGY CHANGED OVER THE PAST 10-20 YEARS?
I’m not sure I have that historical perspective! I can talk about the last 8 years. Roche has always focused particularly on really innovative pre-clinical and early clinical opportunities from biotech. Recently, we have seen a trend to more M&A as venture capital investors seek exits. We have also noted a fall off in available venture capital for early stage ideas, and have helped to address that gap through our umbrella agreements and our corporate venture fund.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR INITIATIVE THE FAMILY & CAREER NETWORK AT ROCHE BASEL.
Our network is a grassroots employee initiative. We believe that employees with full and rich family lives are actually stronger managers and leaders. We aim to foster a family friendly environment through exploring and helping Roche to adopt best practices. We hold monthly lunch meetings on specific topics, and champion key initiatives, such as flexible working, parental leave policy, and a framework to address care of adult and elderly family members.
DO YOU THINK THE LIFE SCIENCES INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE IS SUPPORTIVE OF YOUNG SCIENTISTS WANTING TO BALANCE FAMILY AND CAREER?
It’s probably not top of most companies’ agendas, and scientists can put in long hours when they get fired up on a project. Nevertheless, the expectations of the workforce, both men and women, are changing and companies need to adapt to succeed in the war for talent. Far-sighted companies will not ignore this topic.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FURTHER ADVICE FOR YOUNG SCIENTISTS?
The most important thing is to do what you love, be open to new experiences and remember to network widely. Often the best things happen across boundaries!
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