Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Michelle Werner’s ascension to the top spot at Alltrna, which bills itself as the “first tRNA platform company to decipher tRNA biology,” has been a career journey decades in the making. After holding senior-level late-stage development and commercialization roles at Novartis, AstraZeneca and Bristol Myers Squibb, what brought her to the start-up Flagship Pioneering company, where she is also a CEO-partner, was much more personal.
Three years ago, Werner’s son was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare and genetic disorder that triggers irreversible and progressive muscle weakening.
“This was a huge shock to my husband and I,” Werner said. “He’s just one of those unfortunate ones where he had a de novo mutation in the dystrophin gene, which causes this catastrophic diagnosis. I describe it as falling into a black hole for a period of time. It was hard to really think about what to do, and even just putting one foot in front of the other felt difficult at that time. My son’s diagnosis is certainly one of the main reasons why I decided to come to Alltrna because I was so inspired by our mission to make a difference for patients with rare and ultra-rare diseases.”
Because transfer RNA, or tRNA, plays a universal role in the protein translation process — no matter which gene, protein or mRNA — Wener said the company has the potential to create new modalities for rare genetic diseases.
“We are addressing a specific type of mutation called premature stop codon mutations, which occur in thousands of different diseases,” she said. “Our engineered tRNAs can bind that premature termination codon, know exactly what the instructions need to be for that next amino acid, and the translation process can continue as it normally would. And it can do that role across a number of different genes as long as that same mutation exists from gene to gene to gene, which it does.”
In addition to fostering an environment that allows for innovative science, Werner is excited by the prospect of structuring the company for long-term success based on a unified culture and vision.
“I’ve worked in big companies where all of that already existed, and so for the first time I have the opportunity to actually do this with the team directly, which is really fun,” she said.
In this episode of the Woman of the Week podcast, Werner, who spent most of her career in the oncology space working on immunotherapies and targeted therapies, talks about how this experience framed her perspective on developing a bold new future for patients, leadership strengths for managing through adversity, and why it’s critical that commercial and development teams work hand in hand.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, editor and chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Michelle Werner, CEO of Alltrna, and CEO-partner of Flagship Pioneering.
Taren: Michelle, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Michelle: Well, thank you so much, Taren. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Taren: I’m eager to dig in with you. You joined Alltrna as CEO just about a year ago. Let’s start off, what has been your biggest challenge and your biggest ‘aha’ moment as CEO?
Michelle: So, for me, this has been a really wonderful experience so far. And it’s my first time in the CEO role, and so there’s been a lot of learning along the way about what it really takes to lead a startup biotech company like Alltrna. I’d say, for me, it’s really about shifting my mindset because I’ve spent much of my career in late-stage development and commercialization, and now I’m thrust into the exciting opportunity of being in the early stages of a company preclinical. And so for me, the biggest challenge really has been just to have a little bit of patience as we build the company and build the platform forward and because I’m so excited about what we’re doing and have quite a bit of ambition to be able to make a difference for patients, which is what it’s all about. So, for me, I’d say it’s really about just shifting my mindset that has been the biggest challenge, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job over the course of this year.
And then from an ‘aha’ moment, I think one of the things that’s been so interesting to me has been I’m working with a team that is pretty much…I’d say 90-plus percent of my organization right now are all scientists, which is exciting but also a bit different than where I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career. And so there’s been a learning for me in terms of really understanding what makes our scientific organization really tick the things that really inspire and motivate them, and to really help bridge the intense curiosity about the science that we’re leading into the impact that we can potentially have on patients, which is where my sweet spot really is.
Taren: Fantastic. And we’re going to dig in to a little bit of that science later on. You alluded to some of your different roles that you’ve had over the last 20 years or so of your career which include Novartis, AstraZeneca, and BMS; and as you noted, this is your first CEO role. What are some of the different tools you’ve had to reach in your kit as a CEO as opposed to some of your other roles at some of the big pharma companies now that you’re an emerging company?
Michelle: Well, I’d say that one of the really exciting things about the platform that we’re leading that we have at Alltrna right now is that we have the possibility for us to move in many, many different directions; that there’s so much breadth that’s possible with the work that we’re doing. And so for me it’s really spending a lot of time to really more so focus on the work that we’re doing to make those strategic choices about which directions we want to head. And certainly having that very long-term vision, which I’ve done before in my career in certain roles, but here it’s really about planning for that long-term future of a company and really thinking broadly across what the portfolio possibilities are and to make those choices that we have today.
The other thing that I would say is also newer for me as a CEO in this particular role is really thinking about how it is that we want to structure the company and what’s the organizational design that’s going to help us be successful and to bridge for the long term; what’s the culture that we want to put in place; what are the values that are really going to inspire the work that we do every day. I’ve worked in big companies where all of that already existed, and so here’s the first time that I have the opportunity to actually do that with the team directly, which is really fun.
Taren: That’s exciting to be able to set a new course without having to worry about legacy systems or legacy culture. And you really are just leading the charge with your vision. So let’s talk about that vision. What are some of those shorter term and then longer term objectives you have for the company? And then we’ll dig in to the pipeline a little bit.
Michelle: So we are making tremendous progress with our platform, and I’d say it’s short term or near term within the next year. It’s really all about building the important capabilities that are going to help bridge our exciting science into the clinic and ultimately to patients. And so there’s a lot of work that we’re doing now to upskill the company by bringing in competencies that are going to be really important like, for example, clinical operations and things like that, which are functions that we don’t have right now. And so near term, these are the opportunities that we have as we advance our platform and that I’m really focused on doing this year.
More long term, we’ve got really quite a big ambition and what I’d say is our platform is very much about bringing a brand new modality to patients, something that’s never been done before. We are building off of the incredible progress that we’ve made over the course of the last 10 years, both in terms of creating programmable medicines but also specifically in the RNA space and with our transfer RNAs at Alltrna or tRNAs. We really do believe that we can transform clinical practice across a number of genetic diseases, and we’re really excited about the possibility of bringing that forward for patients.
Taren: Talk to me about that term ‘programmable medicines.’ That may not be a term that’s familiar to most folks.
Michelle: Yeah. I mean, this is one of the things that I think is really exciting about the work that we’re doing, but also very consistent with much of the work that Flagship Pioneering has been doing over the course of the last decade where Flagship has launched a number of different companies that are really focused on programmable medicines. And I’d say Moderna is probably the most well known of those, especially with the work that they’ve done to program the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, which I’m sure most people are very familiar with.
What we really mean by programmable medicines, I guess the way that I like to think about it is we start with the end in mind in terms of what we’re really trying to achieve for patients from a therapeutic perspective; and we work backwards then in terms of how do we need to design these molecules; how do we need to sort of understand the different rules that it takes for designing these molecules; what can we be doing to learn from one molecule to the next that gives us the clues and the patterns that we need in order to program the next one because of the learnings and the lessons that we’ve had from the first. And this allows us really the opportunity for us in a much faster way to bring forward molecules from, I’d say, discovery phase all the way into the research phase, and then ultimately the belief is into the development phase as we’ve seen with COVID-19 vaccines, for example.
Taren: So you reverse engineering in a way?
Michelle: That is correct.
Taren: That’s really exciting. And as you noted before, it’s much different than an approach you would’ve taken at a bigger pharmaceutical company. Why this approach? Why do you think this works?
Michelle: I think the reason why this works is because if we look to the way that traditional discovery has happened generally in the past and what often happens in big pharma from my time in that side of the industry I can share, we take almost a scattergun approach. We have a target that we think is of interest or is important from a disease perspective; we then sort of go from a target perspective to think, okay, how are we going to find some molecules that might be able to address that target? We sort of scatter the universe in order to be able to identify what those are; and then once we land on a few, then we start moving them forward into the clinic.
Programmable medicine is really a bit different. So instead of having that scattered approach, we have this very thoughtful, purposeful sort of design mentality of, ‘okay, this is what we’re trying to achieve, this is how we want to get there’ and then we go ahead and we start working towards that. So we have, I’d say, more successes earlier on because we’ve taken that very purposeful deliberate approach rather than this sort of scattered blanket, the universe type strategy. And the whole idea is for us to be able to get better medicines out there to patients faster.
Taren: Exciting. The company builds itself as the world’s first tRNA platform company.
Michelle: That’s correct.
Taren: That’s correct, that’s a bold statement. So where does the ‘T’ come in?
Michelle: So ‘T’ means transfer so tRNA are transfer RNA. One of the exciting things that we’ve learned over the course of the last few years is that the transfer RNA plays a very universal role in the protein translation process.
So if we think about like the central dogma or the protein translation process where DNA is transcribed into mRNA which is then translated into protein, what we’ve learned is that the tRNA actually plays this fundamentally important role where it actually is the physical link between the mRNA and the protein. And the tRNA doesn’t care which mRNA is involved, which gene is involved, which protein is being manufactured. Its role is to read the code of the mRNA, that is coding for the next amino acid in the protein chain; and then to take those instructions and deliver the correct amino acid to that protein.
And so that transfer RNA plays this very universal role no matter which gene, no matter which protein, no matter which mRNA. And it’s the universality of this particular molecule that makes it really exciting and have that potential to turn into a new modality for patients.
Taren: You talked about it earlier and it’s on your website as well being able to treat thousands of diseases.
Michelle: That’s right.
Taren: Again, it’s a very bold statement.
Michelle: And that’s exactly right. So what we’ve observed is that these tRNAs do this job, as I’ve mentioned, no matter which gene, no matter which protein, no matter which mRNA; and our first frontier in addressing a specific type of mutation is called premature stop codon mutations. And these premature stop codon mutations occur in thousands of different diseases, and we see exactly the same premature stop codon in many, many, many different diseases over and over and over again. And the universality of the tRNA comes from the fact that it’s specifically designed to read these premature termination codons and know what to do. So instead of having the premature termination codon stop the translation process prematurely, what ends up happening is our engineered tRNAs can bind that premature termination codon, know exactly what the instructions need to be for that next amino acid, and the translation process can continue as it normally would. And it can do that role across a number of different genes as long as that same mutation exists from gene to gene to gene which it does. And that’s really what’s exciting about it and that’s why we believe a single molecule may be able to address hundreds, if not thousands, of different diseases.
Taren: It’s fascinating, and thank you so much for explaining it so that I can understand it as a lay person. With so many therapeutic targets available to you, have you focused in on what your first area is going to be to address?
Michelle: So we are looking at rare genetic diseases as our first frontier and with these premature termination codons. Now as with all oligonucleotides or RNA-based technologies, we also need to think about how we deliver our molecules to the site of action where they need to be, the cells where they need to go. And for our first frontier, we’re going to be formulating with clinically validated lipid nanoparticle formulation. And so we’re going to be looking at rare genetic liver diseases as our first frontier.
Taren: Well, since we’ve tripped into the area of rare disease, I understand that you have entered into this rare disease community under less than optimal circumstances. Do you mind sharing the story around your son’s diagnosis? I was very moved when I read this.
Michelle: Of course, Taren. Yes, I’m happy to do so. So as you know, I have three kids between the ages of 11 and 15. My second child is a 12-year-old boy and he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy about three years ago now. And that was a huge shock to my husband and I, especially because it’s a rare disease. It’s genetic in nature. There’s no family history. So he’s just really one of those unfortunate ones where he had a de novo mutation in the dystrophin gene, which is one of the largest genes in the genome that caused this catastrophic diagnosis, unfortunately. I’d say I sort of describe it as we fell into a black hole for a period of time because it was such a shocking diagnosis. It was hard to really think about what to do and even just putting one foot in front of the other felt difficult at that time.
We’re in a different place now, which is good, but it’s also been a very difficult experience I will say, Taren. My son’s diagnosis nearly three years ago is certainly one of the main reasons why I decided to come to Alltrna because I was so inspired by our mission to really make a difference for patients with rare and ultra-rare diseases, which is a community that feels very much underserved by our industry. And for somebody like myself who has spent most of my career in the oncology space where I’ve had the privilege of working on a tremendous number of new modalities such as immunotherapies and targeted therapies that have made a very meaningful difference for patients with many of these types of cancers. I feel like channeling my expertise and my knowledge of the industry into the rare disease space was a purposeful choice that I wanted to make as I’d say the next phase of my career. And it’s definitely one of the reasons why I’m super excited about what we’re doing here at Alltrna.
Taren: Thank you for sharing that very personal story with us. I can imagine actually what that felt like three years ago. How did you manage to balance or maintain any kind of equilibrium between learning about that devastating disease? You’ve got two other children, you’ve got a husband, you’ve got a career – how did you manage all of that?
Michelle: I will say certainly in those early weeks and months, I’m not sure I managed anything very well, if I’m being brutally honest. But then what I realized is that I had a choice to make here and that choice was either perhaps be a victim to his diagnosis or to try to take action and to make a difference. And my choice ended up being the latter which is to try and make a difference and to take action, and to really channel I’d say the grief that I felt in those early weeks and months; and quite frankly it still exists from time to time into making a difference.
And so we’ve really charted on a whole different path for my son to really figure out what the next steps are; how can we very actively and proactively try to alter what would be his natural outcome with a diagnosis such as this one. And for me it really becomes an exercise in compartmentalizing different aspects of my life where I feel like I have a job to do as a mom in order to be able to help identify the best path forward from a medical perspective for my son and for all my kids, by the way. But then also to really be able to focus on the opportunity to make a difference more broadly. And I really just ground myself in that purpose, and it’s that purpose that really helps me accommodate these different worlds that I am living in. And having an aligned purpose actually in some ways is helpful.
Taren: Sure. And what do your kids think? Do they see this as purpose-driven as well? Because obviously this has to leak back into your family life, all this stuff, all the great moves you’re making. What do they think about all of this?
Michelle: I mean, they do. Obviously I’ve been in this industry since before they were born, and so they always know that I was in a field of advancing scientific and medical technology for the benefit of patients. Now I think everybody realizes why this is really important because we are doing it as a family together and we’re very transparent and open with our kids about the situation and the choices that we’re making and the paths that we’re taking. And so they definitely see this as a real sort of mission-driven purpose for our family, but it also really helps them understand. When I get up and do what I do every day, the kids and my husband certainly, but the kids definitely understand why I do it because we have a member in our own family who theoretically could benefit from some of these advancements such as the one that we’re working on that could make a difference for kids and for other people just like my own son.
Taren: It’s fantastic. Thank you so much again for sharing that with us. You noted earlier that you’ve been working the majority of your career in the oncology space; and in fact, one of your first jobs is at the cancer clinical trials unit at Harvard. How did this influence your career? How did you step into that?
Michelle: I think this is where it all started. I would say I landed in that job somewhat by happenstance. I had been working in a lab also at Harvard Medical School right after I graduated university, and then I quickly realized that I don’t think that working in cell culture and mouse model was for me; I was really craving the opportunity to work with people. And so that’s what really drove me to that opportunity at the cancer clinical trials unit there within that institution. I will say that was really one of the foundational moments in my career because at that point my role was really to work with patients who were participating in oncology clinical trials. Many of them have received these diagnoses that have been devastating, of course, and they’re just looking for something that they can do to try to make a difference for themselves and their loved ones, which is something, especially now, I can completely appreciate and understand that perspective.
And it was during that experience where I really got the opportunity to really meet the people behind the data that come; that is behind any of these new advancements, these new technologies that we bring forward. So it has really fundamentally changed me because now when I see data coming out of any of these clinical trials, instead of seeing a graph I see actually people; people who have really contributed to the demonstration of whether or not a technology is safe and efficacious. And it was actually during that time I was working with one particular patient who was enrolled in a lung cancer study who unfortunately had very, very difficult circumstances; and at some point during his participation in the trial, he ended up having a severe adverse event. He ended up being moved to an intensive care unit, and I went to go and visit him in part to collect the data from that experience. But during my visit to see him and to collect that data for the clinical trial, he passed away right there in front of me.
And so that was this major, major moment in my career that just made me realize we have to do better; that patients deserve better; and that this was something that I really wanted to dedicate my career to. So I’d say one of those career sort of forming moments for me, and that really is what helped embark me into the career that I’ve had since then.
Taren: What an intimate story; thank you again for sharing that. I can’t even imagine how devastating and what an impression that has left on you. Tremendous. That had to be, as you said, such an eye-opener for you, and yet not many people can rebound from that. So what do you attribute that to, like how does that propel you to go to that next level? Because some people would’ve just said, “I can’t do this because it’s hard.”
Michelle: It is hard; you’re absolutely right, Taren. I think for me it was just when I’ve got such a very firsthand look at the sheer devastation of many of these diseases that I’ve worked on and that I still work on the unmet need, the real gap in medicines that exist in order to really make a meaningful difference. It just makes me feel like I want to be a part of helping to craft a new future, a bold new future for patients. That was the choice that I made then and it’s the choice that I’ve continued to make throughout my career. And I’d say exactly the same choice that I’m making now especially geared towards genetic diseases. It’s like when you see the need and you feel like you have the ability to make a difference and address some of that need, I can’t imagine not doing it.
Taren: What a tremendous leadership strength to bring to the table. Early on in our conversation, you talked about developing and crafting the culture now at Alltrna. What are some of those things you’re looking for in terms of building out a high-performing team? What are those leadership strengths you’re looking for? And then what are those leadership strengths in addition to complete resilience that I’m hearing from you that you bring to the table?
Michelle: I’d say when we think about our values, I think that there’s so many of these that resonate with me and the experiences that I’ve had. I definitely think as you can imagine in what you’ve heard, really focusing on the patients’ understanding that they deserve better and to really work towards transforming a new future for them, that’s really critical. Also being very fueled by a purpose and using that to really inspire the work that we do and how we focus our energy. But then beyond that, it’s also about having curiosity, really understanding what it takes to explore the unknown and really pushing those boundaries of the unknown to make sure that we bring those scientific breakthroughs forward.
But then also the courage; the courage that it takes to do what we do to be on the cutting edge, to do something that’s never been done before such as living in the world of transfer RNAs. This is brand new territory for us, for anybody. And you have to have courage because there are going to be risks that we need to take. There’re going to be failures that we face. And to know that even when we fail, that we’re going to grow from those experiences because that’s ultimately what’s going to really help make a difference for patients.
And then that last but not least what I’d say from a leadership perspective, it’s really all about being like one team being united on trust and collaboration, and making sure that we embrace different voices and experiences and having that inclusivity is really, really critical for the work that we do. And so those are the types of things that I’d say really inspire us at Alltrna and that’s the type of culture that myself, my leadership team, all of us, are trying to instill.
Taren: Wonderful. And how big is your team right now? How big of a company are you right now?
Michelle: So right now we’re about 55 employees big and growing, and it’s an exciting time for us. So it’s still early days, but we’ve got a lot of excitement ahead, so we’re going to grow in order for us to be able to achieve our big ambitions.
Taren: Fantastic. I ask this to CEOs quite often is where do you look for talent right now because there are a lot of start-up companies and there are only so many people. So where are you looking for that next like cadre of talent for your organization?
Michelle: Yes. One of the great things about being in the Cambridge biotech sector is that we have a wealth of talent certainly within the industry today, but then also we have amazing talents that have joined us straight from their PhD programs from around North America or around the world even. And so we have a great number of folks that we’ve been able to bring from there. But I also think large pharma is a source for talent as well. So biotech, academia, but also pharma too. I think it’s great to be able to have a mix of different perspectives and diversity. And I do think that there is a sort of open-mindedness such as myself of people who’ve been in pharma for a long time that are also looking to get closer to science, maybe think differently about the impact that they can have on patients. And so biotech is an attractive place for even individuals who have a similar background as myself.
Taren: Absolutely. And because this is our WoW program, I have to ask you this, Alltrna has an all-woman scientific board; was that by design or happy coincidence?
Michelle: Thank you for picking up on that, Taren. I mean, we’re really proud of our scientific advisory board. And when we got to a place where we wanted to put our scientific advisory board in place, our biggest priority was to find the best and the brightest minds in the RNA space. And when we looked around the field, we have identified these four incredible scientists and leaders, these four who happen to be women, and they are amongst the absolute best in their fields of interest. So I’d say it’s super exciting to be able to work with all of them. It’s also exciting that they just happen to be women, but more importantly they are really just the top of the field and that’s really what was most important for us.
Taren: Well hoorah for you all. So a little bit of both then.
Michelle: That’s exactly right.
Taren: Fantastic. You have, as we noted it earlier too, a dual role. So you are the CEO of Alltrna but you’re also a CEO-partner of Flagship Pioneering. Tell me about that role and how you balance those dual areas of responsibility and how do they play with each other?
Michelle: So I’d say my main responsibility, of course, is really to Alltrna. That is my wake-up every day and live and die by leading Alltrna to the next day; I think that’s really my main accountability. But I do have this exciting role as CEO- partner and I have to say it’s a very unique setup that we have at Flagship. And what it means is that I also have an interest in helping to ensure that the Flagship ecosystem as a whole continues to be successful, that I can collaborate with some of the other companies and some of the other expertise within the Flagship Pioneering ecosystem itself, but that I also support my fellow colleagues across the different companies.
So there’s a great network of CEOs amongst the different flagship companies. And so us as CEO-partners, we get together periodically; we talk about some of the challenges that we’re all experiencing, many of them are similar. We brainstorm together how it is that we address them, and that gives a little bit of a flavor for what that role is really like. But I also think it gives a little bit of a flavor about what really sets Flagship Pioneering apart amongst perhaps other models that we see in the industry. And it makes me feel, especially in the CEO role, it can be a very lonely job and I’ve heard this quite a lot from my fellow CEOs in these types of positions across different companies because, of course, you have this big accountability for the company to be successful and you need to shoulder the burden quite a bit from your team so that they can stay focused on what they need to do. But within Flagship, it does feel like we have a support system in place and sometimes I’m more of a supporter and sometimes I’m more of a supportee; and I think that’s a really fantastic model and that’s how I think about the CEO partner role.
Taren: I was going to say it is such a unique ecosystem and, you’re right, being the CEO especially at a startup it can be lonely and you need that support system to bounce ideas off of to figure out how to manage certain challenges and who better to go to than some of your colleagues who are facing some of those maybe same challenges. Especially as we look to come back to work, I don’t know – you’ll tell me what Alltrna is doing now, but how are you managing this in post-COVID? Are you in a hybrid situation? Is everybody coming back to the office? Because I know this is a struggle for a lot of CEOs.
Michelle: Yeah. So we definitely support a flexible environment and working style and definitely support hybrid where it’s possible. Now given that we’re a startup very scientific organization, most of my employees are lab-based employees; not everybody but a good proportion of them are. And so many of them have been working in-person in the labs throughout the entire COVID pandemic. And so for me, I’d say we definitely are very much a back-to-work type of environment, of course, when people need to manage that balance and have that flexibility, of course, with family and other commitments. We honor and respect that and support that for each other.
But I also really believe in the power of us collaborating together, building a sense of belonging which a lot of that comes from having relationships that you can create, most of which are happening in-person or many of which are happening in-person, and that dynamic environment of being back in the office or back in a setting where you get to actually physically see people face to face. So I love that. And I would say I definitely see that we’ll be doing more and more of that as COVID becomes more of the norm rather than an exception. And we just have to create ways in which we can continue to work together, be effective, collaborate, and be sensitive to the needs and the styles of all of our employee base and the folks that we’re collaborating with.
Taren: Perfect. There’s no one right answer that we’re finding. It’s really about the individual companies and the workforce. As you said, most of your folks are in the lab, so by necessity they need to be in-person. But you’re figuring it out, so kudos to you and your team. We’ve talked a lot about your experiences over the years and you’ve managed, as you noted earlier, quite a few new molecular entities and brought them through to commercialization. How are those lessons being incorporated into what you’re doing now at Alltrna? Do you see this is an opportunity as the company progresses for you to take one of your drugs all the way to market?
Michelle: Yeah. I mean, that’s our plan, right? Of course, a lot of it is going be dependent on data and how the science unfolds, of course. But as I mentioned, we really do believe that tRNAs, transfer RNAs, have the potential to become a new modality for patients. And I’m very excited about the possibility of bringing many medicines forward into the clinic and then hopefully to patients in a commercial capacity as time goes on.
Now what I would say is it’s been exciting in my career to have worked on many, many launches during this time; and I’d say there’s been quite a number of learnings, like lessons learned, along the way which I think are really important. And I’d say some of them that I think about all the time, and perhaps it may be more acute now because I come from a more commercial background late-stage development in commercialization but really commercialization, and really focused on launches, that many of the experiences in terms of how I’ve launched medicines in the past I’m already thinking about now despite the fact that Alltrna is still in preclinical stages. For example, really just trying to get to a real understanding about why a clinician makes a certain treatment choice for a patient and really understanding the emotional drivers behind that choice, not just the sort of tangible drivers of data but the emotional drivers that lead him or her to pick a medicine A or medicine B.
These are things that I think about all the time as we’re progressing our platform, because not only do I think that we need to understand what the impact can be from a patient perspective, we also need to really understand how a clinician what they’re going to be thinking about and what they’re going to be looking for in order to be able to know whether or not this is something that’s going to be used clinically even if we have data to prove that it can make an impact for patients.
Taren: Michelle, so smart. Again, reverse engineering – very, very smart to be thinking along those lines as you go forward. Again, because this is our WoW podcast, you recognize the fact that as a woman CEO you’re in rarified air. There’s just not that many of you, the numbers are growing especially in the biotech sector, but that puts you in a position of being a role model. Do you consider yourself to be a role model and how does that role feel to you?
Michelle: Yeah. I mean, I hope I’m a role model; I believe that I am. What I will say is that, yes, but I hope it’s also not just because I’m a woman, right? I hope it’s because I’m a caring and authentic leader that also has a track record of experiences that can be seen as something that’s noteworthy and valuable. I’m comfortable in this position and I think in part because I’ve benefited tremendously from having a great number of role models also inspire my career. I’ve always been very focused on developing people whether it’s people that I’ve worked with, colleagues of mine, people in my team, peers, or even I’ve participated in like, let’s say, reverse mentoring type programs where I’ve had the opportunity to also be role models perhaps to even more senior people than myself. I do think that all of us need role models, and if I can be a role model for somebody who’s emerging in their career, who’s thinking about different choices that they need to make in their life — yeah, I mean I’d love to be seen as somebody who can help support or inspire those critical milestones. So, yeah, for me, I think this feels like a very natural role.
Taren: Fantastic. And it’s a role that I can tell you’re very comfortable in it and you’re setting the right tone in your organization. You talked about having had some mentors and people who have been role models for you. Is there anybody in particular that has had a particular influence on your career?
Michelle: There have been many, absolutely. And I’m going to say one that perhaps is a bit cliché, but I definitely think my mom has been one of the most inspiring role models and mentors for me in my career. Maybe just a 30-second background; I mean she was in the financial services sector at a time where many women were not, and she ended up reaching to the heights of really leading an organization and achieving a tremendous amount as president, maybe not CEO but really getting very, very close. And I think given that she was doing this at a time especially was very unexpected for women to be in those types of positions, it’s really influenced me tremendously in the choices that I made, the beliefs on what I could achieve, really creating no ceiling whatsoever. And so I give her a tremendous amount of credit, I mean both my parents of course, but certainly seeing my mom reach those heights made it very tangible and pragmatic that perhaps I could as well.
Taren: Michelle, mom is never a cliché – never. Don’t ever think about it. That is fantastic. You talked about having a great role model to follow, as you said no ceilings, so it does open up all avenues when you don’t have any preconceived barriers or obstacles that you need to overcome. And I was intrigued by the fact that she was in the financial services – and not to date you, but given your position now where you are, chances are she was at a time when most women at the time needed permission from their husbands to even get a credit card, much less be able to achieve getting to be president of a financial organization.
Michelle: That’s true. I mean she had to negotiate with her dad to go to college because her dad wanted to send her to secretarial school and my mom had to make a choice and say, that’s not in the cards for me, I’m going to go to college instead.
Taren: So definitely mom is not a cliché; mom is a trailblazer. So good for her, good for you. Over the course of your career, you’ve no doubt bumped into some good leaders and some bad leaders. What are some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Michelle: I’ve had a lot in my career and I will say one of the things that I keep going back to is two things: Number one, take care of myself, right? That it’s really important not just to take care of others and to focus on the work, but I can be my best self when I also take care of myself. So this is definitely an advice that I’ve been given throughout my career, which I think is important. And then the last I would say is like really about me being an authentic person, like truly finding who I am as a leader and being the best version of myself. Now that probably came as a result of being encouraged to try to be more like another leader, like the leader that a company wanted me to be; but then me realizing that maybe that wasn’t the best advice, but maybe the best advice was for me to figure out who I can be to be the best leader Michelle can be.
Taren: That’s fantastic. And I think that first piece of advice ‘learning to take care of yourself’ is something that women just don’t do quite as well as men do. It’s just the way it is because of the multiple demands that are on your time and your resources. There’s so many hours in the day and there are only so many days in the week; so that is a great advice. And authenticity always wins in the end. And as you look forward, that authenticity piece is going to obviously be so important because you’re going to have to be in some tough negotiations with some investors, et cetera, so that voice, your voice is going to be so important to have at the table and being sure of yourself. Congratulations on all of the great success you’ve had so far. I’d love to talk to you for another hour, but our time is slightly coming to an end. So we’ve talked about so many WoW moments between your son and your first encounter with a patient in having to manage through them dying and your mom’s tremendous success. Is there another WoW moment that has either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you, or is it one of those?
Michelle: I definitely think all of those have been hugely important in who I’ve become today and the career that I have right now. But I will also say maybe perhaps last one that I’ll share with you. Also in my career when I was in biotech, I actually started my career often in research and development so I was in clinical operations for a number of years before moving into the fields that I’ve been focused in more recently. And I was working at a company leading one of the clinical trials that ended up being the very first product that the company launched. So all of a sudden as companies do as they gear towards an approval, we hire commercial people, we hire medical affairs people in order to be able to bring what was an investigational agent in a clinical trial to a commercialized medicine in the market. And to me that was such an interesting experience especially because I felt like we all of a sudden started to ask ourselves really important questions about what it was going to take for this medicine to be successful commercially, which we didn’t think about when we were putting our clinical plans together.
So for me, the real WoW moment, I would say, is really having this realization that commercial and development need to come together much, much, much earlier in the lifecycle of our products. And that in doing so, I believe that we can be much more effective at getting better medicines out there to patients faster and that’s really what brought me into this industry in the first place. And so I’d say it was going through that experience that really sort of made me transition my career from R&D over to commercial, and then ultimately helping me get to where I am today. So I give a tremendous amount of credit to that particular experience in really shaping who I am and how I’ve gotten to the CEO position that I’m in right now.
Taren: Michelle, thank you so much for sharing that. What an interesting insight of that handshake that has to happen, right? It’s that bridge that needs to be tapped far more efficiently and as you said much earlier on in the process, and it obviously is guiding your decisions today at Alltrna. I want to wish you continued success, and I want to wish you all the best with your son and hope we’re on a positive trajectory for both of those entities. Thank you so much for your time today. Thank you so much for being so open with your story. And thank you for giving us hope for what you all are doing and how to tackle some of these tough, tough diseases that are out there, so thank you so much.
Michelle: Well, thank you so much, Taren. It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation and to be a part of this podcast, and for all the great work that you’re doing in this space.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.
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