Chief Executive Officer, Sumitovant
Myrtle, you are the Chief Executive Officer at Sumitovant. Tell us about your career and your current role.
I came to Sumitovant with a track record of leading complex, fast-growing businesses and bringing novel treatments to market, having previously served as Vant Operating Chair at Roivant. In my role at Roivant, I helped oversee 35 investigational drugs in 11 therapeutic areas being tested in over 50 clinical trials across the Roivant family of companies.
Before Roivant, I founded Myrtle Potter & Company, a life sciences advisory firm, where we advised public and private life science corporations and boards of directors on corporate strategy commercialization and product development. I served as their CEO from 2005 until June 2018. Before that, I was Chief Operating Officer, and later President, of Genentech, during a pivotal period of the company’s history when revenue and profit grew five-fold under my leadership. During this time, I was Co-Chair of the company’s Product Portfolio Committee that made all investment and “go/no go” decisions for Genentech’s large clinical development portfolio. Before Genentech, I was President of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s U.S. Cardiovascular and Metabolic business, and I served at Merck where I founded and launched Astra/Merck that today operates as AstraZeneca. I started my career at Merck, where I served for 14 years and started the biotech company AstraMerck, which through a few transactions today operates as AstraZeneca.
To go all the way back, I started my career at Procter & Gamble, where I sold adult disposable briefs to nursing homes and hospitals in the state of Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. That gives you a good overview of my career before I came to Roivant and Sumitovant.
In my day-to-day role at Sumitovant, I oversee the strategic direction of the company and ensure we have the resources, talent, and motivation to achieve our goals. I also ensure that our goals, objectives, and strategies are achieved within the specified timeframes. But most important, I’m a motivator and leader for all of our employees. We can only achieve our goals when everyone at the company is committed to our mission and feels supported by our leadership team.
What’s your favorite part of the job and what are the challenges?
My most favorite part of the job is thinking about the strategic matters that can enable us to break even by 2023 and be ranked in the top 50 drug companies in the world by 2024. The most challenging part of the job is assuring that I am spending enough time looking outward to assure that my strategic views are being challenged and made better by my encounters with those who are smarter and more experienced than I am.
Who are your closest internal partners in your role?
In my role, I work most closely with the members of the executive leadership team on a day-to-day basis as well as our colleagues at Sumitomo Pharma. But as the CEO, I am the leader of every single person in this organization. I am their cheerleader, their motivator, their biggest supporter. I, and the rest of the Executive Leadership Team, couldn’t achieve anything without every single employee at Sumitovant. And there is not a single second of the day that I forget that.
Do you have a guiding principle in your career?
I have 3 guiding principles:
- Be unapologetically fearless. If you are unapologetically fearless, new opportunities will continue to come your way. The worst that will happen is you will be pushed and perhaps even fail. The outcome is you will have learned from your experience.
- Surround yourself with the smartest, most passionate and motivated people you can find. There is simply no substitute for a high-performing team focused on achieving well defined goals and aspirations
- Never hire in your own image. Bring people to the table who think differently from you.
Who were the people who have helped you the most to get to where you are now?
I attribute my success to is having parents who believed in me and had the faith to let me pursue my dreams. My mother reinforced the importance of education. My parents reinforced how important it is to work together as a team. My first lessons about teamwork came from within my family. My parents’ fearlessness led to my fearlessness as I went through one door after the other that, quite frankly, many were surprised to see me coming through.
When you think back to your college or university days, what classes or subjects did you like the most?
My degree is in Political Science. Earning a liberal arts degree at the University of Chicago provided a core curriculum with critical thinking and inquiry, research and problem solving that are core capabilities for any profession. While I regret not going to business school, I am happy that I had the courage to talk my way into a business school internship program even though I wasn’t a business major. I landed an internship with IBM in sales.
My big break came when I was asked to write a biotech business plan. This was a break because it filled in a lot of the pieces in my education and background that I probably would have picked up in business school, such as more in-depth business operations planning, strategic planning, financial planning experience, and more in-depth general manager skills. It was my first big job that gave me a general management view of the business.
This is why I always encourage those I mentor to take risks and be fearless.
In your opinion, what is the biggest impact Sumitovant will have on patients and the world?
Our single aim is to make a difference in the lives of people globally by harnessing the power of technology to develop innovative medicines faster and better. I believe that there are technology solutions that can be applied today that are not necessarily being used widely. Within Sumitovant, we have two very important technology platforms that give us the kind of insights around business and around science that help us get drugs through the clinic faster and hopefully help us make our drugs for patients even better. That is the biggest impact we can have – helping patients sooner. It is exciting to see our pipeline products advancing to the next level of commercial launch with Myovant’s relugolix and Urovant’s vibegron this year. This is great for patients.
How will biopharma companies change over the next 10, 20 years?
I think the future for the biopharma industry is bright. That’s why I am so passionate about my current role. But this bright future will only happen if we fundamentally understand that what matters most now is our ability to satisfy the needs of our consumers, the patients, not the doctors. If we solve the problem of the patient, the doctor will come. We keep talking about the power of consumerism in so many industries and yet the healthcare industry is still too often not consumer focused. I also see the role of women consumers in this field to be much more important in the future. Women are more often the caretakers of children and the elderly, which gives them very powerful roles. We should embrace that.
What is your vision for commercialization, getting therapies to patients?
We are sourcing new assets, filling our pipeline and using technology to accelerate discovery and clinical development so that we can get new therapies approved and to patients faster. We have a robust pipeline of drug candidates from our five Vants – late- and early-stage investigational therapies – across a range of disease areas and an advanced data technology platform that will help them reach the market with less friction. We have a robust pipeline of drug candidates for women’s health, urology, rare diseases and cystic fibrosis, with potential for as many as 10 commercial launches within the next five years.
Is there a leader who inspires you?
My mother was my greatest inspiration. She passed away in late January, but she was a force of nature and a staunch advocate for children, the aging, and women’s rights. She was a brilliant, brave, inspiring, compassionate black woman, who lifted and stretched everyone who knew her.
In your opinion, what’s the most pressing societal issue we are facing these days?
I would say it still is the limitations certain segments of society are facing. If you look at the numbers, you see that the higher echelons of our society are still dominated by people who were born into the upper 5% of income, and with Ivy League-equivalent educations. I am very optimistic though about what I’m seeing in this country right now. People of color who have largely been disadvantaged and even killed without reason are rising up and demanding to be treated like everyone else. It is a shame this even has to happen in the year 2021 but better now than never. I am also extremely encouraged that you see people of all colors, backgrounds, and education levels in the streets, protesting against police brutality, for equal rights, and to be given the chance to move up in society. It’s about time this is happening. Everyone should support this.
But let me also talk about the biotech industry a bit. Biotech is still, to a large part, a male-dominated industry. There’s the fact that our pay is still behind men in equivalent jobs. There’s the perception that we don’t work as hard as men. And there’s the fact that women drop out of their careers, often voluntarily. The good news is numbers show that biotech and pharma are opening new doors for women, paying them more fairly, breaking the glass ceiling, becoming gender-blind in how they hire and promote. But we still have a long way to go.
What advice would you give young women who are about to start their careers?
As you can imagine, I have a lot to say about this, but I will limit it to five key things:
- Have a goal and aspirations.
- Find a caring circle of confidants who support your dreams and tell you the truth.
- Be flexible and fearless enough to absorb the bumps in the road and even take a different path that may pop up.
- Spend more time looking forward than looking back.
- Shut down the negative self-talk.
Know who you are and what you want. I know this is a process and may take some time. But if you don’t know where you want to go, you will have a hard time getting anywhere. Until then – be naïve and think you can do anything you want.
Don’t be surprised that they sound contradictory. They are. But these are my lessons of the road.
What was your favorite project you’ve ever worked on?
I would say it wasn’t one particular project but a series of projects. When I was president and COO at Genentech, we achieved record sales and earnings growth for nineteen of twenty consecutive quarters and launched seven novel therapies in five years. The company launched seven breakthrough products including Avastin™, the blockbuster cancer treatment. During my tenure there, I co-chaired the Product Portfolio Committee, which made all asset investment and prioritization decisions for Genentech’s drug pipeline, making it the most valuable drug pipeline in the world at that time. That is something I am incredibly proud of, especially when I think about the positive impacts these drugs have had on patients around the world.