Fierce Women in Biopharma 2016: Outstanding female leaders at Roche

We are pleased that among the 16 women who have been named by Fierce Pharma as the most important female leaders in the healthcare sector in 2016 are two from our company: Carole Nuechterlein, Head of Roche Venture Fund, and Nancy Valente, Head of Global Haematology Development. Read their story and find out what it takes to get to the top. 

According to a new analysis by the World Intellectual Property Organization, women are fast catching up in the area of research and development: They are involved in 29% of the international patent applications filed in 2015, compared with 17% in 1995. With over 1000 women inventors listed on patents filed between 2011 to 2015, Roche ranks fifth overall and second among pharma companies in the number of patents filed listing women as inventors.

However, women in senior positions in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry are still the exception rather than the rule. Carole Nuechterlein puts it very bluntly: “There are very few women CEOs in biotech and those CEOs are exceptional performers because women must be better than men to achieve the same respect.” 

A knack for bold deals

The picture shows Carole Nuechterlein, Head of Roche Venture Fund
Carole Nuechterlein, Head of Roche Venture Fund

A recent study shows that only 7% of venture partners in the top 100 venture firms are women.  Carole Nuechterlein has not only been heading the Roche Venture Fund (RVF) since 2002, but leads a team including three women, which is exceptional in the venture community. RVF invests in start-ups in fields such as rare diseases and immunotherapies as well as diagnostics and sequencing companies. Carole has been impressed with how gene therapy and genome sequencing have made huge progress in the past three years. As she told Fierce Pharma: “That will impact medical treatments in the future and our understanding of how people respond to medicines.”

If you ask Carole what a woman needs to do to get on in the pharmaceutical or any industry, her answer is basically: “Get your lunch schedule right.” As she told Fierce Pharma, “When I first started at Roche 15 years ago, people would set up educational meetings to ask me what I did. It was always men – my advice to women is to reach out”.  “Many more women do this than in the past and that pleases me.”

Female role models are vital

Nancy Valente, Head of Hematology at Roche, also advises women to network. For Nancy, this means sharing with different people what you are, what motivates you and what you have achieved. As she told Fierce Pharma, the point is to “find the people who are going to be your biggest fans”.

Female role models played a central role on Nancy’s way to the top. “We’ve had and continue to have so many great women leaders at Genentech,” she told Fierce Pharma. Her early career was influenced by Susan Desmond-Hellman, who used to head product development at Genentech and is now CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her enthusiasm and her determination to improve patients’ lives had a lasting impact on Nancy. Sandra Horning, Roche’s Chief Medical Officer, showed her that “with a combination of a sharp mind that’s focused on the science and a great leadership style, you can positively influence an entire organization – a single person can do that,” she explained in the interview with Fierce Pharma. 

Pioneer in haematology

The picture shows Nancy Valente, Head of Haematology Development at Roche
Nancy Valente, Head of Hematology at Roche

As a leading haematologist, Nancy is now inspiring employees herself and developing medicines that save people’s lives. Her best day at Genentech was a few years ago, when she was awarded a prize at a meeting of the Lymphoma Research Foundation. After the award ceremony, a patient came up to her and thanked her for one of Roche's medicines which had saved his life.

The key to the success in science is cooperation across departmental boundaries, particularly in haematology. The field is “very complex”, Nancy told Fierce Pharma, and consists of a large number of highly distinctive diseases. “It takes a lot of collaboration and focus on the science to be successful.”

Helping disadvantaged young women

When Nancy is not researching she spends her time on another project that is close to her heart: the “Women’s Audio Mission”, the first non-commercial recording studio founded and operated by women. Its aim is to teach socially disadvantaged young women how to produce music in front of and behind the microphone, to give them confidence in the technology and help them to enjoy it – all aspects that are decisive in a research career too. And hopefully one day, in a few years, there will be many more Caroles and Nancys setting the tone in the biopharmaceutical industry.

Tags: People, Science