Ask the Experts Interview Series

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Leslie Anne Fendt

Ask the Experts Interview Series

with Leslie Anne Fendt

Dr. Leslie Anne Fendt currently works at Roche leading the development and commercialisation of one of Roche’s first Software-As-Medical-Device (SaMD) products, while simultaneously contributing to building out Roche’s overall digital health infrastructure, operating model, and strategy. Previously at Roche she was leading the global commercialisation of a novel immunology treatment and operationalise the product launch across 100+ affiliates. Before that, Leslie held a series of roles in sales, marketing, strategy, insights, and launch excellence both at global and affiliate level. 

Leslie holds a master in Organic Chemistry with minors in business and computer science from Uni Basel, CH, and Cambridge, UK, and a PhD in Nanosciences from ETH Zurich. She is a board member of the Swiss Chemical Society and an active voice in the Digital Health community. Leslie lives with her partner, three daughters, and two cats in Switzerland. 

Disclaimer: All views expressed are her own.

Congratulations on being selected as top 10 women in tech in Switzerland. What do you think this was attributed to?

Thanks, Wani, that’s very kind. Yes, getting featured on this list was extremely flattering and at the same time intimidating, because unlike many of the amazing women I share this honor with, I don’t have a computer science background. At university, I took some CS classes and dabbled in programming, but my major was in organic chemistry and for the last two decades, I worked in healthcare on the business and strategy side. 

But I guess that was also part of the point: nowadays tech touches every single industry out there and you don’t necessarily have to study tech to work in tech. What’s more important is to understand the principles, and how tech can be harnessed to solve whatever problem you are trying to tackle. 

Lastly, I could imagine they were looking to feature someone in the digital health space, which is really on fire right now. After resisting disruption forever, the pandemic has finally accelerated a shift to digitalisation in healthcare that was decades overdue. It’s an amazing moment to work in digital health. 

Tell us more about your current role. What do you enjoy about it?

At Roche, I lead a team that is bringing digital remote monitoring solutions to patients with vision loss. We’re building a suite of solutions around an easy-to-use app with which patients can check their vision in the comfort of their home. This is totally new ground and it often feels like we are leading a small startup within this gigantic established company. 

We not only have to build a novel product, we also have to create the infrastructure, the operating model, the path to market, etc. I love how unprecedented the endeavor is, how entrepreneurial, and that we help advance an emerging industry. I love learning from the amazing people I work with. For what we do there is no textbook, so we’re always learning on the go.

How were you able to have 11 different roles during your 10 years at Roche? 

Like much in my life, it was part plan and part lucky accident. Every new gig is an opportunity to solve problems, inside the role and those you see beyond. Often one challenge would seamlessly lead into the next. I also tried to shape my career path along a philosophy of ‘maximal learning’; I scoped in which disciplines I wanted to upskill and then pursued experiences a little like badges I could add to my vest — some formal and planned, others opportunistic. 

Lastly, outside influences, like reorgs and my parental leaves, also meant that I could find myself temporarily without a role, so I picked up short term projects to make myself useful and learn something during such periods. 

What has been some career highlights?

Joining Roche from a small consulting company 10 years ago is certainly something that’s changed my life 180°. I’ve always been interested in solving for complex systems, so becoming part of this massive organization, with so many projects, functions, and geographies, meant I would never run out of fun. I also particularly loved working on the global launch of a new treatment for patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, an area of huge unmet need. 

Unfortunately the treatment turned out to be less effective than anticipated, which was devastating for everyone involved, but is of course an unfortunate reality of R&D. It doesn’t change how proud I am of our team’s work. Lastly, my current job is also a dream come true, something I’ve been looking to do for a while.

Continuous learning seems to be important to you. Why?

I just always wanted to know how things work, and that applies not only to all kinds of scientific disciplines, but also to the humanities, psychology, philosophy, art… I’m good at binge learning: I discover a subject and I immerse myself in it deeply, but as soon as I develop an ok understanding, I’m  ready to move on to the next thing. 

My talent is not really in becoming an expert, I’m interested in how one area interrelates with another. I love bringing disciplines, ideas, and people together to create something new and useful. That’s why I always try to put myself into situations where I am the “dumbest” (or least knowledgeable) person in the room.

What have been some challenges you’ve faced?

Since forever, a lot of things I ended up being interested in were traditionally considered ‘male’, like science, adventure sports, or leadership, so pursuing those always came with at least commentary and often actual adversity. 

It was particularly tricky for me to manage my career through the family building phase, often more because of people’s biases than the actual juggling it required. Of course there were also plenty of other challenges, often self-inflicted — the more difficult, the more interesting. 

What is your view on failure?

I don’t necessarily like that word, because it assigns a negative spin to something that is an essential part of pursuing anything of worth. You try to solve a problem, it doesn’t work or not all the way, so you adjust your approach and try again. In science we call that an experiment, and provided that the set up and conduct of the experiment were rigorous (so you can learn something from it), every outcome is valid. 

It’s the only way to progress. I like to keep my ‘failure’ rate relatively high, because in my mind if I always ‘succeed’, it means I’m not aiming high enough. All my so-called successes were a result of simply trying again and again. So rather than ’embrace failure’ I would rebrand it as ’embrace the process’.

What drives you? Who or what has shaped who you are?

When I was 13, I lost my favorite uncle to a very aggressive cancer. He was in his mid-forties, talented, handsome, kind, and — within just a few months — he was gone. It was a cruel wake-up call how fickle, random, and unfair life can be, but at the same time instilled in me a profound gratitude to be alive and a desire not to waste a single minute of it. 

Any lessons learned that you can share? 

1. Find an interesting problem to solve that gives you purpose and work at it with passion and grit.
2. Know your values and priorities in life and make choices in alignment with them.
3. Trust the process and have fun, because otherwise what’s the point?

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