Ask the Experts Interview Series

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Sarah Holland

Dr. Sarah Holland is currently Chief Business Officer at Cureteq AG in Switzerland. She has over 30 years of biopharma industry experience. Sarah was CBO of VectivBio AG during the IPO on NASDAQ and drove the acquisition and integration of Comet Therapeutics as well as a substantial Japan partnering deal with Asahi Kasei. VectivBio is now being acquired by Ironwood for $1bio.

Previously, Sarah was Global Head of Licensing and Head of R&D at Lonza in Basel, the world’s leading biopharma Contract Manufacturing and Development Organisation, and also led the External Science and Partnering team at Sanofi in Paris. She held positions of increasing responsibility with Roche for over a decade, where she drove notable deals in oncology and CNS and built and led the M&A assessment and integration team. In her last role at Roche in Basel, Sarah was the Lifecycle Leader for Alecensa during FDA and EMA submission. Previously, she held commercial roles in diagnostics, biotech and pharma in the UK and the Netherlands, culminating in the global launch of Faslodex for AstraZeneca. Sarah is also President of the Swiss Healthcare Licensing Group.

Ask the Experts Interview Series

with Sarah Holland

Tell us about your background

I am British with a Ph.D in chemistry from Oxford University and an MBA from Alliance Manchester Business School. I started out marketing highly scientific products in diagnostics, biotech and pharma, made the move to Business Development around 2005 and haven’t looked back since, doing exciting deals in pharma, CDMO and biotech. My dealmaking experience covers the full range from technology licensing, discovery deals, product in and out-licensing, M&A, divestments and spin-offs. 

I am also married with two children, so successfully combining family and career is a topic I am very passionate about. 

Tell us more about your role as CBO in the biotech industry.

As CBO at Cureteq AG my job is primarily to find and acquire exciting therapeutic assets to build the group portfolio:- Cureteq intends to acquire 15-20 assets over the next 5 years while deploying around 300M Euro.  We leverage an industry-leading AI platform from our sister company Innoplexus to develop assets in a uniquely creative way and we are very active dealmakers. 

I formalise internal business development processes and structure, nurture a large external network with pharma companies, biotech and VCs, and lead and drive partner negotiations and due diligence towards contracting and signature. I also support investor relations, including pitching to raise capital.

What makes a good deal maker?

A good nose for a great asset, a wide external network, strong internal collaboration, the ability to lead complex multifunctional projects at a very fast pace, and the resilience to handle setbacks and project attrition. Everything you have ever done before in your career comes in useful in dealmaking.

What is the most challenging part about your role?

It’s a tough time for the biotech industry generally – this generates exceptional partnering opportunities, but of course Cureteq is keen to raise money like any other biotech. So we need to explain what makes our AI-driven model so unique and how exciting our licensed assets are.

Your career spans the full value chain from R&D, Commercial and Business Development. How should somebody gather experience across new areas or departments?

My career is pretty unusual in that I went from Commercial to Business Development and then was asked to lead R&D at Lonza – it’s more usual to do things the other way around! But I think it shows that leadership capability and learning agility are actually far more important than following a standard career path. 

So make sure you are always making a positive impact in any role and constantly learning. People will notice you and then seize the opportunities you are offered. Don’t be scared that it’s too big a challenge – I have only ever regretted not taking risks, taking them has always paid off.

You mentioned you are passionate about combining family and career, can you tell us a bit more about that?

Of course this is critical challenge for many working parents, especially women, and it’s not only about children – often people are working far from elderly parents. 

When at Roche I launched the Family & Career employee network, with the aim to share strategies and influence the company and wider community to create a more supportive environment. There are lots of fantastic resources for parents in Switzerland, but they are not always very visible, so we wrote the Working Parents Secret Handbook to share them. Our team also had fun with initiatives like Holiday Camp Fairs and achieved a lot of impactful changes in policy areas like flexible working, childcare, elderly care, car parking etc., culminating in Roche gaining formal certification as a family friendly workplace. 

Working parents need to be highly effective as they cannot and should not work excessive hours – an arms race in hours worked actually drives great talents out of the workplace. Being a parent or carer teaches crucial skills such as patience, balance and prioritization – it’s amazing how productive people become. Much better than workaholics!

You’re also active at Swiss HLG, a group of Healthcare Licensing Professionals. What are some initiatives you are working on today?

I am President of the Swiss Healthcare Licensing Group, an association of business development professionals which aims to provide a unique and inspiring environment for building relationships, sharing best practices and facilitating business interactions. We have a fantastic volunteer Board from across the Swiss ecosystem and together deliver a very high quality annual conference, which took place in May in Montreux. 

This year we also relaunched our Start-Up Initiative, organizing four workshops for a cohort of 30 start-ups to help them become ¨partnering ready¨. In addition we host local networking events and deliver educational webinars, as well as panels at conferences such as Swiss Biotech Day. We are keen to foster a lively, engaged, Swiss BD community.

What does a day in your life look like?

It’s pretty varied, but usually a lot of video calls. These can be progressing a negotiation, working with the Cureteq team on opportunity assessments, hearing about an exciting asset from a potential new partner, or cultivating our external network. When in Cham on Tuesday to Thursday then there are also in-person Cureteq meetings, of course, as well as business trips to partnering conference and to meet potential partners and investors.

Any particular projects in the past that you would like to highlight?

I am very proud of fighting for Alecensa, a best in class ALK inhibitor for lung cancer, when Life Cycle Leader at Roche. Although initially seen as a rather small opportunity, it was clear from the data coming in from Chugai (the originator) in Japan that it was making a tremendous impact for patients and needed to make it to market. 

Other notable projects are the Roche deal with Plexxikon that resulted in Zelboraf, the first b-raf V600E inhibitor for melanoma, and doing the first Roche deal with PTC Therapeutics. I’m also proud of the Lonza gene therapy spin-off Affinia Therapeutics, nominated as one of the top new biotechs to watch in 2021. More recently, I created a great partnership between VectivBio and Asahi Kasei for Japanese rights to apraglutide.

What drives you?

It’s all about making a difference. That can be making the right deals happen, championing great drugs, helping people reach their full potential, creating a high performing team or impacting organizational culture in a positive way. I have been lucky to work with amazingly talented people, which makes it doubly rewarding, and really enjoy connecting people.

Who or what has shaped who you are?

Probably the biggest influence was a pair of very creative architect parents with a strong practical make-it-yourself orientation. That’s no doubt why I like building things and tend to think in shapes and pictures rather than words. My mother was the only woman on her gruelling course, and is still a fearless force of nature, so growing up nothing seemed beyond reach. Having a twin brother made me a bit gender blind as well.

Women gain confidence through ¨self-efficacy¨- they do something, it succeeds, and they gain self-belief. Career achievements have therefore built my self-confidence, but there have certainly been challenges too. Although women often have the best leadership attributes, sadly it’s not unusual to be underestimated, patronized and even sabotaged. At those times it’s best to cut your losses and move organisations to where you will be properly valued. So both successes and frustrating struggles have played a part.

Any final remark/advice to share for those thinking about going into business development?

Business development is highly strategic, varied, fast-paced, an amazing learning environment and gives you incredible freedom to talk with anyone internally and externally all over the world. You do need to have tremendous drive, resilience and project leadership skills. But watch out for the ¨partnering curse¨- once you are in, you never want to leave!

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