Ask the Experts Interview Series


Zoë Johnson

Leveraging over 25 years of experience in immune-mediated diseases, Zoë is responsible for leading the scientific direction and strategic planning for the creation of new companies. She has guided both small and large molecule drug discovery programs from preclinical research and into clinical development in diseases including oncology, autoimmunity, and inflammation.

Zoë earned her Ph.D. in pharmacology from King’s College London and received her honours degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Manchester. In her prior positions, she has exhibited exceptional leadership skills, overseeing high-performing teams at prominent pharmaceutical companies such as UCB and Merck, as well as within start-up to mid-sized biotech companies including Novimmune, iOnctura, and Affivant.


Published: July 10, 2024 10:23 am UTC+0

Ask the Experts Interview Series

with Zoë Johnson

Tell us more about your background and your current role at M:M Bio.

I like taking on new challenges and uncertainty does not scare me, these two qualities have led me to make career moves that have taken me from a graduate-level bench scientist in the biotech industry at Celltech – a fantastic training ground that led to my PhD studies, to running research departments in pharma and biotech, joining a clinical team to learn how to position a program for eventual marketing approval, and then a pivot to C-suite positions at start-up companies.

I have worked in a number of different therapeutic areas (autoimmunity, inflammation and allergy, hema-oncology, immuno-oncology, fibrosis, immunology and rare diseases), and have taken both small and large molecules into clinical development. I am the CSO/CDO at M:M Bio and I am putting my experience to work as we build new companies in diverse therapeutic areas with great scientific ideas that have enormous commercial potential.

With over 25 years of experience in the biotech and pharma sectors, what initially drew you to the field of pharmacology, and how has your motivation evolved over the years?

It all started with a Saturday job in a local pharmacy. The pharmacist I worked with trained me in the dispensary where she taught me about prescription medicine. From there I switched my school subjects from languages to sciences, and my path was set! As part of my undergraduate degree at the great University of Manchester, I took a third-year placement working at what was then Sandoz in Basel. I was there when Sandoz merged with Ciba to create Novartis so maybe that is why I am not scared of change as I saw a lot happen that year!

As I progressed my career in R&D I became more fascinated with the business of biotech which is why I switched gears to start-ups. The shared sense of purpose at smaller companies is what motivates me, the belief that collectively we can make a meaningful impact on the lives of patients and their families.

You have a strong track record of transitioning innovative molecules from preclinical to clinical development. What strategies do you find most effective in accelerating this process?

Spend time at the project outset to plan and define clear go/no-go decision points and stick to them! It is also vital to have a clear view of the path to clinical proof of concept from project inception. At M:M Bio we use an Agile project management framework. This approach is ideally suited to R&D programs as it is built around iterative steps, and promotes flexibility and teamwork, meaning we rapidly adjust as we go rather than following a linear plan, maintaining momentum and keeping a clear view on the program goals.

As the Executive Chairperson at Melio Bio and Chief Scientific/Development Officer at M:M Bio, how do you prioritize your responsibilities and ensure effective leadership across multiple organizations?

At M:M Bio we do not believe that early-stage, preclinical companies need CEO leadership. Therefore, our emerging portfolio companies are led by scientific leaders from within the M:M Bio ecosystem who have deep experience in drug discovery. It is part of my role at M:M Bio to act as executive chairperson and support these leaders to get their companies off the ground and successfully financed. Alongside that I am working with a great team at M:M Bio to identify exciting science and assets with high potential to build new companies. So, these apparently different roles are inter-dependent, and I thrive on the opportunity to work with great people on multiple exciting projects at once.

Having extensive experience with IND and CTA submissions, what are some common challenges you face during this process, and how do you overcome them?

Maintaining timelines and being capital efficient are top priorities in privately financed biotech, an obvious challenge when working in discovery as there will always be hurdles on the path to the clinic. Experience teaches us what might derail a program, and this experience informs the backup plans from the project initiation – although it is almost a law that every program will throw up a new challenge. From day one maintaining an excellent filing system, timely study report writing and early initiation of the writing of regulatory documents also contribute to a smooth(er!) process

With your expertise in therapeutic areas such as autoimmunity, immuno-oncology, and fibrosis, what emerging trends or technologies in immunology are you most excited about?

A paradigm shift in drug design, enabled by AI/ML approaches is accelerating the pace at which we can target previously non-addressable but high-value targets in this space. These advances in small molecule chemistry mean that targets and pathways that have been clinically validated by biologics can now be addressed with small molecules. I am also excited to see how AI will shape antibody design and engineering in the future.

As a mentor for Nucleate Switzerland and a member of the Swiss Biotech Venture Leaders Team, what advice do you give to aspiring biotech leaders and entrepreneurs?

Seek advice from as many people as possible, with experience across the R&D value chain, including investors who can provide excellent guidance even if they are not able to fund you at the stage you are at. And listen to that advice – if you keep hearing the same feedback, it is time to pause and reflect and alter your strategy. Switzerland has several excellent initiatives and funding instruments for aspiring scientist-entrepreneurs and as one of the most innovative countries in the world, it is a great place to be as you start your biotech venture.

Reflecting on your experience at Affivant and iOnctura, what are the key elements to building and leading successful biotech teams and organizations from the ground up?

Identify your company values from the start and ensure these form the core of your company’s culture. Identify gaps in expertise and hire people who know more than you. Be deliberate about creating a diverse team – different personality types, genders, and backgrounds – this has been proven to help your organization thrive. Take time to celebrate success and learn from failures. Give and receive excellent feedback.

Given your vast experience across various roles and companies, where do you see the biotech and pharma industries heading in the next decade, and what role do you hope to play in shaping that future?

The emergence of new business models to improve R&D productivity and efficiency represents an important shift away from traditional pharma and biotech models. I believe we will see more portfolio-based models instead of individual biotech companies, and these will fuel the later-stage pipelines of larger development organizations.

Having worked at Roivant and now M:M Bio I am convinced that having centralized resource management supporting individual portfolio companies that in turn focus exclusively on one program results in simplification of governance and resource allocation as well as increasing the speed and efficiency of R&D program execution. A win for investors and patients alike!


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