I find it helpful to take a minute of peace each day to consider, ‘Did we take a step closer to our goal today? If not, how to correct course and if we did, can we do that any faster?’ states Maria Fardis, President and CEO of Iovance Biotherapeutics. Both in personal or professional life a resolute desire to evolve drives our actions and defines our future. This desire has helped Maria succeed in the competitive biopharmaceutical industry. “Her passion and persistence has outpaced every obstacle that has come in her way” to potentially improve clarity. In the first full paragraph on page two, I’d try to make sure there’s a period after “well-defined goals”. In this interview with Insights Success Maria sheds light on her journey.
Can you give us a brief overview of your background and the evolution of your career towards being a recognized industry leader in biotech?
Over the course of my career in the biopharmaceutical industry, I have been fortunate to work across a broad range of functions in product development and across a diverse range of disease indications. Although my scientific education focused on medicinal chemistry and my more recent roles have centered on development efforts in oncology, the ability to draw upon a broad background has been extremely helpful in choosing efficient paths for bringing products to the patient. In each role, I have made it my personal mission to do my absolute best and learn every detail along the way. In my decade at Gilead I progressed from the research to development side of drug development. With a PhD in Organic Chemistry I learned how to think critically and analyze data. While holding a full time position I worked to earn an MBA. From Gilead I moved to Pharmacyclics where I held the position of chief of oncology operations and alliances. At Pharmacyclics I oversaw the development of IMBRUVICA® (ibrutinib) in multiple indications and was involved in health authority interactions to get the product approved. After Pharmacyclics, I joined Acerta Pharma as the chief operating officer, working on the development of CALQUENCE® (acalabrutinib), until the company’s acquisition by AstraZeneca. I joined Iovance in the summer of 2016 as its president and CEO. In this role I have transformed the company into a fully operational clinical development and research organization. With the green light from the FDA on our lead program and a strong balance sheet we are now poised to move towards approval and eventually commercialization of the first cell therapy for solid tumors.
Pertaining to your leadership experience, how according to you, do the changes in technology utilization, volatility of the market and talent recognition, affect the overall development of any business/organization?
Biopharmaceutical development is a dynamic industry and requires continual education and engagement to remain current with the most advanced technologies available. For example at Iovance, the opportunity for our approach to cell therapy in oncology was clear, but the process of getting the product to patients presented a potential bottleneck to successful commercialization. We were able to utilize technological advances in cell therapy manufacturing to reduce the original manufacturing process from 6 weeks to 22 days.
The volatility of the market is a challenge in our never-ending quest to recruit the best talent. As an early stage biopharmaceutical company, a large amount of employees’ compensation is derived from equity. As a leader, my job is to help the team see the importance of the long objective of getting our products approved and to patients that need them the most. Assembling the best talent is critical to our success. In the Bay Area, recruiting is highly competitive. I personally meet every candidate during the interview process to the degree that schedules allow.
What according to you are the vital attributes that a business leader should possess?
I believe that a leader should maintain a positive outlook, be willing to dive into projects and the industry to learn about every detail possible. It is also critical to consistently support your team and provide them the resources they need to be successful, particularly in supporting opportunities for education about their work. I see my job as a leader to help ensure we are consistently tracking toward realization of specific, well-defined goals.
Considering the necessity of encouraging women to take up leadership positions, in what ways according to you, can this be achieved?
I encourage my colleagues, male and female, to make education a priority because I feel one learns how to think critically in the process. Beyond that, values including integrity, sincerity, hard work, and positive attitude go a long way. For executives, it’s important that we create opportunities for the younger generation of emerging leaders. Career opportunities don’t have to be gender-specific, and it’s important that we pay attention to others’ careers along the way.
What would be your advice for the aspiring/emerging business leaders?
The vision for how organization needs to execute to progress from the current time to a specific endpoint needs to be very clear. It’s important to have a well-defined goal and act consistently to maintain focus of that goal, as it can be easy to become distracted with other issues that arise in the process of product development. It is important that every step we take is a step toward a goal and does not deviate from the overall vision, which in our case is bringing a new treatment to the patient.
How you have envisioned your future with regard to your career as well as your personal growth?
Bringing products to patients who have very limited options is exactly what I want to be doing with my day. As long as I can continue to experience the reward of seeing the label of an approved product that makes a meaningful difference in patients’ lives, I expect to find satisfaction in my career path. I sincerely value the personal feedback from patients and patients’ families about how their lives have been affected by our clinical development efforts.