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David Owens is an expert on reinvention and the unconventional path to the C-suite.
In 2009, after 30 years in progressively more senior leadership roles in pharmaceutical companies, Mr. Owens left his position as senior vice president for sales & marketing of the Hospital & Surgical Products Division at King Pharmaceuticals Inc. (now part of Pfizer Inc.) and struck out in an entirely new direction, becoming an angel investor and advisor to early-stage life science companies.
This pivot in his career path sent him in a new direction – helping fledgling companies grow. It also required that he take stock of his skills, goals and tolerance for risk.
“After 30 years in my career, instead of looking for a conventional leadership role at another company I decided to go back to a start-up,” explains Mr. Owens. “I assumed more risk but also gained more opportunities and expanded my skill set. For me, that was the right path to take and it’s been very rewarding.”
Mr. Owens’ departure from a traditional career path in pharma came at an opportune time. The industry has gone through tough times in recent years, with more changes on the way. Expiring patent exclusivity rights to certain drugs between 2010 and 2013 led to increasing competition from generic drugs, causing an estimated $50 billion loss for drug companies holding those original patents. The pharmaceutical industry reportedly has also shed approximately 300,000 jobs.
In an interview with Ashton Tweed, Mr. Owens explains how he reinvented himself and re-oriented his career, and how others can survive – and thrive — in a still-turbulent industry.
In 2009, I was working at King Pharmaceuticals and the company was refocusing its core business strategy. I pointed out to my boss that the business I ran had a diminishing role in the company’s new direction and I sought to negotiate an exit package.
At the time, pharmaceutical companies were consolidating, the economy was entering a recession, and a host of drugs were on the verge of the patent cliff. But a lot of new start-up companies and new technologies were also emerging. I wanted to be part of that.
I realized earlier in my career that I’m more of a builder than a maintainer. I’m the kind of guy who likes to start something new, take risks and identify ways of building new value in companies. I left the comfort and security of what we called “Mother Merck” to go to a little company called Genentech that only had one product at the time. It’s now one of the top five pharmaceutical companies in the world. Taking a job there was a big risk at the time, but I found that I really enjoyed making the change because it was very entrepreneurial compared to Merck.
I stayed at Genentech for about seven years and by the time I left I was involved in the commercialization of many of their new products. Then I was recruited by Abbott to manage their neuroscience new product pipeline in Chicago. But I found Abbott was a lot more structured. I had a love-hate relationship with large companies and small companies, and I bounced back and forth over the course of my career.
When I left King, I wanted to get involved in earlier-stage companies, which is where I see the most growth in the industry. I decided I wanted to be part of the “the pipeline of innovation” as an investor and advisor.
I had to get out of the mindset that I was in – what I call a “fixed mindset.” I was in my 50s and I could simply go work for another large pharmaceutical company in a senior-level management position. But to do what I really wanted to do— invest in and help grow early-stage technologies—I had to change my mentality to get out of what was comfortable and what I already knew.
I got into a “growth mindset” to figure out how to take greater risks and use my own resources to get involved earlier in the lifecycle of product development. I did a lot of networking and talking to individuals at venture capital groups. I found a network of individuals who are angel investors – who get involved in early-stage technologies and put their resources into the pipeline of innovation.
I joined several angel investor groups, including the Mid-Atlantic Angel Group Fund in Philadelphia and the Delaware Crossing Investor Group in Doylestown, Pa. I attended meetings of the Angel Capital Association and the National Venture Capital Association. And the more I got involved, the more I got involved. I started running into like-minded individuals and learned about other methods of financing start-up companies. It wasn’t long before I found myself well-integrated into the early-stage investment community.
I also sought out mentors in other entrepreneurs who had left big pharma to start their own companies. I feel like I have a good support network and a long list of people I can rely on for information and advice.
I had a big learning curve. I had to learn what makes a good investment and what doesn’t, and how to weigh the investment opportunity against the technology opportunity. After I identify a good technology, I have to decide if it can drive a good business. There are always a lot of interesting technologies that don’t have the right financing associated with it. Or the company might not have the right management structure to move them forward. I had to learn to dig into a company and think long-term about how it was going to grow itself.
I also found that being an investor was a lot of work. I used to read about 10 to 20 business plans a month for a period of several years to find companies that seemed investible. To give you an idea of the amount of work that goes into reviewing technologies, only about 1 in 100 get financed. You have to find that 1 percent and identify which companies are going to give you the best return. And even then, it may not be a successful venture in the long term.
You have to be on your toes and recognize that you’re not always going to be making the right decisions because you’re learning along the way. One learning experience led to changing BiologicsMD’s strategic plan from focusing on osteoporosis treatment—a very competitive field where it’s difficult to get products approved— to working on multiple other treatments. We’re now developing a series of recombinant fusion proteins to use in spinal fusion and fracture repair, and to treat osteoporosis and alopecia areata. That decision changed the company’s funding path and timeline. It’s not the same company I looked at when I first joined, but I realized the best chance of success was to take a different path.
To reinvent yourself you also have to be prepared to wear a lot of different hats. As the CEO at BiologicsMD, one day I’m a fundraiser, one day I’m the early-stage interface with the Food and Drug Administration, one day I’m the head of HR trying to find new expertise.
You’re going to face challenges at any point in your career. Younger people can be more aggressive and take bigger risks because they don’t have three kids in college. Also, the younger you are the more open you are to change, but you may not have the financial resources or the experience to rely on. The longer you’ve been in the industry, the tougher you may find it to reinvent yourself. You may be more risk-adverse and less willing to change your lifestyle.
Make sure you’re doing something that motivates you and keeps you going. You have to know what drives you. I went through a lot of self-introspection, asking “What’s important to me? What makes me excited about getting out of bed every day?”
You need to have a growth mindset and accept the fact that you’re going to occasionally fail and make mistakes. People tend to stay in the mindset of “This is what I do, that’s all I’m ever going to do, and that’s what I’m good at.” Instead, you need to expand your way of thinking and understand you’re going to have to do things that you’re not necessarily comfortable doing. You have to be on your toes and recognize that you’re not always going to be making the right decisions because you’re learning along the way.
You also have to adapt to the reality of the current environment. If you don’t, you’re in for a significant struggle. Too many people stick to the fixed mindset of “this is how we do it.” But the world has changed. The pharmaceutical industry is not the same as it was three years and it’s definitely not the same as it was 10 years ago. Look at where the growth is occurring and figure out how to get involved in that part of the business.
A lot of people in the industry leave to become consultants. That never appealed to me. I’d be going in and helping a company solve a particular problem and then leave and never know if it worked out.
Instead, I’m in a cycle of getting involved with early-stage start-up companies, helping them raise capital and get to the next milestone, and then investing further or exiting from the company when they bring in new management teams. It’s really exciting. I enjoy it quite a bit. It has its own unique challenges because you’re always figuring out how to raise the next amount of capital, find the next technology, and continue to grow the company. I feel I’m adding more value, and I’m really engaged and invested in the company.
Ashton Tweed would like to thank J. David Owens for this interview. If your company needs help from members of the Ashton Tweed Life Sciences Executive Talent Bank, we can supply that assistance either on an interim or a permanent basis. Additionally, if you are among the many life sciences professionals affected by the changes in the industry, Ashton Tweed can help you find the right placement opportunity — from product discovery through commercialization at leading life sciences companies — including interim executive positions and full-time placements. In either case, please email Ashton Tweed or call us at 610-725-0290. Ashton Tweed is pleased to continue to present insightful articles of interest to the industry.
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