Using Passion as Fuel in the Life Sciences

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Jordan Warshafskyinspired businesswomanBy Jordan Warshafsky, Partner, Ashton Tweed

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When developing their corporate brand, pharmaceutical and biotech executives often stress their company culture, mission, and values. Although these are big picture focuses for an organization, they often originate from the personal drivers, goals, and passions of the leadership team. As Megan Smith, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Google executive, once said in an interview, “Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and very personal passions.”

While this is a nice concept, it can actually be put into practice to spur innovation, give employees a sense of purpose, and to encourage quality work at your company. Passion is an intangible factor that cannot be faked or forced, but leaders can help draw this out of their team members – to help them find it, share it, and use it as fuel in the workplace. This also creates an opportunity for bonding amongst team members – although they each pursue a common company vision, they are still individuals that can be inspired on a more personal, human level – whether they have a personal story, a general moral guideline, or a career-focused goal that guides them in their day-to-day work.

From serving as an officer in a U.S. Army Reserve General Hospital, to a pharmaceutical sales representative, to a life science search professional, I have nurtured a lifetime of passion for this industry. What drives me is the concept of knowing that in some way I am contributing to bringing drugs and devices to patients, therefore helping make them feel better and get better. See these real-world examples of what passions fuel currently active CEOs in the life sciences industry.

A PERSONAL STORY: Suman Shirodkar, CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix

In her recent interview, Suman was asked what drew her specifically to the field of oncology. She answered: “My great-grandmother passed away when she was relatively young of a female reproductive tract tumor—and that caused my grandfather to say he wanted to become a physician and a surgeon because he saw what his mother went through.

My father in turn, decided to become a physician scientist and researched viruses and their relationships to cancer. He was an amazing storyteller and it was his stories that created my interest in science and oncology. I decided to follow in his footsteps and to train as a physician and then pursue a Ph.D. in basic science connected with the biology of cancer.”

Furthermore, she gave some advice to other female leaders and how cultivating passion can help them achieve their career goals: “Be aware of the fire that burns within you and keep it alive. The journey of a woman leader is not easy and it takes effort—the fuel for this effort can only come from a deep passion for one’s purpose.”

A MOTIVE TO DO GOOD: Martin Lehr, CEO & Co-founder of Context Therapeutics

Marty mentioned “doing good” several times during his interview with Ashton Tweed. When asked to elaborate, he replied: “I think it’s a part of the agreement, the social pact between biopharmaceutical companies and the investment community. Our companies have to be for-profit; that way, we generate a return for our investors so that more innovations can be created. But profit should not be the only driver. And vice-versa, the way you generate the best profit is to create the best product. So, I think it all comes down to the social pact with patients that you’re going to do the best you can for them to improve their lives, and that way, everyone wins.”

A GOAL TO BE THE PIONEER: Foad Dabiri, CEO of Wanda Inc.

Some leaders are driven to solve problems, unlock hidden potentials, and to make great strides in advancing the industry. These pioneers may be driven by their desire for success or their purely innovative, entrepreneurial nature. Foad is one of these pioneers who took a data-driven approach to improve healthcare.

When asked in his interview what attracted him to the health care industry in particular, he answered, “Technology, especially modern information technology, is making very exciting and tangible contributions to almost all industries except health care. On the engineering front, there have been great investments in health care on the device side—for example, imaging devices—but on the software side, things were very behind. And, health care in general is one of those areas where every individual has some sort of personal experience about its impact, application, difficulties, and challenges.”

In short, “the fact that information technology is almost nonexistent in modern health care” was a primary driver for him to get involved in this area.


The motivation to fight on behalf of patients is unique to the life sciences and healthcare industries. BioNJ’s mission statement is “Because Patients Can’t Wait” and “one of the key drivers of our passion is that we are impatient for Patients, ensuring that we remember that patients are the paramount focus of our Members’ work,” says Debbie.

When we interviewed Debbie, she explained, “Even though the association does not deal directly with patients, per se, our members do, and we’re supporting them as they support patients. Our tagline is ‘Because Patients Can’t Wait’ and we’ve infused that into literally everything we do. BioNJ has now become a cause to help our members help patients.”

When it comes to improving healthcare, it’s relatively easy to find a passion to fuel you. We all know someone who has battled an illness, struggled with mental health, or perhaps we have personally overcome our own health obstacles. The work we do is vital, and it is critical that we not lose sight of that. Whether someone wants to cure cancer, be the number one salesman, win a Nobel Prize, or develop therapies for rare diseases, every dream counts and could be key in drawing out the best efforts from your team. Industry leaders can incorporate this discussion into job interviews, ice breakers, staff meetings, and team building exercises – get creative! What fuels you to work in this industry? Please share your passions in the comments below!

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