February 20, 2018
This month, we’re kicking off a new series that is focused on women leaders at Emergent. Through each interview we look to learn more about these women and see how they are leading their teams to contribute to the success of our organization. The first interview is with Dr. Laura Saward, Senior Vice President and Antibody Therapeutics Business Unit Head.
Tell us about your background and how you came to work at Emergent.
I’ve always been interested in drug development. I started in R&D in industry working through a co-op program for J&J and Syntex while completing my BSc in Biochemistry. I decided to continue my graduate studies, and I received a Ph.D. from the faculty of medicine at University of Manitoba in Cardiovascular Science. After completing my post-doc studies, I had an opportunity to help run a biotech start-up in the cardiovascular field. I stayed in biotech, switching fields to cancer immunology and then infectious disease (ID) when I joined Cangene Corporation. I directed various groups in R&D and was Chief Scientific Officer at the time Emergent acquired the company. I have been with Cangene/Emergent for almost 14 years.
I’ve stayed in the ID field and am also an adjunct professor at the University of Manitoba Medical Microbiology and ID department.
How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in now? Was there a pivotal moment?
I was always interested in science and wanted to make a difference in helping patients. I didn’t want to be a medical doctor because I wanted to help solve the disease and discover new medicines. There was a pivotal moment where I had to decide whether to stay on the academic path or move to industry permanently and it was a scary choice. In academia, there wasn’t a lot of support for a career in industry and since I had received a lot of scholarships, it was considered selling out. At this time, the opportunity came up to help run a biotech start-up company. It was a great decision to join a small company, and I’ve never regretted that choice of joining industry instead of academia. I loved the opportunity to try many new things like setting up Good Laboratory Practice or GLP labs, defining the Investigational New Drug enabling studies and manufacturing, and working on the strategy and fundraising with venture capital and partners.
Before that though, there were a lot of pivotal moments on my path growing up in a small town where girls were encouraged to be typists, not scientists. I really wanted to pursue this path as I was always a nerd, sneaking my brother’s chemistry set and joining science fair competitions.
How do you see your team contributing to the success of Emergent?
There are many initiatives at Emergent that I am excited to be part of and help grow the company. It feels similar to the biotech start-up part of my career where the company is working to take the next leap forward and grow. You feel like there is an opportunity to really help make this happen. With the opportunity to lead the antibody therapeutics business unit, I’ve really enjoyed working with the executive team to define the five-year strategy and build on our foundation of experience and platforms to define new areas of opportunity for Emergent. We have several ongoing programs this year to expand our pipeline and have started to build some key partnerships to strengthen our strategy.
What are you most excited about right now in your department?
The Flu program is really exciting since this is a challenging disease. We believe the use of hyperimmunes with a polyclonal antibody approach could be one promising way to treat this disease where the strains change season to season. We are in our Phase 2 clinical study now and are moving ahead aggressively with an eye toward licensure. Initiating the clinical study was a huge success since we basically started the program late in 2016 and the team was able to fast track the clinical development program, leveraging our platform to reach our Phase 2 stage in one year.
The mobile manufacturing platform is another exciting project that is giving Emergent the opportunity to play a formative role in the pandemic preparedness initiatives across the globe. We have been working with various partners to outline a strategy for rapid response manufacturing to address a variety of pathogens, and we have started to work on building a prototype by the end of this year. It would be great to be able to offer a solution and see our platform at the front lines of an outbreak, whether it be caused by Ebola or the next emerging pathogen.
What do you like best about working at Emergent?
I really appreciate the mission and values that Emergent lives by and working with so many great people across the company. The goals to protect and enhance 50 million lives are what get me out of bed each day, and I like that this is true for so many people at this company. I think the Corporate Social Responsibility program really shows the best of our company and the impact we can have in our own communities.
How do you motivate and inspire your team?
I’ve had the privilege of working with such great teams and really smart people. I think my role is to help define the vision and strategy and then help when challenges or roadblocks come up. For myself, I got into this field with the goal of improving patients’ lives and having a real impact, so these are strong motivations for many people on our teams. Of course, I focus on the positive and know that there are many challenges in drug development, so it’s important to be calm and supportive when real obstacles are hit.
What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?
I think that the most important lesson has been learning that it is a team that achieves these milestones and brings these medicines forward. No one can do this on their own, so it’s important to build your teams with really smart people, smarter than me, and people that have the drive to make a difference since they will have the resilience and find a path forward
What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?
One of the challenges today is the balance between seizing opportunities and striving to reach new goals without burning out your teams. Drug development is a demanding career and it is often hard to define work and home since our technology makes this more seamless. Building resilient teams is a key focus and creating an environment that is open to success and failure. I heard an interesting talk recently that offered a different perspective on finding balance at work, focused on work-life blend, rather than work-life balance, since there is a need to find a better overall solution between these two forces in people’s lives. This is an area that I continue to try and improve in for myself and my teams.