November 29, 2011

FierceBiotech

Susan Molineaux, FierceBiotech's 2011 Women in Biotech

Success in biotech often requires flexibility--a willingness to move to new jobs, new cities, and sometimes new professions. For Susan Molineaux, the flexibility was needed early on, as she gave up an early goal of going into academics in favor of interrogating interesting questions for Merck in New Jersey.

"It seemed really appealing," recalls Molineaux. She wouldn't need to write grants and liked the idea of working with a team of investigators. She quickly found a new passion in drug research that would take her to Rigel Pharmaceuticals--where she worked as vice president of biology--and other places. Then came another big change: taking the helm at Proteolix, a San Francisco company acquired by Onyx two years ago in an $851 million deal that hinged heavily on the value of the lead program, carfilzomib.

It wasn't long before Molineaux found herself back at the head of a new team, running Calithera Biosciences in the biotech hotbed in South San Francisco with a $40 million commitment from venture capitalists.

"It's a big switch from managing science," she says about the change from hands-on development work to biotech management. "Those people who gravitate to it enjoy it because we're good communicators; we like connecting with people, talking about the big picture."

Molineaux's interest in connecting with others led her to take a board seat and active role in We Teach Science, a mentoring program for middle school students in the Bay Area. The online program gives her a chance to inspire others, much like her father did when he gave her a microscope at age 8 and urged her to go explore the world outside. And she takes an interest in mentoring other women interested in following the same career path that she chose for herself.

"I'm in the first generation of women going into biotech and pharma," says Molineaux. "Being selected out, mentored by someone, did educate me and connect me to people. If you asked someone to draw a CEO of a biotech, they'd draw a man, not a woman. We're still a minority in the industry at a CEO level. It's important to have a mentor supporting you. I also feel that everybody needs a mentor--men and women. But men don't open up to the idea as women do."

Molineaux still requires a flexible approach to biotech. After getting started, Calithera opted to migrate into a new area of cancer drug development, tumor metabolism, which can possibly deliver another big payday--and a chance to try something else new.