Company: Orchard Therapeutics
Title: Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder
Andrea Spezzi followed a path through Big Pharma to Orchard Therapeutics, a rare disease biotech focusing on therapies that affect only a handful of patients. But that doesn't mean she's new to the orphan disease world.
During her previous stint at GlaxoSmithKline, where she worked for more than six years, she served as VP and medicine development leader at its Rare Diseases Unit. And now, that experience has dovetailed with her work at Orchard, which recently teamed up with GSK to develop gene therapies for rare diseases, including two late-stage drugs. It also brought Orchard the EMA-approved Strimvelis, which treats ADA-SCID, also known as “bubble boy syndrome,” a rare genetic disorder that causes immunodeficiency.
Before GSK, Spezzi worked at Takeda as its global medical director for R&D. Now at Orchard, she's one of a few female CMOs in the biotech world, but she says she's been fortunate in pursuing her career without facing gender-related speed bumps.
“I never personally felt any major obstacles during my career because of my gender,” she explained. “I guess perhaps my experience has been unusual. If that happened, I did not notice it! I always got the positions I wanted, and almost all my jobs happened because somebody contacted me and chased me for it. But I know in this regard I have been very lucky.
“I think as women we are conditioned or expected to be more reserved in [talking about] our achievements, skills and talents," she said. "This can make career advancement for women challenging, and may contribute to this business being more male-oriented. But things are now changing, in my view.”
Spezzi comes to the biopharma industry from medicine, and at the start of her career, biotech wasn't her aim. Becoming a pediatrician “was always my dream, my true vocation,” and she enjoyed every step through that medical career, particularly being in the clinic, doing ward rounds, and having day-to-day contact with patients and families.
But working with sick patients exposes you to “a lot of suffering," she said, and the frustration of being unable, in most cases, to provide solutions—particularly in the rare diseases—prompted her to attack the problem more directly.
She knew that in England, it was possible to be formally trained to be a pharmaceutical physician, prepared to work on developing treatments. "This opportunity made me decide to follow an industry career path," she said. She saw it as a chance to have a broader impact on treating disease—across the globe, not just one patient at a time.
“I saw the possibility to innovate, apply my training and expertise to global drug development and therefore have the potential to reach patients in need all around the world," she said. An industry job would also allow her to exercise her strengths in in leadership and business, she said.
Spezzi came to London and went back to university to become a pharmaceutical physician, while gaining industry experience, first as a research physician at a contract research organization and then embarking on the career that eventually would lead her to Orchard.
“This took a lot of effort, commitment and hard work, but it was worth it,” she reflected.
She said she was “very lucky” to have “excellent mentors” throughout her career: “I was fortunate, but it was unusual that during my years as a resident in pediatrics, most of the heads of departments in the children's hospital where I trained in Buenos Aires were strong women who graduated in the late 60s early 70s. These women truly inspired me.
Later, a mentor at Takeda recognized her potential and pushed her to take on more and more challenging tasks. "He gave me amazing opportunities and told me, ‘My job is to ensure you are a better leader than me. In the future, you will need to do the same for others.’”
And that charge resonates even today. "I have taken his advice seriously and mentored young, talented women and men at Takeda and GSK–and now at Orchard, as we continue to grow,” she said.
Recruiting is one pursuit at Orchard where she sees an opportunity—and a challenge. When scouting for senior leaders, “we see that most of the candidates tend to be men," she said. That's changing, however, she said, as a new generation of managers rises.
One thing she tries to make clear to younger folks is that balancing a successful career with personal live and family is challenging for women and men both, particularly those in top management. “We all struggle," she said. "Everything moves at an incredible speed, and there is a requirement to be connected 24/7. We all have to make sacrifices.”
At Orchard, she said, the focus is always on finding a dedicated candidate with the right skills and potential, woman or man, and to avoid those who are resume-building. “In my experience, when a candidate joins only for a higher position or for the job title—without a passion for the mission of the company, and the energy and dedication to be part of a fast paced, creative biotech—this candidate will eventually fail, regardless of gender."
As an example, she noted that Orchard recently appointed a senior employee who's pregnant. "The team, and our CEO, knew she was the best candidate, so she got the job. Her pregnancy did not matter. She was the best," Spezzi said.
And what is Spezzi’s advice to women rising through the ranks? “First, have a clear goal and ensure you really know where you want to go and why. ... What is your motivation? Why you want to get there? Trace a plan, then work hard [and] do not be afraid to put yourself out there."
Though ambitious women should be confident in their abilities, they also need to heed constructive criticism along the way. “Listen to feedback even if it is not what you want to hear," she urged. "[C]hallenge yourself and use it for your benefit, to be even better. But do not listen to those who say it is impossible."
She also has some advice for the next generation: observe, learn and gain experience, and always maintain a positive attitude. "Particularly to young millennials, be patient," she said, going on to say, "Find a mentor who inspires you, find somebody whom you admire and who can serve as a mold. ... I hope my generation will make things easier for the next and that we inspire other women to follow our paths.”