Title: President and CEO, Chief Medical Officer
As an ambitious young medical graduate in Ireland, Aoife Brennan had her working life all mapped out. After one year in the U.S. to round out her training, Brennan would return to Ireland and start a career that combined clinical care, medical education and research. That was what Brennan’s professors did. That was what success looked like to medical graduates.
It’s not what Brennan ended up doing, though. She stayed in the U.S., transitioned into industry and secured a series of promotions that culminated in her becoming CEO of a publicly traded biotech. Back when Brennan finished medical school, none of that was in the cards.
“Joining industry was still considered moving to the dark side,” she said.
Brennan’s perceptions of the doors a medical degree could unlock shifted as she learned more about the science that was being done outside of academic settings, leading her to zero in on translational research as a field she found particularly exciting and energizing. That line of thinking accelerated as she rotated around Harvard University during a scholars in clinical science program.
“It really gave me a broader exposure and started my thinking around maybe there are other career choices. There were other interesting things that I could do based on my training and background,” Brennan said.
Since departing from her presupposed career path, Brennan has risen through the ranks at Tolerx, Biogen and Synlogic. The progression superficially looks more linear than the leap Brennan took into industry. But it features moves that pushed Brennan further still away from her starting point.
Notably, it isn’t obvious that Brennan, an endocrinologist, and Biogen, a biotech that made its name in neuroscience, would be a good fit. Yet, having had a positive gut feeling about Biogen, Brennan joined the company and found the thing that made her a bad fit on paper was her biggest strength in practice.
“I had tons of opportunities there because I wasn't a neurologist. As they started to do new things, I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Brennan felt some of these opportunities, like others afforded to her, came slightly too soon. When that happened, some people advised Brennan against taking a chance, telling her, “don't do it, you might fail, this is a disaster you're taking on.” But there were always one or two people who took the opposing view, asked Brennan, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and nudged her to take the role. Those nudges have helped Brennan all the way to the CEO chair.
In reaching that height, she has had to give some things up. At Biogen, Brennan trained people the company hired from academia, enabling her to sate the desire to teach that she harbored before entering industry. Moving to a smaller company, Synlogic, meant giving up that opportunity.
In response, Brennan, who is “a big believer in you make the job that you want," began seeking out opportunities to educate. That led Brennan to the professional organization Women in Bio, where she is now helping to address one of the issues she thinks is holding women back.
“One of my observations professionally is often women are very good at execution and doing their job. But their upward mobility is limited by the fact that they're not seen as strategic thinkers, or that they don't have the business sense or financial acumen required to make that next step,” Brennan said.
With Women in Bio, Brennan is running a leadership-ready seminar series to ensure women have the skills to land jobs at the very top of organizations, such as the ability to make tradeoffs between risk, cost and time.