Helen Torley—Halozyme

Halozyme lab
Halozyme chief Helen Torley was ready to hit the ground running if the company's pancreatic cancer program failed. (Halozyme Therapeutics)
Helen Torley (Halozyme Therapeutics)

Helen Torley
Company: Halozyme Therapeutics
Title: President and Chief Executive Officer

When Halozyme’s pancreatic cancer program failed in late 2019, CEO Helen Torley was quick to move on a plan B the company had cooking on the back burner.

It was an example of one of her management philosophies: “Be ready for all eventualities,” Torley said in an interview. 

Equally important? Keeping her team informed of the plan, so that Halozyme’s staff knew where they stood, day one, as the company embarked on its successful pivot to drug delivery.

This backup plan had been common knowledge at Halozyme since 2018. The two-pillar company, whose delivery platform Enhanze was effectively subsidizing its development work, knew full well that in the event of a trial failure, it would reorganize, slash its R&D budget and move full-speed ahead on its drug delivery business.

“[Halozyme] spent 2018 and 2019 talking to employees to say, ‘if it doesn’t work, we will restructure the company,’” Torley said. Because of that communication, the team “knew the opportunity, but also knew the risks, and knew they could handle it for their family."

By 2020’s second quarter, Halozyme had laid off more than half its employees and dialed back R&D spending to $9 million, down from $33.9 million during the same period last year. Meanwhile, Torley was ready to pitch investors on the company’s new path to profitability via its Enhanze technology.

Transparency is key to her leadership philosophy, built on a trio of tenets: strategy, culture and “people development.”

That last one is essential to Torley, whose trajectory through the life sciences industry was supported by sponsors who pushed her into leadership roles during her time at pharma outfits like Amgen.

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“Mentors are great, but you need sponsors,” Torley said—higher-ups who not only show you the ropes, but see you as a potential leader and take you out of your comfort zone to assume more responsibility. She’s a big believer in that model, especially for women, as a means to advance in the field.

A rheumatologist by training, Torley started her career in clinical practice in the U.K. While she was working on a study for Sandoz, the Novartis unit recruited her to lead its phase 3 clinical program for cyclosporin in rheumatoid arthritis, before she eventually moved up to head medical affairs.

That role sparked an interest in marketing, and several years on, she moved to a commercialization role at Bristol Myers Squibb. It was a step down in terms of Torley’s title, but essential to building the skills she needed to get where she eventually wanted to go. “You have to work the plan,” she said.

Torley then switched over to Amgen, excited to return to her rheumatology roots. The company had just launched the now-blockbuster immunology med Enbrel, and there, Torley took on a job similar to the one she'd been doing at BMS. It was at Amgen that Torley found one of her sponsors, who chose her to head the company’s nephrology and bone health business.

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After a stint at Onyx Pharmaceuticals, which Amgen acquired in 2013, Torley in 2014 felt she was ready to lead a company. Halozyme was the right fit, she thought; at the time, it had a number of data readouts coming and was closer to the market and commercialization—Torley’s wheelhouse.

While the company’s oncology efforts may not have panned out, Torley has made good on her plan to deliver profits in 2020. In the year’s second quarter, the company posted revenues of $55.2 million, up from $39.1 million year over year. Drug delivery partnerships with companies like Janssen and Bristol Myers Squibb contributed $32.3 million toward that total.

Meanwhile, Enhanze-partnered drugs have been racking up approvals in recent months: Janssen’s subcutaneous version of Darzalex—Faspro—won nods from the FDA and the European Medicines Agency, and Roche’s combination breast cancer med Phesgo grabbed an FDA green light in June.

The company now has five partnered drugs on the market and expects a total of five phase 1 starts for Enhanze-paired products before the year is out, with a clear line of sight to additional trial launches in 2021, Torley said. And while the company is all in on Enhanze right now, it’s not opposed to growing by acquisition and potentially picking up another delivery platform, she added.

In her climb to the top, Torley said she’s never felt explicitly passed over for a job because she’s a woman, but she has noticed that there’s a “protectionist” mindset, fueled by unconscious biases, that’s often unfairly applied to women in the industry—especially for those eyeing leadership roles.

In talent reviews, it’s not uncommon to hear comments like, “Oh, she’s ready for a promotion but she’s just had a baby. Let’s not trouble her at this time,” Torley said.

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Halozyme, for its part, works to ensure that potential job candidates, as well as the groups of employees interviewing them, are diverse, Torley said—and her work to boost inclusivity across the industry doesn't end with her own company, either. 

Back in 2015, Torley came across a Liftstream report analyzing trends among CEOs and corporate boards from the city’s public biotech companies. To her surprise, she was listed as the only female CEO across the 44 San Diego firms covered.

Taking the issue to the Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion (WDDI) committee of  the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), an outside speaker told Torley that the only way to get more women on biotech boards would be to only consider women for open positions.

“That was unacceptable,” Torley said, adding that she was “so vocal they asked me to chair the committee.” So chair she did.

In her role at WDDI, Torley has helped drive initial efforts to boost diversity among leadership and board. While some improvements have been made, there’s still much work to be done, Torley said.

“We’re still struggling at the functional leader [level] and C-suite,” she said. CEOs need to review their talent development process and look at what’s holding them back from building more diverse leadership teams, she added.

Sponsorships to speed the growth of more diverse candidates will play a big part, she thinks.

As for her advice to other women looking to get ahead in the industry, “have a plan, understand the skills you need to develop, and get the jobs to build those skills to be successful,” Torley said. Taking an opportunity when it comes is also key—plus, a sponsorship or two couldn’t hurt.

Helen Torley—Halozyme