Company: Foundation Medicine
Title: Chief Business Officer and Head, Biopharma
As chief business officer of Foundation Medicine, Melanie Nallicheri aims to cement a company culture that values diversity in its people and their perspectives. It’s an opportune trait to have when pursuing diversity in medical therapies—with Foundation looking to make personalized medicine the preferred course for every cancer patient.
But Nallicheri has run into obstacles. “There are certainly doubters,” she says.
As Foundation aims to gather as much genomic information as possible through its suite of diagnostics, it’s aware that it doesn’t have all the answers. “If we test today for 300 genes, we don’t have 300 targeted therapies,” Nallicheri says. “But you can't stop trying, you have to start somewhere.”
The company hopes to enable physicians to make informed therapy choices, instead of trying several treatments that have a smaller chance of working against a particular tumor. In some cases, that means challenging the old way of doing things—such as the wisdom of guiding treatment based on the tumor’s organ site alone.
In her career, Nallicheri says she’s been described as “direct,” and “straightforward,” though not necessarily inaccurately.
“I’m just very straightforward. That is very much myself.”
However, she says, her male colleagues doing the same thing, or making their points in a similar manner, would be described as “compelling.”
“It's a different adjective, but it says that I’m supposed to be doing things a different way.”
To that, Nallicheri says that women in the biotech industry should try and avoid that desire to fit in that everyone feels. “You’ve got to be yourself.”
Earlier in her career, while a partner and senior member of the global health practice of the uber-consultancy Booz & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton, Nallicheri learned discipline early.
It’s an important skill to have, when presented with a flood of complex information and little time to get up to speed while being counted on to act as an advisor—not to mention the weight of possibly affecting patients’ lives. That patient focus, and the desire to make a positive impact, is what gave her the bug to begin working more directly in the life sciences.
Today, Foundation offers a comprehensive portfolio of tests based on DNA and RNA, through tissue and liquid biopsies. Alongside its new owner, Roche, the company recently launched a blood test that scans for alterations in 70 genes linked to solid cancer growth, taken from sequences of cell-free DNA from tumors circulating in the bloodstream.
Earlier this summer, Roche signed a $2.4 billion deal to buy Foundation, though it plans to manage the company from an arm’s length and give it the autonomy to continue its diagnostic collaborations with other biopharma companies. Roche had acquired a 56% stake in the company three years before with a $1 billion investment, securing its place in the testing side of the precision medicine sector.
“I think the next frontier is delivering all the insights that we can gather—making that information relevant is the next step forward,” Nallicheri says, namely by exploring what really drives cancer biomarkers and signatures, and using that information in a data-rich way. “All that complex data that we have today, we can make that simple,” she says, with the end-goal of providing something useful to physicians.
Nallicheri tells her mentees to lock on to their own personal north star, a guiding light more important than other things. That can be working to benefit patients, and gathering the proper team to do it.
Valuing different perspectives and differing opinions, having a dialogue, and committing to a constructive environment not only folds neatly into a productive work style, but also mirrors the company’s surroundings.
Walking down the streets of Foundation’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you see a very diverse group of people, similar to other biotech hotbeds today, she says. “That diversity is so important. It’s not just about fairness,” Nallicheri says,” It’s the right thing to do, but also we do it so that we can access that knowledge.”
“We get in the room, and we get on the whiteboard to hash things out,” she says, “We’re trying to make things better. We’re trying to stop people from doing the same things over and over again.”
And in her mentorship, Nallicheri hopes to help build up people better than her to take over.
“I hope that people say, ‘I want Melanie’s job. I want to do what Melanie does.’ Because that means we’ve created something desirable here.”