Company: Cygnal Therapeutics
Pearl Huang has “the ultimate ‘bringing your whole self to the table’ job."
“A lot of people say they're looking for a job where they can use every part of themselves, so I fit into that category,” said Huang, CEO of Cygnal Therapeutics since 2019. “At every new job I took, at every place I went, I wanted to be able to use my entire person, which means not just my analytical skills, but also my emotional skills, also my social skills, also my problem-solving skills.”
Huang is now rounding out her second year as CEO at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Cygnal, which aims to develop drugs focused on the peripheral nervous system as an active player in human health and disease rather than as a conduit of the central nervous system, namely the brain and the spine. Although she touts a 30-year career in the industry, this is her first role at the helm.
While Huang admits that not every new CEO needs the depth of experience she has, it’s certainly helped her propel Cygnal forward since its founding in 2017.
“Every CEO doesn't need to have 30 years of experience in drug discovery and development,” she said. “But I know for myself, being able to solve these problems of making new medicines from many different angles has really helped me steer this company in the right direction.”
Huang got her start in science in the rural Northern Peninsula of Michigan, a region she calls “underpopulated,” which compelled her to spend time outside. That experience, along with the value her family placed on science and academic rigor, led her to MIT to study life sciences. From there, she got her Ph.D. in molecular biology at Princeton.
“I always knew I wanted to do biology, but I always knew I also wanted to do something important that would make an impact,” she said. “So I gravitated to the applied biology, applied science of drug discovery.”
After Princeton, she landed in industry, not knowing whether she would like it. But she “fell in love with drug discovery and development and never looked back,” she said. She found her place in Big Pharma because “you get to draw upon all different kinds of expertise. It's interdisciplinary,” she said. “It's the greatest team sport.”
Huang has worn many hats since then, to both learn as much as she could about the drug discovery process and to challenge herself, an approach she recommends to everyone in the industry. She’s held roles at Merck and GlaxoSmithKline twice each, at DuPont, and at Roche most recently before she started at Cygnal. She also tried her hand at entrepreneurship when she cofounded the Philadelphia- and Beijing-based BeiGene in 2010 with the goal of using gene-based biomarkers in cancer treatments.
Upon hearing about the opportunity at Cygnal, Huang was “seduced by the science” and knew she had to get involved. “I'm excited about the fundamental nature of breakthrough science here and decided that I had to be a part of this and I had to help it succeed and make the impact on patients that it has potential to do,” she said.
Huang sees Cygnal’s approach of studying the peripheral nervous system as “the next wave” of cancer treatment. Even though scientists have known about the peripheral nervous system for almost 200 years, it has been little-studied until now because of recent advances in imaging that allow the company to examine how the PNS interacts with cancerous tumors.
Cygnal’s goal is to “decode the signals that are happening between the immune cells and in the peripheral neurons,” Huang said. By doing so, “we're looking at cancer in a whole new way [because] every cancer is touched by nerves, every tissue is touched by nerves.”
The timing is right for Huang to be Cygnal’s CEO: She’s without “personal distractions” since becoming an empty nester, and she’s grown into the role as much as the industry has shifted over time.
“I probably wasn't ready to do this job until now, but also biotech wasn't ready for somebody like me to do it until now because I have spent most of my time in Big Pharma,” she said. “I am an unconventional CEO, but hopefully I'm changing the conventions and others will follow.”
Huang wasn’t always so confident in her abilities. Early in her career, she struggled to articulate her opinions, even though she trusted her scientific ability. And while she acknowledges that her status as a minority working mother did matter in her career, she proved herself by example, and by speaking up if colleagues were making a bad decision.
As her mentors did before her, she’s sure to ask younger colleagues directly what they think during a heated debate because “that was one of the best gifts I've ever been given,” she said. “It not only gave me a voice, but also helped me understand it was my obligation to have a voice.”