Samantha Budd Haeberlein
Title: Head of Clinical Development for Alzheimer’s disease
Samantha Budd Haeberlein’s focus at Biogen is, arguably, the biggest area facing biopharma research: Alzheimer’s disease (AD). She and her Big Biotech team are hoping to buck a 15-year negative industry trend with their approach to the memory-wasting disorder.
Alzheimer’s is surely the largest unmet medical need in older patients, with woefully few medicines that can help patients. Biogen’s big hope is antiamyloid drug aducanumab, which is in phase 3, with data from the medication showing whether it hit its primary outcome expected in two years.
Haeberlein has been working for Biogen in AD since 2015, and that came after a long stint, 15 years all told, at the U.K. Big Pharma AstraZeneca (her last position before leaving was as VP of neuroscience virtual business unit, head of translational sciences), and has lived in the U.K., Sweden and the U.S.
She’s also had former academic roles in Children’s Hospital & Brigham & Women’s Hospital Harvard Medical School and The Burnham Institute in La Jolla.
Her current role at Biogen sees her working on the furthest along in the R&D part of the business; she says she has moved more towards this end over the years, as she started in the pharma industry in 2000 at the start of R&D–in research on new targets.
At Biogen, while working on AD, she also works on specific mentoring for women coming up through the ranks.
“I participate in both formal mentoring, and am actively engaged with a number of our Biogen women in informal mentoring,” she explains.
“Biogen also has a Women’s Innovation Network (WIN) employee resource network. With 1600-plus members, their mission is to ensure that women are fully included, engaged and valued at all levels in all parts of the business globally as drivers of Biogen's sustainability and overall success.”
While Haeberlein acknowledged that in biopharma, "we still don’t have equal numbers at the top or senior leadership teams in our industry,” she said that compared to where it was when she started in industry, “there has been progress.” (Several winners this year expressed a similar sentiment.)
She explained: “We have gone from one woman on the leadership team to three or five: getting closer to equal numbers. The conversation is today louder, more open and acceptable; not just the last bullet on a HR agenda topic. Today, the conversation is also about diversity broadly and not just the dimension of women, which I believe is important. What we are trying to achieve is a full quotient of diverse perspectives.”
She also argued that young girls need not be encouraged into science, as they are “equally enthralled at the nature of things” as boys are. Rather, she said, we should focus not on how we turn the interest on, but focusing on how we don’t switch that off.
Her father encouraged her "to pursue subjects at university that I enjoyed. I chose biochemistry and remain fascinated in the details of how our cells build and function to become organs, senses and consciousness," the Ph.D. said. "Through my studies and research became deeply interested in how the brain works, and devastated at my first exposure of how the brain is damaged and dies.”
Emma Walmsley being named CEO at GlaxoSmithKline was a good moment for the industry, but she still is in a minority of one when it comes to female leaders running the world’s biggest pharma companies.
Haeberlein said that supporting women to achieve senior leadership roles is “a long game," and there are “multiple dimensions to the issue of not having equality at the top today.”
One of the challenges she’s passionate about is not losing those promising women in the earlier stages of their careers.
“We need to support women in those earlier stages of their careers which coincide with life changes such as starting a family."
“My boys are 13 and 16 today and I had terrific support when they were small, when I joined Biogen even though it was no longer a need for my family situation, I was very proud that Biogen has onsite childcare.”