Company: Theravance Biopharma
Title: Senior VP corporate development and strategy
Shehnaaz Suliman learned early in life how to persist. She grew up in South Africa under apartheid, spending much of her time as a school girl protesting and fighting for basic human rights. Her persistence paid off when she won a scholarship to medical school at the University of Capetown in 1989, as a member of first group of nonwhite students allowed to attend under a quota system.
After she graduated, she did her residency at a mining hospital in South Africa where she was again at the front line of much human suffering fueled by social and economic inequality. Many of the mining company workers contracted tuberculosis or HIV; many died of AIDS because of so few treatment options.
“Even though I tried to make a difference as a healer, the scale of the things we were facing was so formidable, I realized that I wanted to have an impact on a much larger scale,” she said.
That opportunity came when she won a Rhodes scholarship to the University of Oxford business school where she pursued development studies because of her interest in public health. After graduation, Suliman moved to the United States to work for Lehman Brothers where she was introduced to the healthcare, biotech and pharma industries, along with the venture capital community.
Her first industry job was with Gilead Sciences in 2005 where she was hired to help the company diversify beyond its then-primary HIV focus. Six years later, she had wrangled $6 billion in transactions through mergers and aquisitions and licensing that formed the base of new specialty respiratory and cardiovascular franchises for Gilead.
One of the programs of which she is most proud while at Gilead was to find a creative solution to allow broader access to HIV drugs. At that time in 2006, only about 30,000 people in needy underdeveloped nations were being treated, although some 30 million needed it. She helped to create a program that proactively sought partnerships with generic companies in India and Africa to manufacture generic versions of Gilead HIV drugs. In exchange for a “very modest royalty,” Gilead cut years off their development time by giving the generic companies access to the proprietary manufacturing technology of its drugs—which were actually still being sold on patent. Today there are more than 10 million patients in the developing world receiving Gilead HIV drugs through that program.
Suliman next worked at Genentech in research and development from 2010 through 2015, but went back to business development when she joined Roche, where she worked until this past summer. That’s when she joined Theravance Biopharma when she was offered the chance to join and build the next phase of the company.
Theravance Biopharma was spun out of Theravance, now known as Innoviva, as a separate pharma research and development company in 2013. Its FDA-approved Vibativ is a dual-mechanism antibiotic approved for certain difficult-to-treat infections. Its pipeline includes revefenacin for COPD and neprilysin inhibitors to treat cardiovascular and renal diseases as well as wider research efforts in inflammation and immunology.
Suliman was attracted by the company’s promising pipeline, the community culture and the executive team—which includes CFO Renee Gala who has built an internal women’s leadership network to proactively support and nurture female talent.
“Seeing and facing adversity teaches you a lot of thing. For me, it has taught me to have humanity and empathy for people who have less than me. I am acutely aware of the fact that I am privileged to have benefited from educational and professional opportunities that have frankly completely transformed my life,” she said. “… My advice to people is find a leader you respect and admire and get into their organization. I’ve been coached and mentored by great people who took a chance on me and supported me.”