Sidonie Golombowski-Daffner was quick to address the elephant in the room when she became Chairperson and President of Advanced Accelerator Applications (AAA), a Novartis company, in October 2019. Her two predecessors had quickly advanced to executive committee roles within Novartis and people, she says, were understandably curious about how long she would stay.
“I told them that since the two vacancies in Novartis that I would have been interested in had already been filled, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” she smiles. After eight years with one of big pharma’s giants, including the last two as the Country President and Pharma General Manager of Novartis Germany, Sidonie, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, was looking for a new challenge.
“As the second-largest country organisation in Novartis, Germany was a very well-oiled machine with 7,500 people, 12 sites and US$ 3.9 billion (€3.2 billion) in sales,” she shares. When it came to contemplating her next move, she says “running a larger country or larger organisation with a similar portfolio would have been a bit more of the same”.
Instead, an opportunity was presented to lead the recently acquired AAA, a radiopharmaceutical group considered a pioneer in the development of radioligand drugs, treatments able to target specific cancer cells in both diagnostic and therapeutic contexts. “The future potential of this therapy is only starting to be understood,” she enthuses.
“The brief, to further develop and build a platform from early research through to commercial development, manufacturing and supply chain was really interesting for me.” There was also the legacy interplay with her predecessors – both “very inspirational female leaders who have made incredible careers with Novartis” – to consider.
“It was a great option to stretch myself, learn new things and leave my comfort zone,” she says. Having made its name with Lutathera®, the first peptide receptor radionuclide therapy, a type of radioligand therapy to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and European Commission, Sidonie says her focus at AAA is to now demonstrate excellence in execution.
The future potential of this therapy is only starting to be understood.
“That means flawless implementation and having the right business models in place and to think about our global footprint.” But importantly, it’s about ensuring Lutathera isn’t a one-off.
“We need to build this platform across multiple tumour types,” she says, adding that the treatment is used for certain types of neuroendocrine tumours. This is where the advantage of being part of the Novartis family comes to the fore.
“We are one of the four platforms of Novartis Oncology,” Sidonie says, explaining that AAA’s radioligand therapy joins immune-oncology, targeted therapies and cell and gene therapy in the division.
“One of the bold ambitions we have is to find combinations with these other modalities. Even by itself, radioligand therapy presents multiple options for treating a complex disease like cancer, by combining different types of targeting molecules and radioisotopes. Imagine opening a giant box of building blocks and being able to combine the different components very quickly to attack different types of cancers.”
Sidonie believes AAA benefits from a distinct position in the market. “We are able to combine the agility, innovative approach and feel of a small biotech with the depths and the scale of Novartis using the big machine in research and development to really build something unique,” she points out.
“It’s a huge gift.” This “best of both worlds”, as she calls it, is what she believes sets AAA apart from the competition, as does a team of “inspired and engaged associates who are deeply excited and motivated by the idea of a new therapeutic approach with the potential to transform patients’ lives”.
She adds: “One of the strengths of small biotech companies is this feeling of purpose and close connection. Such a mindset is a great asset.” Another unique aspect of the business is the on-demand nature of the radioligand platform – the product has to be injected into the patient within three days of production.
Such a short shelf life could have proved problematic with COVID-19 lockdown measures, especially considering the reliance on air freight in the supply chain, but Sidonie says the team have been able to ensure an uninterrupted supply for both commercial and study purposes through the pandemic.
“This makes me very proud,” she beams. The pandemic, she acknowledges, also required a shift in her leadership – especially with her team moving to remote working almost overnight.
“Such a change requires a different approach since when you connect virtually, you only have a small part of the overall picture. In complex situations, it’s difficult to sense what people are feeling,” she confesses. To address this, time has been invested into virtual coffees and wine chill-outs.
AAA was founded in 2002 by Italian physicist Stefano Buono to continue to build on research undertaken during his time in the lab of Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. In 2018, the company was acquired by Novartis for US$3.9 billion (€3.2 billion).
“Nevertheless, it’s normal to still feel isolated from time to time.” The question of connection in this new virtual reality is one that is playing on Sidonie’s mind and while she says much progress has been made already, she admits that it’s “the task that we have for the upcoming months”.
“We are human beings and while we have enormous focus on developing next generation technologies to connect and engage with our customers and patients, we also need to ask how we can support our associates better,” she acknowledges.
“The older I get, the more I understand that an organisation is a kind of organism with hopes and dreams. How to manage this will be a key question for leaders in the months and years to come.” Sidonie predicts the answer will usher in a new set of leadership rules. “There is not enough love in this world. Love can be the next leadership principle.”
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