Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
When Novartis acquired AveXis and its spinal muscular atrophy drug Zolgensma in 2018, the move helped the company fine-tune its gene therapy strategy. Armed with AveXis’ technology that “transfers DNA into cells through viral vectors,” Novartis Gene Therapies — and its 30 products in the pipeline — brought Chris Fox on board as president just over a year ago to further refine its culture, encourage innovation, and reimagine the impact gene therapies can have around the world.
“We’re looking at both internal innovation and external innovation, and how we (can) take the skills and capabilities and translate those into a sustainable business,” she said. “We still have a lot more work to do on Zolgensma, so we’re looking to broaden our reach with innovative access agreements and prepping our launch in intrathecal.”
Fox, who stepped into the role after spending more than 25 years in the industry in a multitude of roles and therapeutic categories, has been impacted by the closeness of Novartis’ relationships to patients.
“When we send out Zolgensma to a patient, we memorialize that significant moment by putting handprints on the wall on our manufacturing site with the location and the date,” she said. “Now we’re following patients who are six, seven years into their journey who have been dosed in our first clinical trials and we keep up with their families. So, we learn about their new experiences. This affords us not only a powerful motivation, but an intimacy with their journey and all of the things that affect the patient and … their families. While I have been a part of many patients’ journeys, this is much, much more intimate.”
Tapping into her U.S. and international leadership experience in sales, marketing and commercial operations, Fox is expanding Novartis’ reach with gene therapies.
“We’re excited about more gene therapies coming to market,” she said. “(I think): How will we influence engagements with health ministers across the globe? How do we create a sustainable platform? Most governments and infrastructures (have) very different models of chronic treatments. I think of it like cracking the code and problem solving as we go. There’s no playbook for this, and I think that in and of itself is motivational.”
In this episode of the Woman of the Week podcast, Fox shares some of the best leadership advice she ever received, her approach to balancing work and life, and how taking a global role changed her career trajectory.
Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Chris Fox, president, Novartis Gene Therapies.
Taren: Chris, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Chris: It’s my pleasure. Nice to meet you, at least virtually.
Taren: Exactly. Nice to meet you as well. Chris, you joined Novartis just more than a year ago. Can you please share a bit of your career journey that led you to your current executive position?
Chris: Sure. I have been in the industry about 25 years and I began as a sales rep working for Rhone-Poulenc Rorer. I’ve worked at diverse number of companies – Takeda, a couple of startups, Merck, most recently Amgen before Novartis, and led many, many different sizes of team, small and mighty and much larger in the thousands. I think one of the things that has contributed to my current interest in growth and development is really being with experience brought the roles across kind of the commercial continuum. I think that’s been probably my most favorite part leading me to now a really unique opportunity at Novartis Gene Therapies, kind of building on the success that the team has started before I got here.
Taren: It’s exciting. So tell me, how did you get into the pharma space? You started at RPR, which I was going to laugh and say, you have to be an industry veteran to know Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, right?
Chris: Exactly. Yeah, I probably should have said that. Yeah, I was really, really fortunate. I actually interviewed at university and it was at the time kind of posted the boon of so many representatives and customer facing roles and so I kind of got the tail end of that and was fortunate to have success in the process, and Rhone-Poulenc Rorer said, ‘we have two spots left in Buffalo, New York or Indianapolis, Indiana.’ I’d never been to either of them ever, but I packed the truck and moved to Indy and the rest as they say is history.
Taren: That’s exciting. That’s fun. So in taking over the role as president of Gene Therapies at Novartis, have you had any like – aha moments, something that you didn’t expect to find out or to learn?
Chris: Yeah. Well, there’s so many and in so many every day I mean, I think that’s one of the most exciting parts is just really growth at this stage, learning a whole new business. But I’d say my biggest – aha moment, has been the closeness to the patient. So given that this is gene therapies obviously, the patient pool is much smaller and you follow the patients over very many years.
So we’re intimate with that in ways, like as an example when we send out Zolgensma to the patient, we kind of memorialize that significant moment by putting handprints on the wall on our manufacturing site with the location and the date. But now we’re following patients that are six, seven years into their journey that have been dosed kind of in our first clinical trials and we keep up with their families. So we learn about how their new experiences at school are and how it’s going. I think what this is really afforded us is not only powerful motivation, that’s for sure, but an intimacy with their journey and all of the things that affect both the patient and in this case, their families because it’s incredibly meaningful. So it helps us be really, really attuned. And while I have been parts of many patient’s journeys, this one to me is much, much more intimate.
Taren: You noted that this is kind of a new area for Novartis getting into it. Why do you think the company is delving into gene therapies? What is it about this category that it fits into the overall portfolio?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a great question. I would say a couple of things. One is, certainly the promise of the science. I mean, we are really afforded an extraordinary support in our early research programs and our drug development and that is a real sweet spot for Novartis. I think the belief in the science and the innovation. One of the things I continue experiences the resolve that we have and kind of figuring this out as we go along. So well, it’s not easy. I think this fits really, really nicely into the division that we have for ourselves in affecting massively transforming patients that otherwise would likely be left unserved.
Taren: That’s wonderful. And stepping into this role, how are you making it your own?
Chris: Well that is always a dilemma I would say, and especially in a case like this and quite frankly in many spots in my career, where you’re already joining a really high performing team. They’ve had incredible success and kind of problem solving in building this, they go very entrepreneurial, and that continues. So it’s like how do you take all of those things that have been transformative and successful and now take them to the next place. So you can expect that when an acquisition happens like AveXis to Novartis, there’s lots of change and understandably, it kind of creates a little bit of a rupture in your culture. So some of those things in the early days of my joining have been to figure out kind of where do we go from here beyond Zolgensma, our first product. And then also, how do we apply those skills and experiences to other parts of bringing value to the organization while holding our own culture.
So I think we’re still in that process and it will continue to evolve. I mean, even as we get more and more products, I think that’s always going to be part of our remit of how do we redefine and continue to innovate.
Taren: Perfect, and you noted that it’s somewhat of an entrepreneurial culture which is fantastic, and it’s unusual to find that in a highly matrix organization. So I can see how you’re still trying to figure out that cultural piece of putting those pieces together. As you look forward over the next six months to a year, what are some significant milestones you have your eyes set on?
Chris: Well, I think a big part of it is becoming a sustainable business. So I think we’re looking both internal innovation and external innovation and how do we take the skills and capabilities and translate those? We still have a lot more work to do on Zolgensma IV, so we’re looking to broaden our reach with innovative access agreements and prepping our launch in intrathecal. And the last bit as you just said, I think our culture is continuing to evolve and making that a big, prominent part of what’s attractive about people choosing to be talented here versus going somewhere else. I think those kind of, I think really meaningful milestones are what we’re solving for the next six to 12 months.
Taren: Fantastic. Gene therapy is one of the hottest topics of the day, and so what excites you about this field of science and what gets your team excited? What are some of the major trends you’re tracking as a follow up?
Chris: I think, you know, it’s funny in this space, I would say, it’s incredibly exciting just by the nature of what you do when you can make a difference for those patients that we already talked about – we see it, we live it. So that motivation is incredibly exciting. I think we’re excited about doing that in other spaces, whether co-located to Zolgensma or other unique spaces that provide an opportunity that’s not been served.
I think more and more just at large from a macro perspective, I think we’re excited about more gene therapies coming to market and how will that look, how will we influence engagements with health ministers across the globe? How do we create a sustainable platform? Because I think most governments and infrastructures are set up to a very different model of chronic treatments. And when you have gene therapies and in our case, one time it’s much different. And so I think that courtship and that understanding of meeting their needs in a different way, I see that evolving over time.
I think I’m really excited about supporting other companies as they go on their own journey. There’s a community of leadership in this space and I think we can all bring extraordinary value and I think that will be exciting for the patients and families that we serve and it will set a new normal standard of how this should work.
Taren: That is exciting. And you know obviously, gene therapy is in the news a lot because of the cost and the price of these expensive therapies that are treating sometimes very small patient populations and it’s fraught with obviously development, pitfalls, et cetera. How do you keep your team excited? How do you motivate your team?
Chris: They don’t need a lot of motivation I’ll say. I think it’s inherent in kind of the experiences that we’ve had. But I think your example is a good one in just in access and how do we chunk this down. I think kind of cracking the code and problem solving as we go. There’s no playbook for this, and I think that in and of itself is motivational. If you’re sitting at this table and trying to figure out how do we get Zolgensma to Egypt for instance or to other countries that historically haven’t had a chance to participate in innovation. It’s really, really meaningful and very gratifying to kind of figure out what it’s going to take and how do we crack the code.
I’d also say too, I think there’s a lot of pride in our culture and people wanting to help each other and others orientation. So I think people come with that inherent motivation, but now it’s just in a different context as we continue to build our future.
Taren: Perfect. You noted that this is already a high performing team, but you’re going to continue to look to build that team. What are some of the keys to your success in building a high performing team?
Chris: It’s a great question. I think there’s lots of recipes for sure. I think a big part of it for me is me personally is transparency, collaboration, really understanding how different teammates around the table can contribute and then inclusion, because of that. I think, high performing teams that I’ve either been a part of or created really have a clear vision and alignment is very, very powerful around that. I’ve seen over the years, people really surprise you because they lean into that and can bring their unique gifts in that way. And it creates like this almost unexplainable accountability where everyone feels responsible for the end product. And that creates a wonderful climate not only to help deliver, but also just to be a part of to learn it. So I think those are some of the things environmentally that I think are very representative of high performing teams like this one.
Taren: Wonderful. Is there anybody who’s had a particular influence on you on your career either as a mentor, as a sponsor?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a great question and I’ll say, I think I have been afforded to work alongside of really extraordinary people and being mentored sometimes not by the most senior person in the organization, but by a finance expert or someone that was particularly savvy with the science. But I’d say the person that’s probably had the biggest influence on me overall from a leadership perspective and at the risk of oversharing, I’ll say it was my mom. Yeah, just kind of coming up the way that I did. I had two brothers and two sisters that were much older than me and my father passed away unexpectedly when I was 5. And my mom found herself, a single woman taking care of a family, young family, but also inheriting his business and being woefully under prepared to do that. And so a lot of things that I noticed that I call on and have called on just for strength or a way forward is I think of her grit and how that must have been one of the most impossible chapters in her life. She did it really very the elegantly within the flourish and made things better for just being there, and so, I think of that often.
Taren: What a wonderful tribute. And it’s funny you said your dad passed away at 5 and that’s got to be terribly traumatic obviously for your whole family. And as a little kid you watched her and did she even know that you are watching her? Does she know that she’s had such an influence on you?
Chris: You know, it’s funny. I don’t think she did until many years. She’s passed now, she passed in 2012, but at some point when I was traveling quite a bit, I wrote her a letter, so that she would know, right? Because sometimes you can’t express it kind of face-to-face and you don’t want to make the person that you’re telling all these great things to you feel just awkward about kind of influence of that. And so I know she didn’t know and she said to me, she was a woman of very few words so that was outside of her comfort zone. She was I think very touched by that and had no idea honestly, as she was living that part of her life.
Taren: I just got the goose bumps. That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that very personal insight with us. So now that your mom has been a role model for you, do you consider yourself to be a role model to others?
Chris: That’s a complicated question. I’d say yes and no if I’m honest, I mean, I think I take the responsibility of this role and many others that I’ve had very seriously. I think it’s really a privilege. But I’d also say, there’s just lots of different ways, different leadership styles, different approaches that can yield really good results. So I don’t think of it more as a role model it’s just a discussion partner for folks that if they are going through similar things or just need a safe place to have discussion, I much rather think about it that way. Because I think it takes a lot of humility and vulnerability I think to help support people and be there for them when they need you.
Taren: Fair enough. As we come out of the pandemic, leaders across the board are trying to crack the code as to what’s the best path forward. How were you looking at employee engagement? We certainly saw women particularly figure it out, balancing work, life, parents, kids, all of that from home and now a lot of companies are asking their employees to come back to the office full time. And it’s hard to go back now that the toothpaste is out of the tube. How are you figuring that out?
Chris: Yeah. I’d say day-by-day. It certainly has altered our reference for how we work, how we even link to work. I mean, I can say personally, I was one of those people that love to be in the office. And so, having a chance to work from home for a significant period of time it altered my view and that you can kind of do both things and do it really, really well. I think the toll that it’s taken though to your point is that it had a negative impact on sense of belonging and connection. So people really understanding where do they fit into the picture and particularly on teams when that can sometimes produce some of the most significant outcomes because of that camaraderie.
So I think we’re going slow and we’re learning and we’re kind of, us specifically, we’re in a hybrid place because we have worldwide responsibility. We have people all over the globe. It wouldn’t be possible to bring everybody into one office, but kind of creating those touchdown places for people so that they have that connection and particularly when they’re making I would say strategic or cultural decisions. I think that the outcomes tend to be better when people can be eye-to-eye and even break bread, if there’s a chance to do that, it creates that connection on a much, much deeper level. So we’re kind of doing it as we go on this too and experiencing that particularly at the beginning of this year in a more earnest way.
Taren: Absolutely again, there’s no playbook for this and there’s probably no right answer. There’s no answer that’s going to be right for everyone, let me put it that way.
Chris: Yeah, for sure.
Taren: So of course, over the course of your 25-year plus career, do you have any particular leadership advice that you rely on that’s been provided to you that you say, hey, you know what, that’s a good go-to piece?
Chris: Yeah. I think, I have seen and been told along the way to kind of slow down and enjoy the journey. I think when I was younger, I don’t really got what that meant and I have lived it now where I think a lot of self-reflection comes at the hands of the things that you didn’t do very well. But also taking enough time to think about the things that why did things go particularly well. And sometimes I think we get focused – we get wired to focus on just the outcome and not the journey. Some of the biggest successes I have aren’t the things I go to in my repertoire when I’m thinking about my favorite moments. So, I think just appreciating all of the things, the whole aspect of the journey and not just the destination.
Taren: Well, thank you for that and I love the destination and the journey part. Can you share a little bit about your life outside of work? I understand that obviously, you are balancing a global role, but you also have three teenagers. What else? You’re a busy person.
Chris: Yeah, we all are, right? I mean, I think that’s the thing, the balance of all of this, our interest in what we do for a living and how it’s synergistic and kind of advances our home life too. So, it is a balancing act, there’s no question about it. But I think, if I’m honest, I think both aspects make me better at both sides of it. So, being a mom and when I became a mom, I think I tightened my sense of empathy and appreciation for anyone in the workplace. Because even if they’re not a parent, they have something else whether they’re caring for an elderly parent or someone in your life that’s ill, you just look at things different.
I’d like to think, although my children aren’t in a place where there are finished product by any stretch because I work and because I do what I do that some of that rubs off on them, they can’t help but not. And the things that we talked about around the dining table because of my interest and where I travel and other things, I think that has in some small ways and hopefully some meaningful ways to really affect who they become as adults and contributing to society.
And so, I kind of like the challenge. I know it seems silly but I think it’s so important to try to be fulfilled on both sides of this equation because I do think it does make you better in those moments. It’s not easy and certainly can be stressful but it’s well worth it.
Taren: Fantastic. You talked about travel and as a global role and that can be tough sometimes on trying to balance it all. Have you found any good tips for others? Often it says, you can’t have it all but you can have some of it. So how do you balance all of that?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a good question and I don’t know that there’s a recipe. I certainly have an incredibly supportive spouse. We’ve been married 30 years and so we kind of have our own rhythm too where when I’m gone, he certainly is the primary caretaker of our family, and then I try to give him some relief when I’m back. But I think on that equation like you said, how do you do it all? – I think there are some weeks where the work dominates and then other weeks when your family needs you. If you can have the grace to have that space, that makes it much, much easier, right? I think we don’t plan those things too. Like the travel obviously is planned, but when you’re needed somewhere else, sometimes it can be really, really difficult and even travel as it was historically, I think post-pandemic has been much more stressful because there’s just lots of things that interplay in that and in even less flights, for instance.
So, it’s complicated and it’s a high-wire act in some ways just operationally. But again, I think I try to make the tradeoffs when it’s really worth it, and then just be really present and there when I have to be away from home.
Taren: My last question is our WoW question that is – what is a WoW moment that either change the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you?
Chris: I would say honestly, there’s many that happened even kind of the micro experiences that happen every single day. But if I had to pick one, it would be taking a new role outside of the US and it was the general manager of the UK and Ireland. And why it was so significant, I think was because of when it happened much later in my career than I would have ever expected, so not that long ago. It really profoundly affected kind of how I think about things, leadership wise. You know going into that situation that you’re not going to be able to just show up and lead in the same way that you always have because the context is different. What people are expecting of you is different. They’re in a different place both culturally and kind of business performance and so, really having some of those appreciations.
And I’d say, as much too personally, to pick up and move your family at that time my kids were just coming into their teenage years, so difficult time for them to move for sure. But you kind of really bond as a family, because you’re going through this shared very real experience together and I think it opened all of our minds. Certainly the kids reflect very favorably on the travel and the time that we spent as a family. But I think for all of us, it changes how you think about the world and you really put yourself in a situation that’s out of your comfort zone, even with a shared language for sure, it still was very unique and different. I think about it often because I think it was very transformative and kind of how I think about new leadership opportunities and even now in this role thinking about the needs of people across the globe and trying to seek to understand that before I kind of jump in and try to solve things.
Taren: Fantastic, Chris. Thank you so much for spending some time with us, and thank you for sharing your vision for where the gene therapy unit is going at Novartis. It’s exciting times ahead. So, thank you so much for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Chris: My pleasure. Wonderful to meet you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes visit pharmavoice.com.