Editor’s note: This story is part of our 2022 PharmaVoice 100 feature.
WeiQing Zhou isn’t a scientist by training. But you wouldn’t know if you crossed paths and she told you about the two companies she helped launch: FogPharma and LifeMine Therapeutics.
“She can explain in minute detail exactly what every scientist in the company is doing, from the C-level to the newly hired RAs, and how their work relates to the goals of the company,” a nominator says.
And those details aren’t exactly simple as both FogPhama and LifeMine work in their own ways to advance leading-edge tech. FogPharma, where Zhou serves as chief operating officer, is developing a new class of medicines it calls Helicon polypeptides that uniquely combine the broad target-engagement ability of protein therapeutics with the cell-penetrating abilities of small molecules.
“[FogPharma is] taking a page from the playbook of nature, an approach that has been employed almost exclusively in the biologics world but barely ever employed in small molecule drug discovery,” a nominator says.
Meanwhile, Zhou is also COO at LifeMine, which uses genetically encoded small molecules from the biosphere for its drug discovery platform. Last December, the company scored a potentially $500 million-plus R&D deal with pharmaceutical giant GSK, and raised $175 million in equity financing led by a powerful syndicate, both to propel their top-down discovery engine for fungi-evolved and encoded drugs — the first ever drug discovery alliance between a Big Pharma and a startup built around fungal genomic drug discovery.
Throughout these early wins, Zhou has been the heartbeat of both companies, who knows every inch of the businesses and how to make them operate better together.
“[Zhou] came up with our unique operating model where the two startups collaborated to support each other with shared labs, facilities and early on, operational department/staffing,” a nominator says. “The companies basically collaborated at every level.”
Zhou’s ability to not only help build two biotech startups but also to innovate how they operate is all the more impressive when you consider her background.
“In a world where so many people went to the same Ph.D. programs, business schools and made their way into the industry via the same companies, [Zhou] has taken a completely different path and thus, has a very unique perspective on the biotech industry and on the world as a whole,” a nominator says.
“The most meaningful items in my office are my favorite books. Growing up, I always loved reading books. They are my journey and my home.”
Chief operating officer, founder, FogPharma and LifeMine Therapeutics
Colleagues note how Zhou grew up in China and right after finishing college, she launched her own company and then sold it. Afterwards she learned German and moved to Germany to pursue an MBA at Dortmund University. Ultimately, she finished first in her class.
“Who else, mid-career, gets a degree in a new language, moves to an entirely new country and learns to navigate cultural differences to emerge at the top?” a nominator says.
Zhou next started a new career at a medical material company for tissue regeneration in medical care and dermatology called MedSkin Solutions Dr. Suwelack, where she worked on corporate strategy, global marketing and product development. Despite her decade-long success with the company, something gnawed at Zhou: She wanted to work in oncology.
She had no experience as a biotech entrepreneur or dealing with the complexities of cancer treatments, but Zhou was undeterred. She eventually partnered with prominent scientist/company builder Greg Verdine in the creation of FogPharma, and with “superstar” Rick Klausner on the creation of LifeMine. Both companies are well along the way toward nominating their first clinical candidates.
Today, colleagues say Zhou is known as a leader who is “disarmingly direct but also disarmingly caring.”
“She is both tireless and human,” a nominator says. “She knows the given name and work mission of every single person in each company. She sends welcome notes to every new employee and gives coaching sessions to every person in both companies, if an employee requests it. She is one of a kind.”
Even prospective employees at the companies are often struck by Zhou’s direct and penetrating demeanor.
“She is the single most inquisitive interviewer that I’ve ever seen,” a nominator says. “So many candidates have left an interview with [Zhou] fundamentally rethinking their lives, and I’ve heard from countless hires that she gave the best interview they’ve ever had.”
For Zhou, her work comes back to what initially drew her into the life sciences: “Being a part of something bigger than myself, and indeed bigger than all of us,” she says.