Q&A with Marianne De Backer, vice president of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Janssen Business Development
Marianne De Backer, Ph.D., MBA, vice president of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Janssen Business Development, is a deal-maker extraordinaire, helping to forge fruitful business partnerships that result in innovative new therapies. In recognition of her efforts she was recently selected as a “change agent” on PharmaVOICE’s annual list of 100 inspiring leaders. We recently caught up with Dr. De Backer amidst her busy travel schedule to hear about the new trends in healthcare and learn more about her impressive career path at Johnson & Johnson, where she’s transitioned from the “lab bench” to the “bed side” and from innovative technology licensing to the frontlines of late-stage deal-making.
Tell us about some of the new healthcare technologies that are really catching your attention right now.
Where do I start? We live in such exciting times with many new technologies that hold great promise for patients. First, I think about the impact that “wearables” will have on monitoring and potentially preventing disease - the possibility to capture real-time patient and consumer data has never been greater and it opens up the healthcare industry to new entrants and new solutions. This growing “closeness” and interface between technology and healthcare, especially as we experience it here on the West coast, puts patients and consumers right in the center of care, where they should be.
Second, I’m intrigued by some crowdsourcing initiatives here in California such as the “Not Impossible Labs” project, that show how innovative do-it-yourself healthcare solutions are dramatically improving lives such as making prosthetics for patients in Sudan. The advancement in technology and social media has unlocked amazing possibilities to collaboratively involve everyone to play an active part in solving patient needs.
Finally, we seem to be only scratching the surface of the possibilities of new technologies such as 3-D printing of prosthetics, organs and customized pills, which in turn could dramatically change our industry.
What are some notable deals you have helped facilitate? Do you have a favorite deal?
During my career at J&J, I’ve had the privilege to drive or negotiate more than 200 partnerships varying from technology and early stage deals, such as the technologies enabling our Long-Acting drugs, or HIV and Ebola vaccine regimens, to many late-stage deals such as JNJ872 for Influenza A with Vertex, our new triple regimen for Hepatitis C with Achillion, and the TAF-based Edurant STR for HIV with Gilead to name a few.
It’s not unusual to have 20-50 people from across a very wide variety of functions including R&D, commercial, legal, finance, etc. involved in any one deal. Next to finding the opportunity and the attributes of the assets or technology itself, the leadership and ability to bring together all of these functions and navigate the partnership in a fast paced environment under high uncertainty is what it takes to bring a deal over the finish line.
As to a favorite deal, it is particularly rewarding when you can see a therapy from a partnership receiving marketing approval and making its way to patients broadly, like Olysio® in HCV (Medivir) and more recently the TAF-based Edurant STR Odefsey® (Gilead) to name a few. You know, when I’m sitting at an airport or travelling home from a partner meeting, I feel motivated by the premise that every partnership we work on holds the promise to make such a difference for patients. It is a privilege to work with people here within J&J equally motivated to make a positive impact.
You’ve held many different roles during your career at Johnson & Johnson, including a scientist and technology licensing specialist. What drew you to your current deal-making role?
Innovation per definition requires one to deal with resistance to change. When I started out as a scientist in R&D, in the department of “Advanced Biotechnologies,” my colleagues and I were there to drive a faster adaptation of the newest technologies within the broader R&D organization.
Bringing innovation in research was the basis that led me to pursue my technology licensing specialist role. I went on to lead scientific and commercial licensing and business development for a variety of franchises and across different regions. In order to broaden my understanding of the healthcare environment I took up a role as Business Unit leader at a time when we were launching more and more products resulting from external partnerships. It gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with key opinion leaders and physicians and understand their and their patients’ needs better – being up close to patients has been a life changing experience – it has made me realize we have one of the most fulfilling jobs possible.
What drew me to my current role? Throughout all of my positions at Johnson & Johnson, one common theme for me is a desire to make a significant positive impact for patients, and to drive new ways to make that possible. Diverse career experiences help to build bridges with external partners as well as across different parts of our J&J organization.
What is one thing someone would be surprised to know about you?
Here is something I don’t typically talk about: I was very close to never attending college. In my family, going back generations, higher education was thought to be a waste of time and money for women. At my urging, I was ultimately granted exactly four years of study time to get a degree. I obtained an engineering degree with high honors, and then had to start working immediately after—I eventually earned my Masters and Ph.D. in biotechnology, and MBA while working full-time and this was a very tough period in my life spanning more than eight years.
I could not have done it without the remarkable support from my early mentors at J&J. Because of this experience, I strive to use my current role to be a mentor and advocate for young talent from different parts of the organization and create opportunities for them, such as a six-month rotation program in business development, which will hopefully help them grow. It is something I’m very passionate about.
We have so much talent that could remain untapped unless we “touch them on the shoulder.” I hope my story can be an inspiration for young women or anyone who needs that little extra support to continue to strive to level the playing field in the workplace.