Mission Bio Announces New CEO to Manage a “Perfect Storm” for Accelerated Growth

Female Leader

Yan Zhang, Ph.D., former VP and general manager of the reproductive health and microarray businesses at Thermo Fisher Scientific, just became the new CEO of Mission Bio, a pioneer in single-cell multi-omics. She takes the helm from co-founder Charlie Silver, who is now in an advisory role at the company.

Zhang described this moment as “a perfect storm” that will create great opportunities and accelerate growth for Mission Bio. “We’re at the dawn of another incredible age of breakthroughs in improving human health, and Mission Bio is in an amazing market that is poised for explosive growth. In the next decade, cell and gene therapy will be the dominant therapy for some of the most complex diseases, such as cancer and difficult-to-treat inherited diseases,” Zhang told BioSpace.

“We have very, very strong funding, a great market, great technology, and a very supportive board,” she pointed out. Her goal is to shepherd those dynamics in the right direction, leverage a foundation of differentiated technology, adjusting and optimizing the organization for strong growth.

Zhang has the experience to do that. During her tenure at Thermo Fisher, “She demonstrated a consistent ability to successfully commercialize innovative new technologies – including clinical NGS products – into high growth markets,” Mission Bio board member Robert Ghenchev, senior partner and head of Novo Growth, said in a statement.

“For genomics, for the past two decades, there has been a great combination of market pull and technology developers’ push,” she said, as tools and solutions advanced to make insights possible in areas with great unmet needs.

“If a company can identify the right application for the technology, the desire to adopt is tremendous. We saw that in next-gen sequencing and microarrays 20 years ago. Finding the right opportunity and the right fit can create a perfect storm. That’s the key to commercialization: identifying the right fit.”

For Mission Bio’s single-cell instrument platform, she says, “One plus one equals way more than two. Advancements should not be lineal.”

Tapestri is a good example. Released last autumn, it enables the simultaneous measurement of DNA and proteins in single cells in a single experiment. “That’s a powerful combination that lets researchers, scientists, and, yes, physicians, see what’s happening in the cell itself (in multi-dimensions at high resolution). That will hyper-drive adoption within the market.”

To support that adoption and the company’s continued growth, Zhang says Mission Bio it is looking for “diverse talents to bring into the company. We have incredible funding, a great platform, and a strong leadership team.”

While some CEOs carefully scripted their path to the C-suite, Zhang’s path evolved organically. Before joining Thermo Fisher – and now Mission Bio – Zhang led product management and commercialization efforts for genetic analysis solutions at Affymetrix, NuGEN Technologies, and Molecular Devices.

“For me, it’s wasn’t at all planned. I have been quite fortunate to have great mentors and incredible companies from which I have learned along the way. Each step built on the foundation of doing the best I could in each position, which put me in position to take on the next challenge and next risk.”

Her experience as a general manager at Thermo Fisher, for example, whetted her appetite for more challenges.

Corporate divisions are like mini-businesses, she said. “As general manager, you manage multiple functions and think about total profit and loss. You know the levers to drive growth. I was excited doing that, and saw becoming a CEO as an opportunity to take another step. I wanted to challenge myself and lend my expertise to a company that has so much potential.

“Mission Bio is unique in that is it very mission-driven,” she continued. “Together, I believed we could make a huge difference in the future of healthcare.”

Zhang is one of relatively few women heading biotech companies and, as a woman, that path may be harder, she admits. “As your career progresses, you become more of the minority in the boardroom. How you garner confidence, the courage to speak up, and how you get your point across becomes more challenging.”

She notes other challenges, too: balancing family and career, normal life events, and… being Asian. “Managing that well and having a support system is extremely important. I’m very honored to be in a position where I may have broader influence to encourage people to have the confidence and drive to have rewarding careers and find balance and happiness in life.”

Balance is vital to Zhang. She achieves it through compartmentalization. “I usually have my days pretty planned out. I put everything on my calendar – picking up the kids, doing homework with them, reading with them, exercising, doing ballet, whatever it is for the day – and color-code it in terms of priority.”

Her normal day starts at 6. “I have responsibility for walking the dog in the morning. It lets me clear my head. Having time to think is hugely important for the company. Afterward, I do spelling practice with my 10-year-old for half an hour, then start my day. In the afternoon, I usually do a run with the dog and kids. I may make lunch or do laundry while taking a conference call. It’s a benefit to work from home,” she said.

“What I don’t do well…my brain doesn’t shut down at night. Yesterday I was up till 2 AM thinking about what we need to do for the company. It’s important to do that thinking.”

Zhang has lots of advice for young scientists wanting a similar career path. “If I had to pick just one thing, though, it’s this: Do 120% of what you’re asked to do. Being proactive is super-important. Find what you’re passionate about and know that you’re doing it. And,” she added, “always ask ‘why?’” By understanding why your managers want something done, you gain insights and may be able to offer other solutions.

Zhang is one of only a handful of females who have been named CEO of a biopharma company in the first quarter of 2021. Last month, Gilead Sciences veteran Diana M. Brainard was tapped as CEO of AlloVir, a company focused on the development of allogenic cell therapies designed to control infections in immunocompromised patients.

A new report compiled by Deerfield Management shows a continued gender gap at the C-suite level in healthcare companies. That bolsters a report developed by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization last year. That study, “Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry,” showed only 16% of CEO positions in the industry were held by women. Women held 30% of C-suite-level positions and only 18% of board positions. 

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