Dr. Nancy A. Simonian took the helm at Syros Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Watertown in 2013, the latest step on a path that has taken her from practicing medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital to the executive ranks of biotechs Biogen Inc. and Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. Two-year-old Syros was founded by Flagship Ventures and Arch Venture Partners based on science from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Simonian, 54, is working with her team to develop drugs that regulate genes that cause cancer and other diseases. The Waukegan, Ill., native talked about her entrepreneurial venture and other pursuits.
1. Innovative science was the lure for Simonian. She said she was drawn to startup Syros by its “disruptive new approach to thinking about disease.” She recalled the challenge of building up teams within fast-growing larger companies in the past. “To me, this is the natural extension of what I was doing at Biogen and Millennium, but [I’m] doing it from scratch here.”
Capitalizing on research advances, Simonian believes the drug discovery being pioneered by Syros has the potential to generate medical breakthroughs. “It was really the promise of the science to make a big difference in helping patients that brought me here,” she said.
2. This is Simonian’s third career. Her first was as a neurologist at Mass. General. “I really loved taking care of patients, and I loved the science,” she said, “but I felt like there were so many things that I couldn’t do to help patients, that we didn’t really have good therapies.” That brought her to her second career in biotech, where she could work to produce those therapies.
“I was very fortunate at Biogen to work on the very first drug in multiple sclerosis [Avonex] that could not just treat symptoms but could slow disability progression, and then at Millennium bringing forward Velcade as a treatment of multiple myeloma and lymphoma,” she said.
Her latest career is “starting up a brand new company in a really exciting new space.”
3. Simonian believes drug development is a team sport. “My management style is one of openness and collaboration,” she said. “The key to me is to hire great people, foster a culture of innovation and collaboration, and always at the end of the day a focus on the patients.
“I’m not afraid to tackle tough problems. I think innovation requires one being contrarian and thinking about problems differently.” For example, Simonian said, Syros is working on a cancer drug target that she said many other companies have abandoned because it proved too difficult. “In my mind, something is only impossible until someone makes it possible. I think big advances [come] when people are given the opportunity to tackle tough problems.”
4. Her role models are her parents. “I grew up outside of Chicago,” Simonian said. “My father’s family immigrated from Armenia, and my mother was Irish Catholic. My father was very poor; his family was on welfare. And through a lot of hard work and perseverance, [he] got a scholarship to go to college and then to medical school. And he became the first surgeon in our hometown.
“My mom was actually a nurse. And so I think both of my parents together instilled in me the importance of hard work, perseverance, and a real passion for people.”
5. Simonian likes to travel to far-flung places. “I first got hooked on this when I was in college,” she recalled. “I spent a summer in Ghana. And I found that traveling and meeting people from different cultures was so fascinating and also put my whole life in a very different perspective. So I sort of made it a quest to explore as much of the world as I can.
“I’ve been to the Amazon jungle, I’ve been to western China, Turkey, Botswana. And my most recent favorite adventure was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with my husband [venture capitalist Doug Cole] on our 20th wedding anniversary.” The ascent took them six days. (Their two teenage sons often accompany them on their travels but didn’t climb the mountain.)Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.