Yan Zhang, who joined as the CEO of Mission Bio in April 2021 discusses her advocacy for diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace and the future for Mission Bio in this transcript from our On the Drop Podcast. Yan holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Medical College of Wisconsin and has an extensive background in commercial team management, research, product management, business development, and marketing at leading life science companies in the US and Asia.
Brittany Enzmann: You joined Mission Bio as CEO in April of this year. What factors influenced your decision to join this team?
Yan Zhang: That’s a really great question. I think, first and foremost, it is really about the team. In the industry, Mission Bio has really impressed me in having some of the top talents not just in innovation, but also on the commercial side and understanding and supporting customers. Mission Bio has always had a great reputation in the industry which is quite delightful to our customers and that’s really important.
Second, is the versatility of this platform. It is a very differentiated microfluidic solution that utilizes our DNA sequencing and multi-omics capability to be able to serve, expand, and help our customers not only to better understand cancer drug resistance mechanisms but also enable the entire field of cell and gene therapy.
The Tapestri Platform is not just limited to that. It has broad applicability to infectious disease — for virus and bacteria sequencing— and other yet-to-be uncovered capabilities. It’s really the flexibility and robustness of the platform that makes it relevant and impactful. It’s the timing — where the field of genomics and proteomics are at — along with the accumulation of our knowledge that makes it really perfect. It’s a perfect time, a perfect place, and with the perfect team to implement our platform. I feel really honored to have the opportunity to work side-by-side with the team and to take Mission Bio to the next level.
Brittany: Before you were an executive, you were a scientist just as the genomics industry was taking off. What was that like?
Yan: Some of the best experiences I remember were when I was a scientist. Even about 20 years ago, when I really first entered into the industry, we were talking about whole-genome sequencing of human genomes and frankly, I was skeptical. As a scientist, I thought that was a daunting task, but even just a few years later, as an industry, we were able to make that first leap.
In the beginning, there was an elite club of individuals who had their whole genome sequenced. But look at today, the cost of that has dropped significantly. I think we are very fortunate to be in this industry, to be in this time. I also feel the importance of being a scientist, so that we actually understand the science. We understand our customers.
We also really need the cross-disciplinary interactions from engineers, to computer scientists, to biologists, to physicians, and even to patients. It’s really up to us as the industry to really come together to be able to advance that. So, I feel fortunate to be part of that and I definitely encourage our team to continue to expand our understanding of science to be able to take it to the next level.
Brittany: Women in life sciences and in tech in general, often face impossible odds when vying for positions of leadership. What was that journey like for you?
Yan: I certainly don’t think it is easy. I really think that as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, and as a friend — there are additional challenges and difficulties for us to fulfill our career ambitions. There are some practical hurdles. Many of us want to have children; we do not just have to pursue a career but also provide care to our children in potentially a bigger way than our male counterparts.
For example, my husband is also very driven. I think in our society there is a culture and history of the male being the provider for the family. It is actually very difficult for my husband to accept that. He also needs to support his wife who is equally as ambitious in being successful. We don’t have as much of a support system frankly. I do not have a stay-at-home wife to help care for the household, while many of the male executive counterparts actually do have stay-at-home wives. Now, that’s just where we are. That’s where society is. That’s a practical challenge that we have to face.
So how do we change that? I think everybody plays a part in making a change. As a society, to be able to provide more accessible child care to families so that we can actually all be able to fulfill their career dreams. As colleagues, providing flexibility and support for other colleagues. And in the workplace, ensuring that we have an inclusive culture so we don’t fall into that trap that just because by default there are more males in the room, females don’t actually get their voices heard.
We do need to also work with our male counterparts so they can understand the challenges we face and that they feel supported. At the end of the day, it’s not just about individuals, it’s about the company’s success. I firmly believe that when we have a more diverse and more inclusive culture, the business will be more balanced. We will be more successful because we have more diverse voices. It takes a lot of brains to come together to make things happen.
“I’m personally a really big champion of diversity. I hope that I can be a role model to not just our company, but to broader society. I think all of us actually have a part in that regardless of your position, regardless of where you are at in the company. If we all share the same voice, male or female, and are all conscientious of our own internal and personal bias, we will make a change.”
It is going to take time though. But, I’m very excited and I think Mission Bio is really leading the charge. About 50% of our workforce is female. Even at the executive level, half of our team is female. So we’re doing great. We need to continue to drive that.
Brittany: When you first joined the company, you said that you wanted to spend the first month in listening mode, meeting with everyone in the company to really understand Mission Bio. What were your biggest takeaways from that experience?
Yan: It has been a great experience. There is one caveat though — because we’re growing so fast, I thought I caught up with everybody but then we continued to have new colleagues so that journey just never ends, which is great. It is very exciting. Having that dialogue with all of our employees really opened up a lot of conversations, as well as observations that I think otherwise, I wouldn’t have had.
I think there are a couple of things that really are great takeaways for me. One is to really truly recognize how challenging the pandemic has been, especially for a growth stage company when we are trying to make a name for ourselves and when we’re still trying to establish a culture. There is no substitute for in-person interactions. For new employees who come into the company, they may not have met anyone directly. It’s going to be very challenging for the team to actually understand our strategy, understand the part that they play in contributing to the company, in fully integrating into the company, and knowing who to even talk to when they have challenges.
I think fully understanding those hurdles and challenges and knowing that we are actually social animals, we are hungry for coming together, and we do want those opportunities. I think it was a really big takeaway and that’s super important. So, as a company, we try to create opportunities and encourage grassroots activities so we can have those social interactions when it is safe and possible to come together.
” I think that the energy that we bring together by fighting to achieve the same goal is not substitutable by Zoom meetings. That also goes for our interactions with our customers, so that’s one really big takeaway. I think it’s super important for us to understand and connect as a team.”
Brittany: We are quickly approaching the end of 2021. As you reflect on the past nine months, what are some of the biggest rewards and challenges that you have experienced?
Yan: Yeah, that never ends. Challenges don’t end just because we count to the end of December. But, I think the same goes for opportunities. I think one of the biggest rewards is being part of the team. I think having the right people on board, creating the right mechanisms, clarifying our roles and responsibilities, and then really feeling the momentum of the company coming together. I think there’s one word that our colleagues used: “unstoppable.” I really feel that. And I think that’s one of the biggest rewards.
The second biggest reward is seeing our customers. I spent the last couple of weeks on the road with our commercial team — attending conferences when possible and visiting customers when possible. I think the biggest reward really goes back to our company’s mission. Our mission is to help enable breakthrough therapeutics so we can eradicate cancer, as well as cure many of the previously incurable genetic diseases that have been hugely challenging and have impacted hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide. I think we could play a big part in it. Meeting our customers and knowing what we can provide to them—in turn —they are enabled to fulfill that mission. I think that is incredible for all of us.
Challenges are always there. We need to scale. We need to grow faster. And that’s everywhere —that’s for the commercials team, for the operations team, and for R&D. By continuing to challenge ourselves to accelerate those areas, it will be fantastic. I’m confident about it because I think we have crossed some of the largest hurdles in terms of big technical innovations. Now, we are at the stage of scaling. Those are the things that we will be able to overcome as long as we work together as one team.
Brittany: My last question is very simple: what is next for Mission Bio?
Yan: I think for Mission Bio, we have really used 2021 to clarify our position. We have found some incredible opportunities that our platform can be hugely enabling for. Really looking at translational academic cancer centers to expand to not just hematology-oncology cancers, but to solid tumors, which have accounted for 90% of the cancers. If we can just make a small impact in that area, I think that would be fantastic. That would be one major area for us to expand our technology quickly. By enabling the solid tumor space where we already have some strong KOLs in place, it would be able to grow much faster.
On the cell and gene therapy side, we have a strong foundation. We have dozens of customers and our partners. We continue to engage with them to help them accelerate their therapeutic development programs, and continue to scale. We continue to get into geographies that today we actually still have limited coverage. It’s really about globalizing our platform so we can actually reach more customers and support them.
In terms of new areas, there are many opportunities. We talk about playing a part in pharma development and early clinical trials, but as we continue to grow, we do believe we have a strong play in clinical applications. And so we are looking to have some clinical studies and established partnerships so we can actually put our platform to test on demonstrating those clinical utilities. That would be one major area. Another would be to continue to innovate in our biochemistry within the Tapestri Platform and look for new market opportunities. And more importantly, support our customers to be successful.
Brittany: Great! We’re going to wrap up with that exciting outlook for Mission Bio. Yan, thank you so much for joining us today and chatting about the company, and sharing your experiences. We’re all grateful for having your incredible leadership, and we’re excited to see what’s in store for 2022.