Ros Deegan, President and CBO of Bicycle Therapeutics, sat down with WEST to discuss her insights on twenty years working in the enterprise-side of pharmaceuticals and biotech as an avowed generalist.
Deegan was always enthralled by biology, especially when it came to the amazing potential of medical applications. After earning a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and a master’s degree medicine from the University of Cambridge, Deegan had a career-altering realization about her work in the lab. Despite her unwavering interest, strong academic performance and best efforts, Deegan was “not so great at practical science. I dropped experiments.” Deegan’s internal motivations, her fascination with biology and desire to contribute to humanity by advancing modern medicine, were undeterred and she launched her career in the business-side of the pharmaceutical industry.
It wasn’t long before Deegan went back to school to round out her scientific expertise with the business knowledge of an MBA from INSEAD. Armed with her passion for medical science and the enterprise perspective of an MBA, Deegan hit the ground running and added a third layer to her career strategy: generalism. While her combination of STEM expertise and business acumen have undoubtedly propelled her success as a senior executive in pharma and biotech, Deegan believes that “fighting the tide of specialization” with her generalist approach is the true keystone of her success.
“I had no path or plan; a generalist in a STEM field just has to fight the tide of specialization.”
Whether approached from the side of business or science, the push to advance by specialization is pervasive in STEM fields. Deegan’s reference to “fighting the tide of specialization” is not entirely metaphorical. The generalist struggle had a seemingly counterintuitive impact on Deegan’s professional triumphs. While her employers were supportive of Deegan’s generalist vision, her achievements often meant that Deegan had to plead her generalist case again; countering her employers’ encouragement to proceed further down a given career path with her own proposal to change course and acquire new experiences in a different functional area.
Early in her career, Deegan “moved to business development because this allowed me to retain [my] generalization through projects” that immersed her in different aspects commercial transactions, finance, science and research. Even there, Deegan had to fight to avoid letting her success morph into “full-fledged business development” by carving out her own career track. At GSK, this meant a “50-50 split of business development and strategic planning” that included everything from marketing, investor relations, discovery deals and product launches.The “Aha!” moment: Startups ❤️generalists
Deegan met Maxine Gowen, CEO of Trevana, while working at GSK. “It wasn’t a strategic move, but I trusted the person who started Trevena. I was doing very well at GSK.” The move from an industry-leading pharmaceutical firm to a biotech startup was a revelation.
For the first time in her career, Deegan didn’t have to fight the specialization tide. In fact, the “many hats” startup environment proved ideal, satisfying Deegan’s generalist need for multiple types of stimuli. Deegan flourished, acquiring diverse experiences ranging from finance and project management to business development, facilities and even running a clinical trial.
Although it was gratifying to discover how the biotech startup environment embraced her unique combination of scientific expertise and business-oriented generalism, Deegan does not advocate skipping the fight. “The focused, yet robust, experience I acquired in the pharmaceutical industry” and strategic skill to map an uncharted generalist career path were crucial prerequisites to Deegan subsequent success with biotech startups. “I had to teach myself before I could teach others.
When the energy previously dedicated to fighting the specialization tide was liberated, new goals emerged. “Moving from pharma to biotech and big enterprise to startup were mostly functional” changes. As she grew accustomed to flourishing instead of fighting the tide, I “sort of developed a plan to increase my seniority and stay in startups,” said Deegan.
“Business-wise, I was always a strong individual contributor. I was comfortable there. But then I began to pay more attention to transitioning to leadership and looking outwards to facilitating others.”
In 2016, Deegan joined Bicycle Therapeutics in Cambridge, MA, as President and CBO of the UK-based biotech startup. Deegan’s pivot towards leadership and service is evident in how she described her role. “At Bicycle,…I can combine my IT knowledge and diverse experience to lead teams and concentrate on enabling others to deliver their functional expertise.”
Outward-facing generalists are natural leaders
In biotech startups, Deegan found an environment that not only embraced her diverse generalist business experience and STEM expertise, it raised her game by enabling her to pivot her focus outwards, using her generalist knowledge to improve the performance of others, especially in terms of teams and collaborations. For an outward-facing generalist, leadership is assumed almost organically. Senior executives like Deegan become lynchpins, connecting various functional areas to enhance organizational performance through synergistic collaborations driven by her experience-based understanding of the details in the context of her generalist’s bird’s eye view.
As the interview concluded, Deegan’s final observations took an aerial view of careers as our life’s work.
“It’s a privilege to be in a business where you are excited to come to work, to do the work and be part of an industry that makes valuable contributions to humanity. The passion and the empathy that my colleagues bring to work every day are inspiring...Find the career where the paycheck stops being the point.”
One last question: What’s the one piece of advice you would give yourself at the beginning of your career?
“The incredible importance of networking—it’s personally and professionally gratifying. I didn’t realize this until Boston. Previously, in Belgium and Philadelphia, networking was once a month, here, it’s twice a week.”
“When you say ‘network,’ what exactly do you mean? Group stuff like WEST events or 1:1s?”
“Both. Both larger meet-new-people events and deeper, individual networking.”
WEST promotes career development and networking for Women in the Enterprise of Science and Technology. Learn more about WEST, a learning community that provides women in the enterprise of science and technology with the inspiration, knowledge and connections to reach their full potential. Check us out online at WESTorg and join an upcoming event to get started with the networking.