From The Editor | December 17, 2020

3 Keys To Biopharma Finance Leadership

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By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online

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The capital markets are hot for finance-savvy biopharma startups. Here, ProQR Chief Business and Financial Officer Smital Shah, MBA offers insight into the makings of an in-demand biopharma finance executive.

Who She Is

Smital Shah, MBA, is CBFO at clinical-stage biotech ProQR Therapeutics, which is developing RNA therapies for rare genetic diseases, with a particular focus on a group of blinding inherited retinal diseases.

Why Her Opinion Matters

Shah joined ProQR just two years after it was founded, leaving behind a career forged in big brands like Alza, JPMorgan, Leerink, and Gilead. She’s transparent about which elements of her diverse experience have served her—and ProQR—well along the startup journey.

What She Advises

On episode 22 of The Business of Biotech Podcast, Shah offered some insight that’s equally valuable to biotech finance pros and early-stage biopharmas seeking a CFO.

  • Smital Shah, MBA, CBFO, ProQR Therapeutics
    Smital Shah, MBA, CBFO, ProQR Therapeutics
    Get Yourself Some Investment Banking Experience

Shah didn’t start out on the finance path. Her undergrad and master’s degrees are both in chemical engineering. It wasn’t until 2007 that she turned the corner after earning her MBA in finance from UC Berkeley while working in product development at Alza (J&J). “It's kind of hard to do business and then go into R&D,” she says. “It's always better the other way around.” It was upon earning that MBA that Shah joined JPMorgan’s Healthcare Investment Banking team. “Investment banking is a fantastic way to start your business career because very early on in that career, you get insight into not just the financial aspects, but the really strategic aspects of businesses big and small,” she says. “You get to see how the C-suite and the board work; how financial and strategic decisions are made.”

Investment banking experience also opens up doors to new career opportunities. Post-JPMorgan, a VP position with Leerink introduced Shah to Gilead. “Gilead was one of my clients when they were thinking through strategic shareholder value alternatives,” she explains. “They were trading at an enterprise value or a net takeout value of just about $20 billion, and we ultimately helped them execute a large share buyback program from the shareholders.” Soon after, Gilead’s then-CFO Robin Washington hired Shah on to Gilead’s corporate treasury team.

  • Make It A Good Match

Shah’s time at Gilead was marked by several acquisitions and financial growth fueled in part by the FDA approval of the company’s antiretroviral Truvada. Now, her investment banking experience was matched with financial growth management within the biotech enterprise. That combination—in addition to the R&D experience of her formative years in industry—made her attractive to fast-growing biotechs seeking finance leadership. She joined ProQR Therapeutics in 2014 as CFO. “The thinking was that I could lead the investor communications and finance efforts for this company that was founded just two years earlier and consisted of two people and two computers,” she recalls.  In April of 2014, ProQR earned its Series A, the bridge to its IPO, and hired Shah just as the company was going public. The move and its timing were strategic for both Shah and the startup.

“Navigating your career path is about knowing yourself and in which environments you thrive,” she advises. “No matter whether you're at a JP Morgan or a Leerink, you're working in teams of three-to-five people. These teams are small and fluid, you're sitting next to each other, and decisions get made really quickly.” At big companies like Gilead, she says, scale must be accompanied by discipline, processes, and a structured path. Gaining the experience and developing the ability to work effectively in both environments is important, because when growth is the goal, you have to be adaptable to scale.

“Personally, I always liked the smaller company environment better because you're much closer to the science, and the business decision-making that impacts the science,” says Shah. “But in this environment, you have to be fluid, you have to be able to react and to pivot and to roll up your sleeves and take on more than you bargained for. Some people like that fluidity, others thrive in a more structured environment.”

For her part, Shah’s acceptance of business development responsibility in addition to the company’s financial management is proof positive that she’s built for the former. Which leads to her third piece of advice for would-be early-stage biopharma finance execs.

  • Forget Your Title, Support The CEO

We asked Shah if her title, chief business and finance officer, is a common one among early-stage biotechs. While she admits that it’s not necessarily common, she says there are plenty of examples of the dual-role in practice. “I think it comes down to the right match between the person and the company’s needs. Shah’s take is that the CFO should always complement the needs of the CEO as a strategic thought partner. “For instance, if the CEO is outward-facing and financially competent and likes to do all of the investor conferences, then a CFO who brings more of the solid finance and accounting background should take care of the house. On the other hand, if the CEO is more focused on the science and R&D and prefers that someone else takes care of the external affairs, the CFO needs to have a different phenotype,” she says.

Listen to episode 22 of The Business of Biotech to well beyond this quick glimpse into Shah’s role at ProQR Therapeutics. Catch up on all our episodes here.