Interview with Deborah Ramsdell, President, CMS International, Inc.
Deborah Ramsdell, President, has, over the course of her career, been responsible for the strategic design, leadership and oversight of over 80 drug candidates in the fields of oncology, rare metabolic diseases, dermatology, pain, infectious diseases, transplantation, cardiology, renal diseases, and endocrinology. She has worked for many organizations, including ImmunoGen, Enobia Pharma, Lotus Tissue Repair, Alopexx Enterprises, Valerion Therapeutics, and most recently Wings Therapeutics, where she is currently President/CEO.
Deb shared with us what led her to start her own consulting business in 1994, CMS International, Inc., providing executive management and strategic consulting to early and mid-stage biopharmaceutical companies.
Who are your biggest influences?
The most important influence in my life was my supervisor in my first biotech job. I was teaching high school and took a leave of absence to try to find a career that was more challenging. I accepted a secretarial position in a start-up biotech company. My supervisor had years of senior management experience in large pharma but had not actually brought a drug to the clinic himself. Together, we brought 3 drugs from the laboratory into human clinical trials over 2 years. Over the next 7 years, he mentored me through the process; he guided when I needed it, he gave me responsibility for key projects and let me make mistakes and learn from them, and he always encouraged me to take on more responsibility and figure out a way to make things happen.
Of all the lessons he taught me, and there were many more significant, but two comments he made over the years in my reviews were that (1) I would be a very successful as a #2 in an organization behind the President/CEO and (2) sometimes I would have to work with people I didn’t like or respect in order to get things done. Interestingly, those 2 comments motivated me to strive to break the mold and become a CEO and I am happy to say that I only work with people I like and respect. The job of trying to bring safe and effective drugs to patients is too important to waste time with people who are disruptive to the process.
He remained a mentor and a friend throughout my career and I would not be where I am today without his influence and guidance.
What drove you to start your company or firm?
I actually was laid off from a biotech company in the mid-90’s and was looking for a job. When I called my former supervisor for some ideas, he strongly recommended that I start a consulting firm. He believed that I had enough experience to bring to the table, and I should be expanding my role to a strategic one, instead of an operational one. Once again, his advice led me to step outside my box and approach colleagues about consulting work instead of full-time opportunities. Within three months, I had enough consulting work to match my previous salary and over the years, I have never looked back.
Here at Boston Private we understand that wealth rarely has to do with money. What is your wealth really for? Tell us a little bit about what motivates you – the Why behind your passion and Why you work so hard to achieve your goals?
I get up every day and know that I am making a difference in patients’ lives. The biotech industry is, in many ways, more science than business, and the early stages of developing drugs is challenging.
Every day brings new information, questions, disappointments, and the need to generate ideas about how to overcome a problem or improve a strategy.
As a consultant, participation in the drug development multi-year process is limited by scope and/or time. Usually a consultant is only needed until a company can hire the full-time staff to take over. It can be satisfying at one level, but frustrating as well to see a program handed off to someone else in the middle of the process.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to take on a CEO position in an early stage biotech company and bring a drug for a rare disease from the laboratory into the clinic. Having the responsibility of all aspects of this process, working every day to make this happen, was and continues to be a challenging yet rewarding experience. The company is in the midst of an acquisition; and I have taken on another clinical stage company for another genetic disease about which I am passionate. I also continue to consult with early and mid-stage companies about development strategy; that is where my strength lies and what I enjoy doing.
At the end, it is all about using my skills and experience to make a difference in the lives of people who have diseases that need a therapy. Every decision that we make has the patients in mind, and that makes a difference in how we approach the challenges.
I love what I do.
As a business person, what has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Running a consulting business is about constant networking vs. managing the work that comes out of that networking. Balancing this has always been challenging while assuring that I am giving all the projects my best effort, and continuing to build the business itself continues to be a daily challenge. As the years have gone by, I have had to adjust my business model more than once to target clients and projects that match my experience and expertise.
During daily morning walks, I assess where each project is strategically and once I get to the office, I can work on the specifics of what needs to be done to keep each moving forward. This prevents me from sitting at my computer and getting buried in e-mails not relating to the critical decisions that I face daily.
What are some of the things you have learned about yourself that surprised you most?
I work with many different types of professionals – from scientists, regulators, clinicians, and investors - to patients and caregivers. I have had to learn to listen to the needs of each of these stakeholders, since they are all critical to achieving success.
I’ve never considered myself the most intelligent person in the room; too many clients and colleagues have advanced degrees and are subject matter experts. What has always surprised me (and continues to do so) is that by listening to all these people that are involved in the drug discovery process, I can take complex scientific, medical and technical concepts and reduce them to something that can be explained, discussed and acted upon by all the different stakeholders I encounter in my business. I believe that has become the key to my success.
“If I could spend 30 minutes with a person of import, it would be….
I would love to spend 30 minutes with Joanna Gaines from HGTV’s Fixer Upper. She embodies for me what it is like to be a talented woman who embraces her life fully and never stops looking for ways to support her passions and her community. She does not understand “can’t” which is exactly how I view the world. She is aware of her strengths and challenges but doesn’t allow them to stop her from stepping out of her box and trying new things. Her capacity for creativity is something I admire and that I would love to explore with her.
My favorite part of the day is...
Morning because I walk and work out almost every day, which gives me structure, purpose and fills me with energy.
CMS International, Inc., founded in 1994, provides executive management and strategic consulting to early and mid-stage biopharmaceutical companies. Deborah Ramsdell, President, has, over the course of her career, been responsible for the strategic design, leadership and oversight of over 80 drug candidates in the fields of oncology, rare metabolic diseases, dermatology, pain, infectious diseases, transplantation, cardiology, renal diseases, and endocrinology. She has worked for many organizations, including ImmunoGen, Enobia Pharma, Lotus Tissue Repair, Alopexx Enterprises, Valerion Therapeutics, and most recently Wings Therapeutics, where she is currently President/CEO.