Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Heather Schwoebel loves being on the ground floor of a startup. As one of the first employees on several occasions at new biotech companies — Harbour Antibodies, Verseau Therapeutics and now Alloy Therapeutics — she relishes being able to do “a little bit of everything.”
“Not having to do the same thing every day is highly appealing to me,” Schwoebel, Alloy’s chief operating officer and chief business officer, says. “When you are a jack of all trades or a Swiss army knife and you can come in to a company and resource all of the different aspects that need to come together. It’s nice to have your finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on.”
Jumping into the unknown and learning what pertains to the success of a particular venture has been part of Schwoebel’s career success since her time at Atlas Ventures, which was her first entry into the life sciences.
“Atlas allowed me to explore areas that I was interested in,” she says. “I loved watching Atlas evolve from where they were in the early 2000s to becoming a nimble company creation machine. It was fascinating.”
After 11 years at Atlas, one of the partners offered her an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. She joined Harbour Antibodies U.S. — a platform company using mice — where she again embraced the unknown and leaned into exploring new territory.
“I had a limited understanding of the difference between an asset company and a platform company, and I was intrigued that the mice were the platform,” she says. “I jumped into Harbour and became the first FTE, and actually I was the only full-time employee of Harbour for the next four years. I had to learn everything about what we were doing to bring humanized transgenic mice to market.”
After Harbour was acquired, her mouse expertise and Atlas connections led to her current role at Alloy Therapeutics, a drug discovery company driving innovation in six biologic modalities through an integrated partnership model based on its ATX-GX platform of transgenic mice. Once again, Schwoebel can employ her operational expertise and desire to help people.
“In short, I have a hand in doing anything at Alloy that doesn’t involve touching a pipette,” she says. “In all seriousness, I watch after the revenue that the company brings in and make sure that operationally everything is working as it should across our five sites worldwide.”
In this Woman of the Week podcast, Schwoebel shares how Alloy is poised to be an innovation multiplier, how she learned to build and manage high-performing teams and why she recommends the book “Never Eat Alone” as a must-read.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVOICE powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, Editor and Chief Emeritus at PharmaVOICE, meets with Heather Schwoebel, Chief Business Officer and Chief Operating Officer of Alloy Therapeutics.
Taren: Welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Heather: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I am actually very flattered to be here.
Taren: Well, it’s our pleasure to have you. Can you please give us a brief overview of your role as chief operating officer and chief business officer?
Heather: Happy to. In short, I have a hand in doing anything at Alloy that doesn’t involve touching a pipette. But in all seriousness, I watch after the revenue that the company brings in and I also make sure that operationally everything is working as it should across our five sites worldwide.
Taren: And where are those five sites?
Heather: Well, our mothership, our headquarters, is in Waltham, Massachusetts. We also have a site in Cambridge, UK, which is where some of the original employees are. We do all of our genetically engineered model creation there in Cambridge, UK. We have a site in Basel, Switzerland, Alloy Switzerland, where we do our AI and ML approaches, computational biology. We have a site in South San Francisco that focuses on the genetic medicines modality; and we have a site in Athens, Georgia where we focus on high-throughput repertoire sequencing and expression and characterization of antibodies.
Taren: Wow. So that must keep you pretty busy. That’s a global footprint.
Heather: It is. It was serendipity really that we ended up this way. I don’t think that anyone says within the first three years of running a company let’s please have five sites across the world. But there were acquihires involved in this as well as just opportunities that we couldn’t pass up based on the talents of the people that came across our radar.
Taren: Excellent. You noted that the company is fairly young and you were one of the first employees at Alloy. Can you please share how the company has evolved and what was the impetus to get it started?
Heather: Happy to. I was the first employee, that’s true. I had actually come across and been introduced to Errik Anderson, our founder, CEO, and chairman. Back in 2012, we interacted via different companies that we were working at the time. And so when Errik formed Alloy, he thought of me as helping him to do the first thing that had to be done at Alloy which was commercializing a strain of humanized transgenic mice, something I’ve done before. We began as a platform licensing company and that really is how we grew the footprint of the business initially and built the foundation that the rest of the companies predicated on.
So we began with having a humanized transgenic mouse that we out-licensed broadly across academia, biotech companies, as well as large pharma; trying to make a tool available to the world that is sometimes difficult to access for various reasons. And that was very successful. We ended up launching the licensing business in 2019 and currently now, a couple years later, we have more than a hundred partners.
Taren: Wow. That’s pretty fast. How do you manage that kind of growth?
Heather: It’s interesting. The growth that we initially had out-licensing the platform didn’t require a heavy lift from Alloy because we were sending the platform, the mice, to the partners and they were using them in their own labs or they were using them as discovery tools with CROs that they liked working with. So we actually started creating this ecosystem of partners that could help facilitate the work happening with our first platform. We actually engaged with all of the CROs that wanted to work with our platform on behalf of our licensees and gave them the same kind of support and technical knowledge that they would need to be successful that we give directly to our licensees. So that actually scaled quite nicely.
It’s the next part of the company where we do capabilities and provision of services that required us to kind of build out more significantly. And that’s where partners actually come to us as the best users of our own technology and we provide capabilities around services that span anywhere from talking about a target through generating a panel of leads in the antibody space initially and now additional modalities.
Taren: So when you look at those partnership opportunities, how do you evaluate which ones are the best fit for you all?
Heather: Interesting. I think for us most partnership opportunities are a good fit for us. We actually don’t think of there being any kind of bad partners. There are partners that come to us with problems that we don’t immediately know how to solve; I call those kind of adjacencies. And that’s actually where Alloy sees a lot of growth. It is helping to hear what a problem is that a partner has that they’re willing to confide in us that we can then work together to come up with the answer. This is a lot of how innovation is driven at Alloy, finding the pain points and creating solutions that we then can make broadly available.
Taren: Can we talk about Alloy’s unique business model? I did a little bit of research and it is quite unique.
Heather: It is a little bit unique. I’ll give you the three-minute escalator pitch, I call it, and then dive in a little bit. Alloy does core activities around three areas in platforms. As I’ve alluded to, we aggregate, iterate on, create and out-license foundational platform technologies. We also have activities around services where we provide capabilities in drug discovery all the way up through providing leads and even translational medicine services to our partners. So in our third area of activity, our venture studio, we actually invest our own sweat equity from the platforms that we have and the capabilities that we provide, helping companies to form and grow non-dilutedly past the point that they’ve increased the value of what they’re providing such that they can raise more formal capital.
Taren: Interesting. So what part of the business to you has the most potential for growth?
Heather: I am often accused of being overly optimistic and aggressive about goals, but I feel that all of the areas have a lot of opportunity for growth, but we do think about the revenue that comes in from different areas and different ways. I’ll back up to how we’re structured which is Errik originally, Errik Anderson, seed funded the company and our subsequent funding has all come in from single family offices and sovereign funds and one more traditional venture investor. Because of that structure, we live outside of the pressure to create an exit for our investors within a 10-year fund window which gives us incredible flexibility in the way that we’ve created our business model. And so in activities around platforms and activities around services, when we take money in revenue there, we reinvest all of that revenue into innovation at the company. So that is a replenishing well of revenue to create more innovation for our partners. It’s in the venture studio where we’re forming entities that will eventually have their own exits that we think about the eventual long-term return.
So the greatest opportunity for return to our investors and our stakeholders is certainly from the venture studio but, of course, that doesn’t work without having the rest of the pieces of the flywheel which is the platform technologies and the capabilities.
Taren: Fantastic. So as you look to the next 6-12 months, what are some of the key objectives for the organization?
Heather: Well, we’re very excited right now about this next period of time because although we’ll always make our tools available in ways that democratize access to pre-competitive technology, we are moving the company towards becoming the place you would go to get an innovation subscription where launching innovation subscriptions in the sense that we are inviting companies to pay one fee to us annually which would relieve them of any downstream terms on the technologies that they’re using if they create drugs that go to market for one annual fee. These are innovation subscriptions. It gives you access to everything Alloy has that can power your drug discovery and development, but also everything that we’re going to be adding.
So there’s a roadmap that the partners can follow and certain levels of innovation subscriptions can influence that roadmap as well as will allow them to dedicate certain amounts of their subscription towards innovation in a specific area. So if you imagine a top 10 pharma company contributing X number of millions towards an innovation subscription, now imagine that five other companies do the same, it’s really a force multiplier on their innovation dollars which drives innovation faster that everyone can benefit from.
Taren: Interesting. I have never heard of that before. Is this unique to Alloy or are other companies doing this type of innovation subscription as well, to your knowledge?
Heather: To my knowledge, it is unique to Alloy. Although I think that being unique is wonderful, but we think that we’re doing something that is really helpful to the greater kind of ecosystem of biotechnology and we’d be very happy for others to be doing the same thing. So it’s not a competitive mindset of ours, it’s actually a collaborative mindset. We’d love to talk to other companies that are trying to do similar things.
Taren: Excellent. What are some of the top trends you’re tracking right now? So as you just described your shorter-term objectives, what are you looking to towards the longer term?
Heather: Longer term, I should mention that there are six modalities that we work in and we’re robustly participating in the vertical of antibodies and anything related to antibodies. Next, we launched QA discovery services which is our sub-brand that does TCRM and TCR drug discovery. After that is genetic medicines; as I mentioned, we have a team in South San Francisco working in genetic medicines. Genetic medicine is interesting because we did a wonderful partnership with Sudhir Agrawal who is the original creator of gatimer technology, and Sudhir is working on new chemistry that we’re very excited to make broadly available. His original chemistry is held inside of one company and he wanted to work with us because he wanted to make sure that what he was doing would be broadly available to those who wanted to work with it.
Next in peptides we are working with a company that we made an investment in Mytide that does rapid peptide manufacturing. We also have worked in cell therapy where we’re doing CAR formatting and rapid screening; and finally delivery technologies. So we’re still in the thick of it in building out our robustness in all of these various modalities. I think that we’re just excited about the next thing on the radar. I don’t know if that particularly answers your question.
Taren: No, I think it does. I think that’s a pretty big area of expertise that you’re looking at and I think that those are really areas of excitement as we look towards the future of where biotech is going so I think it’s spot-on. We started our conversation talking about transgenic mice and you sort of buried the lead there. This is not the first time you’ve been involved in this area of the science. So tell me, how did you get started in the healthcare industry initially and why transgenic mice.
Heather: Okay. Well I originally landed at Atlas Venture in the early 200s and I was executive assistant supporting Peter Barrett there. I worked directly with Peter for 11 years and he was new to venture at the time as well, having recently moved on from being a founder at Celera Genomics. So he and I kind of learned how things worked together. I became really interested in watching how companies form and become operationalized. A great example of this is Mike Gilman who came out of Biogen and formed Stromedix and now has a lot of different endeavors. He actually sat in a cube next to me for six months and it was because Atlas felt strongly about Mike and what he brought to the table, and they were willing to have him come in and incubate and think about what the thing was that he wanted to do next. This was in the early 2000s when this wasn’t as commonly happening across venture that wasn’t a common formation model.
So that started my interest in learning about how companies form. And so fast forward 11 years, I woke up one morning and my 30s were gone and my two daughters were not babies anymore and I thought, “Well, now, what do I want to do?”. So I went and had a conversation with one of the partners at the time, Nessan Bermingham, and he said, “You know, Heather, I’m forming three different companies. This is kind of a brief overview on the three. Is there one that you’re interested in working for?”. And so he mentioned Harbour Antibodies and he explained that the technology, the platform, was the animal. And I had a limited understanding of even at that time the difference between an asset company and a platform company and I just was intrigued that the mice were a platform. So I jumped into Harbour and became the first FTE there and actually the only kind of full-time employee of Harbour for the next four years, and just had to learn everything about what they were doing which was bringing humanized transgenic mice to market. So everything I could about mouse husbandry, about creating licensing models – pretty much if the sink was leaking, I would crawl under and get it fixed.
Taren: I love that you are again the first FTE. So is it twice, three times? How many times have you been the first employee?
Heather: So Harbour was the first time. My next company that I worked at shortly after the exit or acquisition of Harbour Antibodies by Harbour Biomed in Shanghai, I began working at Verseau Therapeutics which is a macrophage biology company; and I think I was the third hire there. I was there for about 18 months and when I heard back again from Errik Anderson who wanted to resume a conversation about working together, so then I left to become the first kind of external FTE. Alloy had been something Errik had been incubating inside his own family office for a while. I was the first person that came in that was not kind of “part” of that family office.
Taren: So there’s a trend here; you like to begin on the ground floor. What is it about that that excites you? Because most people would be very daunted about having to crawl under the sink and all of that other stuff, but for you it seems like you get really excited about it.
Heather: I do get very excited about it. I like being able to do a little bit of everything. I think change is scary for a lot of people and myself included. When big change happens, I get a little weary. But incremental change from a day-to-day basis, not having to do the same thing every day is highly appealing to me. So when you are a Jack of all trades or a Swiss army knife and you can come in to a company and resource all the different aspects of it that need to come together, it’s nice to feel like you have your finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on. When companies grow as Harbour did, as Verseau did, a person like myself that has kind of a multifaceted role, people come in who have areas of specialty and they take pieces away.
And I think that happened to me both at Harbour and at Verseau that I didn’t proactively seek out the pieces I wanted to keep holding onto. And I think that that’s why Alloy has been such a different experience for me because here I definitely took a path towards business development. I’m obviously managing operations more so taking care of it because I have the skills that were required. But business development is my real passion. The interesting thing about Alloy is that I didn’t necessarily pick business development proactively but Errik, as a mentor, realized that it was a strength of mine and he kind of helped propel me in that direction. So I think that’s why I’m able to be at Alloy four years later and still very happy because I do have a piece that I feel like I belong in.
Taren: So tell me what it is because, again, business development can be very daunting. What is it about that area that really excites you?
Heather: Well I love when I help people. I love when I have an “aha” moment where I explain. Alloy is a complicated business model and most of the calls that I get on to introduce the company, the party I’m talking to has a loose idea that maybe we’re a mouse company and they want to know exactly what is going on. So first of all, the art of finding a way to talk about what we do in a way that’s easily accessible and broken down, I love that challenge. If I have one phone call in the morning where somebody says, “Oh, okay. Oh, that’s great. I see what you’re doing. I think that that could be really useful here” – of course, closing an agreement with someone is exciting, but the real feel-good for me is when somebody kind of gets it and appreciates it. So I have one of those phone calls in the morning, I’m kind of on a little bit of a high all day long and all the better if I have multiple calls.
Taren: That’s great. Again, it sounds like you’re very excited and passionate about what you do.
Taren: And how do you infuse that passion into your team and, secondarily, how do you build your high-performing teams because obviously you have to be able to do that to be successful. So let’s start how you infuse your team with passion.
Heather: Sure. I might go back to my 20s which I don’t often talk about because nothing really awesome happened in my 20s but I did have a short role as being a manager and kind of swore off it. I thought, “Oh, this is just not my strong suit. I don’t really think I’m meant to be a manager” and you tell yourself these things and they stick with you over time. So now, here I am in my 40s, taking on a role that requires me to manage people and I still have this lingering sense of like “I don’t think I’m a manager” but, regardless, I kind of charge forward and managing people.
Initially it was really hard to manage people – I’ll just stay on the management piece for a bit and then I’ll talk about the team. People are different than transactions. Transactions and partners, you can kind of engage with them on your own terms, you can be what you need to be in that relationship. Not that we’re disingenuous, but you get to be able to put your best foot forward. And then teams, they’re there every day and they’re there with what they think and what their problems are and how they want to get things done. When I originally started managing people, it was about three weeks into it that I thought “I don’t know if this was the right decision;” and then something happened where that kind of happy moment that I have when I have a positive interaction with a partner who’s interested in learning more. I started having that same reaction at the end of the day when I helped someone get through their day. And I realized it’s really rewarding to help people get to the answer they need to get to on a day-to-day basis and it’s been great ever since.
Now in terms of high-performing teams, I think past performance is important but you also have to go out in the limb when you’re hiring people that display the kind of qualities that you’re looking for, and I’ve done both. I think communication is probably the most important element. We actually have a daily BD team huddle just to make sure that we’re all on the same page, and it could be that we’re talking about a complicated deal that’s coming together and how it’s being perceived by the partner and how we think we should approach it, but just to make sure that we’re all kind of applying a singular mindset to the goals that are Alloy’s goals.
Taren: Excellent. Throughout your career, you’ve worked in Atlas Venture which is really a very innovative entity, let’s call it that, because there’s so many folks who have come out of there who have started different organizations and different companies, really exciting stuff. What was that experience like for you and what did you learn there?
Heather: Well, I didn’t even know what venture was when I started at Atlas and I read up a whole bunch on different terms related to venture to make sure that I would get the job. And I remember reading up on what a funding cliff is and making sure that I ask if the partners at Atlas had experienced that. The first impression I had at Atlas was that I thought it was a financial company; I had done some work at a fund before. And the first day there, I was in a team meeting where they were just getting really deep about the science and I remember thinking, “Wow, these people, they’re MBAs, they’re PhDs, they’re MDs. This is intimidating” and then I got comfortable. I’m not a PhD or an MD but I had a skill set of usually multitasking. And I found my groove with that team.
The other thing that I really enjoyed about Atlas was that I was able to do activities and gravitate towards things that I enjoyed and that I was good at, my degrees in hotel and restaurant management. And within a few years of starting at Alloy, I started running their annual CEO retreat; so event planning which was very rewarding to me. So I feel like Atlas allowed me to explore areas that I was interested in. I had a very patient partner that I worked for that answered my biology questions when I had them, even though it was not necessarily what he was there to be doing. I loved watching them evolve from where they were in the early 200s to becoming a really nimble company creation machine. It was fascinating.
Taren: So, Heather, you just dropped a little bit of information there about being a hotel…tell me again what your degree was.
Heather: My degree is BS in hospitality administration from BU.
Taren: So that’s not the usual route to go into being in the C-suite of a biotech company. We know that, right?
Heather: Yes, I agree. I think having been a waitress for many years in the way that you have to multitask and think about how to get people to do what you want, how to walk through an area and make sure that you’re always busy on the way in and the way out, I think the way you’re kind of parallel processing so many different things at a time, I think it’s a good skill set to have. I’ve never imagined boundaries around what I could do. I have insecurities like anyone else, but I don’t have that voice that says “You can’t do that.” I see something I want to do and I do it.
Taren: Very admirable. I love that. And there’s no right way to do any of this stuff, right? So it’s just a matter of, as you said, finding your groove and finding what your interests are. So I think that’s really very interesting, thank you for sharing that piece of your history with us. Along the way, obviously you’ve been very successful; what are some of the key pieces of leadership advice that you’ve received? Does anything stand out to you?
Heather: Yes. But it’s less what I’ve received and more what I observed. When I was working for Peter at Atlas for years, I am a very like ‘get it done, get it done immediately.’ I’m very action-oriented. And I observed over years that Peter sometimes wouldn’t give me an immediate answer on something, some way to handle something, something as the next step of doing something in a process. And what I learned over time was that when I didn’t get a fast answer on something, it’s because there wasn’t an answer right away and that maybe the situation that I was trying to address needed to resolve itself or evolve to a different inflection point. Being so eager to do things right away…this was one of the most important lessons I think that I took from my time at Atlas was sometimes you need to give things a little bit of room to breathe and evolve and then they’re more ripe for you to take action.
Taren: That’s an excellent piece of advice. Is that the same piece of advice you provide to others or do you have something else that you share with some of your reports?
Heather: So one of the things I work on with my team, some of them maybe need this a little bit more than others is something I learned over time which is that you have to sell your own personal brand. Not necessarily be grabby about the spotlight, but be transparent about what you’re contributing. I don’t think people show themselves in a positive light or talk about their own work and strengths enough and so I encourage my team because a lot of the things we’re doing are with one-on-one interactions with external parties. No one else in Alloy or on the executive leadership team is going to know about those activities unless we share them and highlight them in a positive way. So I work a lot with my team members on making sure that the great work that they do is reflected in what others around the company see coming from them as well.
Taren: You obviously are sitting in the C-suite of a biotech company and as such you are, by default, a role model to other women who are coming up in the industry. Do you view yourself that way?
Heather: No. I do participate in some groups, I do host some dinners for younger women in biotech, but I’m always a little bit tickled that I am thought of as being a role model in the industry. It’s an honor. And it’s also I’m a role model maybe in a different kind of way; I think I have a relatively decent deal sheet. But I like that I can help women and others to understand that you can move on in a non-traditional trajectory and get to places that you hadn’t imagined you would be when maybe you started your career.
Taren: Fantastic. It’s been a great conversation and I so appreciate you being so forthright. But let me ask you my final question – what is your WoW moment, that one time that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left lasting impression on you?
Heather: Sure. This one is just so crystal clear in my mind what this is. So I mentioned that Errik had a hand in choosing my area of progression inside Alloy. Literally, I was in a taxi on the way to the airport to go to a conference in California and Errik called me and said, “Heather, I wanted to do this in person” so of course I got anxious what could this mean. And he promoted me; at the time I was a director. He said, “I’m going to promote you to VP of business development.” I had never imagined in my life that I would ever be a VP of anything so I was shell-shocked for a couple of days but I was very excited. And two things happened that day – one is that I actually told my Uber driver, he was really excited for me too because you want to tell somebody. And then I went out that night and I had a little bit of an extra kind of lift in my step and I decided to take myself to the hotel bar for a couple of beers to celebrate my promotion and I ended up sitting next to someone that I talked into having a business relationship with Alloy.
So it was just a really great day and the original WoW was that “I think you’re good at this, Heather. I think that you deserve this role and we’re just going to do this” and that was really how the rest of my time at Alloy got kick-started.
Taren: That’s fantastic. And it shows the importance of having somebody who is not only a mentor but a sponsor for your career. That’s a wonderful story and I love that you like went to the hotel bar to celebrate and then turned it into a business development opportunity. That is amazing.
Heather: Yes. Everything’s a business opportunity.
Taren: Let no coaster go unturned for you, I get it.
Heather: Exactly. There’s a great book that I believe Errik recommended to me, it’s called Never Eat Alone. And it talks about how business development and working is really all about being generous. And that if you continue to be generous in all of your interactions, and I’m doing a bad summary of this book, but if you look at every opportunity as an opportunity to be generous that all creates opportunities and business opportunities along the way.
Taren: That’s fantastic. What a great ending note. And I think that’s something we can all take something away from is that it doesn’t cost you anything to be generous and you never know what that reward is going to be. And you shouldn’t look for the reward, don’t expect it, but sometimes it comes your way.
Heather: Exactly. And that’s the guiding principle for Alloy in general, right? We’re structured in such a way that we can be behind the scenes. We can help a partner get what they need and be comfortable with the fact that if there’s a return for us, it’s going to be in the second decade of that company’s life. It’s a very comfortable good place to be.
Taren: Well, thank you so much and congratulations on your great success. I look forward to seeing what the company does going forward and to seeing what you do going forward. Heather, it’s been a real treat. Thank you so much for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Heather: And thank you for having me. I’m really very pleased that I was invited and very honored, thank you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmaVOICE.com.