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From Big Pharma to biotech: building R&D teams with Sonya Montgomery

Sonya spoke to Paula Doust Alba on the Venari Podcast


‘I’ve always really loved the biotech space,’ says Sonya Montgomery. An experienced Chief Medical Officer (CMO) with a strong focus on genomic medicine for rare diseases, Sonya has over 20 years of experience developing drugs across the US, Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. Having most recently worked at Evox Therapeutics, Sonya has also offered her services as an independent consultant for the past decade. Paula Doust Alba, CNS & Rare Disease Consultant for our Life Sciences team, was delighted to catch up with Sonya on the Venari Podcast to discuss Sonya’s career to date, her thoughts on building teams in the space, and prevalent trends within research and development.


Early career moves

Sonya developed an interest in biotech while studying engineering prior to her medical training. Earlier in her career, she was ‘focused more on cardiometabolic indications in small biotechs, as well as some other diverse areas of interest, including CNS.’ Sonya then moved into Big Pharma, working for Pfizer in the US and the UK on cardiovascular metabolic and endocrine research. Over the past ten years, Sonya has ‘been very much driven by the areas of unmet need. And that has led me primarily to working within the rare disease space across a number of therapeutic areas and tissue targets.’


Entry to the clinic

One of the main obstacles for biotech organisations is how best to prepare teams for entry to the clinic. For Sonya, focusing on translational functions and building up pharmacology models robustly – in addition to thinking ‘about the right talks, study design and pre-CTA enabling studies’ – is imperative for ensuring success at the clinic. She cites her time at Pfizer, which felt to her like ‘an education in translational medicine’, to this end, as the company has increased its end-to-end clinical success by focusing on translational. Big Pharma has more than ample resources to dedicate to such initiatives, so Sonya believes it’s even more important for smaller biotechs to really focus on this area, bringing in people with the skills to help transition towards clinical entrance.


Preparing the science

Thereafter, in Sonya’s view, you can look ‘at the right biomarkers and the right early signs of efficacy’ to drive your programme forward and receive the funding you need – though how to build out a translational or biomarker team poses its own challenges. Her approach is ‘more circular’. You can have clinical and R&D teams working together on something, but better still is for teams to be involved on both sides of preparing for the clinic, using data to consider subjects like ideal patient populations. She also recommends bringing in bioinformatics experts, whether internally or via consultants, to assist with this. Another area to focus on early is regulatory expertise. For Sonya, it’s particularly important within rare disease, orphan drugs, and first-in-class treatments. ‘You want to really get that insight early’, she notes. At the same time, bringing in patient advocacy to your programme is also essential for you to ‘really understand what are the endpoints that are important for patients and their families.


The importance of culture

Yet, as important as developing the science and having the right talent is, an equally – if not more so – crucial point in the small world of biotech is how to build the right working environment. ‘You’re going to be successful based on the people,’ Sonya says, ‘so you really need to focus on building out a culture that attracts your strongest team.’ This means creating a positive, collaborative unit where people feel motivated and comfortable to communicate ‘not just good news, but also challenging news’. Easier said than done, surely – but Sonya’s approach is to be available to listen to her team and have discussions at all times. She values diversity of experience – as well as diversity of thought, which is particularly useful when working on tricky rare disease treatments. ‘You have to really think about who your team is as a whole,’ she notes, ‘and then mentor them and bring them with you towards those goals for the company and for the pipeline.’


Diversity and AI are hot topics for the future

Indeed, diversity is on employers’ minds more than ever before, and Sonya thinks that this trend is here to stay – at least for hiring in the R&D space. The most successful teams of the future will be created with DEI in mind, by hirers ‘who look for talent in a diversity of areas [and] key attributes that will help drive their teams forward without necessarily being too prescriptive in what that looks like’. Elsewhere, generative AI is a huge topic in Sonya’s industry; finding talent who can write algorithms ‘that will help evaluate imaging endpoints’ will be of great importance for generating as much data as possible from bioinformatics. This will help to understand and personalise patient populations. ‘Leveraging those technologies and having that expertise will also be helpful.’


Do you need help with talent solutions for your biotech business? Please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.


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