Jennifer Dent is all business. At a nonprofit organization. She thinks that's exactly how it’s supposed to be. At the same time, she shares the enthusiasm of a humanitarian on a mission.
Reviewing three seminal moments in her career, one might think none of this should be the case. But we’ll learn how Dent, president of BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), used those formative – if not exactly positive – experiences to become a leader in pharmaceutical partnering for the development and distribution of drugs around the world.
Adverse Adventures For A Positive Posterity
BVGH was established in 2004 by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), as a nonprofit tasked with working with biotech, pharma, and diagnostic companies on “meaningful initiatives and programs to impact global health.” It was a few years after that founding – in 2011 – when Dent joined as president. Her start nearly coincided with the end of the organization. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at three events in the life and times of Jennifer Dent. It’ll inform our story, but even more provide much to consider about the impact of our industry, and our own careers.
Dent started out in nursing and then went back to school to focus on physiology and pharmacology. “I realized I wanted to somehow link science and healthcare with a business-oriented career,” she recalls. “The pharmaceutical industry seemed like an obvious fit.”
That was not because she was a woman. “I originally started working for Warner Lambert/Park Davis in Canada, in pharmaceutical sales,” she recalls. “At that point in time it was very much an all-boy’s club for both sales and multi-marketing groups.” Nonetheless, she gained valuable experience over four years, before going to work for Genentech, also in Canada. “I was excited about the innovative culture, and working for a company at the forefront of developing biologic therapies for patients suffering from rare diseases and unmet medical needs.”
Roche came on the scene a few years later, and asked Dent if she would be interested in working internationally. She was offered a position in Switzerland as an international business leader for their HIV products. “I moved to Basal in 1999, where I worked with a dynamic team,” she says, “but more importantly, transitioning to an international position gives you a different perspective on the industry. You become aware of the need to address major global challenges, such as access to medicine.”
The timing for Dent was critical. “Working in the HIV/AIDS field around that time gave one a unique perspective on issues in developing countries, where there’s not really a market for a pharmaceutical company like Roche. There is no structure for the patients to actually gain access to medicines.”
She continues: “In 2000, I attended the World AIDS conference in Durban [South Africa]. I was in the exhibition hall where Roche had a big, beautiful pavilion. The hall was basically destroyed by activists who marched in, dressed in skeleton suits and armed with red spray paint, and wielding what looked like baseball bats. They destroyed the stands and spray-painted “greed” and negative messages about our industry; their position was making HIV and AIDS medicines available to patients in South Africa and other countries.”
“That,” concludes Dent, “was a disturbing experience, and yet, an experience that was still very important for me to have.”
Things were only relatively better back in Switzerland. Not long after the Durban attack, at Roche headquarters, Dent ran into the radical group Paris Act Up. Activists for HIV and AIDS created a human chain around the building. Besides the scene itself, says Dent, “watching how a conservative Swiss company dealt with this was eye-opening. Americans are a little bit more open to dealing with this type of negative activity, but there it was disturbing and unsettling, I would say to the highest level in the company.”
But again, Dent assures us, somehow this experience played a positive, even catalytic role for her “both professionally and personally.” She’d found her passion, and it had everything to do with getting medicines for diseases like HIV/AIDS to under-served countries – particularly in Africa.
“I could just see there was a tremendous opportunity for companies to do more in global health,” she says. “And find a way to do it for business reasons as well.” After a few more career moves, she would get her chance to make an impact.
Hello BVGH, Goodbye Gates
“The idea of joining BVGH appealed to me, because I thought with my background in business development, international product and alliance management, this was a tremendous opportunity to bring about new partnerships – not non-sustainable donations or one-sided negotiations – but practical business partnerships of mutual benefit for industry, companies, governments, and ultimately patients.”
Unfortunately, as Dent was signing on, BVGH’s funding source was pulling out. “I learned the Gates Foundation was not going to continue funding BVGH. It had been the number one source of funding income for our programs.”
There’s certainly an irony in why the foundation had made this decision: It appears the Gates, like Dent, were focusing on business impacts.
“My understanding,” says Dent, “is the Gates were looking at the first ten years of the foundation. I think, correctly so, they were growing frustrated with the actual impact the foundation was having, considering all of the significant investments made. They brought in Trevor Mundel from Novartis. I think he looked at the ways the foundation was investing, and at the impact that BVGH had since funding in 2004. There was most likely an assessment that resulted in their looking for a greater impact than what they had seen.”
Dent pauses. I say quietly: “I think that type of assessment is typical of Bill Gates. Personally, I like that kind of thinking.”
“I kind of like it, too,” Dent replies, again drawing a positive lesson from a difficult experience.
What comes next for Dent and BVGH is powered by these three experiences: the destruction of a conference hall in Durban, a human chain of protest around Basal, and a defunding from Seattle.
TO BE CONTINUED