Choose the journey, says Roche’s Aussie SVP

By Megan Brodie 2 years ago | In Companies, People
  • 2 years ago
Former Genentech executive, Karen Massey

23 May 2022

When Karen Massey left Australia more than two decades ago on a short term project for Pfizer, the talented young Aussie intended only to get some travel and career experiences under her belt before coming back home. While she has certainly achieved this, returning home is not yet part of the plan.

Massey is Senior Vice President, Product Development & Global Clinical Operations for Genentech*, residing in Switzerland and heading up a global operation that employs some 3,000 people. The path from Sydney to Switzerland has been full of twists, turns and surprises for this very cool Aussie leader, yet when she looks back her advice is simple – choose the journey, not the destination.

“Jump in when you have opportunities, even if they’re not that glamorous,” Massey told MedNews from her home in Zurich. “That has been a constant for me throughout my whole career.”

Armed with an economics degree, Massey’s first job was in government affairs at Pfizer, joining just prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Pfizer had acquired a company with IOC sponsorship and Massey was tasked with a basic logistics role, essentially “a junior person randomly helping out with stuff”.

With Salt Lake City hosting the next Olympics, Pfizer was keen to explore how it might better use the sponsorship and Massey was asked to go to the US – a “really cool opportunity” that she immediately accepted.

“I moved halfway across the world to a place I’d never been because I said, ‘why not?'” she says. “Twenty years later I’m still not back in Australia yet I have done many, many different things.”

When the Olympics project wound up, Massey joined Pfizer’s respiratory team in a marketing role that kept her in New York for another six years.

“Pfizer was a marketing powerhouse and I got to work with and learn from some of the best marketing and advertising people in New York, and I got my MBA at NYU, which was a tremendous opportunity,” she says.

“I was like a sponge – everything was new. You’re fearless when you’re young because you don’t know what you don’t know. I loved Pfizer and I loved what I was doing, but I also didn’t know if that was because I hadn’t experienced anything else.”

Patient heart, strategy head

So Massey left, joining Bain & Co as a management consultant to both put her MBA learning into practice and get experience across other industries. She moved to London and while she found it to be yet another fabulous experience, she also realised her heart lay in healthcare.

“I love being close to patients, and I love working with the same group of people over time, developing deep relationships. In consulting, you don’t have that,” she explains.

Returning both to New York and to Pfizer, Massey moved into corporate strategy and when a new executive joined Pfizer as head of its US Primary Care franchise, Massey agreed to work directly with her on strategy development.

“This is another one of those opportunities that might not seem that glamorous but if you jump in, it opens new doors,” she says. “When I took the job, it wasn’t clear what I would be doing but there was an opportunity to get involved, to make an impact and contribute.”

Massey’s next role was as a US regional sales manager, another opportunity where she says “having the courage to walk through doors when they open in front of you” was key, especially given she didn’t have sales experience.

“Take the path where it’s interesting work and with interesting people,” she says. “Whenever I look at positions, that’s the lens I use. Is it going to be interesting, creative work? I like to solve difficult problems, to create something.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the journey. It doesn’t matter where you end up if the journey is not enjoyable, so I try to focus more on the journey than where I’m going.”

The role also gave Massey a front-row seat, observing first-hand how the US healthcare system worked at a grassroots level.

“It was very different to working in an office environment on corporate strategy. You’re on the frontline, seeing the struggles patients go through and what doctors deal with every day, the inefficiencies and lack of fairness in the system –  you see it all.”

One step towards changing the world

When a respected mentor moved to Genentech* and asked her to head up marketing for an asthma drug,  Massey toyed with the idea but didn’t believe she would ever leave Pfizer.

“I was intrigued by Genentech’s commitment to groundbreaking science, but what got me on the plane and beyond excited was this particular leader I’d worked with,” she says. “Once I was there it was the culture, the people, and for want of a better term, the vibe – Genentech was very entrepreneurial, very purpose-driven, and I just had to be there.”

Accompanied by her Swiss-born wife, Massey moved from New York to San Francisco and, with Bill Anderson appointed CEO in 2017, bringing with him a vision to transform Roche/Genentech into an organisation focused on innovation and creativity, Massey once again found herself in a position where she could play a part in bringing that vision to life.

“We have amazing talent in our industry that doesn’t come into work every day to check boxes,” she explains.

“We hire people that want to change the world, and then somehow our system takes that away. We have very important rules and regulations, but how do we have innovation and creativity within those rules? How can they co-exist, and how can we bring more joy to the work we are doing?

“It was another case where I took on a role that had a lack of clarity, but was a great opportunity to learn, to have an impact and to work with great people.”

With a career track that rolls from special projects to field roles to special projects, in 2018 Massey was appointed US head of the company’s monoclonal antibody drug targeting multiple sclerosis – another role she loved, not least because she was back working with patients and clinicians.

It also opened her eyes to the lack of representation of African Americans in MS trials, leading her to initiate the first-ever study into how the disease impacted this particular ethnic group.

“People see MS as a disease that predominantly impacts white, middle-aged women but when people don’t fit that profile, they can take longer to get the right diagnosis,” she says.

Her passion for equity and inclusion meant when the global clinical operations SVP role in Roche’s Swiss head office opened up, Massey once again saw an opportunity to make a real difference. Now two years in the role, she continues to challenge the status quo by asking if the way trials are executed hampers inclusive research – and whether the system is truly patient-focused.

“Clinical operations are at the core of everything that pharmaceutical companies do – it’s how we determine if a medicine works, and it has a big influence on how fast medicines get to patients.

“How do we get more investigators involved? How do we get more patients involved? That requires strategic thought because, at the moment, there are too few sites and too few patients.

“It doesn’t make sense in Australia that patients in the cities and closest to teaching hospitals have access to clinical trials. We want to find and create ways for rural patients to also have access. Covid has accelerated the opportunity to think differently about decentralised trials.”

Changing the future of clinical trials

Friday last was global Clinical Trials Day, and as global leader of clinical trials in one of the largest innovative pharma companies, Massey is passionate about enacting change but says it all comes down to trials being run out of centralised points in major cities.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Sydney or Copenhagen, if you don’t live near a trial site, if you work, if you’re a carer, if you’re not mobile and need help to travel, these things all impact on whether you can sign up for a trial no matter where in the world you live,” she says.

“So how do we take clinical trials to where the patients are rather than expect the patients to come to the trial? How do we design trials that fit into people’s lives?

“That’s the core of enhancing access and the exciting opportunity in front of us. We just need to figure out what we can do differently. That’s why clinical operations is a really cool place to be.”

As for what’s next for this Aussie star who has risen to the top of the global pharma industry, Massey says she’s still “enjoying the journey and the incredible people I work with”.

“This is a big job and there’s still a lot of work to do and so much more for me to learn, so much more impact we can have in advancing access and challenging the way we do clinical trials,” she says.

“I don’t have a grand plan – I never have, so I don’t know what’s next. What I do know is that it will be something that excites me.”

*In the US, Roche is known as Genentech, having acquired the company in 2009. Roche’s global clinical operations employs around 3,000 people. 

©MedNews 2022

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