- 5 months ago
Jenny and Karl Herz run sister companies Biointelect and Biocelect and are working with Novavax to bring its COVID-19 vaccine to Australia. Both have a long history in Australian pharma. The couple met in 1991 and in our first MedTwos, talk about this 30-year partnership and what makes it work.
28 April 2021
JENNY: We were both sales reps on the same territory in Sydney’s lower north shore working for different companies. It was 1991 and the receptionists would rave about how Karl from (pharma company) Servier bought the best food for lunches with real cutlery and napkins.
That kind of put me off. Then one night my manager said I should go along to the reps Christmas drinks at The Oaks in Neutral Bay and meet this Karl. Bloody Karl from Servier, I thought. And then I met him.
I think it was instant mutual attraction. Five years later we got married. At that stage, I was in a national sales management role and when I fell pregnant with Emily in 1997, I didn’t want to travel anymore so I did a job swap into business development.
That was pivotal as it resulted in me setting up what is now Sanofi Pasteur and getting the country manager’s job. I nominated for the Board of Medicines Australia and was appointed and got to lead discussions on vaccines and new funding arrangements.
Karl is much more domestic than I am. He’s the one that tidies around the house, makes the lists and separates the whites in the washing. He would always get up through the night to change a nappy. There were times when I was travelling interstate and overseas and he shouldered a bit more.
Ben was born in 2002 and in 2007 we decided we wanted to live in Europe. I had been in Australia for 17 years and I wanted the kids to experience Europe. Karl and I were both working for Sanofi at the time so we resigned and moved to France, where I worked for AstraZeneca in a regional market access and policy role.
We came back in 2010 and consulting projects just started coming in, and that’s how Biointelect was born. To be honest, it was the international role with AstraZeneca that laid the foundations.
I was in the US when we won a major project with CSL and realised how big the project was going to be. I called Karl and offered him a job. When I got home, we went for a long walk and discussed all the pros and the cons. There were a lot of cons, but there were more pros.
Karl is incredibly loyal; it’s one of his greatest strengths. He always has my back and I can’t imagine working with anyone else. We trust each other totally; you’re in it together and we both love that freedom. We don’t always agree and it’s hard to separate work and life, especially now the kids work in the business too. We’re all four pretty strong characters – I think the entrepreneurial spirit has rubbed off on them too.
Both businesses are taking off and it’s quite exciting and very rewarding. We have had plenty of challenges on the way. To the outside world, it looks like an overnight success, but it never is. You eat, sleep and breathe work.
Working on the Novavax vaccine is bigger than anything I’ve ever done. The deal is enormous, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and under the glare of 25 million expectant people, as well as the media. But to be at this point where I have the opportunity to do what I know well on my home turf actually feels pretty lucky, in a way.
With Karl, it’s always been a relationship of equals. It’s a partnership on every level. With all the ups and downs, I still fancy him.
KARL: We met at the Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay and hit it off pretty quickly. Two days later, Jenny rang Servier’s head office to get my number. We are pretty driven like that – we go after what we want.
Our first date wasn’t, from her perspective, a success. I turned up with red roses and set the scene really well but I’ve been accused of dancing with someone else all night, which I don’t think was totally the case.
Pretty soon after that, we bought a house. Jenny was living with her ex-boyfriend and we all became great friends. One morning he came bouncing in and said, why don’t we buy a house together, so we did. It was in Beacon Hill and we renovated it and rented out rooms to help pay the mortgage.
We are pretty competitive in our careers. I’d been a hospital specialist sales rep then sales manager at Servier before moving to Schering Plough as a regional manager then business development manager. After Schering Plough, I had what was my first attempt at being an entrepreneur, trying to start a small pharmaceutical business but it wasn’t successful, so I did a contract for Sanofi Pasteur where Jenny was my boss’s boss’s boss.
We were both working at Sanofi when Jenny and I decided to go and live in France. We resigned and left on the same day and took the family to Lyon. We didn’t work for a year, then Jenny got a job at MedImmune, which was acquired by AstraZeneca, and I did some consulting for Sanofi Pasteur in a company effectiveness role working on various subsidiaries around the world.
We came back to Australia in mid-2010 and looked at buying a few small businesses but they all fell through so I went to work for Generic Health while Jenny did some consulting, which was the start of Biointelect.
Throughout our careers, we have shared 50 per cent of everything. Like bringing up the kids – from changing nappies, getting up during the night, feeding, buying clothes – everything. We always work as a team, that’s one of our secrets.
It was 2012 and Jenny was getting busier and busier. Biointelect was engaged by BioCSL to work with them on the acquisition of Novartis’ influenza vaccine franchise. Jenny said, I’m going to need someone with your experience to help out and if it’s not you, it will have to be someone with the same experience. We went for a walk one morning and agreed, let’s do this, let’s try and build a business, so I resigned from Generic Health.
Working together has been fantastic. We’re very much alike on some fronts and very different on others. We’re both pretty strong-willed and fast-paced; we know what we want to get done. That can be challenging at times, for us and our teams, but we generally work through the issues. At the end of the day, we support each other; we’ve got each other’s back.
It’s been pretty busy with Novavax and Covid. We’ve got a long-term relationship with Novavax and always encouraged them to do some clinical work here in Australia with their earlier vaccines. That was a factor in putting Australia at the top of the list for the Covid vaccine. To know that we played a role, that’s huge.
We’re conscious that we’ve got a big job to do, but we’ve got fantastic people in our teams working as hard as they can to get this vaccine into Australia. It’s a big responsibility but we feel proud of the role that our two companies are playing in helping Australia get out of this pandemic.
With the two businesses, the entrepreneurial and the profit motive does drive us but eventually, we want to do some philanthropy and give back somehow. We want to share our success.
Jenny is probably one of the smartest people I’ve come across. She amazes me with her enthusiasm, energy and how many balls she can keep in the air at one time, and she’s incredibly talented. Even though we have our differences, at the end of the day we always have a good laugh.