For one to survive and thrive as a leader in the life sciences and healthcare innovation space, one has to have a clear understanding of their purpose to be in that sector, which drives them to work hard towards their objective. Functioning in the healthcare arena also demands the person in charge to have an innovative and compassionate approach to the problems that arise to come up with fitting solutions that improve healthcare inequity.
Efua Edusei, the Chief of Staff, Marketing of Illumina Inc, serves at the forefront of the genomics space with all of the above qualities and more. In an interview with Insights Success, Efua opens up about the various challenges she faced while striving to bring transformative change in the healthcare sector, how she overcame all of those and established herself as one of the top leaders in the space.
Brief our audience about your journey as a leader in the healthcare space.
My journey in healthcare began in marketing and communications in the oncology space. In this role, I worked with journalists and patient advocacy groups to communicate the availability of breakthrough cancer therapies and advancements in the pipeline. As some cancer therapies are costly, I also worked with patient advocacy groups to lobby the United Kingdom’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) to approve these innovative therapies and make them available on the National Health Service (NHS).
After this role, I worked as an oncology market analyst advising biopharma companies on cancer therapies in clinical development and assessing their level of innovation and efficacy in decreasing tumor size, slowing disease progression, and improving some of the symptoms and comorbidities associated with cancer.
In this role, I also advised on marketing strategies that biopharma innovator companies could use to reach patients better. The research and analysis that I led also helped pharma companies partner with smaller biotech companies to find innovative partners to collaborate with on drug discovery and development.
In this role, I liaised with experts in the cancer field and gained a solid appreciation of precision medicine and its impact on debilitating diseases such as cancer. I entered the oncology space at a pivotal time for the industry where targeted therapies were breaking barriers in oncology care, and patients were living longer.
I remember reviewing and assessing data on two ground-breaking drugs: Zelboraf, the first targeted therapy for a specific mutation in metastatic melanoma, and Xalkori for ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Following that, I worked in Business Operations for Biogen in the multiple sclerosis franchise and then a digital health company disrupting the pharmaceutical supply chain in Africa.
My interest in genomics follows my earlier interest in precision medicine while working in the oncology space.
Due to the immense promise of the genomics field in transforming healthcare, I have decided to invest the latter part of my career making an impact in the genomics industry and began working with 54gene, a start-up with the aim of diversifying the genomic data used in medical research and drug discovery. Currently, I work with Illumina, a global leader in genomics and sequencing technology. At Illumina, I work directly as the Chief Marketing Officer as her Chief of Staff, where my role is to empower the marketing organization to shape and accelerate the uptake of genomic solutions.
What inspired you to strive for improving access and solutions to healthcare for under-represented populations?
I was born in Ghana, West Africa, and also lived in Togo, Ghana’s neighbor to the East. While I was fortunate enough to receive healthcare when I needed it, I noticed this was not the case for many. Africa was greatly affected by the HIV epidemic in the 1990s, and HIV/AIDs remains a public health issue affecting many communities today, along with malaria, which is easily preventable and treatable.
Access to healthcare cannot be taken for granted, and I knew from an early age I wanted to dedicate my life to improving access to healthcare and contributing towards healthcare innovations that will enhance access for all. The healthcare infrastructure in Africa has improved dramatically, and many governments are prioritizing a need for universal health coverage and precision medicine, although there is still a great need for improvement.
My work to date at organizations such as mPharma, where I led business development with providers to introduce them to electronic prescriptions and a healthcare financing program, has contributed significantly towards improving access to novel therapeutics. My work at 54gene has also made diagnostics tests such as non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), cancer screening, and precision medicine more widely available.
Being an experienced leader, share your opinion on how novel technologies have transformed the healthcare industry and what more could be expected in the future?
I believe in the power of genomics, and I know this technology has so much more potential to realize. For this reason, I am proud to be working at a company that is one of the pioneers in genotyping and sequencing. A very recent case in point is with the COVID-19 virus, where researchers used genome sequencing to reveal the virus’ entire genome, which was shared on a public genetics database so researchers around the world could access it.
This information accelerated the development of drugs and the vaccine for the virus. Moderna used the virus’ sequence and developed a vaccine in a record twenty-five days. This was followed by BioNTech partnering with Pfizer.
Genomics has also proven itself in disease management, where genomic information and technology has consistently proven to improve health outcomes, quality, safety, and in some cases, cost savings. In cancer, comprehensive genomic profiling is a next-generation sequencing approach used to assess cancer biomarkers to guide physicians on the most appropriate cancer-targeted therapies.
Selecting drugs based on biomarker and mutation type can greatly improve the outcomes for patients, and early screening, especially in cancers such as colorectal cancer, has been proven to reduce disease progression and death significantly.
In the future, I see a world where sequencing will be available to the masses, and everyone will be armed with information on their genome that can be used to predict disease risk and select the most suitable therapies for them. This is why I am proud to be in my current role and be one of the leaders spearheading this change.
What is your opinion on adopting gender egalitarianism from a business leadership perspective?
Gender egalitarianism is absolutely a no-brainer, and I look forward to a time where this is not even a topic for discussion but the norm. Women are amongst the most educated in many communities today. An abundance of research from global organizations, including Goldman Sachs, has proven that women make excellent leaders and that having more female leaders can make a company and its products more successful.
Gender equality is an economic imperative, and supporting women’s economic empowerment, and leadership drives growth and innovations across the board. A study by McKinsey & Company conducted in 2018 analyzing more than 1000 companies globally showed that organizations with greater diversity within their executive teams have higher profits and longer-term value.
Research such as this and my personal experiences working with some incredible women in my career, such as my current manager Kathryne Reeves, Chief Marketing Officer of Illumina, have consistently built a case for developing and promoting women in the workplace. I look at the impact I have made in my career so far, and I can definitely attribute some of this to the additional perspectives and traits I bring as a female leader.
What would be your advice to the budding entrepreneurs and business leaders?
Find your inner ‘why’ and hold on to it. This will act as the NorthStar during the journey and will be beneficial and a good reminder during bumpy roads, which we will all experience in our careers.
Also, as a woman of color in biotech, very few of us are there, so I have prioritized mentorship. Therefore, intentional networking and finding mentors and advocates who can be truthful with feedback and also fully believe in my potential has been one of the recipes for my success.
I value feedback very much, and I believe feedback is truly gold.
Finally, diversity in experience is key, and this can be gained through exposure to working in different cultures, demographics, and geographies. I believe I can be called a dominant leader today because my career in biotech has spanned three continents. I have gained a truly global perspective of healthcare innovation and the business tool kits such as marketing, business development, and strategy that can make these innovations available.
What are your views on the impact that will be made when we promote the participation of more women in STEM disciplines?
I believe promoting the participation of more women in STEM/ Female scientists is important as some of the most significant biomedical inventions of our era were discovered by them, including Hellen Murray Free, who came up with the self-testing systems for diabetes like the dip and read test. African American ophthalmologist Patricia Bath discovered the Laserphaco Probe, a device used to remove cataracts and cataract lenses, and these are just some examples.
Lately, female scientists have been an intrinsic part of the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American scientist at the US National Institute of Health (NIH), assisted in the designing of the Moderna COVID vaccine. Following this accomplishment, Corbett was granted the honor to become one of the first people to open a vial of the vaccine that she shared during an interview with CBS News earlier this year.
The same qualities as attention to detail and empathy that make women excellent housemakers and mothers if we choose this path also make us wonderful scientists. I strongly urge everyone in the STEM field and beyond to do their part in actively motivating more young women to pursue careers in the sciences.
Where do you envision yourself in both personal and professional avenues in the coming years?
I know healthcare is my calling, so I envision myself continuing to make an impact in this field and growing as a leader in genomics. In the next few years of my career, I aim to be one of the leaders that enable comprehensive genomic profiling to become embedded in clinical care. I also intend to play a greater role in investing in healthcare technology, especially in the women’s health space. On the personal front, I intend to get married and start a family. I am also passionate about philanthropy and giving back. I know that a family foundation supporting various causes dear to me like healthcare, wellness, and education is definitely in the cards for me.
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