Editor’s Note: Sophie Kornowski-Bonnet, executive committee member and head of Roche partnering, is the subject of an upcoming feature in the November issue of Life Science Leader magazine. The following short article has been developed for our Beyond The Printed Page online section which is free to access. Should you enjoy what you read, please consider becoming a monthly subscriber , so you can read the more in-depth article that discusses how Roche approaches partnering.
Sophie Kornowski-Bonnet, a French national, completed her Ph.D. in pharmacy in Paris in 1986. “I knew wanted to be in industry, so I began working at Abbott Diagnostics in Paris during the last year of my pharmaceutical studies,” she reflects. And though she had finished her Ph.D., she felt her education was not yet complete, so she decided to get her MBA. At the time, she was helping on a project at Abbott’s headquarters in Chicago. “I visited the University of Chicago and just fell in love with the place.” She liked it so much that she enrolled in the graduate business school and spent the next two years completing her MBA.
In 1989 she joined Abbott’s three-year management development program. “My first assignment was doing neuroscience market research,” she shares. The process of quantifying customer behavior data and turning it into product strategies helped her to bring all of her work in grad school together. “To do marketing well requires a data-driven approach, executed with the precision one takes in finance, and that experience for me at Abbott was transformative.”
Her second assignment, though, was even more challenging — working as a neuroscience sales representative detailing products for neuropsychiatry, epilepsy, manic depression, and insomnia in New York (i.e., the Bronx, Harlem, and northern Manhattan). “I really believed in what I did. I had worked in psychiatric hospitals in Paris before and knew the unmet need that existed. You could see the incredible amount of pressure these physicians were under, and as a rep, there was the tension between what you can say (i.e., what’s inside and outside of product label) and what the physicians need to know.” Again, she attributes this experience as being key in her career development, in particular, “It was here that I learned how to really see things through the eyes of the customer,” she says.
Kornowski-Bonnet left Abbott in 1994 and joined Sanofi Winthrop, an alliance between companies. During the next four years she worked with diagnostic imaging and in vitro contrast agents. When the business unit she was working in was sold to Sanofi, she following the business back to Paris to run the neuroscience business unit. “The move was deliberate, because at the time I thought I wanted to run a company, and running a business unit where you have responsibility for people, products, and sales is one of the best ways to prepare.” In her new role she actually had responsibility for some of the same products she had sold for Abbott back in New York, which she feels is probably one of the reasons Sanofi was interested in her. “Plus the fact that I had spent seven years in the U.S., which was pretty unusual for a French person back in the late 80s and early 90s, probably helped” she shares.
In 1997, she joined Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), and once again, found herself in a development program. “At first I went backwards, doing market research and strategic planning again,” she explains. Within six months, she was offered a promotion, but an odd one. She was told there was a marketing director job opening in Israel, but since they didn’t have a general manager, she’d have to assume that role, too. Still, that wasn’t the odd part. “Then they told me that we didn’t even own the company yet, and I was going to have to acquire this 50-person company, which was running about 50 clinical trials and generating $55 million in annual sales, and make it a full-fledged part of MSD’s European operations,” she laughs, recalling the experience of how the move to Israel unfolded. The company was partly owned by an individual and Teva Pharmaceuticals, and outside of J&J, no other Big Pharma had yet to establish a corporate HQ in Israel. At age 31, not only was she successful in buying the business and establishing MSD’s first Israeli operation, she was able to get the company’s products added for reimbursement on the major Sick Funds.* “My experience in Israel was risky, but there is always going to be some level of risk no matter where you go,” she says. “I tell people, unless you are completely terrified of working in a particular country, when given that kind of opportunity, it pays to take it, because you will always learn something from the experience.”
In 2002, she moved back to France to get some headquarters experience, working as the VP of the arthritis and analgesia franchise. “There I gained a lot of market knowledge around pre-launch and launch of drugs, and I even removed some from the market as well.” With a young son at home, she opted to forego any additional moves out of the country. In 2007 she joined Roche as general manager of France. Five years later she relocated to Basel, Switzerland, where she took on her current role of heading up the company’s global partnering initiatives, and becoming a member of the Roche executive committee.
*In 1995, Israel implemented a national health insurance law which set forth the country’s responsibility to provide health services for all its residents. The law provides universal coverage and specifies benefits for all Israeli citizens, who are mandated to join one of four official health insurance organizations known as Kupot Holim (i.e., Sick Funds).