When interviewing Lara Sullivan, M.D., CEO of Pyxis Oncology, for an upcoming feature in Life Science Leader, I learned we had something in common. First, we are both children of physicians. Second, our physician fathers were both part of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). “My parents went to Columbia for med school, which is why I was born in New York City,” she explains. As the USPHS paid for her father’s medical school, they sent him to a rural area to work to pay back his debt. This is how Sullivan came to grow up in Penn Yan, a village of less than 5,000 people located on the north end of Keuka Lake in upstate NY between Rochester and Syracuse. “When we moved there, the local newspaper, which was published every Wednesday, had a headline about two doctors moving to town, and a picture of my parents with us four kids.” According to Sullivan, when growing up in a small town as a child of physician parents, everybody knows who you are. “I’d go to the supermarket and would run into someone, and inevitably a conversation around how one of my parents took care of one of their relatives would pop up.”
While Sullivan appreciated the important role played by her physician parents in the small community she so loves, she rebelled at following in their medical footsteps. She went on to study comparative literature as an undergrad at Cornell, before spending three years working in banks on Wall Street. “My first job was as an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, and I was primarily focused on healthcare bonds for hospitals and universities,” she recalls. But within the first three months they laid off the analysts, only to hire them back. Then they laid off the entire department, but then hired back the analysts. In total, Sullivan says that within the first six months of her first post-college job, she was hired/rehired three times. “From my perspective business seemed pretty unstable, and perhaps by being oppositional, I had dismissed the medicine thing too quickly.” So, she started volunteering at Bellevue Hospital to give medicine a fair shake, and soon saw what had attracted her parents — making a difference for patients. Thus, she decided she’d apply to medical school. “But by this point I figured that I had enough business knowledge that if I became a practicing physician, perhaps I could be most helpful at the health system management level.” She focused on applying to schools offering dual M.D./MBA programs, getting accepted into the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (Penn) and The Wharton School. “I did med school first, and then Wharton, which was like a complete re-education on the world of business.” Having grown up in rural upstate NY, Sullivan’s experience was, if you were a doctor, you practiced, that’s it. “I hadn’t been exposed to the notion that you could be an M.D. and/or a Ph.D. in a business role.” Her first Wharton summer internship was with McKinsey, and they put her in a Big Pharma women’s health strategy project around different women’s health markets. “It was so much fun getting to use my medical knowledge and business experience,” she recalls. Upon finishing the two programs, Sullivan knew she wanted to focus on business, so she opted not to do a medical residency, and instead went to work at McKinsey fulltime. “It was an incredibly intoxicating learning environment, because you got to see so many business problems in different settings.” And it was this that led her to join Pfizer in 2011. “One of my main clients was Wyeth R&D, and when the company was acquired by Pfizer, a lot of the people who opted to stay started contacting me asking if I was ready to come over, and I said, ’Absolutely.’” In addition to six years at Pfizer, Sullivan has served as the founder and founding president of SpringWorks Therapeutics (featured in our Oct. 2021 issue), managed her own advisory firm, and has rapidly scaled as CEO, a second biopharmaceutical company in Pyxis Oncology (NASDAQ: PYXS). Don’t miss out on reading this CEO’s journey in building her second Pfizer spinout by subscribing today.