By Dr Giselle Roberts
If statistics are anything to go by, women who want to become CEOs have a hard slog ahead of them.
In 2017 the number of women in key leadership roles fell. Even in industries where a large majority of the workforce are female, male CEOs still predominate.
Somewhere in this imbalanced picture sits Dr Nicole van der Weerden, CEO of La Trobe-embedded biotech, Hexima Limited. She holds a PhD and an MBA, and is at the helm of a company that has just entered Phase II clinical trials for their fungal toenail treatment. From toxicology tests to intellectual property, van der Weerden is involved in every facet of the trial, hoping Hexima’s plant-based molecule will become the next big antifungal on the market.
I sat down with Dr van der Weerden to discuss her journey so far, and what it’s like to delve deep into translational science.
GISELLE ROBERTS: Nicole, these are exciting times for Hexima. You are on the verge of turning your leading molecule into a product that helps millions of people suffering from fungal toenail infections. It’s been over twenty years in the making and, remarkably, you have been with the company from its very early days.
NICOLE VAN DER WEERDEN: I have. My time with Hexima really began in 2003, when I completed my Honours year with Professor Marilyn Anderson (pictured with Nicole, below) in the Department of Biochemistry. She was Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer of the company, and my project focused on the protective plant-based molecules we are using today in our clinical trials. To be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do after that. I had an interest in science and an interest in business. After a bit of investigating and a few key conversations, I realised there were very few people who possessed high-level skills in both areas. I decided to do my PhD first, still working on plant-based molecules, and over that time, my area of research became a priority at Hexima. By the time I started my postdoc, the company had secured an agreement with DuPont Pioneer to investigate the possibility of using these molecules, not for human application, but in transgenic crops. I ended up as team leader, managing a key component of the project.
GR: And your interest in science and business suddenly collided in a rather momentous way.
NW: It was like diving into the deep end. I travelled to the United States, visited DuPont Pioneer’s laboratories, and was involved in discussions around licencing agreements and intellectual property. It was daunting at times. I was young, and I was sitting in boardrooms with executives of big companies in the United States. That was my training ground.
GR: Wow, a huge leap.
NW: Definitely, but also a rather unique opportunity that was possible because of our association with DuPont Pioneer. After that experience, I decided to complete my Master of Business Administration. I loved it, even the content I hadn’t expected to enjoy. I completed it part-time, while also working for Hexima, and shifted my focus away from the lab bench. The company consolidated around that time, and that opened up further management opportunities around day-to-day operations, budgets, that kind of stuff. By 2015, I was appointed CEO.
GR: So what does it feel like to be CEO?
NW: It’s a huge responsibility and I realise that the buck stops with me. I’d had exposure to Hexima’s board prior to this, but I had to learn how to engage in a completely different way. Marilyn was an incredible mentor through all of it. She was able to share the responsibility and give me the on-the-job training I needed. It was an amazing environment to cut my teeth in as a CEO.
GR: What’s a typical day look like for you? What kinds of things do you do?
NW: I spend a lot of time in meetings! We have around 30 employees, with half a dozen senior researchers who manage our scientific program. I make sure we have the appropriate resources and are designing experiments that answer critical questions about our technology. I am always thinking about Hexima’s strategy, where we want to go, what data we need to get there, and how our work can add value.
GR: And your main area of focus right now is on your potential fungal nail treatment?
NW: Yes. Our first clinical trial commenced in February. We are now determining the highest safe dose of our antifungal and getting better statistical data on its efficacy. We have just under 50 patients involved and, if the results are positive, we have the potential to enter into a Phase IIB trial, with around 300 patients.
GR: I imagine there is a lot of anticipation and a good dose of anxiety.
NW: Yes, it is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Right now we are in the midst of the trial, making sure it runs on time and to budget, that we are advertising appropriately, and getting enough participants. Our pre-clinical data is very strong, but now it is crunch time, and we are hopeful our positive results in the lab will be confirmed in the trial. Our leading molecule is water soluble, so it is completely different to other antifungals on the market. And unlike other products, it is absorbed through the nail to rapidly kill the fungal cells. We’re a small biotech, so we have picked an area of focus where our technology has the opportunity to be a game-changer.
GR: What do you regard as the unique challenges facing Australian biotech companies?
NW: There’s always a challenge around the availability of capital in Australia. Hexima has been fortunate in that respect, because we have a long-standing group of supportive investors. If you can maintain capital, Australia has an excellent clinical trial environment, and great research and development funding. As a biotech embedded within a university, we have also been able to gain access to world-class equipment, specialist skills, and a completely different raft of funding opportunities.
GR: So, at the end of the day, what do you love about your job?
NW: The opportunity to take a scientific discovery to market. I’ve been working on these molecules for 15 years. That knowledge and experience has enabled me to identify where our technology will have the advantage over our competitors. I want to take the product through the next stage of trials, to create something that will work for patients and give a good return to our shareholders. That's really exciting work.