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Dr. Andrea Pfeifer: “One-half of life is luck”

I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela and he said something which really validated everything I had been doing and still wanted to do. He said that while he had helped South Africa to recover and become a better country, what I was doing was more important, as it made a contribution to the […]

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I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela and he said something which really validated everything I had been doing and still wanted to do. He said that while he had helped South Africa to recover and become a better country, what I was doing was more important, as it made a contribution to the world — and this is something I will never forget. When I came back from South Africa, I called all the AC Immune team together and told them about this, and why it showed that we can never give up on what we are doing. It was a really wonderful experience.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Pfeifer, PhD, Chief Executive Officer, AC Immune

At a young age, Prof. Andrea Pfeifer learned firsthand how chronic diseases could have a profound impact on someone’s life. A close relative suffered from chronic ailments — an experience that proved a formative influence — putting her on a career path to confront one of our biggest health challenges: Alzheimer’s disease.

Andrea Pfeifer is a woman on a mission. In 2003, Dr. Pfeifer co-founded AC Immune, a NASDAQ-listed, clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company and global leader in precision medicine for neuro-degenerative diseases. Today, the company is utilizing two proprietary discovery platforms, SupraAntigen™ and Morphomer™, to design, discover and develop small molecule and biological therapeutics as well as diagnostic products intended to diagnose, prevent and modify neurodegenerative diseases caused by misfolding proteins. AC Immune’s pipeline features nine therapeutic and three diagnostic product candidates, with five currently in clinical trials. It also has collaborations with major pharmaceutical companies including Roche/Genentech, Eli Lilly and Janssen. Andrea has established a Roadmap to Successful Treatments in Neurodegenerative Diseases outlining the path forward. She and her team continue to press ahead in a challenging field.

Prior to AC Immune, Prof. Pfeifer was head of Nestlé’s Global Research in Lausanne, Switzerland — leading the scientific development of the first Functional Food, LC1, and one of the first Cosmoceutical products in a joint venture with L’Oreal called Innéov Fermeté. She also co-founded the Nestlé Venture Capital Fund, a € 100Mio Life Sciences corporate venture fund. She serves as chairwoman of the Biotechmedinvest AG Investment Fund and AB2BIO. Prof. Pfiefer is a member of the CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease.

In addition, she has published more than 200 papers and abstracts in leading scientific journals and has received award recognition across the industry — including being named the Technology Pioneer by the WEF and Swiss Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young. Additional recognitions include the BioAlps prize, the election as one of the top 10 women in biotech from FierceBiotech and one of the 300 most influential personalities in Switzerland. Prof. Pfeifer holds a PhD in Toxicology, Cancer Research from the University of Würzburg, Germany and continued with post-doctoral work in Molecular Carcinogenesis at the National Institutes of Health, Human Carcinogenesis Branch, in Bethesda, MD. She is a registered Toxicologist and Pharmacist and is an honorary professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Moving from head of Nestlé’s Global Research in Lausanne, Switzerland, to co-founding AC Immune in 2003 was a big leap and my wish to help people prevent or treat diseases is what led me here. This passion came from my own personal history of living with a parent with a chronic condition and wanting to apply my scientific curiosity and desire to create something in a space where no treatment is available. In the end, the compelling science and our accomplished scientific founders at AC Immune gave me the courage and conviction and I wanted to dedicate quite an important part of my life to finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and I strongly believed, and still do, that we can make a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There are so many moments in my career that I look back on with great fondness (and a few with regret too). I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela and he said something to me that really validated everything I had been doing and still wanted to do. He said that while he had helped South Africa to recover and become a better country, what I was doing was more important, as it made a contribution to the world — and this is something I will never forget. When I came back from South Africa, I called all the AC Immune team together and told them about this, and why it showed that we can never give up on what we are doing. It was really a wonderful experience.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

In transitioning from my position to Nestlé to CEO at AC Immune I felt I needed to go back to where I had come from, which was actual medical research. My real motivation was to work and implement strategies to find treatment for unmet medical needs such as AD. Such an adventure is a big step and one you shouldn’t do too late in life.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

When you’re an executive in a big company, you have many leadership functions, and essentially, you are exposed to all the business plans, tech transfer, working with universities, IP, etc. This provided a firm foundation for being a CEO, as did my experience of cofounding Nestlé’s corporate venture fund. Being exposed to the venture area gave me a thorough education in finance. And the experiences of looking into many young startups, talking to investors and learning what they’re looking for — all of that helped me tremendously. As a CEO, however you are defining a strategy for the company and assuring there is sufficient financing. At ACIU, I always made sure we had 18 months of resources.

In addition, the position of CEO not only includes logistical aspects of running a business, but also includes the responsibility for the livelihood of your employees, as well as accountability to your investors who both have a strong belief and passion in the work we’re doing. It is also very important as a CEO to create a work environment where people have safe jobs, are safe and happy and enjoy coming to work!

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

There are so many responsibilities as a CEO, every day is different and it’s so important that I genuinely love my work. Particularly at a biotech company, you need to be able to understand and contribute to what’s going on in the laboratory and also communicate that to investors and the wider world, and at the same time motivating, inspiring and looking after the dedicated team working with you. I also enjoy translating highly complex scientific findings into product concepts and creating value for the company and our investors.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The work schedule is challenging. You end up working seven days a week and your social time is very limited.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think one of the myths of being a female CEO is that you can’t be feminine or be fashion oriented. I like fashion, shoes, and cooking.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Being tough is acceptable for a man, but unacceptable for a woman. Unfortunately, a CEO’s job does sometimes require making hard decisions.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I have had to open a substantial amount of communication — more than expected.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

Being a successful entrepreneur requires having an immense belief in your product, along with a willingness to fight for your product on every level. At your weakest point, you need to demonstrate a lot of strength, beginning with communication. But beyond being very communicative with your staff and employees, it is most important to show a way forward. The most important trait is good health and immense ability to work hard and show leadership in weaker moments.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Simply, if you believe in something then you should pursue and stick with it. Sometimes it will be difficult and sometimes you will find you are the only woman in the room, as I have many times. But we can do it, we have the skills and the talent, and it’s only by actually doing it that we show the difference we can make. Believe in yourself!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you tp get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela and he said something which really validated everything I had been doing and still wanted to do. He said that while he had helped South Africa to recover and become a better country, what I was doing was more important, as it made a contribution to the world — and this is something I will never forget. When I came back from South Africa, I called all the AC Immune team together and told them about this, and why it showed that we can never give up on what we are doing. It was a really wonderful experience.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My motivation comes from having a parent with a chronic illness and wanting to make a difference for millions of people around the world. I have always been interested in healthcare, particularly neurological health, and medical research.

Today, more than 100 years after the discovery of Alzheimer’s disease, we do not have an effective treatment or cure. So, my work at AC Immune represents a huge challenge and a huge opportunity to address the largest unmet need in healthcare.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think the ultimate definition of success, for me, is finding a treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s — after all, that’s why we’re all here. On a more micro level, I define my success as running a company that is contributing to that goal, and the happiness of those who are part of that.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“One-half of life is luck; the other half is discipline — and that’s the important half, for without discipline you wouldn’t know what to do with luck.” Carl Zuckmayer

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of European Commission. Also, a woman with a father who died of Alzheimer’s disease.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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