For Be The Match BioTherapies® CEO Amy Ronneberg, the path to becoming named one of the Top 25 BioTech CEOs of 2020 by TechCEOs was filled with twists and turns. Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, she never imagined a degree in Accounting would someday lead her to one of today’s fastest growing industries.
It was a personal event — being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 — that completely changed her career trajectory. Since then, she’s never looked back.
In our Q&A, Amy discusses how she made the unexpected move from Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the National Marrow Donor Program® (NMDP)/Be The Match® to leading Be The Match BioTherapies as it forged a new path into the biotech industry. She shares how her own battle with cancer made her a better leader. And, she offers the best career advice she can give to women entering the biotech field.
You joined the NMDP/Be The Match in 2013 as the CFO. How did you become the president, and now CEO, of Be The Match BioTherapies in 2016?
Dr. Jeff Chell, who was the CEO at that time, and I were discussing how we grow the Be The Match BioTherapies business and what to do next. I was plenty busy as CFO, so for me it was more of a discussion about what was going to be best for the organization. Biotech was new to me so I was a little taken back at first when he offered me the role.
As I thought about it, I realized that this was one of the most exciting fields in all industries. The possibilities were endless and this would be the way in which we could close gaps for patients in ways we never imagined.
I quickly became so excited at the opportunity that any trepidation I had was gone. I would dive head first into the field and learn everything I could. At the same time, I was being honest with others that I wasn’t a scientist or clinician and therefore was going to ask a LOT of questions to learn.
It didn’t take long for me to completely fall in love with the cellular therapy and biotech industry. I have never been surrounded by as many fascinating and brilliant people with big ideas all to cure cancer and other life-threatening diseases. It gives me hope every day for what my 8 and 10-year-old daughters will have at their disposal as adults. I have loved every minute.
How has Be The Match BioTherapies extended the mission of the NMDP/Be The Match?
Our mission statement is simple: We save lives through cellular therapy. But delivering on our mission’s promise is not simple. We’ve been managing the delivery of blood stem cell transplants to patients for nearly 35 years.
Be The Match BioTherapies represents the patients that are in need but a transplant is not available or what is best for their situation. We want to serve ALL patients in need.
Through Be The Match BioTherapies, we can deliver a portfolio of product offerings to cell and gene therapy developers. These offerings can help ensure patients are receiving the best cell therapy available for their particular situation.
As CEO, my main priority is leading more than 1,300 professionals and 3,000 volunteers to ensure that every patient receives their life-saving therapy. The more options patients have the better.
What has been your proudest moment professionally?
The months since March 2020 have been the proudest in my career. Our organization has stepped up more than I could have ever imagined. Every step of our operations were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Country borders closed. Apheresis and collection centers closed or are limiting their capacity. Some donors are unwilling to go into healthcare facilities. Commercial flights were canceled. Clinical trials were delayed.
Yet Be The Match BioTherapies and the NMDP/Be The Match prevailed, and quite honestly, excelled. We never took no for an answer when there was a life on the line.
There are hundreds of stories that have left me speechless and in awe of the great work we do. I never thought I would have this many moments where I had tears at work—tears of joy and appreciation. It has been an amazing effort by all employees to make the impossible possible.
What are your biggest concerns for the biotech industry the longer the COVID-19 pandemic continues?
I’m concerned about the impact on clinical trials for cellular therapies. Because they have to focus resources on the pandemic, many health systems are unable to accrue patients to studies.
This will have an impact in the sense that time is money. There will be companies with great potential that may exhaust their cash runway earlier in their clinical trials than originally planned. This could be detrimental for some organizations with amazing potential.
I am very hopeful that many organizations have been able to pivot and will remain in the game. However, the longer COVID-19 continues there could be a real concerning impact on certain organizations.
Now, more than ever, it’s important for leaders in the industry to come together and share strategies for how we can ensure that critical patients are still able to get the cell therapies that they need.
Advancing cell therapies to help more patients with cancer is something that is very personal for you. You received a cancer diagnosis while you were interviewing for the CFO position at the NMDP/Be The Match. Can you share what that experience was like for you?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 7, 2013. It was just a few days before I was supposed to have my final interview with several of the board members.
I called the CEO, Dr. Chell, intending to withdraw my name from the process. He wouldn’t allow it. He told me I was the right candidate for the long haul and that the NMDP/Be The Match would be by my side during treatment.
Twelve rounds of chemo and five surgeries later, I was cancer-free. Cancer changed my life, 100%. It taught me how precious life really is and how we need to live each day to the fullest. The small stuff really isn’t worth worrying about.
It has made me a significantly better leader as I developed more empathy, more compassion and an increased focus on what matters.
I now know exactly what our patients experience when they hear those three words: You Have Cancer. I want to be part of something bigger in life to make sure that when one hears those words, it is not as devastating as it was for me. If my kids hear those words, I want a world where they shrug and say, “Okay, I need to go in for a quick procedure,” and life keeps moving for them.
You point to the moment you received your diagnosis as the biggest turning point in your career. How has it shaped your professional and personal lives?
It definitely was the ultimate turning point in my career. I would no longer be willing to work somewhere that I didn’t believe in 100%. I wanted to know that what we were offering was going to have an impact in the world.
Life is short. We hear this all the time. But when you are faced with your own mortality, you live in a different way. You suddenly want every single day to be so meaningful and that starts with where one works.
I love that I get to work for an organization making such a difference in the world. And I’m doing so during a time that has more scientific opportunities in the eradication of cancer than ever before.
My leadership style has changed to one of a servant leader that is there for others and not for oneself. This has been more satisfying than I ever thought possible.
Personally, I no longer apologize for working hard and long hours. I have given myself permission to make a difference in the world, and for my two girls to see what it takes to be successful and to make a difference in the world.
How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Honestly, I failed miserably at this for 20 years. After cancer, I learned that one must live their greatest day. For me that means truly enjoying everything I do.
So no longer is there an attempt to have a certain amount of time for work and a certain amount of time for family. When I did that, I constantly felt like I was failing at both because I was putting more or less time than I allocated.
Instead it’s about truly being present when I’m at work and truly being present when I’m home. It’s quality over quantity. When I’m with my girls, I’m 100% with them.
This allows me to remove the guilt and just fully enjoy and appreciate what is in front of me.
What’s the best career advice you can give to women entering your field?
Don’t throw away your shot. Take every opportunity and dive head first into it. Do it no matter how scary it seems, or how far outside your knowledge-base you feel. Learn, learn and learn.
The more areas of your business that you lead and understand the better leader you will be in whatever area you are currently leading. Always go for it!
Learn more about Amy and the Be The Match BioTherapies Leadership Team.