Working Life: Nawal Ouzren, CEO of Sensorion


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Pharmafocus caught up with Sensorion CEO Nawal Ouzren to take a look at her path throughout her career and get her advice on replicating the successes she has realised along the way.

What made you want to pursue a career in the pharma industry, and how did that bring you to your current role?

As far back as I can remember, I had always wanted to be involved in pharmaceuticals; I was always fascinated by the idea of medicine being able to bring clinical benefit to patients in need. However, this is not the field in which my professional career began. When I was 17, my physics teacher steered me instead towards engineering because of the increased and more immediate chance for financial security, as opposed to pursuing a position as a pharmacist after going to pharmacy school. As a young and ambitious high school graduate who came from a not-so-wealthy background, the idea of a quick and lucrative entry into the workforce was appealing to me.

From college, I went into plastics engineering with GE. This was a great and productive learning experience for me, but when I was then approached by Baxter, I did not think twice and accepted the position. I have been in Pharma and Biotech ever since. It was not until the spring of 2017, after various positions at big pharma companies, that I landed at Sensorion as Chief Executive Officer.

How is the role going so far? What would you say are the most enjoyable aspects for you so far?

I would say, by and large, the most enjoyable part of my role is the interaction I get to conduct with others. I love working with people in general, but especially when that work is in an effort to actually shape the market and the industry environment. The types of people I interact with on a regular basis and their roles are remarkably diverse. I am constantly energised by the prospect of understanding, bringing together, and learning from different people of different backgrounds to strive for a shared goal, which in this case is contributing something to the market that will have meaningful impact for patients.  

What challenges have you faced in this position?

Transitioning from a private to a public company was challenging. Once Sensorion became a public company, it was given a new identity that was based primarily on its market cap and stock price. It was a major adjustment having to manage how the public views your company based on its stock versus what the company was originally founded on, good science and passion for improving the lives of those suffering from inner ear disorders. It was a learning process and I think we have been doing a terrific job of staying true to our company mission.

How does your average day play out?

It’s very diverse, as I imagine it would be for those in similar roles within a fast-paced and agile industry. As the CEO of a small and dynamic clinical-stage biotechnology company, one gains the luxury of being closer to the ground floor. This grants the opportunity to be more directly involved in all facets of the business, and as a result, there is no such thing as a typical day. One day I may find myself speaking with investors or the press before an internal meeting with my executive team; while on another day, I may find myself in a one-on-one with our head lab technician followed by meetings with a patient advocacy group for hearing loss and vertigo. For me, this was one of the most notable differences compared to work days in my previous positions, but is something that I have come to love and enjoy.

What are some of the most common misconceptions you encounter in the field of inner ear disorders?

Many of the major challenges in our field result from the notion that inner ear disorders are not necessarily life-threatening. This misconception sometimes draws back the industry’s and investors’ sense of urgency to address this and its related conditions; however, it is certainly a pressing issue for patients who are in need of more effective clinical solutions. For example, hearing loss, though it may not cause mortality, can have an impact on patients’ quality of life. Imagine waking up tomorrow and realising that you can no longer hear – you cannot listen to music, have small talk with friends, or talk to your child about his or her day in school. Often this can lead to isolation and depression. Recent research has also shown that hearing loss may be linked to memory loss and dementia. We don’t think about hearing loss until it’s gone, and by then, it might be too late.

Is there someone in your field who has inspired you or from whom you have learned a lot?

I have had the privilege of working with some smart colleagues, who were also great mentors. Brian Goff, presently Chief Commercial Officer for Alexion, comes to mind. He is someone who is a great leader and tapped into the hearts, not just the minds, of his teammates. He saw potential in me and was my biggest cheerleader. We worked together at Baxalta, and he promoted me to my biggest job before becoming CEO of Sensorion – Hemophilia Franchise Head at Baxalta. Since having the experience of working with Brian, I now understand how important it is to support and be an advocate for your colleagues, as well as to develop, not exploit, the potential we see in those working for us.

What about from outside your field?

Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF since 2011, is a real source of inspiration and someone who moved seamlessly from the business world to the policy world. She is the first female head of the IMF. I admire her grace and intelligence and what I love is the way that her colleagues have spoken about her conviction in her team; how she would back those below her and back up those who worked for her. She was always saying, “I’m here all for you” to the younger professional women with whom she worked. She has gravitas.  She is a hard worker doing great things and championing many female initiatives.

How do you find balance to achieve a happy working life?

There is no perfect formula for a happy working life. However, throughout the years I have come to realise the that the things that have kept me so happy have been always having a great team to work with, engaged mentors, and finding love in whatever I am doing.

A mantra that I take to heart is the idea that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so naturally, being surrounded with a team of enjoyable and productive people is very important to me, as it helps keeps my mind on that track. As someone who also enjoys and strives to constantly learn and improve, I believe it is critical to surround yourself with people who challenge you intellectually and support you.

I love my work and I still cannot believe that I’m paid to do what I do. I really believe that you can control your happiness and one of ways in which you can do this is by identifying what makes you unhappy. Once you do so, the next step is to actively find a solution, and in this way one can achieve a happier working life.

What advice would you want to pass on to those starting out in the industry?

Find people who can teach you, be willing to take on diverse roles, and have humility. Working in this industry is challenging but rewarding. I encourage people starting a new career to get to know those you will be working with and gauge how willing they are to teach you, as well as others. I’m not an expert in everything, but I feel like I was able to learn a tremendous amount from the different experts I worked under.

I also encourage those new to the industry to be open to changing positions, even if it is a lateral move. It is only when you get out of your comfort zone that you will be challenged in ways you have never been challenged before. You will be amazed at how much you will grow and learn from this process.

One of the traits of a leader that often gets overlooked is humility. The people we find most inspiring have humility. In the workplace, this is having the strength to say ‘you don’t know,’ admitting to mistakes, being open to others’ opinions and tending to their needs. Being able to take a step back and to listen to what others have to say will help you tremendously as a colleague and a leader.