The advice that shaped Insitro CFO Mary Rozenman’s biotech career
Mary Rozenman initially set out to be a doctor, after watching her sister deal with uncontrolled epilepsy throughout her childhood.
But she realized in college, that blood made her cringe. Instead, Rozenman got her doctorate in organic chemistry and chemical biology from Harvard University.
Then as a 26-year-old working under David Liu, a gene-editing pioneer, something about drug development didn’t sit right with the young chemist. Among the thousands of new discoveries each year, just a small handful of them make it through the “funnel,” she said.
“I envisioned a funnel, where you have at the top of the funnel all of these amazing discoveries and innovations that sort of move through the system,” Rozenman told Business Insider.
“And somehow only a small handful of them get filtered into medicines that actually make it out into the real world’s drug supply,” she said.
Rozenman needed to understand how that funnel works, she said. What happened behind the scenes to squelch each year’s hundreds of thousands of breakthroughs, and where did the money come from to advance some things and not others? It led her to consider a career outside of research.
“I wouldn’t know what the right place for me to participate was because I only understood the top of the funnel and the very bottom, from a patient’s perspective. And that’s why I went to McKinsey,” Rozenman said.
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One piece of advice changed Rozenman’s approach to changing the industry
Rozenman joined McKinsey in 2008 with the goal of touching every single piece of the pharmaceutical business from discovery to marketing, she said.
But a year in, Rozenman’s mentor Diem Nguyen of Pfizer, who at the time managed a $10 billion slice of the business, gave her some tough advice.
“She said ‘You’re really smart and really good. But you’re going to hit a wall in your career unless you learn how to read a P&L,'” Rozenman said.
A profit and loss statement, or income statement, is one of the primary financial statements detailing a company’s revenues and expenses. The advice made Rozenman feel defensive, but at the same time, she was making strategic recommendations to large companies without a sufficient understanding of corporate finance, she said.
So Rozenman carved out a focus area within McKinsey, the intersection of pharma and corporate finance, as consultants there do in order to make partner, she said. In 2012, as a junior partner and leader in the firm’s healthcare practice, she left to use her new skills for Longitude Capital, a $1.2 billion venture capital firm for healthcare startups.
“That was the reason that I actually left the firm to be a venture investor,” Rozenman said. “That was the funnest part for me — thinking about these early stage technologies and how do you actually really push them along, and how much are they worth, and how do you make it happen?”
Reinventing drug discovery
Rozenman soon fell in love with and joined an allergy company in the firm’s portfolio called Aimmune Therapeutics, where she raised more than $650 million, led the company through an initial public offering, and helped shepherd in the world’s first drug for peanut allergies. Aimmune is getting acquired by Nestle, the companies announced in August, for $2.6 billion.
Even so, Rozenman soon found herself wanting to have an even bigger impact on healthcare. After reading papers and books about machine learning voraciously, including the book “Deep Learning for the Life Sciences,” she had a lightbulb moment.
“I just got incredibly, incredibly inspired and excited by the potential of these tools to transform how we discover and develop medicine,” she said.
Then, in 2019, she met Daphne Koller, a MacArthur genius and legend in the computer science world who was starting a new company, Insitro. They clicked when Rozenman asked Koller for one thing that defines the company, and Koller didn’t say anything about cellular infrastructure or AI.
“She told me one of the core values of the company. They engage openly, constructively, and with respect,” Rozenman said.
Now 39 and Insitro’s chief financial officer and chief business officer, Rozenman just raised $143 million towards models that incorporate DNA to predict which drugs will work on which patients, a process that doesn’t really exist today. For her work, Rozenman has been named to Business Insider’s list of 30 people under 40 transforming healthcare.
Ideally, that work could lead to a bigger funnel.
“I really think that we have the potential to change the way the system works,” Rozenman said.