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5 minutes with Anat Cohen-Dayag, CEO, Compugen

Interview by Isabel O'Brien

In GOLD’s brand-new ‘5 minutes with’ series, the team speaks to life sciences’ leaders operating in some of the most fascinating corners of pharma to discover what it is like to work in a pioneering firm in this space today. From innovative drug discovery platforms to agile biotech firms and everything in between, we share the opportunities and challenges that each of these leaders face, and what drives their passion for life sciences innovation

Anat Cohen-Dayag, PhD, CEO, Compugen, a clinical-stage drug discovery and development company using predictive computational technologies to identify novel drug targets and biological pathways to develop new cancer immunotherapy treatments, shares her thoughts on the challenges facing pharma CEOs today, the value of mentorship and why organisations need a diverse range of personality types.

What led you to join the pharmaceutical industry?

My background is science – I qualified with a PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science and was focused on immunology. My passion is in the application of our scientific knowledge to meaningfully impact lives. Biology and life sciences are fascinating, and there are so many applications. As a result, I have worked in the biotech sector for my whole life.

Tell us about your focus on immunotherapy

When I joined Compugen, it was a discovery infrastructure and software-based company. Then, when I became CEO, I transformed it into a pipeline company – oncology and immunology just happened to be a sweet spot for us, and we decided to focus on cancer immunotherapy. This was because of our ability to do quick predictions in this area and use our expertise in computational predictions to identify new drug targets.

What’s a typical day like for you as CEO?

The role of every CEO is to set the vision. It’s important to have a North Star, but, ultimately, it is the day to day that matters. My day-to-day is focused on two main things: first, the execution – ensuring execution by my reports, and second, leading people – I take time to listen to ideas and challenges to understand what motivates [my team] and how they can be empowered. You can have the best strategies or goals, but if your people are not connected or committed and do not understand the vision, it goes nowhere.,

What is a key challenge you are facing in your role today?

Most of my work is challenging, and you need to make sure you see the bright side because it's tough. Today, the main challenge facing biotech CEOs is the bear market conditions. You need to adapt your business quickly and lead your people as it is not a given that they will stay connected and motivated when share prices are decreasing.

The second challenge, which is also an opportunity, is leading a company that is a pioneer.

When Compugen started, there was huge scepticism over whether computational predictions could make a difference in developing drugs, but we didn't give up. We became the first to discover novel drug targets TIGIT and PVRIG, and now, we’re sitting with four drugs that are in the clinic, but we are still dealing with external scepticism.

Do you have a professional passion project outside of your daily role?

I devote a lot of my time to being a mentor and mentorship, and I believe that the person mentoring gets no less than the person being the mentee. I focus mainly on being a mentor to women in early management positions; it is much harder for them because there are not enough role models – still – in executive roles.

Also, I volunteer at ‘8400 The Health Network’, which is trying to build a biotech ecosystem in Israel, as well as at an organisation called ‘We@HealthTech’, which is specifically focused on women. For me, this is important in Israel because it doesn't have a biotech industry really; we have a lot of innovation, but we don't have a fully integrated biotech industry.

What do you do to maintain a positive work-life balance?

Maintain is a big word – I must say. I'm always questioning if I have found the right balance. I like what I do, so I devote time to it, but I also care a lot about my family. Sometimes one demands more than the other, but I compensate. I have a shared calendar that has all my life in it, everything from going to gym in the morning to board meetings and conferences. I'm juggling, and I feel guilty all the time, but that's me. And when I'm speaking with anyone in early-stage management roles, mainly women, I encourage them find their own centre. Everyone has their own centre, but you just need to find it.

Would you describe yourself as an extrovert or an introvert, and why?

I'm a combination of both personalities, and it serves me well in different aspects of my life. Socially, I'm more extrovert: I like to be with people, I like to connect, and I like to speak out. But there are instances where I'm an introvert. There is a place at Compugen for people with all different personalities.

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