Working Life: Nicola Redfern, UK General Manager, bluebird bio

pharmafile | February 28, 2019 | Feature | Business Services, Manufacturing and Production, Medical Communications, Research and Development, Sales and Marketing Bluebird Bio, Interview, Working Life, pharma 

How did you find your way into the pharma industry? Was it always an aspiration of yours?

My mum worked for the industry when I was a baby and my grandma and I used to drive around Devon and Cornwall with her whilst she gave lectures as a nurse on female health and sexual health. So, in some ways, you could argue it’s in my blood.

In fact, I did a psychology degree, looking at people’s responses to death and bereavement for my thesis, and my first job was as a member of a multidisciplinary care team at a children’s hospice up in Yorkshire. I loved the job, but also felt I needed to explore and expand my experience whilst staying in a health-related area, so two years later I decided to move into industry.

I’m not sure many people aspire to working in the industry when they first start thinking of a career, but once you get into it, it is an exciting area to work in with lots of different opportunities.

You’ve worked at a number of major industry players including Novartis, Sanofi, MSD and Celgene throughout your career. What did you enjoy or find valuable about your time with these companies?

I’ve learnt lots through each of these opportunities. Because I’ve had multiple roles, I think it gives me a wider understanding of the teams I now work with, the challenges and complexities the industry faces and also the opportunities that exist. Overall though, I’ve had the privilege to work with some amazing individuals in each of the organisations and made some great friends.


What made you want to make the leap from firms like these to the smaller-scale bluebird bio?

My CV may look like I have worked for some of the now larger companies,  but in most cases the teams I joined were new and in ‘set-up’  mode, and/or the companies themselves were still quite small and in growth phase. For example, Pierre Fabre was setting up in the UK, Sanofi was a new oncology team, Novartis Oncology was still small when I went in to set up a new team, and most recently prior to joining bluebird bio I worked at Baxalta, which was a start-up. 

The opportunity at bluebird bio has enabled me to do a number of things which are really important to me. The chance to stay focussed on rare diseases (and in the future, cancer), to be involved from the very beginning – I was the first member of the market access team in Europe – and do what I enjoy most which is to come in and help shape and grow an organisation, work with highly skilled and committed people and hopefully make a difference to people’s lives when they are faced with long term rare genetic conditions.  

How have you found your time with bluebird so far? What do you enjoy most about the company?

I’m working with a great team of people who respect each other’s expertise. They have credibility and experience to bring to the table in our discussions and plans and have a real passion for the people whose lives we hope to improve. We also work in a really exciting area – gene therapy is part of the beginning of a revolution in the way that we approach some diseases. It enables us to seek to treat some underlying conditions, rather than just manage them.  

How does your experience of the company differ from that of your previous roles? Is this what attracted you?

Moving to bluebird bio was a positive step forwards, building on my experiences to date, rather than a step away from other things.  

Obviously, now I have the GM role I will face new opportunities which I’m excited about. The fact that within that GM role I also retain the opportunity to personally interface with the NHSE and NICE to name just two organisations is a huge bonus as I enjoy these interactions. We all need to collaborate to find solutions in the UK for the benefit of individual patients and their families, but also for society and no one part of that puzzle can be successful alone.

What challenges have you encountered at the company which you may not have faced before?

There is a lot that’s new and the science is really complex so it’s stretching my brain! I didn’t do particularly well at biology at school, so I’ve had to go back to basics when learning about gene therapy. The whole manufacturing aspect of the treatment is also new and complicated, so, again, intellectually this is challenging me. Working closely with my medical and other colleagues has and will therefore remain a key part of how the team and I move the business forward.

How do you feel your background in sales and market access has prepared you for your new role as General Manager of UK operations?

Reimbursement and access are critical to be successful commercially, so a strong understanding and background in this area will be of significant benefit. Many companies now expect their senior leaders to have market access experience.

England is known to be a particular challenge when it comes to gaining reimbursement for new innovations in the rare disease space. Getting something like gene therapy, which is so different from conventional medicines, through the HTA process and established here increases the need to collaborate with all parts of the health system. These treatments have the ability to offer significant QALY gains (much larger than the majority of treatments that NICE typically reviews), but this is something that the current STA process doesn’t really recognise. Unless the current system changes and evolves it will be difficult for patients to benefit.

bluebird bio would like to help move this process forwards, be a catalyst for change, and work collaboratively with NICE and NHSE to find solutions. We have openly and publicly expressed our aspiration to put commercial agreements in place that enable commissioners to pay over an extended period of time, tied to specific outcomes which equate to clinical benefits to patients, and to underwrite some of the uncertainty that often drives NICE committees to say no.

Of course, we are concerned about the potential impact of Brexit and the uncertainty that it presents for patients, HCPs as well as our own business.  My role is to ensure that we are prepared for all eventualities.

What key lessons have you brought with you in your career from some of your previous roles? How have they helped you move forward?

I would say there are three things which stand out:

Keep patients at the forefront of your thinking. We all know individuals facing health challenges and how worrying, inhibiting and frightening ill-health can be. Enabling good quality of life and giving an individual patient and family a choice to embrace new treatment options have to be at the front of our aspirations.

Employ people who are strong functionally in their areas of expertise, but also, just as importantly, fit the culture of the organisation, have the versatility to flex their styles to bring the best out of each other, and enable a diverse approach to all initiatives.

Don’t spend too much time in the office. Meeting colleagues, engaging with clinicians, patient organisations, members of the wider NHS, politicians and others keeps you engaged with reality and the wider challenges our government and NHS faces.  It’s also important for our own sanity!

What continues to provide you motivation in your day-to-day working life?

Family and friends who face health challenges remind me daily that what we do within the industry is critically important. We need new innovation; we need further research; we need treatments that offer more choice and help people continue to enjoy a quality of life we all aspire to.

How do you manage to maintain a balance between your work life and personal life?

For me it’s all about choice and planning. I don’t always get it right, but time with my parents and brother, and with all my friends, is critical. I like to go to the theatre, the ballet, and live music when I get a chance. I also support the local children’s hospice (Naomi House & Jacks place), where I am a trustee. Having things in my diary to look forward to socially and fresh flowers at home that make me smile also play their part. It’s so important to learn what supports your own personal well-being and put it into practice…and when I forget, my personal trainer kicks me into touch and reminds me to get more sleep, stretch, move and take time out. That said, I love my work too, so doing what you love daily and getting a high level of satisfaction from it is critical too.

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