Lead(H)er Profile - Jess Riley, VP Business Development & Companion Diagnostics at PathAI
Where did you grow up and how would you describe yourself as a child?
I grew up among the rolling, green hills of the Pennines, in a small town called Halifax in the county of Yorkshire, England. It is the largest county in England and often referred to as God’s own country or The Pride of the North. The countryside provided for a huge playground for an adventurous and outdoorsy kid. I played a lot of sports and was insanely competitive but not naturally academic so it often surprises me how and why I got to where I am today.
What did you study in college and what was your first job out of school?
I studied a BSc (Hons) in Molecular and Cellular Biology and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, specifically “Bioproduction & Characterization of Self Assembling Peptides”. It’s true that a good thesis makes an even better doorstop!
My first job out of college was as a Clinical Scientist in the NHS. My first foray with molecular genetics but knew early on I was destined for a career in industry to help bring products to market and eventually make a transition into Business Development.
Can you share the details on your career path and what were the critical moments that got you to where you are today?
I believe each step of my academic and professional journey were critical moments that have been a mix of lucky moves and conscious decisions.
Starting with the decision to study science which was driven perhaps by a self imposed pressure to follow in the footsteps of other family members and to guarantee a secure, meaningful and respected career. I became more curious about the applications of science and decided to pursue a PhD which was sponsored by The Dow Chemical Company.
My lucky move was in joining a then medium sized start up company DxS Ltd, which was the best group of crazy, fun and inspirational characters and one of the few companies pioneering Precision Medicine and Companion Diagnostics - that is, tools used to identify the right patients more likely to respond to certain therapeutic drugs based on the patient’s disease biomarkers. It was still a very novel area of medicine back then which turned into this hockey stick curve of high global growth and I was just lucky enough to be there at the right time before we were later (2009) acquired at a phenomenal 13x.
This high growth, yet still few players led to a high demand of subject matter experts to support newer companies coming into the market and it paved the way for a lot of opportunities for me that eventually led to me moving to the US in 2012. Within Companion Diagnostic companies I’ve played various roles from Product Development to Alliances and Business Development across various technology platforms in support of ensuring patients get the personalized treatment that they deserve and it’s been very fulfilling in that respect.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
I’m the VP of Business Development at PathAI and responsible for establishing new collaborations with pharmaceutical companies to support their precision medicine developments by providing them with better ways to identify patients that are likely to respond to those drugs. We do this by using AI-powered digital pathology tools to identify features and biomarkers from digitized biopsies which may be predictive of response. I do a lot of landscape analysis to find the most mutually beneficial opportunities and work with our clients to set up the relationship and contract negotiations.
Looking back, is this where you thought you’d be professionally? Was it always your goal to be in this position?
Since starting down the track of Science, yes. I never saw myself in an academic position but did love the science and the prospect of being a deal maker seemed really exciting to me.
However, my greatest desire was to be a runner, but even my 10 year old self knew that pursuing an Olympic gold seemed a bit risky.
For people who are looking to be in a similar position, what advice would you give to others in terms of helping them achieve their career goals?
Keep focussed on what you want to ultimately achieve and don’t get distracted by opportunities that only have short term value. Be proactive about building the relationships and connections that you will inevitably need to get you there. Often you don’t get there on your own. Identify Mentors as sounding boards and Champions who can advocate for you especially when they can point to results you’ve delivered.
What are the most important skills that you need to do your job well?
Personally, I rely heavily on being knowledgeable in my subject area. There are the obvious soft skill requirements that apply to most jobs but being in a client facing role you are quickly judged mostly on whether the client can trust and respect you. You can lose their trust by underdelivering and lose their respect by not understanding your area so I try to focus on those two aspects mostly.
Doing more listening and less talking is something I’ve got better at over time as well :)
What do you find most interesting/rewarding about your work? What’s most challenging?
The products we make are complex development efforts, can take 2-5 years from feasibility to launch and may only have a 1 in 10 chance of making it since they are reliant on the drugs they are being developed in connection with. Therefore, you can imagine it can be a long time before you can see the fruits of your labor, if at all. This can be one of the most challenging things about my work.
Likewise, when you do eventually get a win, it can be hugely rewarding. Seeing a project through to completion that wasn’t an easy win is always the most rewarding.
Now that I’m officially in a ‘tech company’ I’m also really enjoying learning a new space of AI and excited to be at the beginning of something new again as we bring this technology into the diagnostic arena.
What is your proudest professional accomplishment?
The most rewarding experience I had was when a personal friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just one month to live. She was given one of the diagnostic tools I had helped to develop early in my career which identified a specific biomarker that led to her being treated with a more effective personalized medicine which extended her life for over a year.
Given I was lucky enough to fall into this area in the early days, I feel proud to have been a small part of the success of the precision medicine ‘revolution’ in general and to look back at the advances we have all made since I joined this club 15 years ago.
Are you involved with any professional organizations outside of the company? Volunteer work?
I’ve recently enjoyed being part of a couple of networking groups for women. One is the NEWISE Club (New England Women in Science Executives) and the other is WIB (Women in Bio). I’ve really enjoyed interacting with other strong, female leaders and seeing the benefits of how we can support each other. We all need to do more of that and I’m excited to see how I may be able to become a mentor/coach for some women starting out in their own careers.
Once I have more free time (after PathAI!) I intend to start doing more community work especially with the elderly.
What’s next for you and your career?
Honestly, I’m actually doing what I set out to achieve and it’s probably even more than I could have imagined for a kid from humble beginnings in God’s own country :) So what happens next is a bonus and I’m just focussing on the job I have to do today. Having said that, after this I am seriously considering reigniting my adventurous soul and beginning my new career in the great outdoors.
Q&AWhat do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Running (of course), biking (MTB and road), open water swimming, skiing, hiking (fast), camping, putting my heart and soul into DIY (even though I could pay someone to do it) and it still looking pretty bad, and then paying someone to fix it.
How do you manage stress?
Running - cures everything for me, turning all notifications off on my phone.
How many cups of coffee do you have in a day
Two cups of quality Italian coffee made in a french press in the morning followed by afternoon tea.
What's one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
Running along the Charles at dawn, leisurely bike ride along the docks near the USS constitution at dusk.
Any book or podcast recommendations?
Any of the Ben Elton (British political comic) series but especially “Blast from the Past” which I sobbed through.
Excited to start reading a new one called “The Invisible Rainbow - A History of Electricity and Life”
What advice do you have for recent college graduates?
Make your own plan, stay laser focussed on delivering results and not on what everyone else is doing. Don’t be too impatient, be humble, and know that you still have a lot to learn.