If it wasn’t for a well-placed ad in the paper, Rob Perez might not have found his way to the life sciences industry. As he’ll tell you, he wasn’t on the traditional path to becoming a biopharma exec.
Nevertheless, Perez went on to build a career at Biogen and Cubist Pharmaceuticals, where he served as CEO. He spends his days now working as an operating partner at the growth equity firm General Atlantic. And in 2016, he founded Life Science Cares in Boston as a way to coordinate industry efforts to serve their local communities, from job training programs to volunteer efforts. The initiative has since added locations in the Bay Area, Philadelphia, and San Diego.
Recently, Perez was included in the inaugural STATUS List recognizing standout individuals in health, medicine, and science. STAT caught up with Perez to discuss his career and what more the industry could be doing. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you get into the biopharma industry in the first place? Was it something that had interested you or did you just come into it?
I lucked into the industry. I went to a state school called Cal State LA, and when I graduated I happened to see an ad in the paper for a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep in South Central, East Los Angeles, Compton. The job paid $27,000 a year with a car, and I was like, that’s for me. I didn’t know anything about pharmaceuticals, but I knew I was a pretty good salesperson from the way I worked my way through school. But that’s how I got in — as a sales rep for a big pharmaceutical company, a predecessor to AstraZeneca, and kind of grew in the commercial organization there.
I know you have an MBA from UCLA, but it struck me that you went to a California State University for undergrad. This impression might be wrong, but I think of this as an industry that recruits more from places like MIT. Is the industry casting a wide enough net for talent? Is it too narrowly focused on a handful of these top schools, however you choose to define that?
The answer in my opinion is unequivocally no, we are not casting a wide enough net. It’s not just the life sciences industry. I’m in the private equity space, and it’s even worse. But there’s talent everywhere. There are schools like Cal State LA that have extraordinary people, maybe who came through a different path, but who are great finds.
One of the things we do at Life Science Cares is a program called Project Onramp, which provides internship opportunities for kids from schools like Cal State LA or in Boston, UMass Boston, Framingham State, places like that, to get a paid internship at a life sciences company. What you see in that is not only a great opportunity for the student, but a great opportunity for the company as well to realize, “Wow, these are really talented young people that we would have never found had we not given this student a chance.”
You joined General Atlantic a few years ago. How has it been to go from working at biopharma companies to investing in companies and advising them?
It has really been a blessing. It gives me an opportunity to have a portfolio, so I have the chance to work with lots of companies, lots of smart management teams and leaders. Investing is a new space for me, so I’m learning every day, which I really love. I do miss operating sometimes, but generally this allows me to help a lot of companies, and still have the opportunity to have a hand in Life Science Cares and the other things I do.
When you started Life Science Cares, what were you envisioning? What need were you trying to fill?
I knew I wanted to do something based on service. I realized that people didn’t appreciate how the life sciences community was involved in giving back to the needs of the city and the greater Boston area. I really thought there was something we could do to show that we have an amazing group of people in our industry who really care about the world, not just with the work they do every day to create new medicines, but also the issues of the community as it sits today. The idea was, let’s put this really talented group of people together to see if we could make a difference against poverty. People have graciously said I’m in, what can I, what can my company do to help? And now we have locations throughout the country.
What are some of the successes of it as you see them?
Today we have 22 partners in Boston alone, and I’m not including the other affiliates. One is an organization called Food for Free, which is a Cambridge-based organization that repurposes food that would otherwise be thrown away and provides it to people who are hungry that day. They had no connection to the industry. We helped them to at first get connected to the larger companies in Cambridge and their food service organizations so that they could access food from the cafeterias, and then we helped them to get a better facility with more space on the Biogen campus for their new operation. And then we helped with a whole new volunteer effort.
How has the organization itself or its mission changed since it was founded in 2016?
I probably didn’t think big enough. I just thought, hey is anyone going to listen to me? But it’s caught on. And now we’re at the point of thinking about, what would it take to take Project Onramp from 100 or so students a summer to 1,000? That’s a way to really impact the diversity and the overall workforce of our industry if we could do that on an annual basis.
We see in places like the Bay Area or Boston and Cambridge where these thriving companies and thriving neighborhoods of these companies are next to neighborhoods where people aren’t getting those benefits and sometimes suffer the consequences in terms of rising rents. Those are forces bigger than any one company can address, but what more can companies themselves or the industry do around that?
There’s always more that all of us could be doing. But what I would say is that the large companies in our industry are tremendously generous with their time, with their money, but there aren’t that many large companies in our industry. Most of the companies are small, not profitable yet, and most of them don’t have the resources to have significant philanthropic efforts. And the beauty of Life Science Cares is, we work for all of the companies, both the large and the small, and we provide a vehicle for these companies to give back.
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