Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD’77, navigates the intersections of science, business and policy to spur life sciences innovation

December 19, 2018

By Anthony Moore

Susan Windham-Bannister. Photo by Matthew Hakola

To say Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD'77, has been a trailblazer in the field of life sciences innovation would be more than a bit of an understatement. 

In her nearly four-decade career, she has played a central role in making Massachusetts a global leader in the life sciences; helped companies like Pfizer, Merck and Novartis bring dozens of lifesaving products and therapies to health care providers and patients around the world; helmed several companies; and been named one of the “10 Most Influential Women in Biotech.”

But her attitude toward the subject that has come to define her career might surprise you. “I was never really interested in pursuing the sciences,” says Windham-Bannister, who also has advised California, New York and Maryland on large-scale life sciences initiatives, and was recently named president of the national governing board of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS).

What Windham-Bannister was interested in was much more challenging to pin down than hard science — how to accelerate the pace of innovation through the policy and regulatory process and into the market. After majoring in English for two years as an undergraduate at Wellesley College and then graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, she discovered her true passion, the unlikely subject that would help her carve a pioneering path in innovation and STEM policy.

“A lot of my interest has always been in how different policies impact how markets and large groups of people behave,” she explains. “And that’s really been at the core of a lot of the work that I’ve done — predicting and modeling how different inputs, incentives and interventions affect access to goods and services, especially those that have the greatest impact on quality of life.”

This led Windham-Bannister to the PhD program at Heller, where she focused her policy interest on health care. However, this new focus still didn’t reflect a great enthusiasm for science. Rather, Windham-Bannister just knew that this was where policy stakes were at their highest.

“In health care, the implications are pretty much ‘you live or you die,’” she says. “You’re either able to be productive and have a high quality of life, or you aren’t. Getting involved in a field with that big of an impact really interested me.”

At Heller, Windham-Bannister found the support and challenge she needed to thrive. She recalls fondly how Norman Kurtz, now professor emeritus, made statistics come alive for her. “He really just made it fun and interesting,” she says. “He went a long way in bringing out for me more of a love for math and science. … I just had a great experience at Heller. The faculty, the students — the community was fantastic.”

More importantly, she notes, the school’s social justice focus — embodied most prominently for her through professors like David Gil and Elliott Sclar — brought a new dimension to her understanding of health care policy and the factors that determined which cutting-edge therapies and new drugs reached the market and who had access to them. As an African-American woman, she was also interested in the long history of gender and racial biases and disparities.

“Historically, most clinical trials have been focused very much on white men,” she explains. “There are a lot of drugs and a lot of diagnostic tools that are really not particularly effective in women, because diseases in women often present differently. It’s the same when it comes to people of color. For example, the test that we use to diagnose prostate cancer isn’t as predictive for African-American men because they often get a more aggressive form of prostate cancer than white men do, so the threshold values need to be different.”

Emerging from the Heller School with a PhD in health policy and management and a keen interest in innovation and equity, Windham-Bannister worked at the policy think tank Abt Associates, did a year of postdoctoral work at Harvard’s Kennedy School and worked for several years as a consultant. In a later stage of her career, she also held a fellowship at the Center for Science and Policy at Cambridge University in the U.K. But working on policy analysis alone left her wanting more.

“I didn’t love doing policy work for its own sake,” she says. “It was still fairly theoretical. I was more interested in where the rubber meets the road. I wanted to look at how policy was affecting what was happening in the marketplace.”

Windham-Bannister got that chance when she returned to Abt Associates in the 1990s, a time when the growth of HMOs and other changes in health insurance were driving health care businesses to become extremely interested in how these changes would impact market behavior and decision-making. Transforming her training in health policy to concentrate more on the commercial environment, she helped launch a new division in the think tank, which eventually became its own company, Abt Biopharma Solutions.

Focused on the life sciences — biotech, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices and the emerging field of bioinformatics, the company placed Windham-Bannister at the heart of where policy interacts with scientific innovation and business strategy. “We were examining how policy and regulatory environments control the process of developing new products, how they get into the marketplace and who gets them,” she explains. “These are important factors for medical companies to understand as they conduct their science, shape their competitive strategy and what we call market access strategy.”

But it wasn’t until after Windham-Bannister and her founding partners sold this new company in 2008 that she really got to work “where the rubber meets the road.” When former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation in June 2008 to launch a 10-year, $1 billion effort to enhance life sciences job creation, commercial development and innovation in the state, he needed someone adept at navigating the complex intersections of science, policy, business and government.

Enter Windham-Bannister, who became the founding president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the organization administering the $1 billion investment. Her role was to translate a piece of legislation, and a vision by Gov. Patrick and the legislature, into an investment strategy and operating initiative.

“My Heller training and my consulting work really prepared me well for this challenge,” she says. “When they offered me the job, they said they were offering it to me because I was bilingual — I spoke policy and I spoke business — and that’s what the job required.”

Thanks to Windham-Bannister’s “bilingual” skills, the initiative was a huge success, creating tens of thousands of jobs and helping Massachusetts surpass California to become the worldwide leader in life sciences innovation, making the life sciences the fastest job-producing sector in the state, and spurring major capital investment.

“Health care is the biggest business in the U.S., and yet, when it operates according to the principles of capitalism and the market, everyone gets very upset,” says Windham- Bannister.

While generating these results, Windham-Bannister also found a way to address some of the field’s social equity problems: through investments in STEM education in Title I schools; funding for community-based programs that encourage girls and kids of color who are interested in science; internships to create pathways into life sciences careers; and financial support for entrepreneurs who are women and/or people of color and struggle to find investment capital. As Windham- Bannister frames it, “We put a lot of money into initiatives that were building this pipeline of both women and people of color to come in behind those few of us who were already in the field.”

She focused on these communities not only because it was the fair and equitable thing to do, or because she herself is an African-American woman in STEM. It was also because tapping into these talent pools was the safest bet to spur innovation.

“It’s very important for me to build a strong business case for diversity and inclusion,” she explains. “These sectors have to attract top talent, and the demographics of our society are changing in terms of racial and ethnic composition. Historically, people of color have not been as involved in stem, so we represent a highly underleveraged talent pool. A diverse talent pool also provides the variety of perspectives that are vital to innovation. Unless we address issues of diversity and inclusion, we’re not going to get the results we’re looking for. To put it simply, in many innovation spaces, diverse professionals remain an underutilized resource.”

Since moving on from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in 2015, Windham-Bannister has become a highly sought-after health care innovation expert. She helped launch New York’s $1.1 billion life sciences initiative in 2016, and served as an adviser on a similar effort in Maryland — Excel Maryland, which was inaugurated in 2017 by Gov. Larry Hogan, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland — and she is currently advising on a new life sciences effort in Southern California called BioLA. She’s also served on numerous boards and is currently managing partner of Biomedical Innovation Advisors LLC, as well as president and CEO of Biomedical Growth Strategies LLC, through which she continues to consult with companies to craft business strategies against an increasingly complex health care policy landscape.

Remaining a strong advocate for increased diversity in the sciences, Windham-Bannister was elected president of the national governing board of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in 2018. AWIS works to support women in STEM through research and advocacy, and Windham-Bannister is hoping to leverage her experience to help the association expand its reach.

“One of the things that I am really hoping to do in my tenure on the national governing board is to strengthen our relationship with industry,” she says. “I really want to further develop leadership training, mentoring and coaching for women who work in these fields because I think we need to make an effort to develop female talent in the sciences — again, not just because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s something that just makes strategic sense.”

With more than 40 years’ experience in the field and a unique vantage point on both the public and private sectors, Windham-Bannister has a clear view of the challenges facing health care in America. Unless we get honest with ourselves about where health care ranks as a national priority, she argues, we’re not going to be able to address the problems presented by rising medical costs and an aging population.

“Health care is the biggest business in the U.S., and yet, when it operates according to the principles of capitalism and the market, everyone gets very upset,” says Windham- Bannister, who has also co-authored two books on the subject, “Competitive Strategy for Health Care Organizations” and “Medicaid and Other Experiments in State Health Policy.” “I think that we really need to decide if we do, in fact, believe that health care is something that we are all entitled to. Then we need to step back and take a look at what the real costs of that are and make the appropriate allocation of our resources so that it’s doable.”

Despite the zigzag path her career has carved from policy, to business, and then back to the intersection of policy and business, one thing has remained consistent for Windham- Bannister. Though science itself may never have commanded her passion, she has been keenly interested in innovation since the very beginning. But it’s not innovation for its own sake that has held her attention — the excitement of creation, the fascination with the latest and greatest technology. Rather, for Windham-Bannister, innovation has always been an engine for the betterment of the world.

“Innovation is absolutely critical,” she says. “There are a lot of areas in medicine where we are still in desperate need of new solutions. I was listening recently with great sadness to the news of John McCain’s death from glioblastoma. These types of cancers — and many, many types of neurodegenerative diseases like Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s — these are areas where we have not made a lot of progress, where we have not yet come up with a lot of groundbreaking treatments. So I’m really very committed and very passionate about helping set up as many communities [as] I can where we can increase — and then benefit from — the pace of innovation.”