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Profile: Eurofarma's Martha Novelli Penna On Innovation And Acting

This article was originally published in Scrip

Executive Summary

Martha Novelli Penna is vice-president of strategy and innovation at one of Brazil's biggest local pharmaceutical companies, Eurofarma. A former psychiatrist, she cut her teeth on industry roles at Schering Plough and moved up through the ranks at Roche then Abbott, where she was general manager of the firm's divisions in Puerto Rico, then Brazil. In the latest edition of Scrip's executive profile series, she talks to Francesca Bruce about the ups and downs of doing business in Brazil, choosing a career in medicine over acting and proving some of the menfolk wrong.

Eurofarma's Martha Novelli Penna

Francesca Bruce: You are vice-president of strategy and innovation at Brazil's fourth biggest pharma company – how did you achieve this?

Martha Novelli Penna: There is no magic, it was mainly hard work. My medical background and commercial experience certainly opened my eyes to medical needs and market opportunities. I was also able to navigate my way with very technical and commercial people and I could listen to and understand both.

FB: You've worked in senior positions at Roche and Abbott; how is working for a local firm different from working at a big MNC?

MNP: There is much more freedom at local companies and you have room to be creative. We are the headquarters! In big multinationals, even if you are the local affiliate CEO, most of the important decisions are taken at headquarters. You are very 'protected' and most of the time you just execute decisions made by other people.

FB: What's been the most difficult moment in your career?

MNP: For sure the most difficult time was when I left behind my medical career as a psychiatrist to move to a pharmaceutical company. Adapting to a new corporate world after coming from hospitals and medical offices was hard, but today I am sure it was a wise decision. I make a better executive than physician.

FB: What has your proudest moment been?

MNP: As a professional I like to recognize what I achieved with building my teams and reshaping the way they work. When they get their confidence back, there is always such a sense of pride, which is great.

FB: What's your biggest achievement at Eurofarma?

MNP: I only started three years ago, so it's not a long time in terms of pharmaceutical innovation. But so far, we have established a winning team, a clear strategy and solid partnerships. Let's talk in three to five years and I'm sure we will be able to answer this question with a beautiful pipeline!

FB: What's the biggest frustration in your role?

MNP: Brazil as a country still has a limited view of the role of innovation and this has a big impact on us in many ways. But at the same time, there are very rich discussions within the sector and with the government on how to change the current situation. That's the kind of challenge that I like.

FB: Why did you pursue a career in pharmaceuticals?

MNP: Actually, it was by chance. I was a psychiatrist and had moved from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo where I started work as a consultant for Schering Plough to launch a new antidepressant. I immediately loved the challenge, the corporate life, the fact that every day was always different, and the team work. I totally identified with the executive role and decided to pursue it.

FB: What is it like being a woman in a male dominated industry like pharma?

MNP: It's tough, but also funny, especially when men underestimate you and then get a surprise. I never get intimidated; in fact it's the opposite – it motivates me.

FB: There is a general lack of women in high ranking roles within the pharma industry – do you see this changing?

MNP: Yes I do. I've had the pleasure of working with some talented women, such as Mary Zela, Melinta's CEO and former Abbott senior VP, and Heather Mason also from Abbott. And at Eurofarma, I have the privilege of working with two bright women VPs.

FB: Is there anyone in the industry who you particularly admire?

MNP: Instead of naming a particular person I'd rather mention the entrepreneurs at small biotechs, many of whom I've recently met as part of my work looking for good opportunities. Many are people who left the comfort zone of nice, well-paid jobs in big pharma to start a business from scratch.

FB: Are there any misconceptions about the pharmaceutical industry you would like to set straight?

MNP: Well, the pharmaceutical industry is an easy target when it comes to blame. For instance, in the fight against AIDS it had a key role in quickly providing treatment options and screening blood. But up until now, that role has been totally distorted, for example, there are lots of films that twist the history.

FB: What are the biggest opportunities and biggest challenges about growing business in Brazil?

MNP: It is a big country with a big population, which provides a nice internal market to set as a base. The big challenge is to innovate and take the next step, which I think is very necessary. And the country still needs to improve and simplify the innovation chain. We have a lot to change: taxes, bureaucracy and regulatory rules.

FB: If you weren't in your current role, what would you be doing?

MNP: Great question! Possibly something related to the arts. I was an actress once… a long, long time ago!

FB: What are your long term goals and aspirations?

MNP: My goals and aspirations are totally linked to Eurofarma and Brazil. I want to establish the bases for innovation in the company and in the country, and provide the company with a pipeline protected by patents. And within that I want to support Eurofarma's geographic expansion to the more regulated markets.

FB: How about outside of your career?

MNP: I have a very special daughter, a loving husband and an adorable family. I love sports – I just did my first sprint triathlon – and art, including literature, theater, music, and movies. Life is fun.

FB: What were the key things that shaped you growing up?

MNP: My parents set a good example; they showed me the value of work and studying. Ever since I can remember, everybody in my family always had a book in their hands. And everybody always had a strong opinion about everything! You have to be a strong person to survive a lunch discussion in my family! That was good training for corporate life.

FB: Is there anyone in particular who has influenced you?

MNP: My father.

FB: How do you relax?

MNP: Sports, reading, movies, music.

FB: Tell us something surprising about you.

MNP: I have already told you - I was an actress once! I even interrupted medical school for a while to pursue a career in acting.

FB: What gets you out of bed?

MNP: It's always a challenge, either the dream of building Eurofarma's R&D department, or training for my next triathlon.

FB: What are you reading now?

MNP: I've Just finished 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind' by Yuval Noah Harari. It's an outstanding book.

FB: What is your favorite book?

MNP: It's by a Brazilian writer called João Guimarães Rosa, Grande Sertão: Veredas [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands]. I don't have any idea how to translate that into English, but it's a beautiful story of love and war.

FB: What is your favorite piece of music?

MNP: Everything from Bach, Mahler and Tom Jobim.

FB: What is your favorite film?

MNP: There are so many! It is an impossible question! Pick any movie directed by Coppola, Fellini, Truffaut, Kubrick, Scorsese or Tarantino.

FB: If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be?

MNP: One of the explorers from the great age of discovery. It could be Colombo, Vasco da Gama, or Pedro Alvares Cabral. I'd like them to tell me what it was like to make the decision to cross the seas and arrive in a totally unknown world!

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