While there is no doubt that Europe has a thriving biotech scene, it can really help a European company to succeed if it has a US presence. No one knows this better than Patricia Zilliox, CEO of French biotech company Eyevensys, who has lived and worked in the US for many years.
Zilliox is French, but has lived in Texas for a long time. After a PhD in Strasbourg, she moved to the US to work at the ophthalmology pharma company Alcon, where she stayed until the company merged with Novartis in 2011.
“Alcon is a big pharma company, but it was organized basically like a biotech,” she said. “It was very horizontal management; we were in charge of our project from A to Z. One of the reasons I left when Novartis took over was because it became a very vertical management… I was losing that big-picture approach.”
Due to the requirements of a contract clause, Zilliox could not move straight to another pharma or biotech company. She spent the next five years working as Chief Drug Development Officer at the non-profit Foundation Fighting Blindness Clinical Research Institute in Columbia, Maryland.
While at the foundation, Zilliox used her expertise to help companies in the ophthalmology area to develop new treatments and get seed funding. In 2017, she was approached by a French investor with the offer of becoming CEO of Eyevensys.
“It was not really what I expected to do in my life,” she recalled. “But I said ‘why not? I have got quite a lot of experience from Alcon, I have acquired this experience from the foundation, I really believe in the Eyevensys technology.’ I thought that it could do something different. It could bring a new approach to treating eye disease.”
Eyevensys started in Paris in 2008 based on the research of Francine Behar-Cohen, a professor at Paris Descartes University. While many gene therapy companies inject their treatment into the eye, Eyevensys has developed a gene therapy platform based on a less invasive process called electrotransfection. The company uses an electric current to transport small pieces of DNA called plasmids into the smooth ciliary muscle in the middle of the eye. Thus the ciliary muscle cells turn into biofactories for a therapeutic protein encoded in the plasmids.
This technology could be used to treat a wide range of eye conditions, including non-infectious uveitis, retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration. And unlike a lot of other gene therapy companies currently targeting eye disease with gene therapy, the effects of the plasmids can be reversed, which Zilliox thinks is an important safety feature.
Notably, Zilliox did not move to France after accepting the CEO position. “From a business point of view, I knew that it would be much easier to raise money if we were giving this company an opportunity to be visible here in the US.”
Zilliox is also an advocate of virtual offices and a lot of the staff at Eyevensys, herself included, work mostly from home. She says it definitely has advantages, particularly in the current global pandemic.
“Because we’re all working remotely, the virus was not such a big deal for us. I think it was more a surprise for the French, but not for us in the US.”
One reason Zilliox moved to the US was to seek out better opportunities, which she felt were not available to her in France. “As a French woman, to grow in a pharmaceutical organization, especially for my generation, was impossible. It’s better now, but being able to grow in an organization in the US was much easier.”
Although she has found it simpler to progress in her career in the US, Zilliox says she is always surprised at how few women in biotech become CEOs.
“What can we do to have more women? That’s a very difficult question,” she said. “I would say there are a lot of talented women coming from industry, like me, who could do this position, but they don’t know about it, they are not aware of it and they don’t have the opportunity.”
After many years of working in the US, Zilliox is now putting her knowledge to good use in her role as CEO. “What are my lessons learned? Try to reach for the best people, build a network. The US employees are very good at that… What I discovered in my career is that people want to help you if you ask. That’s what I did at Alcon. And definitely, that’s what I did at the foundation.”
Although Alcon was run in a similar fashion to a biotech company, Zilliox says there were some differences when she took over at Eyevensys that she did not expect.
“The big surprise to me was raising money… It’s not too much about going and knocking on all the doors of every investor and asking for money, that’s not difficult. What’s very difficult is you don’t know why they’re going to say no to you. Is it because they don’t like your face? Is it because they don’t like your technology? You don’t know.”
Nevertheless, Zilliox has managed to navigate the fundraising maze successfully and secured around €27M for the company in a Series B round this year. She’s now launching a Series C fundraise with a target of between €50M and €70M, in addition to seeking collaborations with big pharma.
Looking back, Zilliox says she wishes she had more confidence earlier in her career. “Men are more likely to speak with great confidence, and that’s one way they get ahead. Women are more conservative and that’s what’s hurting us most of the time.”
“Don’t be shy to reach for people to help you, whatever you do,” she concluded. “If there is something you don’t know, don’t worry. Find and build a network of the best people.”
Images by Elena Resko