When a young scientist looks out at the world, they typically see a career in academia or industry. Maybe there’s a start-up on the horizon. But rarely does the view include running operations at a high-growth nonprofit, holding leadership roles in a multitude of companies or chairing the board at a fledgling, upstart protein institute.
But Samantha Singer is rare.
She followed an unconventional path that helped her amass skills and insights far more comprehensive than is typical in a science and tech-heavy world. It is a space that is traditionally male, academic and competitive — where a woman without a doctorate might struggle to succeed. And yet, Singer has made it, now president and CEO of her own company, Abata Therapeutics, and chair of the board at the Institute for Protein Innovation (IPI).
Looking back on her success, she cites the value in seeking advice, gathering a wealth of experience and focusing on impact. But the most important thing: “You should love what you’re doing,” she says.
The road less traveled
Singer’s first love was biology. She found that passion as a middle schooler in Kansas and carried it on to a graduate program at Rockefeller University in New York City. Midway through the program, however, she hit a “hard truth” that lab work wasn’t for her. She left with the institute’s first master’s degree — the “door prize for dropping out,” she says jokingly.
“Biology is beautiful,” she says. “The idea of using science to impact and alter people’s lives still meant a lot to me. I just wasn’t going to be doing the science itself.”
So, she leaned into team building and business strategy, working as a management consultant and later completing an MBA at Harvard Business School. She loved bridging science and business to positively affect human health.
As a consultant, she was the perfect person to act as a “midwife at the birth” of the Broad Institute, helping to draft the nonprofit’s original business plan. She also forged a long-lasting consulting relationship with one of her earliest clients, Biogen, which culminated with her taking an “in house” position in Biogen’s executive ranks in 2007.
There, she gained insight into the inner workings of a global company — insight she’d later take back to the Broad, this time as chief operating officer with a pivotal role to play in the Broad’s transformation from startup to a thriving, sustainable research center.
With the management of major growth under her belt, she looked for ways to more directly impact patients. The opportunity came through a healthcare venture firm, Third Rock Ventures. As an entrepreneur-in-residence, she nursed a contingent of young biotechs into existence, serving as interim COO for two, before fostering her own, Abata Therapeutics.
Abata’s mission is to translate the biology of regulatory T cells (Tregs) into transformational medicines for patients with progressive multiple sclerosis and other serious autoimmune diseases.
Developing that kind of concise mission — one that states clearly “this is how we’re going to alter the world; this is the way the world will differ for us being in existence”— is a “ticket to entry” for any biotech, she’s learned.
IPI is no different. Its overarching goal is to advance protein science and accelerate research to improve human health. Singer was struck by this during her first conversations with IPI co-founder Timothy A. Springer. They spoke about how proteins generally — and antibodies made in yeast more specifically — could impact the bioscientific research community.
Singer was intrigued. She knew of Springer’s track record with a host of successful biotechnology companies, not to mention his academic renown at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. When he offered the chance for her to join the board, Singer sprung at the opportunity to help bring that vision to fruition.
“It was the mission. It was Tim,” she says. “It was the passion and the opportunity again for me to learn and to bring something to the table.”
Building a diverse team
What could she bring? In an increasingly competitive biotech climate, any effective organization needs “great people working together in a culture that allows them to be more than they could be individually,” Singer says.
Diversity also plays a part, she says. There’s a powerful impact when junior employees see themselves and their identities reflected and valued in a biotech’s upper levels. It’s something that the biotech industry has broadly struggled to address, despite long-standing calls for diversity, equity and inclusion, and the demonstrated impact of those values on innovation and financial strength.
A 2020 report on diversity in biotech, by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, found that representation of ethnic minorities on executive teams and company boards hovers around 15 percent. Gender equality also lags in the industry, with women accounting for 14 percent of board members and just 6 percent of CEOs in biotech, according to a 2021 Bedford Group/TRANSEARCH study.
Singer has seen this dearth of diversity evidenced in her experience as a woman navigating biotech. As she moved up the ranks and into senior roles, she fielded comments on how she balanced work life and time with her daughter — comments that weren’t equally directed at her male colleagues. Though she hasn’t let those instances hinder her, she says it’s hard to tell how much those unconscious biases have shaped her journey. Progress on this front permeates organizational culture overall, and it’s something she’s cognizant of in setting the foundations for success at both Abata and IPI.
“We’re being mindful of bringing (a diversity of) people into leadership positions,” she says, “and I think it will snowball from there.”
Leadership at IPI
At the Board level at IPI, she is now orchestrating the interactions of a “remarkable group of people,” high-level players with deep knowledge in their domains. She is simultaneously working closely with IPI’s leadership team to build out all aspects of the nonprofit. It’s developing both the science and the operations at the same time, she says, to quickly maximize IPI’s potential.
Equally important, Singer says, is making room for growth by giving employees the chance to step out and “even risk failing.” Through calculated risk, she believes, teams can expand their capabilities and employees can grow both personally and professionally.
“As a leader, the things I’m most proud of are the times in my career when I’ve been able to literally hear someone say, ‘Wow, I didn’t think I could do that,’” Singer says. “But they did because my leadership team was able to provide them with that opportunity.”