Published September 20, 2011
Volume 19, Number 9

It Started with a Love of Science for Roche Molecular Diagnostics CEO Paul Brown

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

When Paul Brown, Ph.D., took the helm at Roche Molecular Diagnostics (RMD) 18 months ago, it was more than a geographic relocation. In addition to moving halfway around the world, from Sweden to California, after 24 years Brown switched divisions, crossing over from Pharmaceuticals to Diagnostics, the other half of parent company Roche.

One of five business areas under the Diagnostics umbrella, RMD is a recognized leader in the drive toward personalized healthcare, the revolutionary approach based on tailoring disease treatment to the individual patient. Recognizing that “patients with the same diagnosis react to the same treatment in different ways,” personalized healthcare is ushering in a new era in medicine.

“We are in the extremely fortunate situation of working in an industry that is able to contribute to improving the health of ourselves and our families,” Brown remarks. “Our mission is to provide answers that improve people’s lives. A doctor’s visit is often triggered by some type of illness. The patient goes through a diagnostic procedure, which in many instances will involve one of RMD’s tests, used to help diagnose, screen, and guide the type of treatment administered, ultimately improving health and saving lives.”

The tests Brown is referring to are all based on Roche’s Nobel-prize winning Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technologies, which make it possible “to prepare thousands of millions of copies” of a single specific fragment of DNA, so sufficient quantities are available for accurate laboratory analysis and further study.

As “the number one molecular diagnostic company in the world,” RMD has several areas of prominence.  Its expertise in blood screening has generated tests to make sure viruses like HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and West Nile do not enter the blood supply, for example for transfusions. Other assays focus on virology, genomics and oncology, microbiology, and women’s health and sexually transmitted diseases.

A “recent piece of wonderful science” represents a huge step forward in combating human papilloma virus (HPV). “Our HPV Test detects two of the highest risk HPV genotypes that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases,” says Brown. “This is very important to help physicians make early, more accurate decisions about patient care, which may prevent many women from developing this deadly disease.”

Other breakthrough diagnostic tests announced just this year will play a key role in the detection or treatment of melanoma, colorectal cancer, and non-small cell lung cancer.

While the Pharmaceutical and Diagnostics divisions have long partnered in the quest for improved healthcare, transitioning into “the fantastic new world of diagnostics” presented Brown with a steep learning curve. “I told people here it was like trying to drink out of a fire hose,” he notes.

But learning something completely new was a big part of the attraction. In fact, occupying the top spot of the Hacienda-based RMD is the latest phase in Brown’s lifelong journey in the pursuit of the healing power of science.

The eldest of six children, Brown grew up in a small, tight-knit village in central England, the heart of the coal-mining region. His father was a miner, as were his grandfather and uncles. “My father had a huge desire for me not to follow in those footsteps. It’s a tough life, and he didn’t want me or any of my brothers to go down in the mine. He worked very hard to make sure we had the opportunity to go to school.”

For Brown, the way out was science, although at the time he probably did not see his childhood fascination that way. Asked if he had any idea as a youngster where he would wind up professionally, he replies, “I can’t say that I knew that I would be here in California doing this job, but as a kid I always had an interest in science.

“I was the one in the family who always wanted a chemistry set and a microscope,” he continues. “I would grow big crystals, spill stuff all over my parents’ furniture, mix up concoctions that made the house smell.” 

A chemistry teacher at school recognized and encouraged his budding passion. “He was really fantastic and inspirational, and got me hooked.” That positive influence stayed with Brown throughout his education, leading him to graduate school immediately after receiving his BSc from the University of Leicester.

His doctorate in organic chemistry completed, he was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. He enjoyed living in southern California, but he returned to the U.K. to join Roche Pharma Research. The post as a group leader, doing drug discovery and making new small molecule drugs, was his first professional position.

“I used to be a real scientist,” he quips.

Working in the lab was exciting, but Brown knew that eventually he wanted to get “closer to the patient.”  He moved into the business area as his career went global. He spent four years in Switzerland as Lifecycle Leader for Tamiflu, the early influenza treatment, and Xenical, a lipase inhibitor that helps with weight loss. Then he was appointed Vice President of Sales and Marketing of the pharmaceutical division, stationed in Canada. That was followed by four years in Stockholm serving as General Manager of Roche Pharma, Sweden.

He was named head of RMD in February 2010. Although he had much to learn, he felt well equipped to take on responsibility for the 1,000-employee organization across three locations: Pleasanton; Branchburg, New Jersey; and Rotkreuz, Switzerland.

“With my expertise and knowledge, I’d like to think my leadership skills were immediately transferable,” he comments. He has boiled that skill set down to four key principles he tries to follow.

First on his list is knowing himself and understanding others. “You have to be comfortable with your strengths and weaknesses--and those of the people you work with. You need to know what motivates people and how use that to build a good team.”

Next is communication. “I’ve never yet been told by anybody anywhere in the organization that they have too much information.” A good communicator motivates and inspires. “Having a vision and clear values is very, very important.” 

Third is the need to drive change. “Any business, no matter what or where it is, has to change and evolve. If you stand still, you become extinct. Driving the business forward is critical, and it is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of leadership to do so in a good way.”

The last critical piece is the ability to foster the development of others. “That is really the privilege of being a leader. You help others grow and learn, and hopefully one day one of those individuals will be your boss.”

Traveling more than half the time, Brown prizes his family as his “highest priority.” Whether hiking, swimming, or cycling, activities with his wife and two daughters, ages 11 and 13, constitute his major source of relaxation. He will often spend an extra hour or two in the office so he can give them time and attention when at home.

Roche’s “open days,” which invite employees’ children into the workplace, have given the girls a good idea of their father’s work life. While they might have different aspirations—a fascination with animals is evident in the family’s three resident cats—they undoubtedly recognize the sense of satisfaction Brown derives from using his love of science to do “something incredibly worthwhile.”  Whether they follow in his footsteps or not, his hope is that they find something that makes them happy. Their father’s leadership skills suggest they will.


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