Sue Windham-Bannister, Change Agent in a Pinstripe Suit

If you’re in the entrepreneurial world, you’re constantly rubbing up against some crucial element of the innovation ecosystem around you. Whether you’re a corporate innovator whose cutting-edge moves tug against your corporate stakeholder’s goals and expectations, or whether you’re an independent scientist trying to carry your discoveries forward to impact, you’re surrounded by and shaped by the people, processes, and interwoven systems around you. And if you’re an African-American woman, you are forging a path that sometimes has especially challenging hurdles.

Sue Windham-Bannister has understood this in her bones for decades as a policy researcher, a business strategy consultant, and a maker of ecosystems. Today she’s created herself into a sharp scalpel for strategic business insight in the life sciences.   

Origin Story

A self-described activist of the 60s, Sue Windham-Bannister started her adult life at Wellesley College where she developed the intention for an impactful career in policy. Although she entered Wellesley intending to become a journalist, an anthropology course in her Sophomore year solidified her interest in groups (markets) and how groups (markets) behave. Journalism went by the wayside, although her love of writing has come in handy throughout her career.

Following graduation from college, Sue worked at a community-based health center for several years, and then entered a doctoral program at the Florence Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. As part of her study at Heller she was able to take classes and gain experiences from all around the Boston/Cambridge area. So, in addition to her Heller classes on policy analysis, regulatory science, statistics and econometrics, Sue studied health economics at the Harvard School of Public Health, and community planning and business development at MIT.

Armed with the technical skills to make sense of how policy ultimately affects market behavior, Sue was hired by the global policy think tank Abt Associates Inc. as a health care researcher and policy analyst evaluating the impact of several new federal programs within DHEW (now DHHS). This work strengthened her skills in market research, analysis and strategy, and working with big data sets. She also developed some new muscles in group facilitation. Her work at Abt made it clear that the formulation and ultimate impact of policy takes a long time and can be sidetracked by a wide variety of interests and obstacles. Sue realized that she wanted to be closer to the forces that ultimately determine impact, and this meant working with the world of business.

Here’s why: In Sue’s view, business is a key arbiter of what products and services are developed for, and ultimately reach, the market, and ultimately, people. And perhaps nowhere is this more important than in healthcare and life sciences, where lack of access and lack of the “right” products and services directly impacts quality of life. To test her belief, Sue hung out a shingle as a business strategy consultant, using her understanding of markets to help companies figure out what products and services are needed by different segments of the market, and her training in policy and regulatory science to help companies navigate a pathway to the market in the highly regulated life sciences industry.   

“Business is the arbiter of what reaches the market, and ultimately, human beings.”

Several years later, Sue was asked to rejoin Abt Associates as part of a team whose mandate was to create a commercial division within the company – exactly what Sue had been doing on her own. The division grew and ultimately spun out of Abt Associates as a subsidiary company called Abt Biopharma Solutions (ABS) – a boutique consulting firm targeting the highly competitive life sciences industry.

As a partner in ABS, Sue was part of a number of well-known market success stories: the Prevnar-13 vaccine launch strategy, one of the first Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) treatments for acute macular degeneration (AMD) novel cardiac biomarkers, and even extended-wear contact lenses!

Abt Biopharma Solutions was a highly successful boutique consulting firm, and ultimately was sold to United Biosource Corporation (UBC) in 2008. During the due diligence prior to the sale Sue got a call asking about her interest in an exciting new job for the Governor of Massachusetts – a role that would draw upon and test all of the skills that she had developed in her career thus far. 

In 2007 Governor Deval Patrick had made a commitment to invest $1B to help Massachusetts emerge from the economic downturn by accelerating the state’s transformation to a knowledge-based, technology-focused economy and a destination of choice for businesses at every stage of their development. Governor Patrick’s goal was to enhance the Commonwealth’s economic growth across all of its regions and ensure a balanced approach to the State’s economic development objectives. Because the State had a multitude of world-class research universities and hospitals, a highly skilled workforce, and an emerging set of young biotech companies, the life sciences seemed like the perfect target for investments to meet these objectives.

Sue was brought in to serve as the founding President and CEO for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), the organization that was created to manage and invest the $1B fund, and develop the comprehensive strategy to propel Massachusetts’ rapid emergence as a global life sciences innovation hub. Building on her existing foundations in policy, market analysis (quant and qual) and the business world, Sue enhanced an innovation capacity framework originally proposed by Luis Suarez-Villa (University of California, Irvine) and adapted by Michael Porter. And, as a former consultant, she knew that the clear starting place was a situational analysis of Massachusetts – what strengths did the State have in the enablers of innovation capacity? What gaps? Where would investment be most impactful? What relationships among key stakeholders could be leveraged and enhanced to forge a true innovation ecosystem? Where should new relationships be jump started?

Sue spent seven (7) years as the CEO, building and managing the Center. During her tenure Massachusetts became the primary example of non-organic development of an innovation ecosystem, still thriving today. For the past five (5) years she has been advising other emerging life sciences innovation hubs — in New York, Maryland, California, Israel, the U.K. and China among others. She is proud that the life sciences has been deemed “the gift that keeps on giving” to both the Massachusetts economy and to global health during the pandemic. Moderna was one of the first early-stage companies given financial support by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center!

Sue has recently moved to California and is enjoying warm weather, meeting new colleagues in the California life sciences community, promoting DE&I initiatives and lending her advice and insights where they can be helpful.

Recently, Sue and I, with our colleague Mikel Mangold, have written in detail about Sue’s work in Boston in our forthcoming paper, What Corporations Can Do to Help an Ecosystem Thrive, and Why they Should Do It, in the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology, in press for publication in Spring 2021 — we will link it here when ready!

Sue Windham-Bannister is happy to field inquiries about strategy here on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in ecosystems, best to start with me at diana@corporateacceleratorforum.com. 

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