Inspiring the next generation of scientists

Ros Deegan: Always up for a new challenge: How Ros carved out a path to lead her own company

Ros Deegan is the Chief Executive Officer at OMass Therapeutics

Always up for a new challenge, Ros describes the many twists and turns her career has taken over the years. Her story highlights that it is never too late for a person to change direction and seek an alternative avenue should they find their skills do not fit the job they have landed in. As she says it took her many years to feel comfortable and able to deploy her talents to the best advantage. This took a lot of trial and error and courage to move on but in the end she has landed up with the perfect job for her skills. Now leading a company, what she really enjoys about this position is the scope it gives her to work on many different things at one time which means she never gets bored. Importantly, her experience reveals the broad breath of the biomedical industry and the many opportunities for people who do not necessary have the right scientific qualifications.

Ros's early career dreams and education

When Ros was at school she always thought that she would like to become a barrister because she really enjoyed watching courtroom dramas on television. But by the time she had reached her late teens this job had become much less appealing to her. This was because she realised she might have had to spend a lot of her time defending criminals. An alternative was to do corporate law or family law, but she decided against it after doing some work experience at two law firms. While corporate law offered a highly lucrative career, Ros found it rather dull. Family law proved more interesting to Ros, but it had the downside that it was less well paid and would not provide enough funding to get her through law school.

Realising the legal profession was not for her, Ros decided instead to study natural sciences at the University of Cambridge. She had always been good at science at school and particularly liked biology because of its links to the body and health. One of the reasons she opted to study natural sciences was because she did not know exactly which biological sciences she wanted to do and the degree gave her scope to explore a broad range of scientific subjects.

In her first year, Ros took biology, chemistry and geology which she really enjoyed. But she quickly realised that geology, while a lot of fun, was not for her because she really struggled in practicals to correctly identify rocks. She could only work out what they were by actually licking the rocks. That was the only way she could tell if they were salty and what their grain size was. Not surprisingly, she comments, 'I felt a bit sick after my geology practicals because I had eaten all these rocks.' Molecular biology and biochemistry turned out to be much easier for her and was the direction she took for her degree.

Stepping on to the career ladder

By the time Ros had finished her degree she knew that she wanted to pursue a career in science. The most obvious way to do this she assumed was to get a doctorate. This was reinforced by the fact that this was what many of her friends who were good at science had decided to do. It never occurred to her at that point to look at other avenues for doing science. As a result she applied for and got accepted to do a doctorate in virology at the Department of Medicine at Addenbrooke's Hospital. Her doctoral research was focused on 'trying to turn a particular virus into a vector', a tool commonly used to deliver genetic material into cells. The aim of the work was to create a vector that could potentially be used to deliver gene therapy to patients.

Six months into the doctorate, Ros realised that her skills were not really suited to the work. While very good at consolidating lots of information and being responsive under pressure, which had helped her get flying marks in exams, she struggled to get experiments to work. Part of the problem was that the experiments demanded a high degree of attention to the method which she did not have the aptitude for. Also the doctorate required her to focus on just one particular aspect of biology for a number of years which she knew she would not be able to sustain. She was much happier having scope to jump from topic to topic like she had done in her previous degree.

Having recognised that academic research was not for her, Ros decided to spend the remainder of her year getting a master's degree and then look for a job in the pharmaceutical industry. Making this decision was not easy because many around her made her feel she was letting science down. Also she had very little knowledge about industry. Just how ignorant she was of the area was brought home to her when she interviewed for a regulatory position at Johnson & Johnson. Not having a clue what the job involved, not surprisingly she did not get hired.

Finding a path into industry

In the end Ros gained a graduate training position at Adelphi, a small consultancy company in Macclesfield that was mostly doing marketing work for pharmaceutical companies. For Ros the job was just what she needed because it gave her experience of the many different angles of the industry. Over the course of a year she rotated through three different areas, which included medical writing, health economics and market research. In the case of medical writing this involved helping companies to write brochures and other material for conferences. Such work was quite scientific because it required reviewing the publications to pull out the relevant material. In terms of health economics, Ros learnt the ropes of running studies to help establish what was the appropriate price for a drug. This included evaluating how much value it could bring to society by reducing the amount of time spent in hospital and returning people back to work. For market research, Ros spent a lot of her time talking to doctors to understand what they were looking for in terms of particular treatments. At one point the company also sent Ros to Belgium to do some work for them.

Working with the consultancy company Ros immediately felt she had finally fallen on her feet and that she wanted a career in the biomedical industry because it was fascinating. Importantly it would give her a chance to continue to have contact with high-powered science which she says 'completely fulfilled my academic interests'. In addition, it provided a way for her to work on medicines to help patients. What particularly appealed to her was the business side of the industry which required synthesising a lot of information very quickly about multiple things. This obviously played to her own skill strengths.

While Ros really enjoyed her work at Adelphi, by the end of the year she was ready to find a job in London that would stretch her to go beyond marketing. As a result, she landed up working for one of KPMG's specialist teams focused on pharmaceuticals. Given a broad range of projects to work on, one of the biggest she became involved in was to build out a non-profit consortium of pharmaceutical companies. Initiated by Glaxo Wellcome, a large pharmaceutical company, the aim of the consortium was to put together a map of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the most common type of genetic variation among people.

Found in DNA between genes, SNPs provide a type of biomarker that is useful for predicting a person's risk of developing a certain disease and response to a drug as well as their susceptibility to environmental factors like toxins. At the time SNPS were widely believed to be an important tool for personalised medicine, an approach that breaks away from the one-size fits all model and tailors each person's intervention and treatment based on their specific genetic profile.

Although still very junior in KPMG, Ros effectively led the SNP Consortium work because she was the only one on the team who really understood the science. For her the project proved highly fortuitous because it gave her the opportunity to form strong working relationships with two people at Glaxo Wellcome who subsequently became important mentors to her. Working with them taught her a lot about corporate finance. After a year and a half, the management of the SNP project was handed over to the public sector to take forward.

Learning new skills in United States

By the time the SNP project ended, Ros had spent two years with KPMG and was ready for a change of scenery. So, she managed to talk her team into giving her a secondment to work for KPMG in the United States. Unlike the KPMG team in England, which was still relatively new and had quite varied projects, the American team was much larger and more focused on process and IT consulting.

Arriving in the United States in 1999, everyone at that point was concerned that computer systems would collapse at the turn of the century because they might not be able to recognise '00' as '2000'. This was because their software had been designed to abbreviate four-digit years to two digits so as to save memory. The problem was known as the 'millennium bug' or 'Y2K problem'. KPMG assigned Ros to work with a clinical team at Pfizer to map out how the millennium bug could potentially affect the roll out of its clinical studies and ability to safely get drugs to patients and that there was enough drug in the right places. The work was part of a much larger project that KPMG was doing across Pfizer which was looking at the potential impact of a systems outage.

Fortunately, nothing went wrong in the end. But as a result of the project Ros managed to build up a good rapport with Pfizer and was asked to help them change their procurement system. Initially this involved mapping out how they purchased all their different products and then trying to streamline this and implement a new electronic system to support the process. The project took several months to complete, during which time Ros says she 'was practically an employee'. So impressed were the team at Pfizer that they even offered her a job in procurement. But she decided against it because procurement was not the career path she wanted to go down.

Studying in Paris

After spending eighteen months in the United States, Ros was once again ready for a change. Not knowing exactly what she wanted to do next she decided to do an MBA (Master of Business Administration). The idea of doing an MBA had been first put to her by her prior KPMG boss in the UK. But she had been unsure about doing it because it was very expensive and would require her to go without an income for a year. Now, however, she had enough money to put towards paying for the course. This was helped by the fact that during her time in America KPMG had paid for her accommodation and all her expenses. As a result, she says, 'I suddenly had a pot of money for the first time in my life' which meant that she could 'afford to do an MBA without going into debt'.

Always keen to experience other places, Ros decided to study for her MBA just outside of Paris at INSEAD, one of the world's largest graduate business schools. As well as buying herself more time, Ros believed an MBA would give her a chance to learn more about the business side of science. Up to now Ros had only ever been educated as a scientist and had mostly picked up what she knew about business 'just learning it on the job'. She also thought the MBA would enable her to shift away from consulting, which was very IT focused, and 'open some doors back' into the pharmaceutical industry.

Early drug discovery partnerships

At the end of her MBA, Ros was offered a place on a graduate scheme at one of the large pharmaceutical companies. But she decided to take a position offered to her by one of her former colleagues on the SNP project at Glaxo Wellcome, now known as GlaxoSmithKline, to join a new group, known as Deal Structuring, focused on setting up early drug discovery partnerships with biotechnology companies. Ros started at GSK in 2001 and really enjoyed the work.

When Ros started at GSK, in 2001, Dr Tadataka Yamada was the head of the company's research and development section and looking for ways to speed up drug development. One of the ways he aimed to do this was by funding smaller projects with external companies to supplement internal research. Essentially Yamada aimed to take advantage of the scientific entrepreneurialism of biotechnology companies that large companies could not replicate. By giving funding at an early stage, GSK would have the option to in-licence some of the company's products that had sufficient clinical data to be developed to the next level. Ros was assigned to find promising companies for GSK to invest in and then draw up an agreement with them.

Her new role at GSK proved enormously exciting because it meant she once again had the chance to use her scientific knowledge along with her new business learning. One of the biggest deals she helped negotiate for GSK during this time was with Exelixis, a Californian biotechnology company developing a gene-to-drug discovery platform. Expected to last six years, the alliance aimed to discover, develop and commercialise new drugs within the field of vascular biology, inflammatory disease and oncology. Under the agreement GSK agreed to pay an upfront payment of $30 million to Exelixis and up to $90 million in development funding to support the company's development of a number of small-molecule compounds towards early Phase II clinical testing. GSK had the right to further develop two of the drugs that came out of the pipeline.

Moving back to the UK into the commercial end of pharma

After two years of working on alliances, Ros once again began to get itchy feet to move on to something new. She explains 'as I'm sure you'll note from my career I tend to get slightly bored.' This meant she was always looking for something different 'whether it was a different country or job'. She was also wondering if her progression within research and development would be limited because she did not have a doctorate. For this reason she began to explore the possibility of moving over to the commercial end of the company.

Transitioning to the commercial arm was not easy because it demanded a very different career path from the one Ros had taken so far. Research and development, she explains, is highly reliant on people versed in scientific logic and hard data. By contrast commerce is more focused on the ability to build a story to sell a product. The good news was Ros had already built up a reputation within GSK, so managed to persuade one of her sponsors within the company to help her transfer to one of the commercial teams in the UK.

But Ros remembers the move turned out to be 'not the most enjoyable time' for her. Part of this was because of the rapid learning curve she had to undergo, which she reflects was probably a bit more rapid than she could cope with. Also it felt very reminiscent of her experience with the PhD in that her skills did not really fit with what was needed. But she felt obliged to continue due to the responsibility she felt towards the person who had sponsored her transfer. Matters were not made any easier by the fact that she was tasked with helping to co-promote a product that GSK initially was not very keen on. Then when the company decided to 'give it a real shot' they appointed someone above Ros because of her inexperience. Ros recalls 'it wasn't my favourite period. But I learned a lot.'

Returning to research and development

Eighteen months into working for the commercial side of GSK, Ros realised she really wanted to go back into research and development. Fortunately just at that moment, Maxine (Max) Gowen, with whom she had worked on the Exelixis deal, invited her to join a new group that she had set up for GSK in the United States. Known as the Centre of Excellence for External Discovery, its mission was to build up a virtual portfolio of new drugs through partnerships with different companies.

Ros became the director of strategy and operations at the Centre. In many ways the work was very similar to what she had previously done for Deal Structuring. Ros reflects, 'I enjoyed that job a lot. I was back doing what is called classic business development in pharma companies. So, finding biotechnology companies that we wanted to work with and then negotiating agreements.' In addition she had to manage the budget for the team and work out its strategic plan. What Ros really liked about the job was it was multifaceted.

Diving into a small start-up company

After two years Ros was once again ready for another change and in 2008 agreed to become director of finance and operations for Trevena, a start-up company that Max had just founded in Pennsylvania with technology licensed from Duke University. Ros was initially hesitant about taking on this role because she was more used to business development, but she relished the challenge of taking on something new. Joining the company when it only had eight people, Ros says she 'absolutely loved' the job because it gave her scope to wear many different hats. By contrast she says 'I'd always been sort of a slight misfit' in pharma because such companies prefer their people to specialise in one area and spend some years in that before promoting them to something else. This did not really suit Ros because, as she comments, 'I like variety'.

Over the course of seven years at Trevena, Ros took on a 'huge array' of different roles. Essentially, she landed up doing 'everything that wasn't science'. This included taking on the HR function, heading up health and safety and she says, 'I even project managed the product going into the clinic, again because somebody needed to do it.' Being the director of finance also meant that Ros played a pivotal role in raising funding for the company's different programmes. With the biotech financing climate being particularly tough between 2008 and 2013, the first five years of Trevena proved particularly tough financially. But, Ros points out 'the company got through it' and got its 'first products into the clinic'.

By the end of 2013 the company had reached sufficient maturity to become a publicly-traded entity able to raise capital from the stock market. One of the advantages of going public was that it increased the company's pool of potential investment to expand its workforce and support its research and development. By now the company had two promising candidates in clinical trials, one for treating acute heart failure and the other to treat moderate to severe acute pain. In January 2014 the company managed to raise $65 million through its initial public offering.

Helping Trevena to get listed on the stock market marked a major turning point for Ros. With experts hired to take over the roles she had previously played, and not having the experience to run finance in a public company, Ros realised it was time to leave. She says this 'was my toughest decision because emotionally I was hugely attached to the company.' Critically she had been at the company for seven years, which was the longest she had ever been in one place. What also made it hard to leave was Max had been her boss now for nine years. But she knew it no longer made sense to continue because her skills did not match what the company needed.

Moving on to another start-up company

Not sure what she wanted to do after leaving Trevena, Ros decided to take a year out to travel and then worked for a few months as a strategy consultant for a new Harvard-based start-up company working on treatments for neuroinflammatory disease. During this time she began looking for opportunities where she could continue to use the skills she had built up at Trevena and gain experience to one day become a chief executive officer (CEO).

As a result Ros landed up agreeing to help set up a US subsidiary in Boston, Massachusetts, for a UK-based biotechnology company called Bicycle Therapeutics. The position was ideal for Ros because it gave her the chance to work for a company that had a European flavour. Appointed both chief business officer and director of the US subsidiary, Ros was expected to build out the US subsidiary from scratch which involved a lot of recruitment and establishing research and development capacity.

Heading her own company back in the UK

Ros understood from the beginning that her work with the US subsidiary of Bicycle Therapeutics would naturally come to an end once it had become well-established. Getting it up and running took three years. By then she was ready to take on the challenge of being a CEO. One of the advantages of becoming a CEO was that it would play to her strengths as a generalist.

Initially Ros anticipated heading up a company in Boston, but this all changed once she found that OMass Therapeutics, a company based in Oxford, was looking to appoint a CEO. Having certain overlapping interests to Trevena, OMass Therapeutics seemed a perfect place for Ros to start her career as a CEO. At first she thought she could lead the company from Boston. But it soon became clear that it would be better for her to relocate back to England to help build up her team. Fortunately her husband, who is also British, could work anywhere so was very supportive of this decision. They also had family reasons to move back.

When Ros joined OMass Therapeutics, in April 2019, it was just slightly bigger than Trevena when it first started. Apart from herself it had just eleven employees. Founded in 2016, the company was set up to exploit a mass spectrometry-based platform pioneered by Professor Carol Robinson and her team at the University of Oxford. It aimed to use this together with novel biochemistry techniques and custom chemistry to develop small molecule therapeutics.

What excited Ros about OMass Therapeutics was that it already had a very strong scientific team in place and also good investors. In addition, its platform had the potential to be used for many different applications. For Ros the ability to go in any direction also meant that the decision process would be highly complex and necessitate some deep strategic thinking, a process that she really enjoys. One of the first exercises that she led after joining the company was a visioning exercise leading to the company's focus on rare diseases and immunological conditions.

What it is like to be a CEO

It is now four years since Ros joined Omass Therapeutics and she says 'I love being a CEO.' As she points out, the job really suits her because 'I'm pretty comfortable in a lot of different forums.' She might talk about the IT system one minute, and then go on to handle an HR issue or scientific matter and then another day be thinking about investment strategy and speaking to potential partners. Essentially she sees her role as 'to just enable other people to do their jobs'.

Being a CEO, Ros points out, has its own pressures. One of the major challenges is being able to raise enough money to make sure that the company continues to have enough funds to advance its work. With many livelihoods at stake, she says this can feel a heavy responsibility. But she argues the benefits far outweigh such pressures. She feels incredibly lucky to work with 'passionate scientists who are incredibly intelligent and excited about science.' What also helps drive her forward is the possibility that one day the medicines created by the company could make a real difference to patients. Only having a small team of scientists she sees this as a 'crazy ambition', but she finds it 'is incredibly energising and exciting.' She also really loves the process involved in building a company.

Breadth of careers in the biomedical industry

One of the advantages Ros says about the biomedical industry is that it is 'hugely broad' so it offers a wealth of opportunities. She points out 'it clearly helps to have a passion for science, but it's not a requirement.' In her experience she has seen plenty of people succeed in the pharmaceutical industry without any scientific background. She emphasises that those considering a career in the industry should not worry too much about where they want to go. The key thing she says 'is initially to just get your foot in the door somewhere and then you can carve out the path you want to go.'

Over time Ros has seen the biomedical industry become much more welcoming of women and accommodating of them having a family. In her case she has not had children, but she feels the industry has given her scope to have time off to satisfy her 'travel itch'. From her perspective the industry is now much more accepting that people have outside lives from their work.


This article was written by Dr Lara Marks based on an interview with Ros Deegan on 14th July 2023.

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