Cox pushes innovation at Protein Sciences

BY Wendy Pierman Mitzel
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever

Manon M.J. Cox

President & CEO

Protein Sciences Corp.

According to Protein Sciences CEO Manon Cox, "There is always more to learn."

It's a philosophy that has served her well, from her days researching cervical cancer in Amsterdam to now leading the privately held, Meriden-based research and development company, Protein Sciences Corp., which is creating vaccines and biopharmaceuticals worldwide.

"I'm a very curious person by nature," Cox said.

It's what kept her moving forward even after she missed the lottery for medical school in her native Netherlands. Inspired by her high school biology teacher, she reoriented herself to molecular biology and research sciences.

One of her first positions found her studying the connection, or lack thereof, between nuns and prostitutes and cervical cancer. That research helped develop a screening test and the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine now on the market.

"But then I got bored," she said, and moved onto a large R&D company and that's where her skills were noted by a manager who encouraged her to join a fast-track management program.

"For me it was a pivotal moment," said Cox, who holds a doctorate from the University of Wageningen, received her MBA from the University of Nijenrode and the University of Rochester, N.Y., and holds a doctorandus degree in molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry from the University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. "That guy made me think that I was smart, that I had something to offer. You need people around you to lift you up and tell you that you can do more."

Today, Cox is recognized as a leader in innovation and influenza. She's been president and CEO of Protein Sciences since April 2010 after starting as director of business development in 1998.

Under her leadership, Protein Sciences narrowed its research to fields within pandemic issues such as influenza, ZIKA and SARS and also invested millions of dollars to establish manufacturing operations at Pfizer's Pearl River Campus in Rockland County, N.Y.

The company is best known for Flublok, a flu vaccine that doesn't contain eggs or a live virus. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in Jan. 2013. Cox said Flublok sales are "good" in Connecticut and the company continues to expand across the nation and into Mexico, and is looking to partner with large pharmaceutical marketing and sales partners as the company grows.

"Protein Sciences received nearly $150 million from the United States government to make this nation better prepared for the next influenza pandemic," explained Cox. "We will be the first company to have the vaccine available weeks before others."

Just this February, Protein Sciences donated 45,000 doses of Flublok to The Partnership for Influenza Vaccine Introduction and the Mongolian Ministry of Health to help protect communities from the devastating impacts of the flu.

According to Cox, "It is our hope that this donation will not only help protect the people of Mongolia from the flu, but will also assist them in creating a lasting flu vaccination program."

Many of the near 200 employees at Protein Sciences, including Mireli Fino, compliment Cox for her forward-thinking strategy and ability to help grow not only the company, but the people within it as well.

"Manon works to develop your skills. She pushes you to get to an area where you can stretch and learn and grow," said Fino, senior vice president of manufacturing operations. "She asks insightful questions, instead of lecturing, and helps you come to conclusions by applying your own knowledge."

"She is inspirational and full of energy," added Fino. "She has a vision of where she wants to go and how to get there. Many people are visionaries but don't know how to get there."

Cox said too many managers see people as "hands," but in her opinion everyone can do more if you challenge them.

"They will go above and beyond," she explained, but noted that "opportunity is not going to be presented to you on a golden platter." You have to be willing to seek out the work as well.

Women, in particular, should have a strategy, since they often put their energy into doing the work in front of them, instead of focusing on the trajectory of their careers.

"Women, by definition, are more diversely interested across their jobs and less career oriented and feel less secure in their field (of knowledge)," Cox said. "One way I built security was making sure my educational house was in order so people couldn't prove me wrong."

In addition to her day job, Cox serves on the scientific advisory boards of Pall BioPharmaceuticals and iCubed, the board of directors of United Way, Meriden & Wallingford, and the Netherlands-America Foundation and its education committee.

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

My passion is to drive innovation in the vaccine industry. Vaccines have saved and continue to save millions of lives, and yet over 90 percent of the vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization are based on inoculating the killed or weakened pathogen. New technology and improved understanding of various diseases has made it possible to make better and safer vaccines. I am proud to have been the key driver of the development of Flublok, a modern influenza vaccine that is more than 40 percent better in preventing the flu than the regular 'flu' shot, thus saving more lives.

The 'plug and play' process used to make Flublok prepares the World for a possible 'pandemic' or any other biosecurity hazard, and is the foundation for many follow-on vaccines to prevent diseases caused by viruses like ZIKA, rabies, and Ebola to name a few.

I would also like to be a role model for the fact that the 'impossible = possible' with persistence and perseverance, and not to forget hard (team)work. Dream big and don't give up!

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

I am one of those scientists who has been fortunate enough to have been involved in the development of two products that made it to market: Lipomax, a detergent enzyme that dissolves greasy stains and is included in most household detergents, and Flublok. What I learned during my 30-year career is that nothing is ever easy, you need to set goals, and stick with them. Most important, I experienced that a great team can overcome any challenge.

What are your keys to maintaining work/life balance?

The saying, 'love what you do and you will never work a day in your life' is my mantra. I have always been excited about what I do and when that 'feeling' faded I explored new territory. I embraced the opportunity to work in production, and business development after six years in research and development and added to my scientific skills by doing an executive MBA in the U.S. It is the opportunity that keeps me going and if I do get down, I either listen to music or go out for a run.