Chasing a Cure
By Carol Keochekian '81
Kären Olson ’83 knows firsthand the emotional turmoil suffered by cancer victims while awaiting diagnosis and treatment. Supporting a close friend through the process increased her empathy and strengthened her resolve to work toward a change.
It was another friend long ago who initially stoked Olson’s interest in science and medicine – a youthful playmate, who suffered from leukemia. Olson dreamed of becoming a medical missionary and finding a cure for cancer when she was only 10 years old.
However, as life would happen, she deviated from fulfilling that dream until recently. “I really kept flirting with the concept throughout my education and career but never so squarely as with my work at BioMarker Strategies,” relates Olson.
Named CEO of BioMarker Strategies LLC in 2008, Olson now heads up the Baltimore-based cancer diagnostics and biomedical device company which is developing a novel SnapPathTM tumor cell processing and testing system to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and personalized medicine.
Individualized cancer treatment
Today, when a cancer patient goes in for a biopsy, Olson explains, the pathologist looks at the biopsy and determines whether the patient has cancer. “You will get the same treatment as anyone who has that type of cancer,” she says. “Personalized medicine is the future of cancer treatment as all cancers are not alike and all patients do not respond the same to treatment.”
The near-patient testing system being developed by BioMarker, the CEO continues, will be able to determine whether a drug will be effective in a particular patient and help to avoid ineffective, toxic and often expensive treatment.
“I think there is a strong mutual vision among the National Cancer Institute, pathologists, oncologists and biotech firms that we are approaching a time when patients will receive an individualized treatment plan on the same day that their biopsy is performed,” she envisions. This is good news for cancer patients who often have to endure an agonizing waiting period before they start treatment.
Trading test tubes for sales
Olson began working in the scientific field within two weeks after graduating from California Lutheran College with a double major in medical technology and chemistry. She started as a research chemist at Nalco Corp., but after accompanying her manager on a sales call, she realized that she wanted to be out in front with the customers. This conclusion moved her into sales and marketing with both Teledyne and ICI Resins US in the healthcare and specialty chemical industry.
Then her career skyrocketed. During her 14-year tenure at Adhesives Research Inc., a multinational firm with facilities in Australia, Ireland and Singapore, she advanced from sales to business unit roles culminating as president and CEO. Under her leadership, the 500-person company surpassed the $100 million milestone, amassing 26-fold growth in the diagnostic market and the creation of two new divisions.
The amazing progress at Adhesives Research was due to several factors, the CEO points out: developing a strong strategic plan that everyone could understand and execute, including restructuring the company to focus on areas of serving customers better; assuring that the appropriate infrastructure was in place; and increasing profits.
Olson, 48, credits her achievement to having the right background and to her CLC education. The medical technology training (equivalent to a biotech degree 25 years ago) has helped her to “speak the language of customers” with clients, and the chemistry degree has enabled her to understand what chemists need to do their job.
Childhood dream persists
Despite her success, her childhood desire to cure cancer still remained with Olson. “This distant interaction with medical product development satiated my thirst until recently,” she relates. Then, five years ago, Olson and her husband, Tim Parker (CEO of Parker Flavors, a fourth-generation, 111-year-old flavor company), moved from Baltimore County into the city of Baltimore within a mile of Johns Hopkins Medical Institute (JHMI).
“Many of our new friends and neighbors working at JHMI turned our cocktail party conversations into discussions about the latest in medical research and new upcoming entrepreneurial medical ventures. This rekindled my dreams,” she recalls.
Olson, who serves on several industry and nonprofit boards, was asked to become a member of BioMarker’s Board of Advisors when the company was just in the concept stage and later to serve as a member of the Board of Directors. During a subsequent search for a CEO, Olson was offered the position.
“When I was approached by one of the world’s leading cytopathologists, Dr. Douglas Clark, about leading his startup organization, it was a perfect storm of my experience, my dream and a wonderful opportunity of entering the world of a biotech startup at the right time,” she states.
In addition to its own laboratory facility, BioMarker Strategies supports research at Johns Hopkins and has scientific collaborations with other universities and Johnson & Johnson.
“When you’re a startup company, you keep the headcount to a minimum, outsourcing whatever you can,” Olson points out, noting that her firm now has a lean roster of six employees.
Career built on education
Olson, who holds an Executive M.B.A. from Loyola College and is currently working toward her master’s in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University, contends that her five years at Cal Lutheran were a good foundation for her career.
“The liberal arts education gave me the opportunity to experience a variety of extra-curricular activities, to explore opportunities and to spread my wings,” she recalls.
One of those opportunities was her service as a resident advisor, where she learned to be an enforcer with freshmen on a dry campus. Another was a required speech class, which led to a spot on the college’s speech team and a scholarship.
“Dr. [Beverly] Kelley’s belief in me gave me the ability to speak with confidence to large groups of people and field any question. She was able to extract and improve that skill from me.”
That ability, a necessary requirement for any CEO, has served Olson well as a business executive and as an adjunct faculty member at the national award-winning ACTiVATE program at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and at Loyola College’s Sellinger School of Business.
Ethics basis of leadership
Olson’s management philosophy is rooted in the ethics of business learned at Cal Lutheran and later underscored at Loyola College.
“CLU made me recognize that there are true ethical decisions, especially when you’re are at the top,” she says.
For Olson, the customer comes first, but she finds a constant leadership challenge in balancing what is good for customers, employees and the company shareholders.
Olson’s success as a leader has been recognized with several honors. She has been selected as Ernst & Young’s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year, Smart Woman’s Woman of the Year, and was a finalist for The Daily Record’s Healthcare Leader of the Year. She was also featured on the cover of Smart CEO.
Utilizing the strength of her experience and accomplishments, Olson continues to pursue her dream with great optimism.
“In my lifetime, cancer will become the number one killer in the U.S.,” she predicts. “However, we could mitigate that fact with additional targeted drug therapies resulting in cancer management with less severe side effects and a reduction of deaths in high mortality cancers, if not a cure.”
That’s a dream we can all share.