27 July 2020
After receiving a doctorate from ETH, Jenna Denyes spent several years as a medical writer before joining GAM. Her background in molecular biology is more beneficial in her role as a Senior Healthcare Analyst than one might think.
An unconventional background
At first glance, a Canadian molecular biologist might appear an unusual fixture of a Zurich-based investment team. And yet, Jenna Denyes plays a crucial role in the development of GAM’s Healthcare Equity strategy. “A lot of my background is more relevant than people realise,” she says. “I have deep topical expertise, having worked in medical communications and consulting for five years on top of my PhD. I merge my scientific understanding with good business sense, and Christophe [Eggmann, Investment Director responsible for GAM’s Healthcare Equity strategy] supplies the language and financial expertise.”
Originally from Nova Scotia, Jenna’s switch to Zurich was motivated solely by her research focus. She arrived for her PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule – much more commonly known as ETH. “I didn’t know much about Switzerland or ETH, but there were only three labs in the world doing what I wanted to do,” she explains. “ETH had a project that was looking at the type of viruses I liked to look at, with a commercial application. So I moved. I’ve been here for nine and a half years and counting.”
ETH Zurich was an impressive beginning to a life overseas for Jenna. The institute is ranked the sixth best university in the world, and first in Europe for engineering and technology. While obtaining her doctorate, she worked on a project that involved the creation of a detection system for food safety. The system successfully removed 12 days from the testing time for chicken. “I like to say I put the icing on the cake. The 10 years of research by the team before me was baking the cake, and I helped put the icing on at the end, with a series of application focused experiments.”
Business meets science
As a molecular biologist, she specialised in viruses that infect bacteria. While this does not involve human viruses such as Covid-19, she was still able to use her knowledge to create a Covid-19 overview on behalf of GAM. The article, phrased for a layperson’s benefit, exemplified Jenna’s ability to apply her scientific knowledge to the financial world. She describes her role as that of a translator, rephrasing the language of technical research into something more workable for a general audience, or, a portfolio manager.
Having left academia in search of something more dynamic, Jenna was drawn to her current role after discovering a preference for the strategic side of consulting. “This job offered the chance to learn more on strategy while also bringing something valuable to the table with my academic knowledge. It’s like a deep dive into an MBA on business management.” By combining business and science fundamentals, Jenna feels she can develop the strategic side on top of her research skills.
Her method of bridging the gap between the medical and the financial adds a diverse quality to her team. This element of diversity creates an avenue where different perspectives, strengths and skills can flourish. “People think diversity is a buzzword,” Jenna says. “But if you have a team trying to solve a problem, you don’t want a group of identical people trying to solve a problem in the same way. We all bring something different to the table.” Although finance remains a reputed “boys’ club”, in her words, she feels that the industry has made strides to improve its representation of various groups. “Right now, we’re a team with a diverse collection of functions at GAM as a whole. Back office, front office, we all work together.”
A life in Switzerland
Jenna praises Switzerland’s balance between work life and personal life, particularly when it comes to the outdoors. “I cycle a lot,” she says. “I do long distance triathlon and endurance sports, too, and hiking and climbing. In Switzerland, it’s just really easy to be outside. And being outdoors is a big part of my lifestyle.” She was meant to finish her first Ironman this summer, but Covid-19 has postponed that goal by at least a year.
With Switzerland just over a month into its economic reopening, the virus remains the constant elephant in the room. Jenna observes, as the financial world struggles to predict the market’s next move, “we’re seeing a gap between academic prediction and human nature.” She notes many countries had pandemic models that accurately forecast the spread of a potential infection; however, external factors, such as culture, resulted in a disjointed international response when such a pandemic occurred. In an era of vaccines, antibiotics and preventative healthcare, the notion of an apparently incurable virus is alien to us.
“Anyone who claims they can predict the future is not someone to listen to,” Jenna says. “But sometimes, the consequences and the fallouts can be estimated, in a way, using common sense.”
The future of healthcare
In terms of healthcare, the virus could have a variety of consequences. As pharmaceutical companies rush to produce a vaccine, Jenna describes a palpable shift in the public’s perception of the industry as a whole. Rather than viewing big pharma as a faceless, money-hungry entity, people are able to witness regulatory changes from the past decade finally take effect. “No one is taking doctors skiing anymore,” Jenna elaborates. “You don’t see surgeons driving around in Ferraris they got as gifts. There’s a lot of potential for positive opinion of the sector.”
As for the sector itself, the tech angle is unsurprisingly key. Companies that were prepared to work remotely are reaping the benefits of their digital infrastructure, with some companies even staging successful drug launches during the lockdown period. Appointments can be conducted via video chat, reducing wait times and hospital overcrowding. For the most part, these are changes that can continue to have a healthy impact on doctors and patients even when Covid-19 subsides.
Aside from the drumbeat of technology, the healthcare sector is evolving to meet the needs of a population that cannot leave home. In lieu of slow bi-weekly injections, patients might begin taking oral medication to combat their cancer, for example, reducing the invasiveness of the treatment. That said, Jenna cautions that this shift will not be immediate. In the meantime, she acknowledges the tragic reality of Covid-19’s ripple effect: “Kids’ vaccine schedules are getting disrupted, so will we see a spike in measles over the next 10 years? Some cancer patients aren’t getting into their planned clinical trials because of lockdowns. And there are drugs that are personalised and take three weeks to make, but 50% of patients don’t even survive that time span. We won’t really appreciate Covid-19’s full death toll for a long time.”
In the meantime, what do we do? “We’re seeing a clear acceleration of existing trends,” Jenna says. “Artificial intelligence, wearable devices, preventative healthcare. It’s all developing faster than it ever has before.” Once the dust settles in the future, this could prove to be the silver lining that we hope for.
The information in this document is given for information purposes only and does not qualify as investment advice. Opinions and assessments contained in this document may change and reflect the point of view of GAM in the current economic environment. No liability shall be accepted for the accuracy and completeness of the information. Past performance is no indicator for the current or future development. The companies listed were selected from the universe of companies covered by the portfolio managers to assist the reader in better understanding the themes presented. The companies included are not necessarily held by any portfolio or represent any recommendations by the portfolio managers. The mentioned financial instruments are provided for illustrative purposes only and shall not be considered as a direct offering, investment recommendation or investment advice