Women in Science: KBI Biopharma’s Sigma Mostafa – ‘grit and self-confidence are crucial for success’

By Isabel Cameron

- Last updated on GMT

© KPI Biopharma
© KPI Biopharma

Related tags CDMO Contract manufacturing Drug development Drug discovery

Sigma Mostafa is the chief scientific officer of KBI Biopharma, a development and contract manufacturing organization serving the biopharmaceutical industry.

Sigma is a driven and focused woman with over 22 years of biotech industry experience, starting her career at Eli Lilly as a research scientist. We sat down with Sigma to discuss her tenacious ambition, personal hardships, and her passion for bringing first-in-class therapeutic drugs to clinic and market.

OSP: Could you give me an overview of the work you do at KBI Biopharma and what the company focuses on?

KBI Biopharma develops and manufactures therapeutic protein drugs for a wide range of disease conditions, including neurodegenerative, autoimmune, and infectious diseases and many types of cancers. We are a premier Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization (CDMO) and have developed processes for upward of 400 therapeutic drug candidates in mammalian and microbial systems. As the chief scientific officer at KBI, I am responsible for our portfolio of customer projects across cell line, process, and analytical development departments at all sites. I also set the vision and define the priorities for our technological and scientific advancement.

OSP: When did your interest in science develop?  What piqued your interest?

My father was a mathematician, and he named me after a letter in the Greek alphabet which is used in different mathematical expressions. So, in some ways, I was destined to be in the STEM field. I was lucky to have very good math and science teachers at school who nurtured my interest. I did have a very different second interest, though – acting. In fact, when I started as an undergraduate, I had a dual major in math and acting. After the first semester, my keen interest in making a significant difference in human health issues won over, and I changed my major to chemical engineering with a biochemical engineering focus.

OSP: Can you tell us about your journey to where you are now?

My family immigrated from Bangladesh to the US after I completed high school. I did my undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin and my Ph.D. at Northwestern University. After Ph.D., I started at Eli Lilly, one of the top 10 largest pharmaceutical companies. After seven years, we moved as a family to North Carolina, where I started as Manager, Process Development at Fujifilm Diosynth. At that time, the company was part of Merck & Co. Three years later, in 2010, I was recruited by KBI’s first CEO to build the process development and manufacturing business. I joined KBI as the Director of Upstream Process Development and Manufacturing. Over the last 13 years, I led the growth of our mammalian services business from five projects per year to 50 projects per year. I became the Site Head for our largest site in North Carolina in 2020 and led the site through Quality Culture transformation and multiple successful inspections. I recently became KBI’s Chief Scientific Officer.

OSP: What challenges did you face, or lessons did you learn during your career roles that helped you grow and get you to where you are today?

The three key lessons I’ve learned over my 23-year biotech career are: never give up your long-term goal, never compromise on which field or role you are truly passionate about and be patient, success will come.

While I was doing my Ph.D. at Northwestern University, my father got extremely ill, and I was traveling every weekend from Evanston, IL, to Valparaiso, IN, to visit him at the nursing home. I didn’t have a car, so I traveled by train, which would take the whole day. I continued this routine for multiple years, and now looking back, I am amazed that I was able to complete my Ph.D. The fact that I continued my research and kept building my network while dealing with truly difficult challenges in my personal life allowed me to get a highly desired scientist role at Eli Lilly immediately after my Ph.D. Within a few years of starting in the industry, I realized that the rate of career growth I desired and knew I deserved would be difficult to achieve within the process development area. 

The competition was fierce, and there was a commonly held belief that technical depth and business acumen are mutually exclusive traits. I was not willing to move into a non-technical role in order to be in senior management. Interestingly, over the past two decades, the concept of highly effective executive leaders also having deep technical skills has become more common. My path to becoming a C-suite executive was through incremental professional advancement, and along the way, I built an extensive professional network and a long list of mentees whose professional success inspires me every day.

OSP: What do you feel most passionate about in your current role?

The aspect of being the CSO that I am most passionate about is the opportunity to solve the toughest technological challenges in our industry and to bring first-in-class and best-in-class therapeutic drugs to clinic and to market.

OSP: Could you explain your leadership style and what it is like to lead KBI’s global innovation and team of scientists?

My leadership style is focused on developing an overarching vision and rallying my staff around this vision. My focus is to articulate what needs to change, create an intellectually stimulating work environment, and encourage honest and thoughtful dialog. This approach is often described as transformational leadership. The goal is to motivate employees to raise one another to a higher level of performance, innovate, and shape the future. 

OSP: What advice do you have for young women interested in pursuing a similar career path?

Grit and self-confidence are the two things everyone needs to be successful. For young women wanting to gain a higher level STEM education and then go up the corporate ladder, these characteristics are especially important. This has been my message to all the young women I have mentored over the years. Nowadays, there is wide access and acceptance of STEM education for young girls in most parts of the world. Yet continuing higher education in STEM and then having steady career growth in the industry setting can still be challenging for women.

Having the innate confidence that you are destined to achieve extraordinary success is important. It is particularly necessary when life is throwing you curve balls, and self-doubt creeps in. Angela Duckworth, an academic at the University of Pennsylvania, defined grit as passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals. Women have some disadvantages in professional networking, and they have a disproportionate challenge in achieving work-life balance. Being intentional in practicing self-confidence and relying on grit have set the path to achieving my success and something I believe anyone can achieve.

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