We Are DIA
A Bigger “Why”:
Highlights from Our Conversation with Departing DIA Global Chief Executive Barbara Lopez Kunz

fter a decade at the helm, DIA Global Chief Executive Barbara Lopez Kunz prepares to step into the next chapter of her career. She shared reflections on her DIA tenure with Global Forum Editor-in-Chief Alberto Grignolo.

AG: Beginning at the beginning, Barbara: where were you prior to joining DIA?

BLK: To truly begin at the beginning, as one of six siblings, I was raised to value health, education, hard work, and charity. These priorities have been intertwined in my personal and professional life. I’ve been very intentional about my career, ensuring that the hard work I would deliver had an important overarching purpose; that is, I have ensured a mission orientation in decisions I have made. I spent two-thirds of my career in multinational corporations—namely ICI, DuPont, Thermo Fisher Scientific—developing new drugs, laboratory products, medical devices, and I learned a huge amount.

But what was important and is important to me still is that “Why.” Why is this work important? What needs are being addressed by these efforts? Prior to my role at DIA, I served as the president for Battelle, an understated, large 501(c)(3) doing research for organizations in government, industry, and academia—my first experience working in a nonprofit organization. I remember telling CEO Carl Kohrt after joining Battelle that I had little idea of the difference between a nonprofit and for-profit organization, but I would focus on delivering as much profit as possible so we can invest in things that matter. And that’s what I did. I saw firsthand the opportunity to do good work while doing good things for others.

When I was approached by DIA, I was intrigued for a few reasons. First, the opportunity to serve as a catalyst and convener at the health system level globally was very intriguing. Second, the sterling reputation of the organization, thanks to people like you and others who came before me, gave me confidence that we could impact some of the major challenges.

DIA was connecting the interfaces in a neutral way and globally convening regulators, industry, and patients. This model is very powerful and having the platforms to disseminate outcomes is key.

AG: As a life science chief executive over so many years, how have your work and your perspective evolved during your decade of service in DIA?

BLK: Top of mind is the essential nature of a neutral player, like DIA, to address complex health challenges. We accelerate the delivery of medicines by asking the hard questions and providing that safe haven for issue resolution, communication, and training.

Second, I have seen the desire of our community to collaborate and to openly share. That was new for me. The clarity around how much we can do as a life science community when we work together on a common challenge is shared. I’ve seen this over my time at DIA in big and small ways. A recent example: The pandemic brought us a problem that would take all of us working together to solve. It was inspiring and remarkable to be part of the community which overnight began working to address the impact of SARS-CoV-2.

People recognize that we did things differently with positive outcomes. We did things better and faster, and we want to figure out how we keep working like that today. We learned a lot, but we need well-defined processes for new, transformative ways of working such as decentralized trials, integration of data, and how to best utilize real-world evidence. New projects and organizations have sprung up to do that.

And finally, I have learned the value of being a thought catalyst. To lead DIA, one must be comfortable in an enabling mode. We are behind the scenes, asking questions, developing content, publishing, convening, and transparently sharing what we learn. We are always busy pushing, inviting people to share, and continuing to do what we do. We are part of many solutions and are part of the momentum that helps us solve big problems.

AG: What about the strategic positioning of DIA back then versus today? Can it be said that DIA was basically a convener of meetings back then? What is DIA today, after the pandemic? How different is DIA’s strategic position compared to when you arrived a decade ago?

BLK: One of the things that attracted me was the very first line of the position description for my role. It said, “Lead in the transformation of DIA.” DIA was seen as a meetings organizer then. The Board and I saw an opportunity to serve as a knowledge creator and disseminator and, importantly, to digitize DIA’s content to make it available to our community digitally and in a curated way. The strategy developed with our Board from the very beginning focused on the thought leadership. Identifying the issues, convening on the right topics with the right people, and we started generating positive momentum. We wanted to focus on how we get DIA knowledge to whoever wants it, wherever they are in the world in a way that is contemporary, convenient, and cost effective for them.

In 2015, we were already thinking about DIA Digital, capturing our content, making it easily accessible. DIA Digital is now the fastest growing part of our portfolio.

AG: When you say DIA Digital, do you mean digital access to DIA content? Making sure that anyone anywhere in the world can access DIA and its content without having to travel?

BLK: That’s exactly right. That was the primary goal we were trying to achieve. And we’re there. We need to build from this base because, as you know, technology is changing rapidly. We need to continue to invest in platforms and processes, and our board is completely aligned to investments in the continued digitization of DIA.

DIA will always serve an important convening function. In-person convening, coupled with live digital convening, is going to always be an important part of DIA. As human beings, we like the interaction, the friendships, and relationships. That will always be. The future will require an appropriate mix of in-person, digital, and on-demand, stemming from our thought leadership outputs.

Barbara at a DIA Annual Meeting with the late Dr. Tatsuya Kondo, Chief Executive of the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA) in Japan from 2008-2018.

Barbara at a DIA Annual Meeting with the late Dr. Tatsuya Kondo, Chief Executive of the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA) in Japan from 2008-2018.

AG: DIA has been among the organizations at the forefront of amplifying and incorporating the patient perspective into clinical research. What is the single most important lesson that you’ve learned from patients during your decade with DIA?

BLK: I remember, when I was being interviewed for my role, discussing the need to have patients at the table. I remember thinking: “No problem. I ran a medical device business and user interface is so critical in medical devices. I got it, I’m going to be good.” And then I came to DIA and realized I didn’t have it at all.

I learned that no one knows what it’s like to have an illness unless you’ve lived with that illness, and that having patients truly engaged in their healthcare decisions and in healthcare product development is exceedingly important to optimize the benefits of the solutions and therapies developed for and delivered to them. Frankly, in most other industries, customer and user integration happened long ago.

I’ve been very involved with our patient research, programming, and collaborations with many organizations such as Tufts CSDD, PCORI, and others. I felt that DIA could serve an important role in patient engagement, as this spans the continuum of drug development. Today it is the heart of what we do.

AG: You’ve mentioned several accomplishments and I encourage you to mention more if you’d like. But any regrets?

BLK: Moving DIA from a meetings organization to serve as a knowledge generator through research and as a disseminator has been a top priority. Today we have a strong foundation for that to continue to grow.

We have expanded DIA’s geographic and market reach. We engage across many regions and countries. We welcome new contributors from new market sectors, meaningfully from the tech sector, such as Microsoft, Uber, and Google. Traditional pharmacies are expanding their contributions to health and joining our DIA community. We have expanded our partnerships in the value and access arena. These expansion strategies have been part of our strategy. Together, we can solve critical health challenges.

From a geographic perspective, we’ve done a lot of work in Asia. We’re very active now in China and Japan but also in India, Singapore, Korea. The regulators are very engaged in DIA, and we use our Council of Regulators as a forum for mutual interaction and strategic direction. We recently invited ANVISA to join our Council of Regulators, as we also expanded into Latin America.

I must emphasize that nothing I have discussed today was done solely by me. I have enormous respect for our DIA staff; they are a dream team! They do what is needed to support our community, and this attitude was never more important than through the pandemic. Staff retention is the best it’s ever been, even with the challenges of the pandemic over the past three years.

Finally, I must acknowledge the talented and committed Board of DIA. This group is very engaged in our strategy and governance, and they have been exceedingly supportive of me.

You asked if I have any regrets, and I do. Leaving an organization with a Board like the one at DIA, along with our global team, was a very hard decision. So, I regret that I will not have the opportunity to continue learning from and working with our community.

But my reasoning is that this is a great time for a new CEO to join DIA. It is time for a new leader to bring new ideas and energy to our community. And that lucky individual will be embraced and supported by our Board, staff, Advisory Councils, Fellows, and all who form DIA. We all are DIA.

AG: We’ve talked about the past, present, and future of DIA. Can we talk about the future of Barbara? What’s next for you as a professional executive?

BLK: First, I have committed to do everything I can to lay a solid foundation for the next CEO. I want to make sure whoever succeeds me can focus on the most important priorities such as building relationships with our community, our staff, and our Board.

As far as what I do next professionally, I have a strong commitment to our life sciences community, so I will stay engaged. Exactly how my work unfolds will be determined later, after I have allowed myself the time to reflect and consider my interests and what I do well. I do plan to give myself a break first, spend time with my partner, children, family, and friends.

I plan to think deeply about how I want to use my talents and experience to benefit others. It’s very important to me that whatever I do is purposeful. It is important for me to feel that I am giving something back because I feel incredibly fortunate in my life. I feel incredibly lucky.

AG: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to say?

BLK: I don’t know how to thank people enough for their dedication to this community and for what DIA does. Because of my long tenure, many people associate me with DIA. I can’t tell you how many times people stop me and thank me when I am at a DIA event. That wonderful feeling that what DIA does really matters. I’m so grateful for that. The DIA community has been an amazing source of inspiration for me, and I’m going to miss that.

Read the full conversation here.