Never Tell Her the Odds

Laurie Hill shares why anything is possible and how it’s life’s unexpected events that can lead us on worthwhile paths that we never envisioned

This universe works in a never-ending, unpredictable equation—a series of intersections and incidents out of anyone’s control. In a different equation, perhaps Laurie Hill didn’t venture out that morning for a bike ride. Maybe that car wouldn’t have hit her. Her right leg wouldn’t have been shattered, and she wouldn’t have been confined to a wheelchair for eighteen months.

But life being what it is, Hill had a different equation. She was struck from behind by a car that morning on her Trek bike in Houston, hitting the windshield that caused a severe concussion, a broken leg, a helicopter lift to the hospital, and about five hours of surgery to reconstruct her leg, which forced her to forgo her active lifestyle and use a wheelchair for eighteen months. That’s where this story could’ve ended. In fact, it was highly probable. At twenty-nine years old, Hill was only given a 5 percent chance of walking again.

Laurie Hill, Illumina

“For a long time, I think I had a lot of regret,” Hill says. “I wished I had stayed in bed that morning and that accident did not happen to me. But it is so entwined into the fabric of how I approach things and who I am that it’s a blessing in changing my perspective.”

There are a few traits of Hill’s that are paramount to not only understanding her recovery after that accident, but also to understanding her personal and professional success. During her hospital stay, Hill says she was “the patient from hell” because of her stubbornness to walk during recovery. In fact, in all aspects of her life, Hill is a passionate—even bullheaded—disruptor with more resilience than most can fathom.

Before that accident, Hill was eleven months into her postdoctorate with a mission to practice immunology. She has loved science since she was as young as five years old, but after the collision, with the possibility that she would be permanently confined to a wheelchair, Hill ventured away from science and more toward law, particularly in the realm of intellectual property (IP).

“I could still do science but in a slightly different profession that would accommodate the fact that I might be disabled,” Hill explains. “I have to say that I think that the science part of myself is actually what makes a difference in how I approach everything as a lawyer. I self-identify first as a scientist.”

Before pursuing her professional career, however, Hill needed to overcome a major obstacle. The first question she asked her doctor post-surgery is when she could walk, and after hearing she had a 5 percent chance, the doctor said, “You’re a very lucky lady that you’re alive. You should be happy about that.”

“Here I am, I’m all hooked up on morphine drip and everything and I go, ‘That is not going to work for me. I have to walk.’ I’m sure he thought I was crazy,” Hill recalls with a laugh.

After eighteen months in a wheelchair, she was able to get up and begin rehab. It took Hill an additional six years to walk without a limp, and although she has residual nerve damage that leads her to struggle occasionally with walking, Hill is fully mobile.

“A lot of times, people will say, ‘That can never be done,’” Hill says. “It can be done if you just think about it a different way, approach it a different way, maybe measure the outcome a different way—the same way all those doctors told me I would never walk again and I said, ‘Yes I will. I must. Here we go.’”

At that time, though, it still left Hill with the lingering question of where to head professionally. There are two passions she loves more than anything: science, and being at a company where people are making a difference. That path first led her to MedImmune, where Hill was part of a dynamic company that was expanding its therapeutic pipeline. She then transitioned to Illumina in 2015, a leading developer and manufacturer of integrated systems that analyze genetic variations and biological functions.

“Illumina came on the horizon, and it looked like a very interesting opportunity to come in and do intellectual property in an area where the company itself was creating the ecosystem,” says Hill, who was the head of global IP. “That ecosystem had the potential to disrupt and totally revolutionize everything we know about health and medicine and all other things that are impacted by the life sciences.”

The values that Hill looks for in a company, though, are not the most typical of those in the legal realm. She seeks out innovation, disruptors, and a company-wide commitment to better mankind day in, day out. It’s these same qualities she has now discovered in Genentech and Roche, one of the leading biopharmaceutical companies in the world focused on medicines that help treat life-threatening medical conditions.

“I am very drawn to that big purpose, so Genentech fits into that whole model. Historically, they’re known as the best in the business,” she says. “They are known in the business for having a fantastic culture and also being passionate about diversity.”

And as a “recovering scientist,” Hill is never far from her original passion with Genentech. “I will frame the risk, frame the strategy in what we think the science is,” Hill says. “That has worked quite well. And it makes it more fun for me, too, because I’m never far from my first love so to speak.”

Today, she’s also never far from another one of her passions: biking. Hill is back on her titanium road bike, and since the accident she has completed seven, one hundred-mile bike rides. There are also a few lessons she has taken with her since that day in Houston. One is that the world is a constantly changing place. “If you can embrace it and find positives, then you’ll always get to a better place,” she says.

The other is to be a constant learner. Experience everything, and constantly challenge yourself. “Resilience allows you to still be proud of what you’ve accomplished, know that you did that really well, but still have belief in a different future doing things in a different way,” Hill says.

If Hill had never gone on that one bike ride, her equation may not be the complex series of trials and obstacles that have made her a symbol of resiliency for her friends, family, and colleagues today.

“I always use that as a reminder of the fact that I did get out of that wheelchair and I’ve been out of it a long time, and that first doctor told me I’d never get out and stay out of it,” Hill says. “No one knows of my injury, and I consider that such a victory that people go, ‘I had no idea that happened to you.’”

Inspiring Others

Laurie Hill’s story is filled with inspiration and determination, but it’s more than intangibles that she has been able to exemplify throughout her career as she continues to make a difference beyond a company’s bottom line.

During her tenure at MedImmune from 2009 to 2015, Hill was part of the executive leadership team, where she was also the executive sponsor of the company’s first employee networking group as part of a diversity and inclusion initiative. In addition, she was also the executive sponsor for the LGBT employee network group, and she also launched the Women’s Network Group.

Hill recalls how her team gathered an assortment of data and analysis from various companies that proved promoting diversity and inclusion not only strengthened an organization, but it also helped improve a company’s finances.

“We were able to show that this wasn’t a social exercise, but rather a commitment to retaining good people and recruiting good people,” Hill says. “I think for me, it is about sharing values on the importance of diversity, building great teams, great products, and a great corporate culture. That has been a consistent aspect of what I’m looking for, especially as it pertains to innovation.”

After she joined Illumina in 2015, Hill continued to make a difference when she joined the Women’s Leadership Network. The organization supports women at various levels of the company by having several guest speakers and events to encourage success through various business and networking initiatives. The Women’s Leadership Network also has several forums, where senior leaders come in to speak and host various round tables.

Photos by Gillian Fry

Fish & Richardson salutes Laurie Hill on this well-deserved recognition of her inspiring leadership, creative legal mind, and dedicated mentorship of others on her team. We have seen the importance of her contributions to Illumina during the multiple matters that we’ve had the privilege of handling for them.