Michael Hercz Keeps Both Eyes on Ethics

Sentynl Therapeutics Inc.’s Michael Hercz uses his passion to help the greater good to help embed compliance standards into every business decision

michael hercz
Photo by Donald Carlton Photography

Michael Hercz acknowledges that the life sciences industry assumes many varying public perceptions. On one hand, he notes that recent news reports about compliance and quality lapses and price spikes on some drugs have diminished public trust in the industry. But the senior vice president and general counsel for Sentynl Therapeutics Inc. also believes that professionals in charge of regulatory compliance and company oversight—such as himself—can help improve pharma’s image.

Hercz’s passion for his work stems from a deep desire to help people. “A lot of folks like me have had family members with health issues,” he says. “I felt even in my undergraduate days that reducing human suffering was my calling.” In college, he was torn between pursuing a career in healthcare and law but was able to combine both interests after he earned his legal degree and applied that training within innovative pharmaceutical companies.

Early in his career, Hercz had to learn how to navigate the complex world of pharmaceuticals. At Amgen, a pioneering biotechnology company, Hercz was responsible for legal aspects of regulatory compliance and clinical trials for specific therapeutics. That’s where he caught “the compliance bug”—an intense interest in shepherding legal matters for product development. “I enjoyed analyzing legal and regulatory requirements and making them practical for businesspeople,” he notes.

Later, as head of enterprise risk management for Amgen, he helped the company’s leadership form new perspectives on key risks and advised on how to reduce exposure. The most challenging aspect of that role was persuading seasoned executives to accept new risk information. In those cases, Hercz says, he drew upon the company’s mission and ethics as a means of aligning views of how to address risk.

Joining the industry after practicing at Hooper Lundy and Akin Gump, Hercz lacked a medical or scientific background. The learning curve in the early years of his in-house career was steep. He had to pick up much of the technical, industry-specific knowledge that he needed on his own, along the way. “Ninety percent of learning was on the job,” he says. “It was humbling at first.”

To fill knowledge gaps, he sat in on many meetings with technical experts and product development teams. “I have an inherent curiosity,” he says. “I don’t like leaving a meeting not understanding something.” He had to be willing to ask “dumb questions” and seek out information from specialists, many of whom were generous with their time, he adds.

Not to mention, many of hours of self-directed research also bolstered his understanding. Mentors, particularly one attorney who had served within the FDA’s Office of Chief Counsel, provided invaluable career guidance that he still carries today.

“You know you’re successful as a counselor when people in the business seek you out to talk or ask questions.”

Hercz brought expertise in compliance, litigation, and risk management gleaned from his positions at Amgen, Victory Pharma, and consulting firm Deloitte to the fifty-person Sentynl Therapeutics, which has historically focused on pain treatment. His current role as SVP and GC provides numerous opportunities to broaden his legal skills. In addition to being responsible for all legal matters, he has delved into less familiar topics like human resources, mergers and acquisitions, and others. “I’ve become a much more well-rounded lawyer since I joined Sentynl four years ago,” he says.

With just one other in-house lawyer on staff, Hercz relies on outside counsel to augment his team’s capabilities. Nonetheless, he has developed a base level of knowledge on all legal topics. “I have to understand enough to spot a problem, do triage, and develop a plan to solve it,” he says.

Tackling problems effectively and efficiently is important in his industry because when a pharmaceutical company faces major legal issues, the whole industry may be tarnished in the public eye. “Part of the solution is to avoid major compliance lapses,” Hercz says. This is where general counsels and compliance executives like Hercz are particularly valuable. “It is important that legal is at the table when making key decisions.”

As a leader at Sentynl’s table, Hercz says that smaller companies often benefit from their ability to have “organic discussions,” rather than the more siloed conversations that occur at larger companies. “Instead of having individuals make decisions in isolation, we have a collaborative discussion about how to approach an issue and gather input from various perspectives in the company,” Hercz explains. “New ideas are put forward, and thoughts are more advanced and informed.”

From a legal perspective, collaborating across departments means it’s less about running decisions by legal, and more about making decisions with legal—a quality that comes in handy when Hercz takes off his legal hat to lead his teams in HR, regulatory, and quality and helps them make business decisions with an eye toward compliance.

This collaborative approach is one of the many reasons Hercz is so well respected by his colleagues. As former colleague Jessica Walls, assistant general counsel of compliance at Becton Dickinson, explains, “Michael is great at explaining complex legal concepts to other business stakeholders and helping them understand why a decision is the right one instead of just telling them what to do and expecting them to follow suit. His approach creates a high level of trust and respect among the business.”

But above all, Hercz says his guiding principle in leadership and communication is much like the company’s mission.

“We have a shared view of transparency,” Hercz says. “Compliance and ethics are of paramount importance in this company, and the tone at the top has always been to do things the right way.”

As Hercz and his team prepare for the future, Sentynl’s ethical standards are what fuel the company’s next chapter of product offerings. “We’re looking to grow the company into other therapeutic areas in a logical, complementary way,” he explains. “Although we don’t have our own internal pipeline, we continually pursue business development opportunities and can commercialize products that our affiliates bring to market.”

Hercz says that this next step for the company offers an opportunity for him to welcome new members to his team that share in his excitement for reaching uncharted territory—and more so, are willing to weave the energy of legal into the fabric of the company.

“It really makes a difference to hire people with a good sense of humor and an even-keeled perspective,” he says. “I also look for individuals who are willing to roll up their sleeves and want to engage with their colleagues across the organization. You know you’re successful as a counselor when people in the business seek you out to talk or ask questions—and by doing all of that, you end up becoming more embedded in the business.”