Battling cancer on two wheels

Chris Boerner, AB ’93

Bristol Myers-Squibb employees jump for joy on the beach
Chris Boerner, AB ’93 (seventh from left), participates in the Coast 2 Coast bike relay to raise money for cancer research.

With a PhD in business, you might not expect Chris Boerner, AB ’93,  to be fighting cancer. Yet thanks to his job as head of international markets at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a leading biopharmaceutical company, he works to bring life-saving immuno-oncology cancer drugs to international markets. Also in his free time, Boerner participates in two bike rides that raise more than $1 million annually for cancer research.

When he started out as an undergraduate, though, Boerner’s focus was neither business nor biopharmacology. Not actually knowing what to study, he decided to major in history. Taking a class with Douglass North, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1993, expanded Boerner’s worldview, and he decided to double major in history and economics.

Chris Boerner, AB '93, in a garden
Chris Boerner, AB ’93, works at the forefront of oncology pharmaceutical research.

“What I remember most fondly about WashU was that there was a real commitment to diversity of thinking,” Boerner says. He also took a class team-taught by the late Thomas Eagleton, a U.S. senator from Missouri and the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science, and the late Murray Weidenbaum, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor and a conservative economist.

“They would analyze subjects from both a conservative and liberal point of view,” Boerner says. “And then leave it up to the students to formulate their own ideas.”

When Boerner graduated in 1993, he became an intern at Weidenbaum’s Center for the Study of American Business, now the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy. Boerner also did some consulting in St. Louis before enrolling at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley in 1996.

While working toward his PhD, Boerner decided to write his dissertation about the pharmaceutical industry. “I’d run across an article, oddly, about Bristol-Myers Squibb,” Boerner says. “And it talked about how BMS was exceptional at the time, developing and commercializing drugs in the oncology space. I began asking why it was that Bristol was so much better than other companies at that.”

He focused his research on product development and pharmaceuticals and after graduating decided to work in the industry. He took a job with McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. Although McKinsey works in many industries, Boerner’s clients were primarily leading pharmaceutical companies.

“I was interested in oncology specifically because I, like everyone, have had a number of family members who were either living with cancer or who had died from cancer.”

— Chris Boerner

“I just became fascinated by the work that was being done and by the impact the drugs that these companies were developing could have on patients,” Boerner says. In 2002, he took a job with Genentech, a leading biotechnology company, to work in its commercial group focused on oncology. He spent eight years there, where he held several commercial roles, including director of marketing for Avastin, a chemotherapy drug. While Boerner was at Genentech, the company went from having a small two-drug oncology portfolio to being one of the leaders in the field.

“I was very fortunate to be able to work on some of the most exciting science in oncology at the time,” Boerner says. “I was interested in oncology specifically because I, like everyone, have had a number of family members who were either living with cancer or who had died from cancer.”

After brief stints with smaller biotechnology startups, Boerner became president and head of the U.S. commercial business at Bristol-Myers Squibb in February 2015.

Just a year before he started, oncology employees had decided to organize a massive fundraiser in support of Stand Up to Cancer called Coast 2 Coast 4 Cancer.

“These are employees who are educating physicians and customers every day about the advances taking place in immuno-oncology,” Boerner says. “But they felt there was more that they could contribute, and so they came up with the idea to organize a bike ride across the country to raise money for cancer research.”

alumni biking
Two university alumni, Chris Boerner (right) and Lee M Krug, both of whom now work at pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, launched a coast-to-coast bike ride, from Oregon to the New Jersey shore, to raise money for cancer research. They rode past Washington University Sept. 20, 2016. (Courtesy photo)

Bristol-Myers Squibb provided the employees with coaches to help them get in shape for the 2,800-mile relay. Each team does a multi-day bike ride covering about 75 miles a day. The entire ride, which is held in September, takes about 20 days, and the course goes from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. In 2017, there were 93 riders, and they raised more than $1 million in support of Stand Up To Cancer. This September, 109 Bristol-Myers Squibb employees will once again train for 5 months to relay across the United States on a quest to make more memories for cancer patients and their loved ones. This year, all funds raised will benefit the V Foundation and money raised will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Bristol-Myers Squibb (up to $500,000).

“It’s a great ride,” Boerner says. “It’s probably one of the most moving and impactful things that I’ve done in my career, because every single one of those riders has a personal connection to cancer.”

In 2017, Boerner participated in the U.S. bike ride, then flew to Europe for a similarly styled fundraiser called Country to Country. This ride raises money for cancer programs outside of the United States. It was perfect for Boerner, who in October 2017 became head of international markets and oversee all BMS business outside of the U.S.

For Boerner, fighting cancer is a global effort. “The way we are ultimately going to make progress against cancer is not by Bristol-Myers Squibb working alone,” he says. “It’s going to be in partnership with institutions around the country and around the world, where incredibly innovative research is taking place.”

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