Natalie Friel took the concept of stepping out of her comfort zone to a whole new level while working at Swiss biotech giant Roche. As quality control supervisor for a department with 300 employees, she had to learn to speak German.
“I had a year to study,” Freer said, “and it took me two years to feel comfortable. My boss said, ‘In six months, I’ll speak English with you, and after that…all in German .'”
With the help of a private tutor, she got to work. Freer calls it a lesson in vulnerability.
“Even though I feel like I might screw it up, it’s an act of courage to say things in German. As long as you use some verbs and nouns correctly, show a willingness to be wrong, it builds a lot of empathy for me as a leader, “she says. “Other employees who had to learn German came to the scene and felt my pain.”
Freer, who was born in South America to a Chilean mother and an American father, said the experience forced her to find other ways to communicate.
After Switzerland, Freer, a U.S. Army veteran who served as a captain in military intelligence, went on to work at Roche subsidiary Genentech in South San Francisco in 2019.
Her next stop is Resilience, which landed in Marlborough last year. The technology-based biomaker is building a new plant with the goal of increasing access to complex drugs. The facility is 85% complete and will open with a grand opening in 2023.
Freer said the company is trying to solve a problem in the industry, and she’s excited to help solve it.
“The cost of commodities or making new drugs is very high,” she said. “We’re looking for new ways to make these drugs at a lower cost and deliver them faster, not just replicating what others have done in the past.”
Change is everywhere, and so does the experience Friel provides. Flexible spaces will be the focus of the factory, with mobile, disposable technology designed to serve many customers and products. Friel’s early career work on the factory floor – emerging through support roles – proved valuable.
“This dual perspective is rare in our industry,” said Viet Nguyen, Resilience’s chief manufacturing officer. “It allows her to see both sides of the problem and strategy, think end-to-end, and speak with credibility across functions.”
During deployments in Iraq and Kosovo, Freer increased her confidence and leadership in the military. Nguyen says she’s good at identifying new leaders.
“Through a factory startup, she was able to build and lead a new leadership team that balances different personalities, diversity, experiences and demographics into a cohesive and effective team,” he said.
She was inspired to show young people what a biotechnology education can do for them. With the Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School near the new Resilience facility, the recruitment and talent pipeline program will be fully launched next year, and the organization will form partnerships with universities and technical schools.
Friel encourages students to do internships in biotechnology factories and learn about the many things biologists can do with this degree.
“There are all kinds of options in biotechnology. When I was in school, I couldn’t understand what people could do in the field,” Freer said.
For Friel, helping people new to the biotech industry realize its possibilities is what she can demonstrate and exemplify every day.