Tina Nova: A daydreamer from Delano who rocketed to San Diego biotech superstardom

 San Diego biotech entrepreneur Tina Nova.
San Diego biotech entrepreneur Tina Nova played a key role in developing the prostate specific antigen test, credited by some for helping slash prostate cancer death rates by 30 percent.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Tina Nova outworked and outperformed those around her to rise to the top of a male-dominated life science industry. And she wants other women and girls to believe they can, too.

As a young girl, Tina Nova woke up at 5 a.m. to rake hay on her family’s farm. Now she rises early to run some of San Diego’s most influential life science companies.

Nova is a veteran entrepreneur with a knack for tackling tough problems who’s stood out in the largely male-dominated biotech industry. She played a key role in developing the prostate specific antigen test, credited by some for helping slash prostate cancer death rates by 30 percent during the 1990s. Since then, she’s gone on to lead one successful biotech company after another, selling firms for hundreds of millions of dollars.

That track record has earned her widespread respect. In 2002, she was tapped to serve as the first female chair of Biocom, a California life science trade group that now represents 1,400 companies. In 2007, she won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in San Diego life sciences. And every now and then, former California Gov. Jerry Brown calls her to talk about “biotech stuff.”

“What goes through my mind is, ‘How in the world did I ever get here?’” said Nova. “It’s been an incredible journey. And it’s been fun.”

Nova, now 68, lives with her husband near Del Mar, but her journey began in Delano, a small town about a half-hour from Bakersfield, where she was born the oldest of four children in a tight-knit Greek family. All summer and every Saturday, she and her sister rose at the crack of dawn, hopped on a pair of tractors and raked cut alfalfa into neat rows, leaving it to dry into hay.

Nova’s grandparents, who also happened to be her next-door neighbors, assumed she’d settle down after high school and marry a Greek man they’d sponsored to come to the U.S. But she had other plans.

“It was there from the very beginning — I need something more, this isn’t enough,” Nova said. “I don’t want to just be married to the guy down the street and stay here and make lunch every day.”

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So instead, she hopped in her yellow Camaro and drove to UC Irvine, becoming the first person in her family to attend college. While in school, she washed dishes in a lab to make a little extra cash. One day, she noticed one of the researchers pipetting small amounts of liquid from one plastic tube to another. When she told him that what he was doing looked cool, he decided to test her pipetting skills.

Turns out she was better than him.

She went from washing dishes to eventually running experiments. But she still couldn’t shake the feeling that a young woman from a small town and humble beginnings wasn’t cut out to be a scientist.

The right mentor changed all that. After graduating from UCI, Nova worked for a couple of years in a lab at UC Riverside run by biochemist Jolinda Traugh, who saw a spark in Nova and decided to fan the flames.

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“She said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I just want to do this the rest of my life.’ And then for two years, I got publications with her, I got posters, and I was running circles around people. She was like, ‘You need to go to grad school,’” Nova said.

She ended up earning her doctorate in biochemistry in Traugh’s lab and going to New York University for a few years of extra training. Then, in 1984, she joined Hybritech, San Diego’s first biotech company. While there, she joined a team of scientists working on a blood test that would measure levels of prostate specific antigen, or PSA, a protein made by healthy prostate cells but churned out in higher amounts by cancerous cells.

There was just one problem: The molecule kept breaking apart when researchers tried measuring it. So Nova started tinkering with ways to stabilize the protein, trying techniques she’d learned in grad school.

It worked. In 1986, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the PSA test to monitor patients who’d already been diagnosed with prostate cancer. And in 1994, the agency cleared the test’s use to help detect cancer in men without symptoms.

For her efforts, Nova got a modest $100 bonus. Some of her next career moves proved to be far more lucrative. After stints at Ligand Pharmaceuticals and Nanogen, she went on to co-found Genoptix Medical Laboratory in 1999 and served as its CEO. The Carlsbad lab, which processes patient samples to help diagnose leukemias, lymphomas and other cancers, was sold to Novartis in 2011 for $475 million. And after leading roles at Illumina and Molecular Stethoscope, she served as CEO of Decipher Biosciences, which develops genetic tests for prostate and bladder cancers. The company was sold in March to Veracyte for $800 million, with Nova now serving as Veracyte’s manager of thyroid and urologic cancers.

But money’s never been a big motivator for her, she says. Instead, Nova relishes the challenge of building (and sometimes reviving) companies and convincing scientists, board members and investors to buy into a common vision and turn it into a reality.

“It’s a lot of work and it’s not an easy job at all,” Nova said. “It’s almost like I look for that. Oh, this is going to be tough? Perfect. It’s an easy job? No, I don’t want it.”

Some of the hurdles went well beyond the usual challenges of biotech. Like the meetings when Nova could tell that male investors weren’t taking her seriously. Or when she was asked whether she planned to return to work after having a child (she did). Or the time when a Japanese executive asked her to fetch him tea while he read through an agreement his company was about to sign with hers (she didn’t budge).

Each time, she responded in her usual way — outworking and outperforming those around her. And she’s worked equally hard to inspire other young women and girls to pursue science over the years, speaking at UCSD, SDSU, High Tech High and La Jolla Country Day, among other places.

Her message? It doesn’t matter what school you went to or what your parents did for a living. What matters is how hard you’re willing to work. And that’s what she looks for in potential hires, often passing up the stellar student for the candidate who’s visibly passionate about the job.

“It’s a cool profession. And, no, it’s not the guy in the lab with the lab coat with the thick glasses who has no personality,” Nova said. “You can be a cool girl, and you can be really hip, and you can be in the lab.”