CEO of Viropharma and Idera Pharmaceuticals talks about his journey into the biotech industry and what it takes to be to be successful in the growing field of life sciences in Philadelphia.
How did you get into this industry and what allowed you to become one of its leaders?
I started my career with KPMG and served life sciences companies. Upon arriving in Philadelphia from Princeton, I met the founders of ViroPharma, who became my first biotech client in the area. Claude Nash, the founding CEO, asked me to join him as CFO.
I was the 21st employee and like most biotech companies, we had our ups and downs. Claude is an outstanding person and an unusual founder. After a setback, he felt we needed to add a different skillset to the team. It happened to be his replacement, Michel de Rosen, who was the former CEO of Rhone Polenc Rhorer.
The opportunity to work closely with two terrific, but very different, CEO’s prepared me to become ViroPharma’s third and ultimately its final CEO.
Was there a pivotal event in your career that made a big difference?
I chose to become part of this industry because of my strong desire to help make a difference in patients’ lives. This really came to life about 3 months after I became CEO of ViroPharma with the acquisition of Lev Pharma and their soon to be approved product Cinryze, a prophylactic therapy for the rare disease, hereditary angioedema, or HAE. This became the centerpiece of ViroPharma and the epitome of our patient focused organization. It transformed us in so many important ways.
What interesting work is happening at your company right now?
I joined Idera Pharmaceuticals about 3 years ago. I am attracted to the possibilities of providing solutions to patients without good options. Today, we have a product candidate, IMO 2125 that has generated some very exciting data in helping to significantly improve the outcomes of metastatic melanoma patients who have failed anti PD1 therapy. These patients have very limited options with a poor prognosis. Our TLR 9 agonist essentially boosts the immune system to allow checkpoint inhibition to be more effective. The possibilities and potential are truly amazing.
What excites/interests you about your work?
In addition to my patient centricity, I am a culture fanatic. I believe that purpose, values and culture can serve as the compass to help companies navigate the many challenges they face. This is not a common belief and frankly takes significant work to align the people of the company. I enjoy the challenges of trying to build again an organization that possesses these ingredients.
What was your journey like to get you where you are?
I have been truly blessed in my life. From a supportive family to amazing colleagues to incredible mentors, I have had the opportunity to bring my positive attitude to both ViroPharma and Idera. The successes have been great but the setbacks are frankly the defining moments. By focusing on what we have control over and using the patient focus, values and culture, we were able to move forward with clear and objective thinking. It is this ability to block out the anxiety that made a real difference. I wouldn’t trade any of the setbacks for even one more success.
What kind of future do you see for the life science industry in the Philadelphia region?
I am an optimist and a huge believer in our great city and region. We have many talented people which is critical and we have great universities. I would specifically call out the gene therapy and cell therapy opportunities for our region, Spark Therapeutics is a wonderful story on so many levels. Great science led by Dr. Kathy High at CHOP, tenacious entrepreneurship from both Steve Altshuler and Jeff Marrazzo, and such a strong commitment to the city of Philadelphia. Why can’t this be done over and over again?
Do you think Philadelphia is a good place to start a biotechnology company?
I have been around Philadelphia for the vast majority of my life and its exciting to feel and see the vibe over the last several years. It is a great city for young people—the next generation of biotech leaders; the building out happening in West Philadelphia around both Penn and Drexel along with the Science Center is very intelligent and forward thinking. As they say in Field of Dreams—-if you build it they will come!
What are the key ingredients to be successful in this space?
My recurring themes are patient focus, shared values and strong culture driven by a positive attitude. This manifests itself in important ways to allow you to deal with the inevitable challenges around drug development, capital raising, launching and commercializing products and recruiting. It is also important be a part of your community. Despite the proliferation of technology, most people want to be around other people who share a common purpose. Creating a company with these characteristics becomes a magnet which increase the odds of success greatly.
What are the priorities for your company in the next 12 months?
Our priorities are focused on advancing our TLR 9 agonist, IMO 2125 in PD1 refractory melanoma toward registration. We are planning to initiate our phase 3 study in the 1st quarter of 2018 along with generating more data in the ongoing phase 2 study. We have seen 5 out of the first 10 patients respond, or 50%. This compares to the best available option of 13%. We have an obligation to these patients and their families to move as quickly as possible.
What fun have you had in recent months?
I have fun everyday. I love what I do. On the personal side, I am a runner and a skier. In November, 11 friends and I (team name is Run Forrest Run) completed our 6th Ragnar Relay, a 200 mile running race. This one was on the Big Island in Hawaii! Amazing race and place. In December, my extended family and I competed in our 14th 24hour downhill ski race in Tremblant, QC. It is for a great cause, childhood cancer research conducted out of the children’s cancer hospital in Montreal. Total funds raised were nearly $4million. Fun for a cause. Tough to beat.