Why biotech CEOs must carry that risk-taking gene

There’s an evolutionary benefit to being a risk-taker: Our loincloth-adorned forebears needed, after all, a fearless leader to explore uncharted, food-filled territory. In today’s society, who possesses these genes? Biotech leaders simply must be among the carriers, argues Louis Garguilo of Outsourced Pharma. He writes: Who might express this risk-taking gene in our industry if not the […]

There’s an evolutionary benefit to being a risk-taker: Our loincloth-adorned forebears needed, after all, a fearless leader to explore uncharted, food-filled territory. In today’s society, who possesses these genes?

Biotech leaders simply must be among the carriers, argues Louis Garguilo of Outsourced Pharma. He writes:

Who might express this risk-taking gene in our industry if not the leaders of biotechs? Why else would a highly intelligent individual start a drug discovery company, despite possessing full knowledge of the odds for failure in an industry requiring over $1 billion and a decade to get a drug developed and approved?

Garguilo interviewed three biotech CEOs – Robert Gould of Epizyme, Hank Safferstein of Cognition Therapeutics and Joe Payne of Arcturus Therapeutics. There were four prevailing themes among ’em:

1. A wait to set sail 

Like modern-day Vasco da Gamas, our CEOs focus on a far-off horizon and patiently prepare for the long journey. Their steady-as-you-go outlook, though, is antithetical to that of the get-rich-quick ideal we often attach to modern entrepreneurs, particularly those in other industries.

“Certainly drug discovery is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who don’t want to take a long-term perspective,” Gould said.

2. A profound belief in success

That unwavering confidence that allows a risk-taker to take the plunge is paramount to the success of a biotech, given the general odds of success CEOs face at the outset of a startup:

When I ask Safferstein of Cognition Therapeutics what phase his compound is in, he quickens his speech: “We discovered a novel target for Alzheimer’s disease, and we are hopeful we will be published on this soon. We are doing formulation, pulling the trigger on IND-enabling studies and deep into CMC. We are there.” To be clear, “there” is also a candidate moving towards the clinic in 2015.

The point here is that a clarity of vision — a near messianic message and belief of better things to come — is part of the make-up of biotech executives. That assuredness stems in large part from a philosophic approach to the risk factors inherent in their long-term endeavors.

3. Risk is relative

Gould from Epizyme says risk is mitigated by your strategy and the very technology and science you are bringing to the challenge. Epizyme is discovering first-in-class small molecules applied to new understanding of the cancer genome for personalized therapeutics in genetically defined patients. “You have to embrace a certain amount of risk-taking, particularly if you want to do it in a novel area combining a number of fields and sciences. In trying to bring all these together, we know there is a chance of failure, because that is what the history points to.”

4. Drive not defined by dollars

Business is business, and as such, is driven mostly by the bottom line. Mostly, not always. Our CEOs desire to do well (financially) by doing good (for society), but they are intently focused on the “good” side of the equation — none more convincingly than Safferstein.

“Twenty-eight years ago my dad was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease,” he says evenly. “At the time, I was astounded, we had no idea what to do, no way to treat ALS. And today we still struggle with this disease. This suggests to me the approaches in the industry may be misplaced.

“For diseases like Lou Gehrig’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s, we need to step back and remember how some of the most important drugs in our time were discovered,” Safferstein continues. “It was by looking at phenotypic changes in specific cells or systems and using those as a measure for finding new drugs.”

Safferstein lauds the power of the “finetuned approach” of genetics, epigenetics, and proteomics, but says, “We have focused on them too much.” He believes it is better to try to create the disease system to capture therapeutic approaches that work on multiple pathways in multiple ways. Placing this approach back in the mainstream is a goal for him.

“Companies must manage returns for investors and focus on share price, but at the end of the day, none of that exists unless we improve public health,” concludes Safferstein. “That really drives me to get up every day and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Read the entire piece at Life Science Leader here.

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