Where did your interest in healthcare come from? How did you determine to start Phosplatin Therapeutics, and what motivated you to do this? What were your first steps to form the company?
Graduating from CBS in 2009 was an interesting time to enter the job market, to say the least. I came to the MBA with a sense that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and what I realized while in school was that I wanted to be in an IP-driven business. I had done international entrepreneurial work in different forms prior to CBS, but I knew I needed better skills, and I was not sure the form these desires were going to take after graduation. I was looking at different entrepreneurial opportunities with a classmate in 2009, and a mentor who was on the adjunct faculty at CBS was helping me to assess them. This was Robert Fallon, our CEO and my co-founder at Phosplatin Therapeutics. At that time, amidst these discussions, he and I came to realize that we had an opportunity to start our own company. He had found the underlying technology we now work with at Ohio University, his undergraduate alma mater, and after a period of evaluation we were able to license the technology and start the company. Besides the desire to be an entrepreneur, I was motivated to help people with cancer. Everyone has a connection with this disease, directly or indirectly. It also quickly became clear to us that the field was undergoing an extraordinary time. The oncology therapeutics field also draws its own unique set of people – there is definitely a social motivation in our field, and it’s clear that it now exists in our company. Robert felt the same way back then, and one day late in 2010 while he was still teaching at CBS we signed our documents and formed the company sitting together in Uris Deli.
Without a hard science background or PhD, how did you penetrate the life science industry?
Linda Meehan, Associate Dean of Admissions at CBS when I was enrolled, said to me, “You will be shocked in a couple years about who you are sitting across the table from, and about how you are conversing on their level.” She was right. I’ve had to pinch myself many, many times. But if you do your homework and have some measure of self-confidence, you can learn how to do anything you want. The world doesn’t just operate because people have multiple degrees following their names. And PhD’s and physicians need counterparts who think in strategic or business terms. Robert and I don’t pretend we are doctors, and our doctors know that we enjoy learning from them and absorbing their knowledge, and that we respect them. Mutual respect is incredibly important, and humility goes a long way in the life science industry, too. In our field you are never better than the disease, or better than someone else’s technology. And only if you can clearly demonstrate the advantages your product confers can you advance. And that requires studying, no matter what your degree background. The way we look at it, competition from one company to another can also become secondary, because the ideal with a good drug is to follow the data and go where the technology takes us, and to find a way somehow to take the drug where it is meant to end up.
How has your experience prepared you for this role, and what are you having to learn on the job? How did CBS prepare you?
I previously had finance related internships in college, and for a time thought I was going to be a finance type. But after college I went off to Europe on an academic scholarship and ended up staying there for a time, and then working in the NGO and non-profit world for several years. By the time I got to CBS, I was drinking from a firehose, and for me the training was very much life-altering. My favorite class ended up being Laurie Hodrick’s Advanced Corporate Finance. I would say my outlook was changed more dramatically than most, given my background – CBS gave me all these tools that let me approach opportunities in a much more informed way, and I think the variety in my background helps me to put pieces together in a holistic way. Beyond that, I think Columbia should be proud of having people affiliated with it who aim to conduct a company with ethics. Robert has the highest standards, and we have all learned from him that it is possible to run a healthcare company that is focused on people, and on patients. The profits will come with a good product, but nothing will happen without the quality of work and the high standards we all try to uphold.
When starting the company, how did you know the correct path for company formation?
Within the CBS curriculum, at least at the time, there was little information on how actually to start a company. It is better now, Intellectual Property for Entrepreneurs and Managers is a great class related to this, for example. But given our different set of career experience back then, we had to work carefully to make the right financial and legal decisions getting started. We knew the decisions we made at the time would stay with the company for as long as it exists. An important lesson I learned is that in entrepreneurship you can’t do anything alone; Robert and I leaned on outside expertise a lot. We had excellent lawyers, both corporate and IP attorneys, and we were lucky to be able to consult with some experts, but we had to do a lot of homework to sort out what choices to make.
Can you walk through your hiring process and how that has changed as you’ve grown as a company?
We’ve hired a real contingent of CBS people, actually: two full-timers and quite a number of in-school interns early on. With each hire now, we are becoming more and more focused. Our most recent hire has experience with the complex field of regulatory affairs, for example. But we always try to hire people that have the right combination of financial or managerial knowledge and domain experience in the industry, or the ability to quickly pick up the technical aspects of the industry. There isn’t a button that you press that changes you from a start-up to a company that hires targeted employees. It’s more about a natural evolution, and a sense of how needs change for the company over time, and that evolution seems to be starting for us. We now realize that we need a certain type of person for specific tasks. We have doubled in size over the last year and-a-half as we have started more trials, and with the strategic partnerships we’re managing. When we first started, we had a university sponsored researched program, and needed someone who had experience managing R&D. We found a CBS member who helped us realize how to manage the beginnings of the R&D operation. Once we began the IND-enabling process with FDA, we knew needed a whole range different skill sets and disciplines, and those came from outside consultants initially. One of the great things about what we call the NY biotech model is the ability to go find very finite technical know-how for specific tasks and questions during research and development, and to do it wherever it exists. But as we grew into the clinic, the needs changed yet again, and we have since moved more employees in house. That trend continues. We’ve realized that at the end of the day no one will care more about our product and our company than the employees inside the company.
Please talk about your relationship with your investors: How did you find them?
We have remained completely independent, have no institutional money to date, and are funded via private individuals and family offices, along with our Greater China sub-license agreement, which gives us fee income. We have raised money via a staged funding approach. We set a milestone, hit that milestone, and then go raise funds for the next stage. There are not a lot of times when we aren’t thinking about fund raising, but thanks to Robert we have a very sound and professional management approach, so we have been recommended from current investors to additional family offices.
Your most recent public abstract was on a dose escalation study with 62 patients, can you talk about the anxiety of working at a Phase 1 company and waiting for data to come back?
There is plenty of that. In this field we are always in need of the next data. I can think of one time that we were flying to Tokyo to meet with some pharma companies and a major biotech VC fund. I remember being in the airport lounge at JFK when I got the data from our first mouse efficacy model: this was the first time our university lab data were validated. I sat on the plane and put together the presentation for the meeting in Tokyo, which was going to take place with or without the data we needed.
What is your favorite CBS memory – and you can’t say starting Phosplatin in Uris Deli?
It was definitely my first surf lesson in Buzios, Brazil during spring break with my J-term friends. By the way, the lesson was in Portuguese, and I don’t speak it at all.