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Every Second Counts – LifeSciVC

By Aoife Brennan, former CEO of Synlogic, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC

I have recently completed a turn around the biotech sun: a seven-year assignment at Synlogic that ended this year when an early readout of our Phase 3 program indicated that it was unlikely to meet its primary endpoint.

Did I dream of a different outcome for the company – a therapeutic that helped thousands of patients and provided a generous return for investors and employees? Absolutely. Do I consider the past seven years to have been a waste of time? Absolutely not.

One of the things that attracted me to Synlogic was the opportunity to work on something new:  new drugs based on genetically engineered bacteria. It was high risk: I joined as chief medical officer three days before our first FDA meeting where we discussed the regulatory path for these potential products. It could have been a very short tenure had that meeting not gone well.  Defining how these products get developed from a regulatory perspective was just one of many challenges we overcame.

Many of us at the company (including me) believe that we could have worked it out with our lead program with enough time and money to iterate but we ran out of both and now will rely on others to take the field forward. The kind of work we did can really only be done at a company with access to the capital required to learn from cost-intensive clinical trials. Our experience speaks to the importance of appropriate incentives for risk capital. We are hopeful that we have reduced the risk for the next group to have a go.

There are many technical learnings that will be shared over the coming months and years, but the most unexpected lessons were the ones about teams and culture. When I joined, I thought it would be a fun few years as CMO before moving on to do a similar job at another company. I did not expect to be catapulted into a role as a public company CEO leading a cross functional team through many crises including a global pandemic.

  1. So goes the leadership team, so goes the company

At smaller companies (and potentially bigger ones too) the tone really is set from the top and any dysfunction at the leadership team level trickles down the organization and is magnified as it goes. You cannot expect functions to collaborate well together if the people at the top of the house are not modeling good behavior. It is pretty amazing but an unexpected number of people have achieved status in our industry without learning how to work with peers. Having a strong team who had built a foundation of trust really helped in making a crisp decision once the data was not supportive of moving forward.

  1. Reality check

When I initially stepped into the CEO role, I asked the chairman of the board, the incomparable Peter Barrett, how he and I should work together. ‘Just don’t bullshit me’ was his simple and straightforward advice. Turns out he is not the only one to have a distaste for BS. Being a CEO means balancing optimism and passion for the mission of the organization with a grounding in the brutal facts. The team must sense that you know what is going on, good and bad, and feel comfortable pointing out challenges and problems.  Your most valuable currency as a CEO is trust and the fastest way to lose trust is to dismiss or bury reality.

  1. Continuous improvement

Two areas that I know I will continue to work on, probably for the rest of my life, are communications and hiring. Getting the team the information and context they need to be motivated and effective in their roles is both critical and difficult to do well. Silos and information hoarding are problems that require constant vigilance in an organization. Similarly, for hiring, it remains incredibly challenging to predict who will perform well in a given context. A history of being able to navigate difficult situations and stick through things for long enough to learn and adapt is helpful. ‘Jumpy’ resumes are not necessarily negative, they just do not provide that positive biomarker of growth potential.

  1. Every second counts

Earlier this year, I made the show ‘The Bear’ required viewing for the team. On the surface, it is a show based on a restaurant in Chicago and has nothing to do with biotech. On a deeper level however, it is a rich source of lessons on finding your mission, dealing with the unexpected in life, seizing opportunities decisively, and execution. While time is the x-axis on all our development plans, is used to measure our finances ‘burn’, and is critical to the patients we all strive to help, it is also the glue of human connection and driver of personal development. Considering the multidimensional element of time may be the most important aspect of the CEO role.

In a world full of uncertainty, the Synlogic team took on uncertain challenge of developing a new therapeutic modality with me. We learned and grew together and made every second count. Thank you all!