Conversations That Life Science Leaders Aren’t Having


Watch the full presentation video of Jeff Harman with Eric Richman, CEO of Gain Therapeutics:

Transcript of the presentation by Jeff Harmon :

Eric is currently the CEO of Gain Therapeutics based in Bethesda, Maryland and with offices, and team members all over the globe where they’re developing innovative therapies for Neurodegenerative diseases.

Who Eric is to me is energy, passion and wisdom. And I think all of those ways of being really are on full display in this conversation. I hope you enjoy it.

Eric, it is so exciting to have you. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation since we had a chance to meet a month or so ago. And, we just did a short intro of who you who you are to me.

I’d love for you to start our conversation out and just clues in a little bit on what you’re up to in the world, Sure. Well, Jeff, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it. I have spent about 25 years in early-stage biotech companies both as a venture investor and also in operations in building companies starting companies and working at companies, and a lot of my focus has really been on creating new treatments for diseases with unmet medical needs. And that’s something that has driven me since the day, I started in biotech and it’s something that I find. Very rewarding, very exciting and it’s something that I continue today. So, today, my current role, I am chief executive officer of a company called Gain Therapeutics, which is a very interesting, very unique company that’s only been possible because of advances in supercomputing and machine learning artificial, intelligence crossed with it completely separate field of advances in structural biology, and putting these two Fields together gives us the opportunity to identify new ways of treating diseases.

And that’s really the core foundation of the company. It’s a platform technology and we’re making great progress in doing just that finding new ways of treating diseases. I also work with a couple of companies in the pharmacy Services Area. One which is the central lab testing company global company. That is supporting about 460 clinical trials right now at company’s called lab connect and also started a company that is helping deliver, Some things very exciting products which are biologics to patients through IV administration’s. So it’s an infusion business ambulatory and infusion centers to provide the infrastructure. So that patients will be compliant and get these drugs that we’ve worked so hard in the industry to develop. So those are like I also serve on Boards of a couple of private and public companies. So that that’s what I’m up to these days.

When do you sleep? Oh, you know I used to think that it was very difficult because a lot of the operations of Gain Therapeutics are in Europe and we have offices in Lugano, Switzerland, and in Barcelona. So fortunately the phone quiets down by mid-afternoon here. So I’ve got plenty of time to focus on other things.

Awesome, that’s awesome. I have to ask you use the word Drive, what drives you and I’m just curious, what was it that, that flip the switch on that drive? Like, what was, what part of your story, that, sort of just clicked in? And then, and then, as brought you to where you are today, around being driven.

Well, the one thing which hasn’t really ever changed and it’s a surprise to me in my career is my enthusiasm and excitement about science and technology and advances in Innovation. And it when I first started working with a venture capital firm called Healthcare Ventures back in the late 80s and the head of it was a Visionary named Wally Steinberg and he came up with this crazy idea of sequencing the human genome and started a company called Human Genome  Sciences and then started another company called genetic therapy ink and actually using genes to deliver genes to patients that have mutations and be able to produce proteins. And I thought that is it that it can’t possibly get any more interesting or more exciting than sequencing the human genome and using gene therapy. And as, you know, these technologies have become reality. And they’ve only been replaced by more exciting things.

And there are so many exciting things going on in biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry and science that I love to keep up with it. I love to understand how merging different Technologies, can enable new treatments and that to me. That’s what drives 1 That’s a really exciting and I never get tired of it and it’s something that I don’t necessarily seek out, but unfortunate to have a lot of friends in the business and always hearing about new things and new inventions, for example, in academic centers, or in Pharma companies and Venture Capital funds. And it’s so exciting. And it just doesn’t seem to slow down so that that’s what drives me to a large extent.

The I mean I just literally mean we’re not in the same room, but your energy is contagious. I literally your body leaned in and your voice sped up and it was just, yeah, I was totally engaged. I’m not I work in the space with other leaders, but and so there’s a level of excitement that I have. But yeah, just really feel that that energy that you bring, I’m wondering. What’s, what are the earliest traces of your passion and love for Science and learning? Where can you trace that back to to earlier Point your life?

Well my I grew up in a family that is very scientifically focused. My brother is a physician. My sister has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and we didn’t sit around and talk about equations and things like that at the dinner table. But we had a similar way of thinking and it’s it. I think when I think about how we present arguments, how we discuss things. It can be, it’s almost similar to when you see a presentation from an academic Professor on some new area. It’s structured in that way and I just I’ve always been very science-minded and it’s something that is just always thrilled me. I’m not really sure there’s any specific event that led me this way, but I never got bored. And, you know, I think that people change careers a lot of times because they get bored and This area is just gets more and more exciting.

Hmm, I had somebody mentioned recently that we are either we are in it now or we are on the doorstep of the Golden Age around some of the developments around treatment because of the accessibility of data and the availability of data and do you agree with that or are we in your mind are we at the doorstep or actually already in this Golden Age II believe?

So I think that by combining different fields and being able to look at issues and problems and creating new tools to understand complex biological functions that has improved dramatically over the last several years and continues the some of the Tools that are being developed for industry or just absolutely remarkable and the, a lot of the technology comes from other areas. So, you know, just sequencing the human genome, for example, provided so much information. But what really is, most interesting, is that there are pockets of patients that suffer from rare diseases, for example, that maybe they weren’t diagnosed because there was no Treatment available, but they’re real diseases. They have a real impact on patients’ lives, their families lives and with various Diagnostics and various tools, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in creating new products for these patients. And frankly it’s been it’s very fulfilling.

So, when I was at a company called Medimmune many, many years ago, there was an affectionate disease called respiratory syncytial virus that affected premature infants. And there was no vaccine, there is no treatment. I meant there was nothing for these patients and we developed actually two products for RSV that with first products for this patient population. And suddenly and with the Advent of that product and making that available mortality in these patients, dropped dramatically morbility dropped and was able to really see and understand how some of these advances translate into reductions in mortality morbidity. And I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue my career and work with companies and work with people that have developed new products for unmet medical needs and that very, fulfilling, especially when you talk to the patient associations and really see how these products affect people’s lives.

Hmm It’s just it’s so exciting. The more I think I shared with you and I’m, a patient. Everybody’s a patient in one way, but, Yay I’m just , I’m so grateful. I mean, just on a personal note for, although you’re not working on my particular disease, just it’s when I hear the passion that people, like, you come to the table with and come every day to. It’s just, I almost breathed a sigh of relief like, ah, thank goodness guys like Eric, and he’s in teams like, his are doing this work, because it’s so exciting and so great. I’m so grateful.

Yeah, well, it’s I’m very lucky because the people that I work with are very much like that as well. And it’s maybe it’s an observation in an experiment that leads to a discovery that leads to you never know where it’s going to come from and what I’m working on right now Gain, Therapeutics is super, super exciting, because this area of neurodegenerative diseases has some is really an area that has inadequate treatments that are available for patients in these terribly Progressive diseases with tremendous amount of morbidity mortality. But also most importantly, adversely affects quality of life. And I think the next decade and a half is really the discovery age for new treatments, in central nervous system disorders for a variety of reasons. But what we’re doing at gain is we’re looking at for example Parkinson’s disease where there really are no adequate treatments.

There’s very little that’s proven to be effective in the clinic but instead of coming up with a treatment that we think is going to treat all Parkinson’s patients, we’re looking at genetically defined populations that end up developing Parkinson’s disease. So very small segments of patients that develop Parkinson’s disease and this is the way, for example, there have been so many advances in oncology over the past two decades used to think about breast cancer as a single disease. But in fact, it’s many different diseases. There’s are positive and negative  – Bracha Gene, only by segmenting, that population by genetics. We were able to make progress in this area and I see the same thing with central nervous system disorders.

And we are moving down a path of a very specific. Genetic mutation where these patients develop the most severe and earliest onset form of Parkinson’s disease. And now we probably won’t have a treatment that will treat all patients but we’re going to have likely or hopefully have a treatment and we’re making great, great progress with the treatment that will that will be able to be useful in the disease-modifying way for this patient population that has a genetic mutation and I’m sure there are others that are looking at other genetic mutations that in central nervous system disorders and it’s exciting. You know, there’s I really think that this the next two decades, you’re going to see a lot of advances in CNS.

Yeah again thank you for your passion. It’s really, it’s very exciting, it’s very exciting. So you’ve been in this space for a long time and you’ve seen a lot both as a contributor as well as as a leader where we are today in life science, in this called the Golden Age, if we if we want but what is what are the conversations that were not having enough that we should be having given where we are in this in this journey?

Well, I think a lot of things have to come together in order to develop new treatments, first of all, ideas, smart people, dedicated people, then there’s a regulatory path that has to be followed and there as a regulatory agency that’s excellent they work extremely well on a variety of different areas and there’s also funding, and where we are today. And what we’ve just seen over the last two years is being able to take a vaccine with a novel technology and create a vaccine for an emerging infectious disease, like covid-19 and doing a very, very short period of time. That’s possible. If we make some changes in, Some of the regulatory path if they’re promising treatments or Technologies being able to evaluate them perhaps in a different way or a shorter path for patients that have no other alternatives. That’s one of the things that I do hear some talking about that and I think that’s great and I think that’s been enabled by the advances during Covid, but right now in the last year so the Biotech Industry has really suffered a big loss in valuation for a variety of reasons. Some of it, really? It’s a covid, wars you know, all things are going on in our world right now but also a reluctance of investors to step in because valuations are following falling and this has been going on. Now since February 9th of 2021 and what is the impact of this? the impact is that when companies have a lower valuation, they tend to select which programs they want to move forward with. They have to figure out how to finance the company and they have a longer Runway. So, they have a, it’s much harder to finance.

So, they have a certain amount of cash, they’re going to pair down all their different ambitious programs. They’re going to focus on those that are they’ve already invested the most money and a perhaps those that lead to Value inflection points in the near term. And, what concerns me is what are those programs that were being developed? What’s happening to them, are they being put on the shelf where there was great enthusiasm two years ago and great progress because of a lack of funding and funding the ability to finance companies. What’s going to happen in development of these programs and ultimately what happens to this patient populations that could benefit from the maturation of these drugs and bringing them to market. So, I hear a lot of talk a lot of people are talking about. I just went to Investment Banking conference about a week ago in Miami and frankly it was very depressing because companies most biotech companies are trading at cash value or below cash which actually means that whatever we’re doing has no value.

And I can tell you that, Drugs, do have value and new drugs, New biologics, new approaches. There is value not only financial return, but value to patients and their families. And that’s a concern of mine is that this, this lack and reluctance to finance biotech companies is going to result in slower getting a product to Market slower and fewer products to Market.

Hmm, So, what is the opportunity in that? What’s the conversation there by, what’s the opportunity in that?

Well, I think that typically what happens and we’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the Biotech Industry and every industry and typically, after there is a prolonged downturn, kept companies, tend to focus on their most valuable assets, and they become very realistic about operations. And then, there’s either M&A which occurs from Big Pharma, trying to pick up programs and companies, but also most commonly you’ll likely see consolidation. And so, if there are three companies they are focusing on central nervous system disorders, maybe you don’t need three management teams, three financial teams, three investor relations teams, may be put them all together you realize very synergies and you move these programs forward. So i think that it’s kind of a natural, maybe a natural perming or the way I like to think about, it is an increase in efficiency and working together with other companies.

Hmm, if you put yourself in the shoes of one of those CEO’s who’s facing the realities that you just described, what and your vision your passion is as full as maybe as it was. But given the realities, how would you, how would you advise that leader to engage with their team to keep with the with the funding that they do have to pull out the best in them? What do you, what do you advising you’re telling that CEO?

Well, the way, the way I think about it is when there is anyway, we experienced this at medimmune very early on, we had a clinical study that was not successful statistically. But we saw a lot of Promise in this product and we ignored the financial markets, we ignored investors, we ignored everything that was going on. We ignored all the analysts that were following the company. The stock dropped dramatically and the CEO of the company, Wayne Hoffmeyer said, put your head down and focus on execution and we redid the clinical study. A lot of people left the company at the time because they were, they were there was a lot of uncertainty. But, we just focused on blocking and tackling and getting from one step to the next step to the next step. And, a few short years later the clinical trial was repeated it was efficacious, the product was approved, and there’s a new product for this disease, that had never been treated previously.

So, I take from that and I talked to my colleagues and when we talk about, what do you do in this environment?, you can’t spend half your day talking with investors who are upset because they bought it at a higher price and its lower today. You have to think about the long-term impact of what it is that you’re doing and execution. And every minute that you’re on the phone talking with investors is is time that you’re not focused on moving these programs forward. So we’re just, you know, we’re got our heads down, we’re focusing on execution and we’re trying to do more with less and becoming much more Capital efficient.

It reminds me of a quote by a football coach who would famously say we’re not. We’re not looking at the Super Bowl, just do your job. You’re on the offensive line, make the best block that you can, you know, focus on executing that first play and then if the Super Bowl comes that’s great but it just it feels like such a wise approach in whatever whether you’re, you know, you are flush with cash and investment and valuation or your. I’m not sure where, what tomorrow will bring it just feels like such a wise, some wise counsel, for wherever that company finds itself.

I mean, for employees, for the people who are actually working on a daily basis, it can be frustrating to them because they know that they have a technology that is going to be fruitful and developing new drugs and maybe they can’t work on five. They can only work on two. And so it’s this frustration that they have like can’t, we try this and can’t, we try that? It’s like, you know, that will come. That time will come. But first, we have to be successful in our Key Programs. So I know I think, that is broadly applicable to a number of different areas in Industries.

Yeah, you’re bringing in this, whole the subject, especially in the life science space biotech Pharma, you’re dealing with some of the smartest people in the world often wherever they are given the landscape. Not just this unique landscape that you described, but just there’s the term that’s being used, the great resignation and the, we’re going to a more employee centric environment. What’s required from, your seat? What’s required is you are leading people that might be different than it was 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago.

Well, I think by virtue of the either  the pandemic where people are working at home, or the internationalization of companies, or you’ve got people all over the world working and we find ourselves with offices in Barcelona and Switzerland. In the headquarters here where I am, Bethesda, Maryland. And our collaborators are all over the world. And so I actually think that it’s become more efficient. We’re actually able to communicate almost around the clock because there are people in different areas.

We have some people in California as well. I don’t think that, you know, I don’t think that there’s anything all that different. I think the challenge is to have communication, that’s effective and being able to have the types of communication that you would have in an office environment, where all citizens. The conference room, but have it with all employees or old, that key decision-makers that’s been somewhat of a challenge. But we’re getting used to it and I think that that I don’t know if we’re going to go back to the way things were but I actually think that it’s increasing efficiency.

Hmm, so, what is while it is, maybe not as you observed, massively different? What is what is being called forward by you of you as CEO? That’s that you need today. 20 2022.

Well, look, every biotech company well, look every company in the world they have a plan, then they have a risk communication plan in case, something goes wrong. But in today’s environment, we have risk communication plans to our risk communication plans because you know just things don’t move around the world they used to, clinical samples don’t move from you know let’s say Australia to other parts of the world because the airspace and Russia is closed off. You have to be you have to adapt very very quickly. You can’t you know that the minute that you put together a plan to execute on to get something done.

The minute that plan is done. It’s basically out of date because new factors are coming up every day and you have to be very, very nimble. You have to be very quick. You have to be able to make decisions very rapidly as a team. Not as because you have to understand these risks and, you know, used to be years ago when there was an issue as employee. Never heard about it, you know, you never ever really heard about it. There were people worried about it but you never really heard about. Now, we talked about all these risks all the time and so employees are always thinking if I can’t get samples across this border or to that CRO, or to this. They’re always thinking of dual ways of getting things done and we do a lot of things in parallel, just to mitigate those risks. That’s something very different than I thought about years ago.

And if we were, if we were to ask your team, what are they, what do you need most from Eric? And the senior leaders at Game? What would they say that they need most from you?

They would say a Clear Vision of where we’re going, what are we? Where are we going, what’s a priority? And that’s something that look in the scientific field. It’s always been a challenge because you have these brilliant people. That see things happening and they love working on that program. But there’s always side projects going on and you can I keep them focused and in order to keep them focused they need to hear what are the goals. Is what are the objectives? Where are we with these objectives? Have these objectives changed? They need that sense of direction and, and Leadership.

It, it also just from my conversations and I don’t know if your people would say this or not, but it feels like what’s required even more today than ever before is an environment where they feel safe, not physically safe, maybe that’s part of it. But to use the term that Google tapped into psychological safety that may be they wouldn’t be able to your people or employees wouldn’t be able to put words to it, but it feels more and more like that people want to feel safe. And my sense just listening to you is that with clarity comes as feeling of okay. The folks, the folks who are leading, they know what they’re doing, they’re smart people. And so, my senses, the clarity, the clarity that you communicate with specially division provides that that psychological safety for them to do, be able to keep their head down and to execute. Would you say that’s true?

Yes, yes I do think it’s true. I think it’s very true that was something very unique about Gain Therapeutics is that a lot of the people within the organization have worked together before in previous companies or known each other. For example, the founder of the company and I we’ve been friends for 15 years but I’ve never worked with them before. And so I have this inherent trust and in his judgment and we can have conversations that I don’t have to worry about political things. You know, we just can talk about things that are going to drive the programs forward drive the increased value for our stakeholders. And so that that level of familiarity with, in the company, it will at Gain is, is really refreshing  and so, when a new employees come in and they don’t have that relationship, they were aware of it.

And I think that adds to a level of safety, we also have example, we had a 45, our scientific Advisory board meeting yesterday and we have some really brilliant advisors and they have so much faith in what we’re doing, and these presenting data. And you know, so often you’re alone in a laboratory, you’re generating data, you’re reading you’re trying to put together what actually happened in that experiment, and you can see things this way or that way, but until it’s in a peer review journal where there’s a dream at that what you’ve done is in advance an advancement. Sometimes you don’t get that feedback and with our scientific Advisory Board, they get that feedback. And we have those types of meetings fairly often. So they understand that what they’re doing is relevant is driving value. If we need to make some course corrections, we do that. So I think it’s, you know, a lot of it comes down to just new ways of communicating.

The word that’s coming up and how you approach. Along with the founder. It just feels like there’s a very intentional way of going about. What you’re up to there is no, especially when you talk about risk plan upon risk plan upon risk plan. It feels like there’s a very intentional. That’s the word that just sort of ringing in my, in my mind and intentional way of going about, what you’re, what you’re doing. Would you say that’s a word that describes how you are in your leadership team are tackling things?

It, it is very intentional. And we’re also very fortunate because what we are doing is of tremendous interest to Big Pharma and big biotech. And, so we have very frequent interactions with big Pharma who interested in our programs, interested in our platform technology and we can understand what’s important to them. What it is that we’re doing. And so, you know, for example if  you talk to several different companies and they all say oh this is wonderful but we’d also like to see this. Then we all here as a company. This is an area that we really need to generate some additional data in and it’s very, very helpful. So, I think that adds to the the level of intensity of the work that we do and comprehensiveness of the work, and it’s all very intentional.

What would you hope that however, along this this Runway is for you? What would you hope that if we were, you were going to attend a roast of you at the, at your retirement? What would be three words that you would hope folks would be saying about you at that, at that moment?

Well, I would not want or roast I get that every night when I go home. Well! Not a roast like, really roasting you over the flames .But, an honoring or reflection who you were to folks, as you’re entering a new phase of your life and career. At that point, what would be three things you would hope they would say about you? Well, I would hope and something, I intentionally try to do is I really try to push people. I try to have expectations outside of what their own expectations are.

And I think that in a lot of people that I’ve worked with in the past, maybe they were much younger, whatever I pushed them in certain directions and really pulled the best out of them, which has benefited them. And, you know, I like to think about the work that I do is not only benefiting potentially benefiting patient populations, but also, the people that I work with and I want them to feel good about what they do and so, I would hope to hear comments along those lines.

That’s awesome. We could, we could probably talk for another hour Eric that we’re up against the clock here. So I’d like to end with the question. We ask all of our guests is if you could go back and have Quiet conversation or maybe not so quiet. That a conversation with the younger you before you became CEOs or a CEO of a company, What would you say to him? What would be the advice you would give to him?

Well, this is advice that I give to young entrepreneurs and students, I give this advice to them all the time and even my children, my children all want, they graduate college, they want the perfect position with the best benefits and they want to, they want to work in this field, but they only want to do this portion of this field or that portion of field, I tell them. If there’s an area that you’re interested, it doesn’t matter what job you started. If you have an opportunity to get moved from department to department department. Take that opportunity, learn everything you possibly can about an industry and not just focus in one little area, but if you have an opportunity to expand, take it, even if it’s a lateral movement, lower pay, doesn’t matter. Because the I just think that such an important part of growth is really having exposure to all different areas of the field that you’re interested in.

How would if you had, given that to the two younger you to younger Eric? how would he have benefited from hearing? That advice?

I think I would have been less specific about my needs. And when I was given opportunities to do this, or do that, I always thought about, you know, increasing increase in personal value increases, in terms of, you know, whether it was salary or something like that. But the most rewarding thing that I have done in my life is been able to experience many different areas and many different levels. And I remember very, very fondly, some of the jobs that I had, as a young person in biotech and I’d like them just as much as I do, as, as chairman of the board of certain companies. And, I think that that’s really embrace those those areas and those opportunities.

Sage advice, we really good my third, my 14 year old will be home in a few minutes. Would you mind if you stay on and you can give her that Gary Weis.

If she’s anything like my kids, they don’t listen to anything I have. That’s why I’m going to have you tell her, because he won’t listen to me.

This has been a lot of fun. Eric, I’m sure there’s folks that are listening in or watching that are curious to learn more or to connect with you. What what’s the best way for them to do that?

Yeah, well, thank you for asking that the best way is to go to our website gain And if you’d like to learn a little bit about what we’re doing, we have a tab there called perspectives, and those videotapes, there’s tutorials. There’s background information and I hope people are reading it. And so I find it really interesting, really exciting. But I think that patients and people today want to be much more involved in the treatments that are coming and this is a great way of being able to learn.

Awesome. Will put your LinkedIn profile address in the show notes will put Gains website there so people can hopefully look, look those things up and learn more. Thanks again, alright thank you, Jeff appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.