In 2007, a group of scientists from Duke University began the process of pursuing VC funding to start a company. The vision: Create a pharmaceutical company focused on discovering and developing the next generation of G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) targeted medicines. The best places to start? Recruiting next-generation leadership.
In order to be successful, start-up biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies need CEOs who are generalists, combining the necessary blend of business acumen, scientific understanding, and communication skills.
Dr. Maxine Gowen is the epitome of next-generation leadership. Trevena, the company initially envisioned by those Duke scientists, recruited her to be the company’s founding president and CEO. I caught up with Gowen after a “very busy weekend.” For some CEOs a busy weekend might involve giving a speech, accepting an award, or hiring a new CFO, all of which she has done recently. Max — as she prefers to be called — spent a busy weekend at home, wrestling with weeds and dead growth inside a 50-year-old box hedge. Obviously, she is the type of leader who is not afraid to take a very hands-on approach in both her personal and professional life in order to get things done.
From Scientist To CEO
After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, she went on to finish a Ph.D. in cell biology. Gowen soon achieved the “Holy Grail” for most postdoctoral students — a tenured academic teaching and researching position. Yet, today she is the CEO of a start-up pharmaceutical company. I was curious as to how this happened.
She admits that she “sort of fell into” pharmaceutical R&D. Part of this she attributes to her love for the science, but the other driving factor was her sister’s diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis. In the process of researching the disease, Gowen discovered that very little was known about it and its cause. “As I learned about what pharmaceutical companies do, I realized that doing scientific-based research was one thing. But, applying that to finding new medicines was what I really wanted to do,” she remarks.
Gowen’s pharmaceutical R&D journey began when she was approached by SmithKlineBeecham, the precursor to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) about a research position. During the interview process, she gained an appreciation of the quality of scientific research taking place in industry. Gowen concluded that the best thing she could do with her expertise was to apply her skills as an industry researcher.
For the next 15 years, she climbed the R&D corporate ladder, eventually reaching the level of senior VP for GSK’s center of excellence for external drug discovery. Along the way, she gained valuable venture capital experience, serving as the partner and VP of SR One, a wholly owned affiliate of GSK that invests in privately held pharmaceutical companies engaged in R&D. During a three-year stint, Gowen evaluated and led transactions investing in innovative healthcare companies to the tune of around $242 million.
The combination of her life sciences venture capital knowledge, along with her academic and industry research experience, positioned her very well for becoming the CEO of a small pharmaceutical start-up. However, those traits alone aren’t the only next-generation leadership characteristics she possesses.
What Does Next-Generation Leadership Look Like?
During our discussion, I asked Gowen a variety of questions aimed at discovering what makes up a next-generation leader. Most successful CEOs are described as being visionary, and Gowen attributes much of her success to the people she recruited. She explains that during the initial recruiting process, she had to “paint a vision” which excited people to leave fairly secure positions at large companies to join a small company with a finite amount of funding. This can be tough at any time, but try doing it during one of the worst economic recessions in U.S. history. Gowen specifically recruited people who were not risk-averse, searching for those who not only had areas of desired expertise, but who also demonstrated the ability to thrive in a rapidly changing environment rather than suffering from increased anxiety. People who test high for entrepreneurial initiative appeal to Gowen. In addition, she assesses their personality traits to create the “right mix of people for a successful team.” The proper blend of expertise and personalities are key to building solid teams. Gowen advises not trying to build a team of “all-stars.” In her experience these often don’t work since egos can interfere with team cohesiveness and collaboration. “If I’m good at anything, it is finding the people who have a way of making me look good,” she laughs. Gowen admits that she does trust her gut when hiring and building teams. “I look for people whom I really connect with on a personal level and believe I’ll enjoy seeing every day,” she says.
Next-Generation Leaders Understand And Proactively Address Their Weaknesses
Having already been to the top of the academic mountain, I asked what prompted her to go back into academic rigors and pursue an MBA from Wharton. Gowen’s response, “Actually, I got a bit stuck in my career as a fairly senior R&D manager at GSK.” She realized that she didn’t know very much outside the world of science. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that period of study again, but also what a phenomenally steep learning curve it was for me. I came out understanding not only a lot more about how companies function, but also about how the business world works. It was a shock to me actually how ignorant I was,” Gowen recounts. The willingness to be a constant learner, being excited to start with a “blank page,” and gaining enjoyment from creating things seem to be some of the other keys to successful next-generation leaders. Lastly, Gowen believes leaders need to clearly and consistently demonstrate, as well as communicate to the team, that the top executive, not they, will be accountable if the company fails. By taking on this burden, leaders can alleviate employee fear of failure. In so doing, Trevena’s employees have greater freedom to go about doing their jobs, thus allowing Gowen to focus on hers.
Adaptability And Focus: Key Leadership Traits
One of the leadership traits exemplified by Gowen has been her ability to quickly adapt to changing dynamics. For example, she has become keenly vigilant about her company’s future VC financing. As a new CEO, this was not something she initially anticipated. “I expected there would be six-month bursts of company financing,” she laments. “You’d raise a couple of years’ worth of cash, and then you’d sort of set that aside for eighteen months and not come back to it until the last six months of your financing.” Quickly realizing the importance of funding, Gowen began to view VC financing as a continuous process, introducing the company to new parties and trying to garner interest in the company. This continuous approach has been key to ensuring Trevena’s survival during its early phases of growth.
Another leadership trait Gowen exhibits is being highly focused. Trevena is in the business of GPCR drug discovery, not a bad place to be when one considers that nearly half of all pharmaceuticals on the market are GPCRs. These include such household names as Claritin, Prozac, Imitrex, and Zantac. The problem is there are hundreds of viable GPCRs. Which of these should Trevena target its efforts toward? Gowen quickly recognized the importance of having highly focused research in order to achieve fast results. “I realized we couldn’t spend 5 or 10 years determining where to focus our research. We had to come up with something that would translate very quickly into proving this concept and making other people believe in it and, at the same time, generating valuable new medicines. In the end, the greatest ideas don’t get picked up if you don’t make good drugs after them,” says Gowen. She decided to target just two therapeutic categories: acute decompensated heart failure and pain/inflammation. “I think we made good early decisions there,” said Gowen. Utilizing a decision-making algorithm, Gowen described some of the factors that went into those decisions, such as how much data there was and the availability of animal models to test the ideas. Did clinical avenues exist which could be followed? Would the idea have enough benefit to make the drug attractive and differentiated? The final and most important component for where to focus research was determined by evaluating how quickly a project could move forward. Gowen believed tangible results needed to be achieved within the first six months of the company’s existence. “If we couldn’t get something really moving within the first series of funding,” she says, “I didn’t know that we would be able to get future support.”
To that end, the first project Trevena chose to work on was a peptide drug, which may seem a bit unusual, according to Gowen. Peptides are known for having a variety of limitations, such as low bioavailability, instability, and an awkward route of administration (i.e. bloodstream injection). Recent technology enhancements are reducing peptide drug limitations, making their pursuit more viable. One of the advantages to small peptides is they are very specific in nature. Therefore, if you have the right indication, work on peptides is fairly straightforward. Gowen thought Trevena had an indication that was perfectly suited to a small peptide. It favored a continuous infusion. As a result, much of the early type of drug research was simplified, allowing Trevena to move quickly through the drug discovery phase and into the clinic in under two years. Gowen sees this as being a very fast pace.
Quick Decisions Build Momentum
Gowen believes her company’s early success has been a result of one of her other leadership traits, the ability to make quick decisions on tough issues. “Small companies who have restricted access to cash have to make really tough decisions on a daily basis, because you have to trade off defraying risk with making your capital last,” she affirms. “You do think about every single decision you make very carefully.” However, at a small start-up, you have the ability to deal with issues in “real time.” This results in the ability to make careful decisions quickly. As it turns out, this became one of the “absolute delights” for Gowen. Laughing, she elaborates, “I’d spent the previous 15 years in a very large company. I had become very accustomed to my calendar being completely full for weeks in advance. Such that, if anyone had an idea or called you up wanting to talk, you would say ‘of course,’ and schedule it three months in the future. You get really used to that time frame.” Being slow does not does not equate to careful decision making, just as being quick does not equate to being careless. “In organizations that aren’t very large,” she says, “you hit an obstacle, and you gather your team together to figure out how you’ll get around it.” Given the right leadership, decision making can be both quick and careful. Small companies cannot afford to be slow nor careless, or they will be out of funding and out of business. Gowen’s quick decision making has helped Trevena rapidly build momentum.
It is evident that Maxine Gowen enjoys this feeling of rapid forward momentum, and the industry has been taking notice. Not only was Trevena named one of the “players” in the GPCR marketplace, but Gowen was recently named one of the top 10 women in biotech. This next-generation leader also was named “Best Executive: Nonservices Business” at the 7th Annual Stevie Awards for Women in Business. Not bad for a former academic and first-time CEO.