Gaurav Shah, M.D., is the CEO of Rocket Pharmaceuticals, a publicly traded (NASDAQ: RCKT) biopharmaceutical company. “We’re a relatively new company, about four years old, with four programs already in the clinic and another on the way,” he says. Being a platform agnostic gene therapy company, Rocket’s primary focus is on some rather rare diseases, such as Fanconi anemia, severe leukocyte adhesion deficiency-I (LAD-I), pyruvate kinase deficiency (PKD), infantile malignant osteopetrosis (IMO) and a heart failure program for Danon disease (DD). As such, Rocket has been doing a lot around Rare Disease Day (held on the last day of February). Last year, Rocket hosted its first Rare Disease Day in New York, featuring patients and families sharing their personal journeys with the NYC biotech community. The event was capped off by the lighting of the Empire State Building in the colors commemorating Rare Disease Day.
The theme for Rocket’s Rare Disease Day this year is, “I am RARE, hear me ROAR,” which is intended to highlight the Roaring ‘20s, a decade that saw the discovery of groundbreaking medicines (e.g., penicillin and insulin). This year the event will be held from 3-7 p.m. EST at Carnegie Hall on Sat. Feb. 29 (RSVP here).
The venue is interestingly appropriate, as Dr. Shah has actually performed at Carnegie Hall — as a musician. In fact, the band he’s in, Falu, was nominated for a GRAMMY Award in 2019! Yes. You read that correctly. This biopharmaceutical rare disease drug developer is part of a group nominated for one of the music industry’s highest honors (which we’ll get to in just a minute). “I’ve been singing and playing in a touring band since I was about 13 years old, and feel I’ve learned more about team building from this experience than any other training I’ve done — by far,” he says. “When you’re in a band, you have to pick bandmates that are going to inspire you to be your best, and in most cases, these musicians are better than you.” Shah asserts that one of his favorite parts of being in a band are the occasions where he isn’t singing or playing, yet, is in the middle surrounded by what’s being created. “It takes you to almost a divine place, and you don’t have to play or speak,” he elaborates. “When it’s so good that you can be sparse with what you add, that’s a great place to be.” The CEO says he applies a similar philosophy as the leader of a biopharmaceutical company (i.e., trying to hire a team he admires that are better than he, and be sparse). “My goal with Rocket Pharmaceuticals is to get to a point where I can just listen, be part of the dialogue, and add little points here and there.” And with that, let’s learn what it’s like being be nominated for a Grammy, which Shah discussed with me during our interview at this year’s annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.
What It’s Like For A Biopharma CEO Being Nominated For A GRAMMY Award
Having made three albums, Gaurav Shah has been involved in music for quite a while. “The most recent album was for my boy,” he shares. “It was an album for an Indian immigrant boy who finds himself living in the United States and being exposed to two cultures.” Shah describes it as a fairly random idea for writing, and in the process the songs just emerged. The result, “Falu’s Bazaar,” was a 61st GRAMMY Awards Nominee for Best Children’s Album. “I was on a plane heading to the University of Minnesota [one of Rocket Pharmaceutical’s partners] when I got a text from our band manager saying we had been nominated for a GRAMMY,” he states. Shah says he doesn’t know how they came to be nominated, but he remembered having tears in his eyes at the news.
Attending the GRAMMY Awards on Sun., Feb. 10, 2019, Dr. Shah describes it as an experience that puts your whole life into focus for 10 seconds in a way no other experience can. “Because you’re sitting in the midst of thousands of people, and when your category is announced, your name goes up, and people are looking at you, and you have to smile no matter what happens,” he explains. “It’s very rare in our lives for one moment to be so defining.” For example, in biopharma, usually data comes in, you raise money to build, you hire people, and so on, so everything is incremental. But being nominated for a GRAMMY and being at the GRAMMY’s when the nominations are announced, is like getting that letter telling you whether or not you got accepted into a college, with everyone getting to see your reaction. “The GRAMMY’s and the recording Academy are very good at making you feel like a winner, even when you’re not, which we weren’t, though we were very honored just to be nominated,” he continues. “In retrospect, it was a great to go through the experience of not winning.” Because though they had to smile when being informed that they hadn’t won, they then got to go over to the “loser’s bar.” “When you enter, everyone claps, because everyone knows you’re there because you didn't win,” he elaborates. And as the executive reflects, he compares the journey of getting to the GRAMMY’S as being very similar to drug development (i.e., built over many years). But he also found a new network of people from the experience, with many being likeminded in the sense of having combined music with other fields that feed one another. And similarly, Shah continues to broaden his horizons. For example, Biomusica, an organization in which he co-founded, officially kicked off in 2019 with the mission of promoting the healing, developmental, and community building abilities of music. While expanding Biomusica’s role and presence this year, to date it has held several events in conjunction with the Indianapolis-based Timeless Music Project, which holds events for children and families (in elder care centers for example) as a means of bringing the community together. “Biomusica also will have a presence at Rocket’s upcoming Rare Disease Day at Carnegie Hall,” Dr. Shah says. “Patients are losing their battle against rare diseases every day, and we are honored to be part of their journey in hopes of winning the war.”