Magazine Article | April 1, 2020

Insights From A First-Time Biotech CEO

Source: Life Science Leader

By Alessandro Riva, M.D.

I spent the early years of my career as a practicing oncologist and then moved to the pharmaceutical industry because I felt I could have a greater impact by driving R&D for innovative therapies. I went on to lead global R&D teams, had the privilege of registering numerous oncology therapies, and later spent time as a global head of oncology therapeutics and cell therapy at an established pharma company. I was deeply committed because of the immense unmet need that exists for patients living with cancer.

"Remind your staff regularly that there are patients out there waiting for new options."

In 2019 I became the founding CEO of Ichnos Sciences, an emerging biotechnology company. For me, this was a logical next step not only in my professional career but also in my personal journey. I was attracted to this role because I saw it as a unique opportunity to shape research efforts and advance medical science to get us closer to potential cures for challenging diseases. Because I believe a cure is possible.

Throughout my career I’ve identified and embraced certain values and leadership strategies that I believe are important to any company in this industry.


In order to be truly innovative, it is important to create a corporate culture that supports innovation, shares information, and allows for a work-life balance so that colleagues remain engaged. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way toward achieving such a culture:

  • Don’t be afraid of failure. We learn valuable lessons by trying new approaches. Whether the outcome was positive, negative, or neutral, we all benefit from the research that was done in the past. We need to take appropriate scientific risks in our research if we intend to produce big shifts in how patients are treated. The corporate culture of our companies needs to reflect that reality.
  • Take a bottom-up approach. Every employee at all levels and across all disciplines has something to contribute. As such, it’s important that employees have ownership of their projects and can actively participate in setting company strategy. They need to know that their perspective is valued.
  • Be transparent. No matter how big your company, look at it as one organization, and make sure your colleagues are informed about what is happening across the company. If you operate globally, it is even more important that you communicate regularly and make use of technology such as videoconferencing to enhance the effectiveness of that communication.
  • Provide employees with a flexible work environment. Technology has changed the business world; many employees no longer must be physically at their desk in the office for a certain number of set hours during the day to get their work done. But from a leadership standpoint, there must be trust. I have found that people benefit from having the freedom to do their work in the way that best suits them. With the latest technology, this is easily accomplished, and this approach can help attract new talent to your company while also helping you retain many of your existing staff.


In biopharma organizations both big and small, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. So remember to:

  • Remain purpose driven. I believe it is critical to marry the scientific work of each team with an organization’s overall purpose. That’s why I articulate our mission and vision often; I remind the team that the patients we aim to treat are our priority.
  • Move in the same direction. Make sure that across disciplines, locations, and cultures, all employees share a common set of goals. Regularly communicating and reinforcing your plan to advance the business will ensure that all stakeholders are aligned.

"No matter how big your company, look at it as one organization, and make sure your colleagues are informed about what is happening across the company."

Alessandro Riva, M.D.
CEO, Ichnos Sciences



I am a firm believer that “we” is much stronger than “me” and that working together will help us build upon our individual ideas and move treatment forward. Therefore, I’m a big advocate of:

  • Breaking down silos — As pharma leaders, it should always be our goal to break down barriers within our organizations so that individual teams are truly functioning as one. To help accomplish that, I make myself visible and accessible to help build trust and demonstrate the importance of open communication. In my leaders, I expect the same.
  • Establishing regular team meetings — I schedule routine meetings with the teams doing the work, not just the team leaders. Good communication is the first step in collaboration.
  • Implementing frequent cross-functional touchpoints — I expect colleagues from across the organization to meet regularly. Team members need to be informed about what is happening and have ample opportunity to provide input. For example, it is vitally important for our discovery teams to work with the clinical development teams to understand opportunities and challenges as we advance candidates into the clinic.
  • Conducting site visits — Though our headquarters is in the New York City area, I visit our other locations on a regular basis. During these visits, I make it a priority to spend time with people in each functional area to understand how they work, appreciate the challenges they face, and determine what else they may need to succeed.


Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as biopharma leaders we need to work tirelessly for the benefit of the patients. It may seem obvious to say that companies in healthcare need to focus on the needs of patients; they are, after all, the reason we exist in the first place. But sometimes, thanks to day-to-day pressures and the minutia of any job, we can lose sight of the big picture.

Remind your staff regularly that there are patients out there waiting for new options, waiting for hope — and for cures. Make sure every team member feels a personal sense of responsibility for achieving this outcome. Stress that they should strive for more than the just the status quo. They should be expected to look for new approaches, to challenge and support one another to go further, and to look deeper and take scientific risks.

When I became CEO of Ichnos, I knew that to be successful, I would need to establish a unique culture and foster an innovative mindset — I’m sure those are some of the primary goals of any biopharma leader. Similarly, I wanted to instill in all of our employees the belief that — together — we can shift treatment forward and potentially bring to market curative medicines that can change the courses of patients’ lives. The needs of these patients drive me and shape the values at our company. As biopharma leaders, it should be our goal to see these values embodied by all employees and reflected in the work we do as an industry. Shaping who we are and who we want to become is an important responsibility — one that I do not take lightly.