From The Editor | August 22, 2018

The Appeal Of A Good Underdog Story

Dan Schell author page headshot

By Dan Schell, Editorial Director, Life Science Leader

The Appeal Of A Good Underdog Story

Like many people, I’ve always loved a good underdog story. When I started here I was writing about small IT-related companies that had struggled through some industry challenge only to come out stronger and more successful in the end. That kind of story still appeals to me today as I seek out and coordinate all of the content for Life Science Leader.

Last month we had a good example in the article “A Medical Device Innovator’s Long Road To Success.”  It tells the story of how Enable Injections and Atricure founder Mike Hooven and his wife Susan started his first company, Enable Medical, in their basement after he cashed in his J&J stock options and turned down $100,000 in VC money. It’s a story that includes failures — which are common in this industry — and the fortitude of a leader to pivot a business and start from scratch.

It’s not uncommon for Big Pharma employees to leave the relative stability of their jobs and venture into the unknown of the startup world. But these days you hear about it happening more frequently as small and new biopharmas have been actively seeking this kind of expertise for everything from drug development, to acquisition, to even an IPO. Owen Roberts talks about enlisting some Big Pharma help after the 85-person company he was working for as CFO was burning through money and had to transition to a virtual pharma with only three employees. When he realized their drug needed to be reformulated, he turned to three veteran Big Pharma chemists who had recently been laid off or had taken early retirement due to mergers. The three came up with a new formulation for the company’s lead compound, which later led to a patent and the ultimate sale of the company. “This is something that could never have happened if Big Pharma hadn’t started laying off their most experienced chemists,” says Roberts.

Our September issue has a story that puts a twist on this theme. Before he started Context Therapeutics (an oncology-focused biopharma), Martin Lehr wasn’t employed by a Big Pharma — or any pharma for that matter. He was a VC grinding out 80-hour work weeks in pursuit of becoming a general partner (GP). As he started serving on the boards of some of the VC’s pharma-related portfolio companies, he realized there was a problem: He felt like a fraud. “Who was I to opine about drug development and strategy to a CEO with 25+ years’ experience?” he says in his upcoming CEO Corner article “My Life As A Recovering VC, Zigging Where Others Zag.” It was then that Lehr decided to pivot his career, and in essence, become an underdog himself. Be sure to subscribe (for free) so you don’t miss this or any of our in-depth and exclusive stories about pharma executives from big and small companies.