By Camille Mojica Rey
Polaris Partners’ Amy Schulman is a lawyer by training. She also happens to be an artist. Her medium is the fledgling biopharma startup. From the raw material of amazing science and passionate researchers, she creates successful companies. It’s been seven years since Schulman arrived in Boston, leaving behind a job at Pfizer, Inc., where she served as executive vice president, general counsel and was responsible for leading the company’s $4 billion consumer healthcare business. Schulman joined investment firm Polaris Partners in 2015. Her first stint as CEO of a Polaris-backed company resulted in the sale of that company, Arsia Therapeutics, to Eagle Pharmaceuticals for $76 million a year after she took the helm.
Schulman says Boston is a vibrant and welcoming environment for biopharma. “It’s fast-paced and inclusive. If you’ve got an idea on how to move a company or technology forward, there is a seat for you at the table.”
Today, Schulman serves as CEO of Polaris-backed companies Lyndra and Olivo, is executive chair of SQZ Biotech and Suono Bio, and is on the boards of directors of a list of other companies, as well as the Whitehead Institute. She also teaches legal and corporate accountability as a senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Business. At Life Science Leader, we were interested to learn about leadership from someone who has made an art of it.
LIFE SCIENCE LEADER: The failure rate of startup biopharma companies continues to be high. In your job with Polaris Partners, how do you steer a company toward success?
SCHULMAN: I have an understanding of the path — how to get from here to there, from extraordinary science to thriving company. For me, the stumbling block should not be the business model — that’s where I can help. The ideal is to be as capable and fearless in business development as the team developing the science. But, it is challenging to fit a game-changing idea into an existing business model. It’s our job to define a different, creative business approach. Sometimes the science is a niche play. For others, there are much bigger applications. Understanding the balance and specific potential, while not constraining the platform, is the key.
LSL: You are currently the CEO of two companies and are involved in leading a long list of others. Large or small, how would you describe your role at each company?
SCHULMAN: First of all, I take on companies that are at various stages. So, thankfully, they do not all require the same amount of input. My job, in general, is to translate, refine, and edit the ideas. I am not afraid to dive into the science. I understand what’s happening even though the language is not my native tongue. At this point in my career, I relish bringing forth the great ideas of other people. And, in biopharma, that means building a high-performing team that is not unduly anxious and reactive when faced with the inevitable obstacles in drug development.
LSL: What does a startup gain by having an investor/CEO?
SCHULMAN: Ideally, what you gain is the freedom to focus on the science. It’s important to not be distracted by early-stage fund-raising and team-building. It’s also helpful to have a mentor whose only interest is in seeing the company thrive. But, it really depends on the state of the science and the founding team. One of the requirements that Polaris has is that one of the founding scientists has to stay in an active role.
LSL: What are the challenges you face coming in as an investor and an outsider to a small company?
SCHULMAN: The older I get, the more sure I am that leadership is about other people and never about yourself. That’s incredibly powerful. Biotech is a remarkably welcoming intellectual environment. It’s not a zero-sum game, as in other business sectors. People are in it because they truly want to improve lives. When I first came to Boston, people were skeptical, and understandably so. They wondered what a Big Pharma executive and a nonscientist had to bring to the table. Despite those questions, the level of acceptance has been remarkable.
LSL: How do you motivate the employees of these companies?
SCHULMAN: The people I encounter in biopharma are highly motivated individuals who are driven to help the world. My job is to empower them and make sure that obstacles don’t get in the way. I make sure the culture is consistent with rewarding and sustaining that drive. A company has to give people a chance to grow and learn. People want to give as much as they get. Money is part of that, but caring for the whole person is necessary, too.
LSL: What’s the most daunting challenge you see for biopharma startups trying to bring a drug to market?
SCHULMAN: It’s such a long haul. You can’t be spasmodically reactive to what else is going on in the industry. That is exhausting, distracting, and not sustainable. Part of my job is to say to the team: “I got this.” You worry about the things that matter — like getting the science right — and I will build a foundation that will allow us to move forward, thrive, and make good decisions.
LSL: What advice would you give to someone interested in plunging into the world of startups, either as an investor or as an innovator?
SCHULMAN: Be discriminating. It’s so easy to fall in love with an idea. Bringing a product to market is tough. It’s a road that requires a lot of fortitude. Never, ever compromise on integrity. Follow your instincts. Work with people you like and trust. Don’t fail to invest in culture early on. Scientists are used to using intellect in figuring things out. Building a successful team is not intuitive to everyone who comes out of a Ph.D. program, and it cannot be an afterthought in building a great company. Apply the same rigor to building the company that you apply to science.
Scientists are born optimists. They use logic to figure things out and make things work. Optimism bias is critical to get through the early stages of drug development. But, at some point, you need to figure out how to temper that optimism with reality. That means having a team that knows how and when to push back. This is critical if the company is going to endure and grow. Culture really matters. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked. If the culture is right from the beginning, you will find you get better, faster solutions to the problems that arise. Multiple perspectives need to be empowered to engage and integrate the science with the business. You want people who are always going to be zealous about noticing what doesn’t work. And that can’t happen if people are working in silos or leaving half of their brains at the door because they are not encouraged to contribute. Everyone must feel they are part of a team; that they are learning, growing, and that their input is valued.
LSL: What have you learned about leadership since taking on executive roles at fledgling biopharma companies?
SCHULMAN: I have learned that leadership is an art form — not a set of discrete principles that follow the same order for every company. You need to trust your intuition and use creativity. There is an intangible element to success. It’s different for every company, and, for each one, it will be revealed to you if you allow yourself to lean into what the company needs. The best leaders balance control, vision for where the company’s going, conviction, and a tolerance for ambiguity. Each company and leadership team is not comfortable with the same proportion of those things. But every company needs a leader who can deploy those skills variably and responsively. That’s something that we should aspire to as leaders.