There are a few things from my interview with Chris Anzalone, Ph.D., CEO of Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals, that weren’t included in April’s printed article. But as I found them instructive and funny, I thought it a good idea to share via Life Science Leader’s online exclusive — Beyond The Printed Page.
Authenticity Provides For Better Interviews
I interviewed Anzalone in person during the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM). He was incredibly transparent in sharing the adversity Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals has overcome to get to where it is today. That kind of transparency tends to make for a great interview, and the better the interview, the better the article. It never ceases to amaze me how biopharma company communication’s teams and/or PR firms can be so overly protective of their clients that it actually impedes communication. Limiting access or discouraging a leader from being authentic, in my opinion, does more damage to their ability to lead inside their organization, and certainly hasn’t proven beneficial in bolstering biopharma’s reputation on the outside.
Refreshingly, Anzalone seemed very authentic and unencumbered, and this came across as a leader who actually leads, which means making the tough decision, being accountable, and if you say something, you mean it. During part of our conversation, we were talking about the U.S. FDA hold on a Phase 2 clinical trial of Arrowhead’s lead drug candidate (ARC-520) aimed at treating chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV). The hold was actually prompted by deaths of monkeys in a separate study, and he faced the decision of either trying to overcome the hold, or go back to the R&D drawing board, as the company actually had what looked to be better science waiting in the wings. In the end, he decided to go the more difficult route (i.e., start over), and he remains accountable for that decision. Asked if he sought the counsel of others prior, this is what he had to say.
“I don’t know if this is the right way to do it, but the answer was ‘no’ on that. In those hard decisions, for me, I feel I need to be alone. I will articulate the vision, and people can disagree, and we can talk about it. But in formulating that decision, I felt equipped in determining what was right. Of course, I talked to the board, heard what they had to say, along with leaders in the company and my wife. But that first step, I needed to take by myself.”
The decision cost jobs and stock value in the short term, and even brought a securities class action suit. But as Anzalone attests, success in biopharma requires a willingness to play a long game, and as demonstrated, resolve and ultimate accountability.
Similarly, as a company that still believes in the power of producing a print publication, Life Science Leader plays a long game. For example, during the 2020JPM conference in January I posted a picture on social media of me with Anzalone. While I don’t believe I said I’d be writing an article about him or Arrowhead, this was inferred by a follower on Twitter who tweeted on Jan., 23, 2020, “Hi Rob @RfwrightLSL, now may be a good time for that $ARWR article detailing your discussion with Chris. LOL The stock has seemed to go south here in the past few weeks and some JPM details may assist buyers in understanding where the future may lie at the current time. Thanks.” I replied, “Patience is a virtue.” Because like Anzalone, I believe success requires a willingness to play the long game. Further, while I publish plenty of articles in online only formats, this interview was planned for print. Right now, I am working on this article in January, but it won’t appear until April. In my opinion, producing something worth printing is not best accomplished by rushing.
S*@t Storm Balls
You are likely wondering what the above subhead means. During my conversation with Anzalone, we were talking about the difficult period that resulted in his decision to take the company back to the R&D drawing board. As the FDA hold happened in November, Arrowhead’s CEO recalled being in the office on the Friday after Thanksgiving. “I was the only person in the office, and my wife came in with our two young children to visit,” he shares. “My son came running in , he was about eight, and asked, what are you doing here?” To this Anzalone replied, “Well, Daddy is working on what some would call a s*@t storm.” His son then asked, “What are those?” In his hand Anzalone was holding two ball bearings, the type you manipulate with one hand. Some call these Baoding balls, or Chinese mediation balls. Anzalone replied , “Well, you know the s*@t storm I’m dealing with, this helps me.” In walks Anzalone’s daughter, who is about a year and a half older than her brother. “What are those?” she asked, in reference to the balls. Anzalone’s son confidently replies very matter of fact, “Oh, those are Daddy’s s*@t storm balls.”
When Anzalone told me this story during our interview, everyone in the room laughed. I knew, though, this would never be in the print article. But I thought this an important anecdote to share. Because anyone who’s been a leader has had such days (i.e., working when most aren’t and making very difficult decisions). And though we tend to hold leaders to near-impossible standards, it is important to remember that they are also human beings. Most are trying to do the best that they can. And when you are able to find those brief moments of levity during difficult times, it can help put things in proper perspective.