by Erica SunkinJul 07, 2021
NEA's Q&A series is focused on the company building journey and the impactful work of leaders across NEA’s portfolio. Our goal is to shed light on unique perspectives, guiding principles, defining moments, and lessons learned. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What led you to join Nkarta?
Nkarta was on my radar long before I joined—before it was even a company, in fact. In late 2014 or early 2015, I got a call from a friend, Simeon George, out of the blue. He said, "Hey, we're working on this NK cell company and we're looking for a scientist who can go into a lab and repeat the founder’s scientific work so we can decide whether to build a company around it."
I knew that a former colleague of mine, Sasha Lazetic, was looking for something new, so I told her about my call with Simeon and the terrific work Dario Campana, the founder, had been doing. She loved NK cells and ended up becoming one of Nkarta’s first employees. That was my first connection to Nkarta.
A few years later, I was approached by Ali Behbahani right before JP Morgan Healthcare Conference to talk about this hot little company called Nkarta. I met up with the whole founding team at JP Morgan, and that's where it really started. Interviewing for the CEO role, I reconnected with Sasha—who was now one of six employees—and talked to everybody at the company. I did my homework on the technology and fell in love with the company and the opportunity.
It was incredible to be involved very innocently by offering a referral, then, to have them come back a few years later and go, "Hey, what about you? We need someone to run the company." It was nice. And I've been nothing but thrilled since day one with this company.
What is Nkarta? What are you targeting and how is your approach differentiated?
Right now, Nkarta is focused solely on harnessing the power of allogeneic, engineered, off the shelf natural killer cells in oncology. The NK cell is a natural cell that our bodies produce. We are harnessing NK cells, which are a part of the innate immune system, to search for and target tumors and eliminate them. They really are a natural killer cell, designed to protect us from tumorigenic cells, but our immune system does not make enough of them to kill aggressive tumors. So, we isolate them from a healthy donor.
We are proliferating and expanding them and making them ”off the shelf,” cryopreserved in a vial so they're frozen and can be dosed at the bedside. The fact that they work as fast as they do means you can dose them multiple times like an antibody. The fact that they expand so well with our founder’s expansion technology means it’s not cost-prohibitive to manufacture them. Think of it as a little Pac-Man. Inside the NK cells are these lytic granules that tend to be very powerful and potent at killing. These lytic granules get released from the NK cells and go after the tumor, do their job and get out of the system.
I am inspired by these immune-based therapies because we aren’t creating a synthetic version of something using toxins. We're taking a natural human element, manufacturing it in quantities that allow it to be used like a drug and using it like a drug. It's really one of the most natural forms of tumor killing out there. These therapies are safer, more potent and faster. They naturally home in on tumors. It's a really exciting time. This area of cell therapy is just taking off like a rocket ship.
What are some recent milestones for the company, and what are you most excited about in the upcoming months?
Some things we’ve done that I am proud of are that we've recently had our second Investigational New Drug (IND) application cleared. We also just completed a deal with another NEA company, CRISPR Therapeutics, where we're using their gene engineering technologies to enhance the ability of our NK cells to attack tumors. That's a huge deal.
These things are all exciting to me. Every step along the way, we're thoughtfully building this company and working to make it better and better. We're also building the team—in fact, we hired 40 people during the pandemic.
At the end of this year, we hope to present an update on a handful of patients who have been treated with our first NK cell therapy for acute myelogenous leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. We're also planning the design, implementation and construction of our commercial manufacturing facility.
What was your approach to leadership during pandemic, particularly given the rapid growth of your team?
What we really wanted to do was to make sure that the scientific work, the underpinning of the company, would continue to thrive and that our clinical trial would proceed as planned. Those who needed to do experiments in the lab used a software guidance scheduler that our head of informatics and IT created, which allowed for a staged approach where people could go in and use the lab and be socially distanced from others so that it was always safe.
I've always believed that if you trust people to do the right thing, they will do the right thing. We maintained a lot of flexibility around when people could come in, so that those who needed to be at home to care for their kids or parents or relatives could do that. When they did come into the office, there were very strict protocols—employees had to be tested once a week, they had to wear masks, they had to be socially distanced. We were very, very careful.
The rest of us worked from home, using Zoom for our weekly all-hands meetings and to stay in touch with everyone. People talk about Zoom fatigue, but I think Zoom saved us. Zoom allowed us to function. It allowed us to engage with one another in ways that we couldn't with other technologies. The company kept going.
Then, as everybody was getting vaccinated, we decided to open the office on June 15th. We told people, "Hey, the office is open. You don't need to come in if you are effective working remotely and you're not needed in the labs. But if you want to come back to work, let us know and we'll provide accommodation so you have a space to work and we can continue to stay socially distanced."
We didn't miss a beat, not one beat from the hiring to the financing to the running of our clinical trials. There were some challenges with the clinical trials, just because some patients did not want to take the risk of leaving their home to travel to academic centers where the studies are conducted, but we managed through all that.
How would you describe your leadership style and approach to team building?
This business is so complex, that the concept of transparency is really important. If you ask anybody, the major quality of my leadership style—it's open, direct, transparent communication. I don't want anyone surprised about anything. I want you to know what it's going to take. I want you to know what it’s going to cost. If there is a surprise, I'm going to let you know before it becomes a huge surprise. I want to have constant communication with the board. So transparent communication is one.
Diversity within the company is also critically important to me. The work that I had done in diversity inclusion at BIO, the Biotech Innovation Organization, led me to firmly believe, scientifically, in the importance of diversity in the workforce. We're in the field of biotechnology and science, and scientists, by nature, are inquisitive and open-minded. It is a nice field to be in if you want to promote this, because you're dealing with very intelligent people who understand the value of bringing diverse backgrounds together to solve a scientific problem. We have a board that is close to 75% diverse—people of color, women, LGBTQIA+. We have a leadership team that reflects the communities we live in. I think that is really important.
Standing up for what is right from a social justice point of view is also very important to me, as an individual and as a CEO. If an Asian hate crime occurs in San Francisco, and I know that 40% of my workforce at Nkarta is Asian-American, I'm going to stand up and get together with a bunch of like-minded CEOs and fight for this and say, 'We're not going to tolerate this in our city of love, in San Francisco.” I spend a lot of time on this, because I'm in a unique position as an openly LGBTQIA+ CEO, to be able to say, "Dammit, this is who I am!” I want to support people who may have felt like I have felt in the past—that being yourself wasn't necessarily the right thing to do for your career. I want to make it so that being yourself is always the right thing to do for your career, and you should be proud of it.
As CEO, what are the most important ways you cultivate or strengthen the company’s culture?
When I was younger, I was climbing the ladder and it was fun. But now I like mentoring young scientists and helping them develop into the people they want to be. I like showing them that they can be leaders, and that they can run companies.
I truly believe in letting people do what they do well and creating opportunities for growth. When I go on the road to talk to Wall Street, I take my leadership team with me. When someone asks a scientific question, they ask the CSO. When someone asks a financial question, they ask the CFO. I believe very strongly in a team approach across all aspects of our business. I don't have the answers to every question, but I want to surround myself with people that do, and then give those people the opportunity to do grow and develop in their careers.
The core of Nkarta is the technology and bringing new treatments to patients. But there are all these other things around it—the culture, the leadership philosophy, the org structure—and if you can get all those things right, you can create this highly motivated, highly dedicated, ownership-oriented workforce that believes that you're there for them and wants to be there for the company. It creates a symbiotic relationship that is an amazing thing to watch.
What’s been your experience as an LGBTQIA+ leader?
Being an openly gay man and CEO has given me the gift of empathy. When you come from a diverse background or have overcome adversity, you learn that you can conquer anything. Not with brute force, but with intellect—by being deliberate and thoughtful and doing the right thing. That provides you with a kind of social awareness that this is something you can do and something you can help other people with.
I'm a gay person who talks about the fact that I'm gay. I'm a patient advocate who talks about my Crohn's disease. A lot of people are afraid of being this open, but I have no fear in having any of those discussions. You don't want to force it on people. You just want to show people that you have the empathy, that you have the ability to relate.
I think adversity and diversity are gifts. And if you happen to be lucky enough to have a diverse background or have overcome an adversity, I think it makes you a more well-rounded person and makes you a better leader.
As I was coming up in the industry I watched people. I identified the qualities that I most admired in others and said, this is what I want to be as a leader. It’s no longer acceptable for a CEO to just run a business—you’ve got to lead. That means sometimes you have to stick your neck out there and say you’re sorry, or “We made a mistake." We have to be accountable—that is what we do in science.
Is there any specific advice that you’d offer to an LGBTQIA+ leader in the early stages of company building?
For me, it is critically important to be able to be myself in any organization I am working in. I want to know that the people working with me are comfortable with who I am. I don’t want there to be any surprises. When I was in my early thirties interviewing with Henri Termeer at Genzyme, I sat down with him and said, “I just want you to know, I’m openly gay. If you have a problem with that, I’m going to get back on the plane and go back where I came from.” And just saying that for the first time, was like whoa. It was a very big deal. But he responded, “I don’t have a problem with that. The company doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s great. Let’s keep talking.”
When you are gay, sometimes you don't know who you're offending. When I was not open about being gay, people often assumed I was straight and would speak about gay people in front of me. That is why I always tell people to know their surroundings and the people they surround themselves with. Whether you are straight, gay, female, a person of color, etc. it is important to know the wolves that are around you and know what they're likely to do.
Think about how much time you spend at work every day. You need to have somebody you can look to and say, okay, I can follow that person. If you're an LGBTQIA+ person and you're at a company where you don't admire the leadership, go somewhere else. Whatever you're looking for, the environment you want to work in exists. You can pick wherever you want to work, and you can get whatever you want to get. In the same breath, you need to know who your allies are, work with your allies, and develop your allies.
And then, if and when injustice is done, I believe in being transparent about that. If you fail, you should talk about why. If you lost your job, that is okay. I've lost jobs too; I've been fired before. I tell people all the time if you haven't been fired at least once you're not effective enough. You have to challenge the system.
Many things play into the idea of being successful. There are so many different pieces to it. And it’s not all centered around doing what people want you to do, but also in allowing yourself to be yourself. I am a 61-year-old gay man; in my community we all grew up not being able to be ourselves. So, if you can be yourself, and be productive, be accepted, and accept others, then you are that much more successful.
Bonus lightning round:
What was your first job? Paper route at 13 years old.
What is your best productivity tip? Be yourself.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning? Coffee, peloton or gym. But I have to have coffee first.
What keeps you up at night? Worrying. Yep, I worry about our patients and if they’re going to respond to the drugs. I worry about people and what they’re going to do. I’m a worrier.
What aspect of company building brings you the greatest satisfaction/fulfillment/joy? Hiring the best people and watching them grow.
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