by Kate BarrettFeb 25, 2021
This is the first interview in a new Q&A series 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.
You’re currently CEO of Annexon, a 6-year-old biopharma company. What was the journey like to this point in your career?
I started out as an attorney, first serving a federal clerkship and then going to work as a litigator at a large firm. One day I got a call from Amgen. I didn’t know much about Amgen or biotechnology at the time, but I got to know both very quickly. Shortly thereafter I went in-house, and I’ve been focused on biopharma ever since.
About two years later I was recruited to Genentech. This was still early days, and the company was shifting their focus into oncology. They had great, novel science and a highly diverse environment. There was no dress code, just a casual intensity—show up and add value. It was a fast-growing company, so I got involved with a lot of different aspects of the business. I was exposed to the core of biotech, from development through commercialization. I learned what good looked like.
About five years later, I took another leap—this time to the business side at Elan. I ran multiple franchises and parts of the business over the next eight years, ultimately serving as head of operations until the company was sold in 2014. I thought I’d take some time off, start a non-profit, maybe travel the world.
But as it turned out, there was some very interesting science on neurodegenerative disease processes being developed in the labs of the late Ben Barres at Stanford. Elan’s former head of research Ted Yednock was already working on it, and they wanted to see if they could stand up a company. They reached out to me and said, look, we’ve got no money, no employees… will you come help us build this thing?
So instead of taking a break, I took another leap of faith, and we began building Annexon. It was a bet on the people, and the science. And frankly, I was a little scared not to take the risk. When doors open to you, the regret isn’t going to be that you walked through that door, but that you didn’t.
What diseases or patient populations is Annexon focused on?
At Annexon, our mission is to stop the disease process in a range of neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases where there is significant unmet need. Our approach in neurodegenerative diseases is novel, and perhaps simpler, in that rather than trying to understand what causes diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or Huntington’s, we’re focused on understanding the underlying disease process associated with synaptic loss and neuronal death, and thus changing the course of the disease. In autoimmune diseases we’re focused on blocking aberrant complement activation that drives antibody attack and tissue damage in a host of orphan diseases.
We are currently running six clinical studies in five different diseases with a biomarker-led approach, which means we can assess the right indications and patient populations most likely to respond to our approach, as well as objectively assess our drug’s impact in early trial. Because there are no approved therapies for any of the indications we’re pursuing today, we really have an opportunity to meaningfully impact patients’ lives.
Annexon went public in July; what is it like being CEO of a publicly traded company, and how has your role changed?
It’s definitely different. Developing a great company with great people that executes exceedingly well both strategically and operationally—that’s all internally focused. As a public company, you have to do all of that and make sure that the market really understands your mission, that you’re putting forth credible milestones, and that you do what you say.
The funds that have invested in us over the last six years have tended to be the ones that have done deep diligence—they get under the hood and we invite that. I love the scientific discussion and the rigor that’s involved. We get better, and they better understand us. Most investors in the public markets won’t be able to do that level of diligence, which means we have to simplify the story and really understand the key drivers for investors and how to communicate with that audience, as well our other core constituents like physicians and patients.
At the end of the day, everything is done with the patient in mind. Drug development is hard; there are much easier ways to make money. But if you’re doing it for the patients, you’re going to get up in the morning and fight hard each day. Building a company from scratch has shown me just how important that is—we work directly with patients and advocacy groups, and there is no substitute for hearing firsthand from someone who has the disease.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Coming from a litigation background where everything is done in teams has definitely shaped my leadership style. We do everything in a team construct, with a focus on high integration. I want people to be connected, comfortable expressing their views, and confident in their ability to solve problems wherever they are in the organization. I don’t pigeon-hole anybody—after all, I’m only on the business side today because people thought I had good ideas as a lawyer.
What is the culture like at Annexon? How do you instill and safeguard that culture, particularly during the pandemic?
Literally show up as you are—just show up and add value. It’s very open and direct, but very respectful. There’s a casual intensity to it and people know that. Our mantra is go, fight, win. Being a sports guy, that’s just how I think about it—there are 32 teams in the NFL, and the ones who win consistently win because of their culture.
I think you have to be very intentional about culture. I do 1-1s with everyone in the organization at least once or twice a year. I want to understand how everyone is doing, what’s on their plate, what’s working well, and what’s not. Our team has more than doubled in size over the last year—all during COVID, remotely. So most of my 1-1s now are with people I’ve never met in person. It’s amazing.
We’re providing leadership training to every employee, because I want everyone to feel like an owner or founder. I want them to really look for ways to solve problems, to create value, to help us go faster, better, smarter. We have a very active Culture Club, with activities centered around education, health and wellness, and fun. Just showing we’re engaged with everyone is a big part of building the culture. People see that we care about each other, so they care too. I think that’s really important.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
I like smart, engaged people with passion—people who have a history of playing with their heart and their mind. I like people who know what great looks like, and who have an idea how to get there. I want to work alongside people who have solved big problems or fought through some level of adversity to succeed, because the plan you make is rarely what actually happens. You want people on your team who know what to do when the plan must be modified.
Diversity is a huge factor—we want people from different countries, different backgrounds, different industries. Today two-thirds of our employees are women, and 40% identify as racially diverse. I think that’s essential. If the problems we’re tackling could be solved with a homogeneous or standardized approach, they would have been solved a long time ago. To truly innovate, you have to take a novel, smart, rigorous approach to things. That requires bringing together people with different backgrounds and fostering an environment where they are integrated and empowered to add value.
What has been your experience as a black leader in biopharma? Are there ways it has shaped the way you lead your company?
I’ve been in corporate America for 30 years. Being one of very few blacks, particularly on leadership teams, wasn’t part of something I consciously thought about on a daily basis—you recognize it, but that doesn’t change the playing field. Since becoming CEO and particularly since going public—and in light of the events over the last year—that has changed. There has been a lot more demand on me to be visible, to speak out more, and it’s a responsibility I’ve embraced. It’s important that each of us does what we can to effect positive change.
As a company, we have a mandate to interview racially diverse candidates for every position that we have open. We also are putting this responsibility on our service providers; if we’re spending money with you, we need to understand what your diversity numbers look like. Coming from the law firm service provider side, I know that when your clients start asking you those questions, you get better at bringing in more diverse candidates and hiring in more diversity. And when service providers hire more diverse candidates, it increases the pool from which we can hire. It’s all interconnected.
What advice would you offer to diverse founders or emerging leaders?
Connectivity is important. You need to find people you can connect to and speak with who have done or been involved in things that you want to do. Because they will help you in multiple ways, one of which is perspective. Sometimes when you are one of very few in an industry and something happens, you can take the view, ‘well this is happening to me because I’m one of very few in the industry.’ That could be the case, or it could just be the way things play out in a rough and tumble world. Sometimes it’s a mix of the two. People who have walked a similar path can offer valuable perspective.
The advice I’d give to anyone is that you have to just go, fight, and win. This is the playing field we’re on, and we are equipped to win while changing it. As industry leaders, of course we have to think about how to make this systemically better and create opportunities. But as individuals, we have to just do it. You’ve got to lead the charge where you are—go, fight, win.
I am encouraged by the level of intentionality that I am starting to see around race, because I have seen the industry really make strong inroads when they have been intentional on these issues. Women in biotech are a good example. By any measure, from leadership teams to board seats, the industry has made great progress over the last 15 years or so. There is a playbook and a roadmap for doing this—all we need to bring to bear is that level of intentionality.
First job? Grocery checkout clerk
Open book? The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Motto? Go, fight, win
Best productivity tip? Prioritize. Know what needs to get done every day, ideally the night before
First thing you do in the morning? Give thanks for the day
What keeps you up at night? Execution
Best part of company building? Seeing a very diverse group of people come together around a common purpose to create wins for patients and investors
Click here to learn more about Annexon Biosciences.