Why Communication is Key for Getting Ahead in Biotech

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Many biotech founders and executives look to VC investors for advice and inspiration, but the attraction can go both ways. After more than a decade of investing in life science companies, Renee Aguiar-Lucander, now CEO of Calliditas Therapeutics, decided it was time to try sitting on the other side of the table.

Prior to moving over into biotech, Aguiar-Lucander worked in life science VC investment in London. She was a partner and COO at Omega Fund Management and also worked as a partner at the 3i Group. She also has more than 12 years experience working in investment banking and corporate finance.

After being approached by a number of different biotech companies, Aguiar-Lucander decided to join Calliditas in 2017. Based in Sweden, the company is developing a new formulation of an approved asthma drug to target the chronic autoimmune kidney disease IgA nephropathy. The company is now testing its theory that this condition can be treated by targeting the gut rather than the kidneys in a phase III trial.

Calliditas interview

She spoke to me about why she chose to get into biotech, the strength of the Scandinavian markets and how she thinks active communication and networking are key to long term success in the industry.

What attracted you to becoming a biotech CEO?

When you’re an investor, you’re sitting on the board of the company. Obviously, you’re there to give advice, to support management, to hopefully share a little bit of your experience and provide some guidance. It also means that at the end of the day, it’s ultimately the management team that has to set and develop the strategy and ultimately make the decision for what they think would work best. 

Having sat a lot on the other side of the table and not necessarily always having the ability to get people to take your advice, I thought it would be quite interesting to turn the tables and actually be in a situation where you do all of those things. For example, actually setting the strategy, recruiting the team, developing the team, driving the business forward. It was that that attracted me.

Why did you choose to join Calliditas?

It was the risk-reward profile. Even under the best of circumstances, the life sciences or the biotech industry is hardly one full of guarantees. From this perspective, the company had run a very successful and fairly large phase IIb study in the orphan indication that they were pursuing. It’s the only company that’s had a successful phase IIb in this indication. 

Development was at a late stage with a known substance, a very successful phase IIb trial, clear regulatory tasks, reproducibility of the trial in a slightly larger population… I felt like all of those things contributed to give me a sense of the fact that from a risk-reward perspective, this could be an interesting opportunity to get a drug on the market and to patients.

What have you learnt since becoming a CEO? 

I think that everything’s different than it was before. Not surprisingly, this is very much a people-management business… From that perspective, if you compare with the investment side, the investment side is quite an individual way of doing things. 

Now there’s a lot of team building, a lot of leadership, a lot of interaction with people. I think that’s very different. I knew that that was going to be important and I think it’s even more important than I might have guessed. 

The other part is the setting and the communication of the strategy. Communication is very important – internally, externally, with the board, with potential investors. I think there’s a strong component of this in terms of actually being able to communicate with a variety of different stakeholders and different groups, and to achieve the clarity needed in terms of both the vision and the mission of the company. 

Can anyone learn to be a CEO? 

I don’t know if I have the answer to that question. Certainly, if I think back to the people that I’ve met who have been CEOs throughout the years in this industry, I think you have to have a pretty strong sense of direction, you have to have conviction and you have to be willing to drive through your vision and try and bring people with you. If you have those characteristics, I think that you can absolutely learn to be a CEO. 

It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to change along the way based on the information you gain, but again, I think it’s something where you need to have some clarity in terms of what you’re trying to achieve.

You had an overscribed IPO last year on the Nasdaq Stockholm. Why did you choose that timing?

If you’re going to run a phase III study you need a certain amount of capital in order to do that successfully, and this is a global study that we’re running. It’s in 19 countries, almost 150 centers. Because it is an orphan disease, it’s quite costly in terms of outlay. We did need a significant amount of capital. 

In order to access that capital, the public market is obviously one route to do that. Particularly in Scandinavia, if you look at back at 2015–2017, there were a lot of successful IPOs and the companies delivered well for the investors. It was and is a very active and attractive market to list companies on. 

Calliditas interview

From that perspective, it was an obvious route to investigate if we could do that. We started talking to different investor groups and I think that the story resonated. Again, because of the risk-reward profile, it’s something that investors could understand. Being late stage, having the profile we had, benefiting from the fact that the Scandinavian market had seen success with other companies that had gone down this route… I think all those things have contributed to the fact that we were able to execute that IPO when we did.

Do you think there is a difference between the Scandinavian market and the rest of Europe? 

Yes! I would say so. There is a strong support for healthcare-related IPOs – medtech and biotech – and you have a fairly active junior market where people actually seem to be able to go public. 

Not that long ago, there have been a couple of companies here that have been very successful at raising substantial follow-on capital.  This confirms that there still is an ability for the companies on the public market to raise capital. There’s a strong support from the Scandinavian institutions in those follow-ons. 

You obviously also have other markets in Europe that have also seen IPOs, but Germany has not been that active in this area, the UK has not really been active and has not been able to build that kind of positive cycle of support. For example, if you’re in the UK, I would say that the much more obvious route would be to probably look to the Nasdaq than to the local market. 

What’s it like to be a female CEO in a male-dominated industry? Have you encountered any problems being accepted?

I haven’t personally run into any issues or perceived there to be big problems or difficulties being a female CEO versus a male CEO. I think that in life sciences and healthcare… there’s not a huge female population in senior positions, but I think it’s there. 

As always, the issue is getting the offer and actually being considered. I think most women in the industry want to get a job or have the opportunity to take over or lead something. They tend to be very successful. The problem is much more about being able to even be considered. 

In terms of nomination committees, if you look at who’s on the board, that whole system and process tend to be very male-dominated. So you end up having very narrow and small networks that probably don’t look at people from outside and don’t naturally have these connection points and knowledge of other people. 

I think it’s more about trying to shine a light on it and do something about those very narrow processes and networks in order to bring more candidates forward. If we can do that, I’m hopeful of the fact that women would be selected and perform and do very well when given a chance.

What can we do to encourage more women to enter the biotech industry? 

Women who are in leading positions should be more outgoing and try to be more available, more accessible and maybe make a little bit more noise about what we do and what we don’t do. I think role models are very important, but in terms of getting to that point, you have to force some of these networks to be more open and I don’t think you do that by the way of role models. I think you have to combine it with some other types of incentives or other types of pressures. 

You have to try and shine a light on it. People need to be more transparent. You just have to make people think about it. As humans, we’re pretty lazy. We don’t seek out to do things that are difficult. I’ve been on a huge amount of boards and a variety of situations, and a lot of times, I’ve been the only woman on that board. It’s fascinating because I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the comment, ‘You’re not so bad’ or ‘You’re actually okay.’ They almost thought I was going to be terrible. It turned out that it wasn’t so awful having a woman on the board! 

You just have to expose people to this, because as long as they’re allowed to not be exposed to it, we’re never going to move forward and they’re never going to take the first step, ever. We can’t just sit around and talk about it and think that somehow, the whole human race will become more enlightened, because they will just wake up one day and be more enlightened. I don’t think that really happens. 

Calliditas interview

I don’t think people sit down on a Monday morning and say, ‘I’m going to try and not include women in this.’ But I also think that they don’t sit down and say, ‘I wonder if my network is truly representative for finding the right person for this? I wonder if I have to expand it or include a third party or do something different than what I’ve done before?’ If you do something that works, you do it again, and again, and again. It’s hard! I don’t think I have the perfect answer, but we can’t sit by and expect the world to change around us. 

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you started out?

I wish I had known about getting a mentor. I think connecting with senior people, trying to start creating that network, being less task-oriented and more network-oriented… If I could’ve told myself that when I was younger, I think that would’ve made a huge difference. 

I think that women tend to be very focused on being good at things. We tend to get very caught up in tasks and deliveries and getting things right. Doing all of that, at least I felt in the whole financial industry, you miss the point of all the network and the interconnections and the relationships and all of those things. As you get older and wiser, you realize that it is if not as important, more important than knowing the facts or doing the right thing, or delivering on time. If I had told myself that, that would have probably been a better use of my time to understand how this business works. 

Also, just being willing and brave to reach out and maybe ask some of these people who were senior to myself, to say, ‘I’m really interested in this. I would really like you to have a chat occasionally, give me advice, tell me about this and that.’ Most people are actually happy to do that. Most people actually like to talk about themselves and talk about their business, so I think those are probably the two things that I wish I knew when I was younger.

Images via E. Resko and Shutterstock

Explore other topics: Autoimmune diseaseKidney disease

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