Trusting Your Talent and Team to Push the Boundaries of Technology and Innovation: Lessons Learned from a Biotech CEO
*Orginally appeared on LinkedIn, November 20, 2018
In 2001, we founded Selexis with technology we acquired from the University of Lausanne. Though we knew this technology could push the boundaries of production levels of recombinant therapeutic proteins expressed in CHO cells, we didn’t know if we could industrialize it for commercial purposes and, most important, whether it would be adopted by the community at large. At that time, large pharma and biotech companies were entrenched in their established cell line development processes, in large part because they were concerned a new technology might result in regulatory hurdles. After all, our processes included the addition of novel genetic elements to production cell lines. Fast forward 16 years (to 2017): Our initial vision and new approach to cell line development resulted in a company that became a global leader in technologies used for mammalian cell line generation, which led to our successful and advantageous acquisition by JSR Life Sciences, ultimately facilitating our ability to go from a therapeutic protein gene sequence to clinical API in only nine months.
My job is to give Selexis team members the tools they need to do their job and then to let them do it.
I am quite proud of what we’ve accomplished, but for many years, success was not assured. We had to change old attitudes about cell line development, educate the FDA, outperform our competitors, weather financial crises and to continually innovate to stay ahead of industry demands. Like many CEOs before me, I came to realize that our success was entirely dependent upon our people and our corporate culture. Without that, our technology, no matter how great, would have languished. To quote Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former CEO of IBM, “In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”
Over the years in building our corporate culture I have come away with several key learnings.
Hire the best. For me, “best” is a conglomeration of technical expertise, a drive for doing excellent work and the ability to collaborate well as a team. We are a lean organization and depend upon everyone delivering at his or her full capacity to maintain the quality product for which we are known.
My job is to give Selexis team members the tools they need to do their job and then to let them do it. I am continually impressed by the work ethic and the breadth and depth of the innovation that my team brings to the organization.
Listen. I am ultimately responsible for the vision and output of the company, but I look to my team for input and suggestions. In fact, I expect their input. I cannot possibly know all the details of the organization and they need to inform me about what is working and what isn’t. When they come to me with problems, I expect them to bring possible solutions to the table. For people to feel safe about talking through issues, we have established a corporate culture where mistakes are acceptable. We are not interested in laying blame; we are interested in learning from our mistakes. We are an organization of problem solvers.
I remain amazed at how such a small team can create so much momentum.
Experiment. This can be very difficult to achieve in a small organization where pressures from client projects can make it hard to find the time for research and innovation. Yet, I make sure we carve out time for my scientific team that is free from client projects and can allow for trying new things. This has been critical key to our success. Without time to innovate, we would not have been able to develop the modular technologies that have allowed us to keep up with the newer, more complex protein therapeutics that are currently addressing complex diseases. For example, my team developed Selexis’ SURE CHO-Mplus Libraries to address secretory bottlenecks associated with difficult-to-express proteins and SUREscan, which provides us with the most accurate barcode of our CHO cell line’s genome for highly accurate cell line tracking and monitoring.
Share. Since we are a small and lean organization, we are dependent upon each other for successful acquisition and completion of client projects. As a result, I established a structure so that everyone – not just the Business Development team – benefits from the closing of client deals. This has been very effective in promoting teamwork across the organization: from scientists to project managers to business development team members.
Honor equality. In my everyday life, I honor equality. It’s important to treat everyone the same regardless of age, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. – and this is a practice we stand by at Selexis, providing fair and equal treatment to and of all of our employees. I am very proud to note that our workforce is made up of two-thirds females of which 50 percent hold management level positions (or higher).
Foster job satisfaction. Retaining good employees is a key priority for me. We are only able to maintain our high level of service and quality if people love coming to work and are committed to seeing Selexis succeed. I, and my senior management team, work very hard to support career growth of all of our employees. This is critical for maintaining job satisfaction. We also foster an environment that allows for a healthy work/life balance. What we are doing must be working since this year we were named one of the “Best Companies to Work for in Switzerland 2018.”
When I look around today, I cannot help but feel so fortunate to be part of such a great organization. Our employees not only work for us, but are a loyal extended family who, even after years of serving the company, are still working hard to help Selexis achieve its collective mission to help our industry bring life-saving medicines to patients in need. With less than 40 employees, we have accomplished so much. In fact, we have signed over 100 commercial license agreements, meaning that more than 100 programs are in clinical development using our technologies, including four marketed products. I remain amazed at how such a small team can create so much momentum.
Check out our Great Place to Work and Career pages to learn more about our culture and what it means to be a Selexis team member.