Tales from the Trenches: Jeff Aronin of Marathon Pharma

Jeff Aronin, CEO of Marathon Pharmaceuticals, was a featured guest in MATTER’s Tales from the Trenches series. Marathon develops, manufactures, and commercializes drugs for patients with rare diseases, also called “orphan drugs”. Before founding Marathon, Aronin served as CEO of Ovation Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by Lundbeck for $900M in 2009. He and ContextMedia CEO Rishi Shah discussed how he got into healthcare; his work, management, and investment style; and pharmaceutical industry trends and challenges. View the entire interview or read our summary below.

RishiAroninAronin discovered his passion for pharmaceuticals while shadowing a physician. The doctor was treating an epileptic pediatric patient having regular seizures. The doctor had few options to stop the seizures other than to remove a portion of the child’s brain. When the doctor mentioned this surgical option to the patient’s family, they were devastated, afraid their child would have developmental issues. As a last resort, the doctor gave the child medication to curb his seizures, which — remarkably — worked, so the child was able to avoid the disruptive and potentially life-altering surgery. Watching the family’s relief and celebration, all thanks to the drug, Aronin had found what he wanted to do with his life.

Jeff chose to build and run small to mid-size pharma companies rather than large ones, because big pharma companies:

  • Have a difficult time moving as quickly as smaller, more agile companies.
  • Face pressure to focus on conditions that affect larger numbers of patients, thereby driving up development costs and competitive risks.

Aronin gave similar investment advice as other entrepreneurs who have been featured in our Tales from the Trenches series: he invests in talented people who are solving real problems, and believes everything else will fall into place. He also stressed that while capital structure is important to healthcare ventures, the customer population should define a firm’s strategy, not the capital.

20151118_CloudSpotter_MATTER-21 (1)According to Aronin, “The single most important thing you do as an entrepreneur is hire your team.” He went on to say that the first 10-20 employees of a startup are arguably more risk-tolerant than founders, because they are quitting more stable jobs to chase someone else’s dream. He also advocates having extensive conversations with a prospective employee’s references, to triangulate his or her capabilities and workstyle.

Rishi asked Jeff why, after selling Ovation, did he decide to use the same business model again with Marathon? Why not go after a new challenge? To Jeff, the answer was self-evident: once he had found a profitable way to improve health outcomes for patients with rare diseases, he never wanted to do anything else.

The next event in our Tales from the Trenches series will be on January 21 at MATTER from 6–8pm, featuring Dr. Griffin Myers, founder of Oak Street Health.

Hal Barron of Calico’s Keynote at MATTER

Hal Barron of Calico at MATTERHal Barron, president of research and development for Calico, began his presentation Monday with a discussion of Calico’s lofty mission: to “increase understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” While this goal seems grandiose, Barron takes a reasoned approach, encouraging analysis on a long timeline, rather than looking for quick-hitting, short-term wins. This brought Hal to the first major theme of his presentation: smart risk-taking.

He gave a few famous examples of taking smart risk:

Hal Barron of Calico at MATTER – NFL

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s famous decision to “go for it” on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line in a 2009 game against the Indianapolis Colts. While Belichick’s decision did not produce a positive outcome and the Patriots lost the game, Barron defended Belichick’s decision as a smart risk, citing analytical sportswriter David Romer.
  • Comedian Chris Rock will often try out new material in small comedy clubs in his local New Jersey suburb. The prolific comedian’s jokes fall flat so often that he has been asked to refund audience members’ money more than once! But Chris Rock is taking smart risk in alienating a small crowd in New Jersey in order to perfect routines he will perform for millions.

These examples underscore Barron and Calico’s approach toward biotech research: that a good decision does not always translate to a good result, and the fear of failure, often compounded by incentives that value short-term success, holds back scientific breakthroughs. Like Belichick and Rock, Calico partners AbbVie and Google look to foster a focus on long-term gains by calculating the risk/reward ratio of a given scenario. When asked about exciting innovations in his field, Barron mentioned CRISPR, a technology that allows researchers to directly edit the genes of an organism’s offspring, opening the door for significant headway into genetic research.

Barron advocates the same approach he takes with Calico toward an entrepreneur’s career: if you care about your job, make good decisions, and push yourself, then initial results do not matter. Barron applies his reasoned approach to failure toward success as well: he downplays Calico’s progress while intentionally striving to make the firm leaner. Hal quoted David Packard in saying that “more companies die of indigestion than starvation,” meaning that many try to accomplish too many projects, rather than perfect a few. He encourages companies to ask themselves what the least important project they’re working on is, and what the chance is it’s going to matter for their company in the long run. If it won’t, he encourages managers to “trim the fat” and not pursue projects that won’t move the needle over a company’s lifespan.

Many thanks to Hal and his sister, Northwestern Law Professor Esther Barron, who moderated the conversation, and to everybody who came for the event.Hal Barron of Calico at MATTER with Northwestern Law's Esther Barron

Tales from the Trenches with Glen Tullman

On Monday, September 28, serial entrepreneur and former Allscripts CEO Glen Tullman spoke at MATTER in the third installment of our Tales from the Trenches series. ContextMedia CEO Rishi Shah interviewed Tullman about his personal drive, current ventures, and business insights. View the entire interview or read our summary below.

Here’s what we learned about Glen:

  • He doesn’t sleep much. “Why would anyone want to sleep when there are so many exciting things to do in life?”
  • He listens to 2-3 e-books per week (at 2x speed because it’s more efficient).
  • He subscribes to 35 magazines, which he scans to look for cross-industry trends.
  • Once, when running a marathon with a business partner, Glen brought a list of topics to discuss. On mile 20 they were still going through the agenda.

For sure there’s something genetic going on here… but in addition to that, Glen spoke about how his mother played a key role in nurturing his drive and entrepreneurial tendencies. To wit: at age 10, Glen had an idea involving solar panels. His mom was so encouraging and supportive that she let him cut a hole in their roof to pursue it. Perhaps not surprising then that he went on to help found SoCore Energy, a successful solar company that produces panels which don’t require any drilling in order to put them on a roof!

Glen Tullman and Rishi Shah at MATTER

We also learned from Glen why he decided to build another startup, Livongo, after 
leaving Allscripts and focusing for a while on investing activities. One of his sons has diabetes, and once woke up with critically low blood sugar. Within minutes a Livongo specialist monitoring his blood sugar called the younger Tullman, coached him on what to do, and waited on the line ready to dial 911 in case anything went sideways. Tullman survived, and told his father that “it felt so good not to be alone” during the ordeal. Livongo has received venture backing from Kleiner Perkins among other firms, and will develop this platform to help people living with a number of chronic conditions including diabetes.

Glen also spoke about how he thinks about building businesses.

  • On hiring: look for cultural fit, passion, and people who have failed before and know how to recover.
  • On firing: do it quickly not just for the sake of the business, but for the sake of the individual who isn’t growing in a position that’s the wrong fit.
  • On sales: The CEO him/herself must be the company’s top salesperson and evangelist. Salespeople must be consultative and learn what customers want. The best salespeople do the “lonely work” before the call — learning about the organization and point of contact and sending materials in advance.
  • On investing: invest in people, rather than ideas.

Thanks to Glen and Rishi for this terrific conversation, and thanks to ContextMedia and Pritzker Group Venture Capital for underwriting MATTER’s Tales from the Trenches series. Next up: entrepreneur Chris Hill on October 26.

MATTER Pre-Launch Talk with IDEO Chief Creator Officer Paul Bennett

February 2, 2015

By Mary Lee, MATTER intern

MATTER hosted its first large-scale event last Thursday, welcoming IDEO Chief Creative Officer and world-renowned speaker Paul Bennett. With more than 200 people in the audience, Bennett kicked off the first of what will be many forums designed to engage healthcare experts in conversations about the direction of the healthcare industry.

“You’re practitioners, researchers, executives, lawmakers, innovators, investors and entrepreneurs. But most importantly, you’re all patients,” said David Schonthal, MATTER co-founder and board member and professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, in his introduction of Bennett at the pre-launch event.

“We are all patients,” Schonthal said to the audience of more than 200 who turned out for the pre-launch event. “There are not many markets in the world where everybody who creates, also consumes. Where everyone who adds, also subtracts,” he continued. “What better place to talk about something tricky and complicated, than MATTER?”

In his talk, Bennett contended that the end of life, culturally viewed as a looming and frightening inevitability, is actually an opportunity for design today– “to make death, like life, something that we fill with joy, beauty, hope and possibility.”

And it was through this particular dialogue titled “How might design walk with us to the end of life?” in which he guided the audience in confronting the radical notion of embracing death and normalizing it.

Bennett revealed his most intimate fears like dying alone and life-altering moments he experienced when his father died.

Designing death is uncharted territory in redesigning the ultimate journey, he explained.

Bennett invited the audience to experience these delicate moments in his journey. The conversation led to a provocative challenge: normalize organically hard-to-talk about topics and shine optimism in traditionally dark spaces.

“Design transcends agenda,” Bennett said, recalling a memorable experience in his journey. “It speaks to the politics of optimism.”

As MATTER’s members shift into full gear this week, Bennett’s talk instilled hope and optimism, and reminded them why they were there: to help people.

“It’s a great start to MATTER,” said Andrew Cittadine, a board member of MATTER and Diagnostic Photonics president and chief executive officer, about the pre-launch event. “It really comes down to the enthusiasm and the optimism of the community. It’s simply a great time for Chicago healthcare startups.”

“This is fantastic that someone is taking an interest to try to promote some innovation in the area,” said John Combes, American Hospital Association senior vice president and president of the Center for Healthcare Governance, regarding palliative care. “I think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed and people shouldn’t be fearful in talking about that.”

“MATTER is a place you come when you want to not only push what’s possible, but acceptable,” Schonthal said. “It’s a place where you come when you want to solve hard problems.”

It’s a place to do something that matters.