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As an entrepreneur, it’s often an art to pay attention to what you are truly being asked.

SPOTLIGHT ON

Brian Cali, PhD

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The right cultural fit is more important than the right specialty

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Don’t let great financing make you complacent 

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Refine the art of listening to what investors are asking 

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Pay it forward 

Who is Brian?

Brian’s passion for science started at a young age when he was lucky to be one of only 50 teens to spend a summer doing cancer research at the Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY. It was there that he fell in love with research, continuing his education at the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, and MIT with the intention of having an academic lab. Happenstance found him at MIT with none other than his research partner from all those years prior at Roswell Park, and it was then that the pieces of what would later become Ironwood Pharmaceuticals started to form. 

Brian’s life philosophy has been to engage in things that move you at your core, that you love, even if it’s not fun every day, because the impact will be transformative. He believes it’s essential for companies to engage with patients, to better understand their needs and serve as a reminder of why we are doing all this life-changing work. Here he shares why people are your most powerful asset in business, why you can’t let great financing make you complacent, how investor questions are often a key to a market need, and why we need to pay our privilege forward.

We founded our company on two related business ideas. Along the way, one was sold and the second branched into two more sectors. A few years in, after hiring a team with specific expertise tailored for our initial ideas, the projects weren’t working and we had to pivot—and it wasn’t clear that many of the people who were on the current team had the skill sets needed for the new
work to be done.

 

This was a huge inflection point for the company where I learned a lot about the enduring value of building a team that is passionate about the company and its culture. We went to every one of those possibly affected people and told them, “You have an opportunity to participate in the new company direction, but it will be different than the path you originally signed up for, and there is a lot of learning ahead for all of us.” Almost all of them stayed, and they were instrumental to our future success. They were more critical about ideas because they didn’t want to live through another failure / pivot - the knife was sharper. Many of them ended up being the longest tenured folks at the company.

My biggest lesson there was you can teach the right people new skills in a vibrant culture, and I’d take that every day over trying to force a cultural fit to gain access to skills. Great people and teams are resilient and adaptable.

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The right cultural fit is more important than the right specialty

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You can teach the right people new skills in a vibrant culture. Great people and teams are resilient and adaptable.

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Don’t let great financing make you complacent 

Money always goes faster than you think, so from the moment you close a round you need to be thinking about exactly what things you need to do to move your organization forward. Large funding rounds can give you a false sense of security, but no amount of money gives you a vacation from continuing to plan ahead. It’s actually amazing how fast after your first big result or your first product launch that people start asking what’s next, so you always have to prepare yourself for what’s coming, whether it be your next round of financing, or what talent you need to bring on to achieve your next goals. 

...no amount of money [from a funding round] gives you a vacation from continuing to plan ahead.

Investors see A LOT of companies and ideas. As an entrepreneur, it’s often an art to pay attention to what you are truly being asked. Early stage companies each pitch their own unique idea to address a problem but it has to fit into the larger healthcare ecosystem, company landscape and still meet patient needs. Great investors see the big picture, and their questions (or sometimes, the questions behind their questions), can help you understand where they see the opportunity for transformative innovation and value creation. We were once in a meeting with investors talking about treatments for Sickle Cell, and an investor asked “Might this drug candidate help treat daily pain?” Without saying it explicitly, they were helping us understand that, despite all the pitches and product candidates they had seen related to Sickle Cell, and in light of all they knew about patient need, this was an important symptom that still hadn’t been met.

 

Use your conversations with investors to gain insights into how your product can fit into the landscape that justifies the value that you are striving for. Both parties are trying to reach the same goal: to create a product which is only valuable if it REALLY changes a patient’s life. 

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Refine the art of listening to what investors are asking 

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Pay it forward 

A defining feature of our founding was getting great advice and input from those with more experience. I am now often in the advisor role. In that role, I am intentional about paying it forward – to use my experience, and my privilege, to help open doors for groups of people who are underrepresented in our industry.

Diversity and equity should be part of the conversation at every young company, realizing that your team will be stronger if it’s more diverse, with people from all backgrounds and walks of life. If you start your organization with diversity as a key component it will be less work in the long run because it will be self perpetuating. Frankly, it’s your obligation to build your team this way. It’s going to give you a better performing company.

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Diversity and equity should be part of the conversation at every young company, realizing that your team will be stronger if it’s more diverse

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