In-Laws, Fish and Founder CEOs

This week marked a major event in my life. I parted company with ImaginAb.

For many people, it will be a very big surprise, knowing how passionate and committed I am to the company. I co-founded the company in October 2007 with Anna Wu and Rob Reiter, while I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at UCLA Medical School. From the minute I met Anna, I knew she was special and I consider the day that the three of us co-founded ImaginAb, to be one of the great days of my life.

As always in these circumstances, there will be rumor and speculation. Actually, it was a mutual decision and my parting is truly amicable and – as you may have gathered from the implication of the title of this post – entirely necessary for the future development and success of the company. I chose this title because of the pun that after two (or three) days, both in-laws (especially mother-in-laws) and fish start to “stink”. I think this is an apt analogy to a fact of life that many first-time entrepreneurs don’t really think about.

The truth is, like fish, the majority of Founder CEOs have a limited shelf-life. Not all, but most. In my experience, that shelf-life is somewhere between 3 and 5 years. Therefore I think at roughly 7.5 years of service, I did ok. For all you budding start-up CEOs out there that aspire to see your company go all the way from an infant idea to a magnificent $Bn business, not only be prepared to “think again”, but embrace a necessary reality of corporate development. No CEO really goes from the beginning to the “end” – not even “Zuck” (who we all know doesn’t really run Facebook anyhow). There will be skeptics amongst you, naysayers that simply presume that this blog entry is nothing more than a poorly contrived defensive mechanism to publicly smooth over a career speed-bump (and you may be right). You might choose to argue that real talent persists and goes the distance, but I beg to differ.

Why?

Because over many years I have come to understand that at each stage in the development of an organization, a specific set of skills and experience is required, and a distinct mind-set towards organizational leadership. At this point in my career, I have tremendous experience and capability of launching exciting new companies. ImaginAb is a great company, one of several that I have started in my career. But personally speaking, I find that as a “start-up” company moves to a “grown up” company and toward more sophisticated commercial inflection points, it inevitably needs to transition from a conceptual and relationship-driven leadership framework to a more process-oriented struture. The intrinsic flexibility of a startup must be replaced with better planning, corporate governance and risk management. At this stage of development, my performance and leadership efficacy tends to decrease.

So does my enjoyment.

In the case of ImaginAb, over the last 12 months not only did I somewhat reach my “Peter Principle” as the organization become more complex and our product development started to hit later-stage clinical milestones, but my own lack of enjoyment of my job began to impact my efficacy as CEO. It also hugely impacted my home life, my marriage and my friendships.

In my opinion, it is a sensitive and sophisticated Board and Investor team that can consider the holistic complexity of a portfolio company CEO and evaluate the multiple facets of life that are requisite for both company success and personal happiness. I am thus extremely grateful to have been blessed with such a team, and I cannot express my appreciation enough to Novartis Venture Fund, Merieux Developpment, Cycad and Nextech Invest, who have been terrific partners over the years. I’d also like to thank my co-founders and the entire ImaginAb team for the support, respect and sensitivity that has been afforded to me during this transition.

To be clear, I don’t mean to diminish my accomplishments at ImaginAb with this somewhat candid assessment of my own performance. I am not that humble. Under my leadership, we raised close to $50m in venture capital and non-dilutive funding, took several antibody immunoconjugates to the clinic and over 30 “big pharma” collaborations over the years. Our lead product for prostate cancer – a game changer in my view – is in advanced clinical development and showing beautiful data. ImaginAb’s strategy for immune-oncology has the potential to be transformative to medicine, and is certainly starting to capture the attention of major players in the space. We launched many important academic collaborations and established footprints in Singapore and Japan. The next leader of the company will have some great building blocks – and a phenomenally talented team – to work with, to take the company to the next level.

A team, incidentally, that I will miss every single day.

As for me, I have no idea what is next. The coming weeks will be a busy handover time and I am still trying to comprehend how to even begin to change my identity. For those of you that understand that an entrepreneur eats, sleeps and breathes the “venture”, you know that I am going to feel a sense of loss, disorientation, even pain. I mean, when I have to introduce myself at a cocktail party, what will I say? Who am I now? What is my purpose?

I’ve been here before and, if I am honest with you, it sucks.

At a time like this, I am grateful that I am now also a husband and a father. Last time I was in this situation, I did not have this “other” hugely meaningful identity. Perhaps the solution is to focus on being better at those things for a while. They have certainly been neglected.

House husband? Hmmmm…

If this ugly sucker is a Mother-in-Law Fish, I wonder what a Founder-CEO-Fish looks like?

If this ugly sucker is a Mother-in-Law Fish, I wonder what a Founder-CEO-Fish looks like?

Detour#1 – India

In a previous post, I committed to myself that that I would occasionally allow life detours. This is #1 for 2015.

I want to state from the outset, that I probably annoyed my wife. I know I left home at a time when Max wasn’t sleeping very well and Zhenya was going to be taking the brunt of some sleepless nights. One of my colleagues sourly commented on my “lack of availability” at the end of last week. I know my team could have used me around when a few intense deliverables were due. But instead, late last week, I went to a wedding.

A Bollywood wedding.

Last year a dear friend of mine invited me to a wedding in India. Not his wedding, but his son’s wedding (the “son” – to protect his identity – is a super guy in his own right) but I really went because Daddio invited me. I am sure I could have said no without offence. I know for sure that there were far more important and special people invited than me (i.e. a very large and interesting family). But I went because I think an Indian wedding is a life experience that should be struck off the bucket list, and even better if that experience comes from nice people that you genuinely like.

These are very nice people.

So, I skedaddled to Bangalore for the weekend. I arrived at my hotel and was immediately “bindied” (first image, below). An hour or so after this happened, I Skyped Max and he asked me “Dadda, do you have an ‘owie’ on your head?” Nope. That red smear on my forehead is apparently a “welcome blessing.” Frankly, the young lady that crouched down and marked my forehead was absolutely stunning and the Catholic in me momentarily hybridized this velvet-skinned specimen of loveliness rubbing ochre on my forehead, with the vague echo of  some sort of ecclesiastical ritual. A kind of Hindu baptism. Rowdy. I don’t mind saying it left me slightly cross-eyed.

Geddit Indiya...

Geddit Indiya…

I settled into my hotel in Bangalore around mid-afternoon as it was starting to get hot and sweaty, and I am not just talking about me. My immediate item of business was to go out and find a Sherwani, the traditional Indian festive dress. This was less easy than I had hoped, mainly because of my “western” frame and stature (i.e. chubbiness). I went to a dozen hole-in-the-wall boutiques selling traditional men’s clothing, with no luck. Nothing really fit me, especially around the midriff. Eventually, I found an enterprising tailor who exclaimed “NO problems, Mr. Chris, we can expand, we can expand!” (accompanied by the necessary side-to-side head waggles).

This is my hero:

The Grand Tailor of Bangalore

The Grand Tailor of Bangalore

A couple of hours later, I walked out with a lot of bling…

bling

The wedding was insane. Rituals. Food. Dancing. When I caught my 2:50am flight to Paris, I was tired but happy. Not drunk though – it’s hard to get hammered at an Indian wedding. Lassi (yoghurt drink) and gavathi chaha (lemongrass tea) is hardly conducive to a crazy, wild night. Unsurprisingly I arrived feeling surprisingly fresh.

I was grateful to be hangover-free…

The nicest thing about the wedding was that it was the union between a high-gotra Brahmin and a north-African Muslim woman. They are such a beautiful couple, but also a testimony to the fact that education and prosperity can overcome any religious difference. Every time our politicians cut funding to education, what they are really doing is making a social pact that they will foster intolerance and prevent the union of people who would be otherwise perfect for each other.

Inspiring.