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?

My Aleph

This past week I did something completely out of the ordinary.

I read a book.

I used to read 2-3 books a week back when I had no responsibilities, travel, study or a child in my life. The past few days I didn’t travel anywhere, I didn’t work. When my son went to bed, I read.

Paulo Coehlo’s Aleph has been sitting in my bookshelf waiting for me for a few years now. I don’t know what it is about South American writers – but I love his writing almost as much as Gabriel García Márquez (especially Love in the Time of Cholera – probably in my top 5 favorite books). I finally got to dust off Aleph and read it. Paulo’s language is simple and yet the divinity in his writing is something that persists in your being long after you have put the page down. I found myself walking down the street this afternoon ruminating on what I had read. I believe in Paulo’s concept of the Aleph – I have met people in my journey through life that I am sure I have met before. It even happened to me fairly recently – I walked into a meeting in New York and met someone that I am sure I knew in a past life. The familiarity of that person was astonishing.

It has happened to me more than once…

But the most interesting take-home message from this book, is how divinity is obtained through our spiritual journey through life. Paulo speaks of a personal crisis of faith where the routine of his life no longer enables him to connect with his spiritual identity. This is also the experience of my life. As 2014 comes to a close and I reflect on my journey the past 12 months, I realize it has been demanding, tiring, occasionally exhilarating and often frustrating, but it is has followed a routine that has not opened me up to the possibilities of the universe. Even in the physical domain, I traverse the same beaten pathways, the same cities, the same air streams…

The only inkling I have of the oppression of this routine is from a trip I made a few weeks ago to Istanbul. I was in Turkey for perhaps 15 hours, no more. A few business meetings and dinner and then I flew back to Los Angeles. I’d been in Europe for several days in the “usual places” before getting up bright and early one morning and boarding a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. As the plane made its descent, I felt a strange feeling that isn’t normally invoked in my business travel – excitement. Not so much for the meetings I was to have (though excellent people), or going to a new place (I have visited Istanbul before) but rather that I was going somewhere that was not in my usual routine. For a brief moment, travel was exciting, intriguing, different – and I felt open to the possibility of what the day would bring to me.

So therefore in 2015 I must ensure that, if only periodically, my journey deviates from the routine. Of course life can serve such detours without your asking (and one must not taunt the universe) but I will be spiritually much better placed to respond to the challenges of life if I also occasionally enact a detour myself.

To 2015… and elective detours…

Manhood for Good, Baby…

palmsEvery once in a while you have an opportunity to experience something that gives you a resurgence of hope that the world is slowly but surely trying to become a better place. Last week I had this opportunity when I attended the 21st Annual Scientific retreat of the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) in San Diego. The work that the PCF in conjunction with the Movember Foundation, is truly remarkable. Because of the work of PCF-Movember, new drugs have been discovered and clinical developed, patients are living long and there is real hope for men with prostate cancer.

I, of course, have a vested interest in the prostate cancer landscape, since ImaginAb is developing new strategies for better managing  prostate cancer (oh, and I have a prostate too…). But there were also a lot of public health and government stakeholders that are closely involved and supportive of such a remarkable initiative. What I particularly liked was the informal and relatively apolitical environment – it was clear that people were there to share ideas, support the research and generally celebrate life and the progress that is being made in prostate cancer. Very high energy.

I’d also like to make a big shout-out to the Movember Foundation. What an amazing group of people. I had the great privilege a few months ago to drop into Movember HQ in Melbourne Australia, my home town. I met the team. I had a beer in the “Handlebar”. It was a truly memorable afternoon, being with a bunch of MoBros, and MoSistas that are not only changing the world in a fundamental way, but having a hell of a good time doing it.

Don’t forget to support Movember 2014! If you think your boyfriend, husband, father, uncle or pool boy deserves to be looked after, feel free to donate to Team ImoginAb.

Pay close attention...

Pay close attention… use it, or lose it! 🙂

Mad Planet

I had some long-haul travel this week and finally in one of those white-noise, time-zone agnostic moments where sleep and relaxation are utterly defeated by an uncomfortable plane seat and dehydration, I decided to write.

I have not written since April. There are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, I partially blame Facebook. I could hardly characterize myself as a social media junkie, I just don’t have time. But over the last couple of years because of various semi-professional activities, particularly in relation to the World Economic Forum, I had found that I had amassed a large number of “friends” most of whom have comparatively interesting lives (to me) and are very active on social media. Lately, I found myself – at idle moments – “dialoging” about things and to be honest I think it took the bandwidth away from me that I would normally have dedicated to writing a blog.

Two things about Facebook that have worn me out. The first is that I am all “news flowed out”. More on this in a second but to summarize, I found that my network of “friends” and the nature of their lives really amplified the events of the world around me. I’m completely burnt out on gender issues, race issues, asylum issues, religious hatred, forays into war zones and human rights. I started to find myself getting irritated and even on a few occasions scrapping with people about things precisely because I got tired of someone’s 28th post on “why all entrepreneurs are male chauvinist pigs” or someone’s well-structured and defiant rant on why “It’s ok for Israel to continue to annex land in Golan Heights.”

The second matter relates to Facebook’s little “behavior modification” studies under the auspices of apparently being allowed to arbitrarily mess with my head under some kind of purported “informed consent” as part of my user agreement. I’m reasonably well versed in the ethics of patient-centric research and I think they overstepped the mark. I don’t know if I was a guinea pig or not – in fact, it doesn’t matter because there has been so much negativity in the world the last few months, my newsfeed was pretty bleak even without Facebook’s meddling. But I object to what they did and it has permanently tempered my trust and willingness to engage with Facebook.

So a few weeks ago, I unfriended everyone that I do not consider to be a true friend (yes, I know, I have done a similar purge in the past but this was not a mere prune). Sure, unfriending people is a socially grey area and not a precise science. I know I offended some people and I actually miss certain people’s thoughts and reflections about the world (you know who you are) but now – thankfully – my news feed is mostly pictures of babies doing cute things, family vacations, interesting recipes for vegan food, selfies and one of my old friend’s slightly amusing tendency to post provocative pictures of herself in different contorted yoga poses.

In short, life has returned to normal in my social media world and as such – I am no longer really all that interested in it. It is pleasingly bland and I only check in once a week. This in turn may have freed my mind and my fingertips to waste time on my blog instead. (note: that doesn’t read very well but you get the drift).

The second vitiating factor in my lack of appetite to blog is just the world itself at the moment. The couple of times I sat down and tried to write a reflective piece I found that I really didn’t have much to say that wasn’t utterly bleak. I’m not a journalist so writing a second-piece about ISIS or Israel or Ukraine doesn’t add much to what you have already heard from the BBC or CNN. I’m not above political commentary but there isn’t much inspiration there at the moment either.

An earlier blog post – In Defence of Mother Russia – seems hopelessly naïve and almost ridiculous given that a mere 10 days later apparently Russia invaded Ukraine. This is in fact something that is deeply dividing in my family at the moment and with my wife’s family in Donetsk Oblast, a reality that we are concerned with every day. Extremely disturbing.

A couple of months ago we had a management retreat at a beautiful resort in Palos Verdes and I remember sitting there watching my news feed and all of sudden getting two simultaneous posts on Israel sending tanks into Gaza and MH17 getting shot down. It completely consumed my attention and the remains of my emotional reservoir that day. That night I think I drank too much, not just to hit the “steam release” from a long and stressful day but because notwithstanding a fine Southern California evening, the world just felt particularly sinister … and not just because Facebook was possibly manipulating my newsfeed.

Lastly, work. Work work work and more work. ImaginAb is going through that teenage phase where you start to see the great promise of adulthood and your “child” shows potential, but there is still a lot of attitude problems, temper tantrums and acne. You get one bit of smooth skin and then a boil appears in the middle of your forehead just before prom night. It’s both inspiring and exhausting – and typical of a company as it transitions through that 40-50 employee barrier. Relationships get replaced by processes, policies replace convention and early members of the team start to hit their Peter Principle. It’s tough.

I have also had to adjust, not just in my personal life and work-life balance but also my own attitudes toward corporate governance and being part of a grown-up management team. I’m reasonably happy with this and in some ways it’s a great evolution to be part of because it means you are really creating something that is capable of proper execution. But it is also a long way away from the years of the relative freedom of being an entrepreneur where you “live and die” by the sword on a daily basis. Interesting times… but all consuming.

Max doesn’t get to see his Daddy so often these days, something that I certainly struggle with.

Anyhow, I can’t promise that all of a sudden I will be saturating the blogosphere with brilliant and insightful writing but to all those who asked me “where are you?” – particularly Jean-Luc, Edna and Sue – thanks for the reminder that I started blogging because I love to write and part of my life has been missing the past few months.

It will also have to wait until Max is in bed.

The meaning of Sakura

I had the great pleasure – and privilege – of being in Japan last week. As the Noizumi Super-Express whizzed from Kyoto to Tokyo, I put away the laptop and spent a couple of hours watching out for little plumes of spring all across the land. Vibrant white and pink bursts contrast the green of fields and the grey of urbanization, the cherry trees or “sakura” are blossoming.

It is so lovely.

Looking beautiful, Tokyo... how nature makes a humdrum building look spectacular!

Looking beautiful, Tokyo… how nature makes a humdrum building look spectacular!

On Saturday, all around Tokyo, I saw people gathering under the sakura, friends, food spread out on tarpaulins, drinking. Pink petals drifting like snowflakes onto Tokyo’s canals, giving a rare living hue to the filth that normally drifts out to the ocean. Elderly women drinking tea and gossiping on wooden benches next to the imperial palace, glancing with joy at the first blossoms on otherwise bare branches.

There is an irony that the people who live in some of the most dense and congested communities on earth have such a strong connection with nature. But it is a worthy tradition. It reminds us that life has periods of renewal, that change is to be celebrated, and that new beauty is always waiting – not so far away, or in the distant future – to gently drift back into our life.

For me, it was a reminder that soon I must also have a spring time. It has been a long and dark winter.

Vale Mark Mackojc

Markey

It is a measure of how ridiculously busy my life has been that I have not posted a single blog entry for almost two months. It has been a missing part of my weekly intellectual stimulation and I have missed it (I said my stimulation, not necessarily your stimulation). But sometimes the events of life suddenly hit you, and give you pause to stop and reflect. In an instant, the issues and concerns that consumed your attention when you woke up that morning seem no longer important. To be human is to acknowledge that, no matter how we might wish it, we have only fragile control over life and to think otherwise is simply hubris.

This short post is about two things – friendship and the power of mentoring.

I’ll start with the friendship, because these past few days I have been thinking about it a lot. Mark Mackojc was a dear friend of mine. Not “dear” in the sense of we loitered around at the pub together once a week, or even once a month. Indeed long periods of time went by when we didn’t see each other – but when we did it was like picking up from a conversation yesterday. The same inside jokes that make you laugh and wince at the same time, the mutual friends (“have you spoken to… lately?”) and the things that interest you … well, they never really change.

Mark was a deeply private man. Friendly and gregarious on the outside but with a lot of complexity within. In the months before his death (I saw him just before Christmas) I know he was worried about his wife’s breast cancer. I know he was proud of his son’s academic progress at university. Fabrice – “Fab” – (especially to him) was one of his great joys, as was his daughter Colette. I know he was excited about going to Bhutan to take photographs – despite being an “IT” guy he was the most incredible photographer and I wish that he had ditched his day job for his passion, I am sure he could have been Great – with a capital “G”. A gallery of some of his pictures are at the end of this post.

But … also still the same old guy I have known for about 21 years. Even before he was really a family man. Even before he was starting to get a bit fed up with life. The same old Mark. In recent years we only saw each other a handful of times, both consumed by our lives and careers, but every time I saw him it was a joy and it made me realize that the the people you love in life, no matter how distant or infrequent they may be, are always there. You can – and should – always reconnect and continue on where you left off.

Until, of course, you can’t.

I met Mark in late 1993 or early 1994 when I was a trainee engineer at BHP Petroleum – and he was my first “Boss”. My personal life was in the toilet and I had just failed another year at university (bored out of my skull). In fact the only reason I got that work experience at all was because of nepotism. My relationship with my parents was awful and my self-esteem was zero. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and, truth be told, I didn’t care. I was pretty much in a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior.

Until I met Mark.

Mark didn’t care about what I had done, he cared about what I was going to do. He didn’t tell me how much of a screw-up I was (like my Father did, every day) he gave me incredible challenges that completely – perhaps even recklessly – ignored the fact that I was a total disaster. For example, on one occasion, the cooling systems failed in the office overnight. We had a room filled with high-performance computing equipment (basically a cluster of SUN workstations) that needed temperature/humidity control and although 6/8 CPUs had shut down automatically, two had not and the motherboard/CPUs had fried from condensation. Mark was overseas, the other (proper) IT guy was on a training course in Houston and we had an entire geophysics department that needed to crunch well bore and seismic data from a drilling exercise that was costing $1m / day – a lot of pissed off engineers.

I spoke to Mark on the phone, in total panic. He calmly says to me – “Chris, you’re a smart guy, get the spare parts out of storage, re-build the motherboards and re-install all the systems.” I’ll call you later.

Wow. Scary but wow.

Over the years my career went forward and Mark was a big part of helping me out of my rut and seeing a way out. His style of mentoring and his “hands off” approach made a big impact on me and – in time – we became friends. To this day, I tell my team “you are allowed to make mistakes once, but not twice.” This was pure Mark – I cannot take credit for the philosophy. Though I should note that his version was a bit more colorful, “Don’t f*ck it up, but if you do f*ck it up, we’ll sit down together and unf*ck it so that you don’t f*ck it up next time.” With a twinkle in his eye (Mark didn’t swear much but is always entertaining when he did, with a lot of shrugging his shoulders, hitching of his belt and tweaking his nose in disgust – accompanied by that Polish-Aussie twang – pure comedy).

Mark’s friendship was the best kind of friendship. It was given unconditionally, without expectation – and it found me a time in my life when I needed it most. There is nothing more powerful than friendship and I can truly say that I would not be where I am today in my life if it were not for this man.

I’ll miss you … Buddy.

Mark (Gallery)