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.
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…