Ahmed Mousa: From the Hill to the C-Suite

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Pictured: Ahmed Mousa, CEO, Vicore/Nicole Bean for BioSpace

This month, Ahmed Mousa is officially stepping into the role of CEO at Vicore after seven years with Pieris Pharmaceuticals. During his tenure with Pieris, Mousa watched the team quintuple in size from 30 employees to more than 150. With Vicore, he’s gearing up to lead the charge on developing cutting-edge drugs for previously untreatable respiratory diseases, like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which has a current prognosis that can be worse than many types of cancer.

Mousa checked in with BioSpace to share how a young passion for The West Wing and molecular biology crossed paths again and again to bring him to Vicore today.

Q: When you were growing up, did you have anyone in your circle that worked in the healthcare or pharmaceutical industry, like your parents or people in your community?

Both of my parents, and more broadly, the extended family, have a deep background in healthcare. My mom is a pharmacist, my dad is a professor of pharmacology, my sister is a physician, and I have aunts, uncles and cousins in healthcare.

My dad, in particular, is a commensurate scientist. He used to work in pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb before he went into academia. He’d come home and the dinner conversation would often be about an interesting scientific article or some sort of work he’d been doing in the lab, so that was a huge part of my upbringing.

Q: What did your world look like in your formative years?

Education and science were always very important in my family. My parents were immigrants from Egypt and they came to the United States to do their graduate work. Initially, they had the intention to go back to Egypt but stayed for all of the wonderful opportunities.

Education opened so many doors for them, so it was a strong value instilled in us [at] an early age, how important and how transformative it is to have a life focused on education and, because of their background, with some bias toward the sciences.

Q: Your educational path looks a bit untraditional because you fully committed to both law and biology, and eventually had enough training to enter both fields. What was your educational experience like? What kept you motivated?

I think, at the core of it, I’m incredibly curious. I really love the sciences and loved it from an early age, but from high school, I had a passion for policy and politics. There was a TV show on called The West Wing and I loved it. That moved in parallel [with] my interest in the sciences.

When I wound up going to Cornell for undergrad, I definitely wanted to [study] molecular biology, but had my eye on a lot of different things. I dove deep into political science. That was pretty intense. Most folks double major with overlap, but there was no overlap.

There’s something refreshing or exhilarating [when you] get the opportunity to reset. To go from some intense science class to a political science or political theory class was very useful. It uses different parts of your brain. You think differently in those environments. It broadens your perspective.

In terms of why I decided to go to law school after undergrad . . . I became fearful of getting a PhD in the sciences where I would have limited impact, [where I would be] working in a lab but not sure of the direction or ability to have an impact on something valuable [through] applied insights into a field or patients’ lives.

My reaction to that was, okay, I need to understand the business or legal context for discovering and developing new drugs to treat diseases. [I also spent] time on the Hill working in the Senate as a law clerk to work on issues that were impacting the FDA.

Along the way, I went to law firms for a number of years doing work for biopharma in [intellectual property]. That was a great foundation, but I knew I wanted to get my hands dirty playing the role I could to develop new innovations.

Q: What was a time where you found yourself in one type of role but realized that it really wasn’t for you and perhaps revealed an alternate skillset?

I spent a lot of time doing IP litigation. I’d like to say I was good at it, but over time it became clear to me it wasn’t where my long-term passion layed. It was fun to . . . build a strategy where there were underlying scientific concepts and wrap legal arguments . . . together. I felt I was very good at it, but I ultimately knew that was quite a different career than developing these drugs.

Q: At this point in your career, what do you see as your most acute failure that you learned an important lesson from?

[At] the company I’m now leaving, Pieris, for a period of time, I was responsible for the project leadership and management of the advancement of therapeutic programs. Most of the team is in Munich and I’m in Boston. I think having that role worked well when I could travel to Germany, but as we went into COVID, I, maybe naively, thought it would be easy to maintain effective leadership of that function and in that role, notwithstanding the fact that for more than a year I wasn’t able to travel to Germany.

I didn’t anticipate the challenge with being away from my team for such an extended period of time and the impact on my ability to understand what people’s concerns were, what the dynamics in the team were, the fine print in between an email message and what you wouldn’t say over Zoom that you would over coffee. That was a big lesson. Hybrid and flex work is amazing, but it’s always great when you get the opportunities to spend time with folks, especially the ones you work with every day.

Q: In your mind, what’s the greatest challenge across the biotech industry right now?

There are so many unmet needs that remain for patients and there’s such exciting science being advanced. I would say that, certainly, one of our challenges is continued excitement and investment in the development of new drugs.

There was a time immediately after COVID where there was a lot of excitement in investing in a new biotech company, [but] that has waned . . . and has acted as a challenge in our industry. The development of new drugs is very expensive, lengthy and risky. Having that continued support is one of our key challenges.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for brevity.

Karen Fischer is a freelance science writer based in New Mexico. Reach her at kfischerwrites.com.

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