Genuv’s Sungho Han Encourages Her Staff to Challenge the Status Quo
Genuv Founder and CEO Sungho Han, Ph.D./Courtesy Genuv Inc.
Sungho Han, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Genuv Inc. in Seoul, South Korea, has built her career and her company by thinking outside the box.
In Korea, “I’m one of a very few female CEOs who completed research training for doctoral degrees in the U.S.,” she told BioSpace. Her Ph.D. in neuroanatomy and neurobiology normally would set her career on a research path. But, “when I was doing my research at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, I realized I was good at thinking outside the box, pathfinding and team building.”
These skills eclipsed those of the lab bench and put her on an entrepreneurial trajectory. It helps that Han is easy to talk with about science and a wide range of topics. “I’m a people person,” she said. “That’s not necessarily a common feature among scientists, and it helped me as I conceived and founded this company.”
Han’s affinity for discussion and debate clearly helps Genuv thrive, but inculcating it into the corporate culture required a concerted effort. For example, to support Genuv’s mission to develop neuroprotective and neurogenesis-enabling therapies, Han wanted to stimulate scientific imagination within her company. To do this, she developed a non-hierarchical culture, in which anyone – even new hires straight from college – can talk with anyone about any issue in the company.
“Korea has only a 20-year history in biotech,” she explained, and a culture that respects elders. Challenging ideas, whether Han’s or those of other senior staff, wasn’t comfortable for many employees. “It took years to convince our leadership and employees that anyone can challenge our plans and ideas, regardless of titles or seniority,” Han said.
“We are working on very novel concepts,” she said, so the willingness to debate and discuss even supposedly well-established ideas is vital. Prior references that contradict the scientific hypothesis the Genuv researchers work on, or the lack of prior ones, can stifle innovation. She, therefore, encourages the researchers to find other ways to minimize risks.
Han was active in the design of the ATRIVIEW® drug discovery platform, one of Genuv’s two platform technologies to screen small molecule drug candidates for evidence of neuroprotection and neuroregenerative effects. It is used currently for Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) drug discovery. Her team’s willingness to challenge the initial design, she said, “restarted the debates and, as a result, ATRIVIEW® is getting better and better.”
Back in 2016, when Han suggested a novel concept for therapies that enable neurogenesis and neuroprotection, “the idea was regarded as really innovative around the world, and especially in Korea. The major institutional investors in Korea didn’t believe it was possible. It took me three years to convince them. Now, the world is convinced neuroprotection works. Convincing them that neurogenesis also works is taking longer, but we’re on the right road toward significant progress.”
Genuv is working in the area of autophagic lysosomal activation – “one of the hottest topics in the industry,” Han said. Basically, the process activates nerve cells such as neurons and microglia to act like white cells in the bloodstream, and to digest waste inside the brain, targeting amyloid plaque in Alzheimer’s disease and malformed protein in ALS. “Our researchers are teamed with an expert at Johns Hopkins University to decipher the mechanism of action,” she said.
The company has a Phase I/IIa trial of SNR1611 underway in Korea now for ALS, with a readout expected around the end of 2022. Afterward, Genuv plans to launch a similar trial in the U.S. for neurodegenerative diseases.
Han also is considering opening a U.S. discovery center. “The U.S. is the most innovative market, and we’d like to tap into that innovation and talent base,” she explained. “My ‘Yoda’” – scientific and strategic advisor Bob Langer, Sc.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology – “has encouraged me to choose the Cambridge area for the site.”
Scientific progress is only one element of successful companies, of course. Understanding and protecting intellectual property (IP) is another. “When I started my professional career in Korea, I worked as a patent advisor at Kim & Chang Law Firm (one of the largest law firms in Asia). I developed a very good understanding of patent strategy,” Han said. The firm’s clients included Genentech and other large multinational companies.
Her thorough domain knowledge of patents led to an invitation to participate in a series of seminars to explore ways to improve the IP environment in Korea. “I worked successfully with the Korean parliament from 2009 to 2015 to help members grasp the importance of intellectual property and enhance their understanding of intangible assets, and thus strengthen the biotech IP in Korea,” Han said.
“I also engaged members of the Korean parliament and presidential aides in 2014, pursuant to amending Korean bioethics laws.” Consequently, she said, “I made it possible for individuals, rather than the medical establishment, to control their own genomic information.”
Despite her many successes, Han’s ambition hasn’t always been in biotech. “I love music,” she said. After working at Medipost Co. Ltd. as head of R&D strategy, she was admitted to a conservatory and majored in pipe organ. During that time, she was one of the organists for the Gahoedong Catholic Church in Seoul, where the first Catholic mass was said in Korea, during the Joseon (Chosŏn) dynasty. Mendelson’s Opus 65 No.2 and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor are among her favorite pieces, but an injury has since curtailed her playing.