How the U.S. Military Primed Windtree CEO Craig Fraser for C-Suite Success

Craig Fraser

Craig Fraser, CEO of Windtree Therapeutics, pictured above. 

Craig Fraser, CEO of Windtree Therapeutics, became a U.S. Marine at age 17, learning to perform and lead under pressure in the field before eventually leading in the C-suite.

“The challenge of the U.S. Marine Corps’ recruiting slogan, ‘The Few, the Proud,’ hooked me. I thought it would be special to be part of the Marine Corps, and I knew it could provide money for education,” Fraser told BioSpace. He enlisted, did a tour of duty, and then began college.

“I really liked the military, so I served in the reserves during undergraduate school. I wanted to go back as an officer, to have a chance to lead,” he said. There was no Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at his university (to become a Marine officer), though, so he transferred to the U.S. Army for ROTC. After graduation he entered active service, commanding an infantry company and other units up to 179 soldiers, at the rank of captain.

Military service is excellent preparation for the business world, and is a point he stresses to the officers he mentors through American Corporate Partners, which helps veterans transition into business. “I try to make them aware of military skills that can translate and how to consciously leverage them to transition,” he said.

“For example, as a field officer you receive daily operation orders.” They’re written as five paragraphs that identify the:

  • Situation
  • Mission
  • Execution  
  • Support
  • Command and control

Within that framework, a good commander – whether in business or the military – accurately assesses risks, his or her organization’s position and that of competitors, clearly and succinctly communicates that mission to the unit, identifies the strategies and tactics to accomplish the mission, ensures necessary resources and logistics are available, and plans ways to control the execution, adjust on-the-fly and measure results.

“That’s a business plan,” Fraser said. “It becomes so ingrained in you that it’s intuitive. I didn’t realize that until I became a marketing director.”

Perseverance and the ability to inspire others are additional transferrable quality. “When you’re exhausted and stressed, your ability to remain steady, to persevere, and to make personal connections with people is tested in many ways,” he acknowledged. Leaders must rise to the challenge.

That talent was put to the test in 2017, about a year after Fraser joined Windtree.

“We were a one-product company and, with about $39 million in debt and obligations and low cash-on-hand, we were highly leveraged as we completed a Phase IIb study. There was no room for hiccups.”

Everything seemed to hinge on the results of the clinical trial. But…it missed its endpoint.

“That would have put most companies out of business,” Fraser said. Instead, Windtree persevered. “There’s a phrase often used in the military: ‘Lean forward in a foxhole.’” In business parlance, that meant going on the offensive to contain costs, downsize, and leverage licensing partners strategically.  

“After finding a way to survive, we merged with a private Asian company, which included a simultaneous $39 million private placement. Consequently, we expanded our portfolio with acute cardiovascular assets. The result was a stronger sustainable company that now is executing on multiple programs.”

Today Windtree Therapeutics is focused on developing its first-in-class therapeutic, istaroxime, for acute decompensated heart failure (ADHF). It appears to be the first-in-class therapy with a unique mechanism that increases both the volume of blood pumped through the heart and blood pressure, and decreases the heart rate.

“It has a dual mechanism and works in both cycles of the heart,” Fraser explained. “Istaroxime improves systolic function by increasing the force of the contraction and, uniquely, in the diastolic phase by causing greater relaxation of the heart between heartbeats.”

Greater relaxation increases the fill volume, which enables the heart to pump more blood with each contraction.

“In addition to the efficacy seen in the Phase IIa and IIb studies, so far, we’re not seeing many of the rate limiting toxicities of some of the current therapies, like low blood pressure and increases in arrhythmia,” he pointed out.

The company is preparing for the next acute heart failure trial. A second program under active development is in early cardiogenic shock, with data anticipated later this year.

“It’s cliché, but we’re focused on filling unmet needs where existing therapeutic options have left a void. There’s a lot going on in patients with heart failure. It’s a difficult area, and standard approaches often come with a cost (in terms of side effects),” he pointed out. Consequently, AHF therapies haven’t seen innovation in nearly two decades.

Windtree has a Fast Track designation for its cardiovascular investigational therapeutics in AHF. It also is developing a synthetic surfactant for use in COVID-19 lung injury. A with a readout for that also is expected later this year.

Fraser’s decision to transition from the military to business was largely grounded in his devotion to his family. In my particular job in the military, extensive time away was all but guaranteed. “My son had just been born,” he recalled. “I didn’t have my dad around when I was growing up… I wanted to be there for my son. So. when that tour was completed, I exited active duty and entered the reserves and business.”  

“At the time, pharmaceutical companies liked to hire junior military officers, particular as sales representatives,” Fraser said. He joined Boehringer Mannheim in a sales and marketing role and progressed steadily through its ranks before joining Centocor, “a small, pre-commercialization, monoclonal antibody company with cutting edge technology and talent. It was a great learning experience.”

During that time, Fraser honed his formal business skills through Kellogg Executive Education (Northwestern University).

From there, he took on increasing responsibilities at Johnson & Johnson (VP, oncology sales & marketing, and commercial operations), Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (VP & global business manager), Pfizer (VP, global disease areas), and Novelion Therapeutics (COO), before joining Windtree.

Throughout his career, mentoring has been a focal point. In addition to mentoring transitioning military and at Windtree, Fraser also helps through CEO Mentor, a Philadelphia program for entrepreneurial CEO sponsored by PACT and Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

“Mentoring can be difficult in a small company, because we don’t have the processes for coaching and training that companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer have. Small companies tend to hire very experienced people, too, so mentoring looks different here,” he said.

“For Windtree, particularly with senior people, mentoring is more about taking the time to just talk… to ask ‘what if?’ and to stop by their offices, to go out to lunch, to explore their thinking on an issue and be a sounding board, bouncing ideas off each other in a trusting, open way.”

“With junior people,” Fraser continued, “mentoring is about pulling them into situations they wouldn’t normally be exposed to – business development discussions with other companies, or forecasting, for example – and then explaining how and why we’re doing that activity that particular way.”

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