Traversing the Wnt Pathway with Intellectual Curiosity and Collaboration

Surrozen Team_Surrozen

The Surrozen Team at San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island/Courtesy of Surrozen

Being a pioneer requires a certain kind of spirit: one of independence and leadership for sure, but more than that, striking out on a new path(way), takes intentional collaboration. This spirit is embraced at Surrozen, a five-year-old South San Francisco biotech traversing the Wnt pathway. 

Specifically, Surrozen is trying to activate this pathway for the purpose of repairing or restoring tissue. Over the past 30 years, leading scientists – including Surrozen co-founders, Dr. Hans Clevers, M.D., Ph.D., Dr. K. Christopher Garcia, Ph.D., Dr. Roel Nusse, Ph.D. and Dr. Calvin Kuo, M.D., Ph.D. – have demonstrated that Wnt signaling plays a key role in the control of development, homeostasis and regeneration of many essential organs. It is known to play a role in inflammatory bowel and liver diseases, lung and airway diseases, eye disease, neurological disorders and many other maladies. 

“Our mission is to take advantage of the full potential of Wnt biology,” Craig Parker, CEO of Surrozen, told BioSpace. “We are using our technologies to activate the pathway selectively to drive that biology into as many different therapeutic and tissue areas as possible.”

Surrozen’s initial target, for which it expects to have a molecule in the clinic in 2022, is severe alcoholic hepatitis. Nusse, who won the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for his work on the Wnt pathway, has shown how the biology contributes to the structure of the liver and function of liver cells. In October 2020, Surrozen received a grant of up to $3 million from the National Institutes of Health to advance SZN-043, a novel liver-targeted regenerative antibody. Next up after that will be inflammatory bowel disease. 

CLIMB ON to the Surrozen Mission

While collaboration, risk-taking and trust are essential for any early-stage company, Parker said, “I think it's uniquely relevant for us because of the fact that we're working in all these different areas.”

Surrozen creates new pathways and connections with one another through adventure, such as a recent trip to San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island. Other past trips have included kayaking in Half Moon Bay and rock climbing. Surrozen employees see themselves, especially, as rock climbers. 

“When you're climbing, you have to trust, you have to take risks and challenge yourself. You have to collaborate,” Parker said. 

Surrozen CEO Craig Parker_SurrozenDuring all of these adventures, Surrozen’s 80 employees do team-building activities that hone the company’s ethos of “CLIMB ON”. This catchy and focus-appropriate acronym stands for Collaborate, Lead, Innovate, Motivate and be Brave, Open and Nurturing. 

The figure-eight knot is well-known to rock climbers as a safety technique. It is most commonly used for a climber to tie into the end of the rope. “Everybody in the company knows how to tie one of these knots which symbolize tying this community together,” said Surrozen Head of Culture and Leadership Candra Canning.

Rock climbing is also the inspiration for Surrozen’s employee excellence awards. These include the Figure-Eight award and Upside Down award, where handmade climbers hang off of a wall painted to look like the Sierras.

With all this therapeutic potential, Surrozen is actively expanding its team, expecting to reach 85 employees by the end of 2021, and continuing to robustly recruit throughout 2022.

While many scientists make their career in one specific area of expertise, the opportunities at Surrozen are much broader.

“There's opportunity here for intellectual diversity and new intellectual challenges that are very unique,” Parker said. “For a scientist, in particular, there's an opportunity for a really huge diversity of areas that you can work in.”

It is also a place where intentionally building a strong culture is considered an investment.  

The trip to Angel Island was both a homecoming and a welcome, an opportunity for employees who joined during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet in person.

“It was nice to bring everyone back together and discuss our core values and what it means to demonstrate them,” said Surrozen VP and Head of Human Resources Liz Nguyen. “People are doing things they had never done before, like rock climbing. I think that's a really unique proposition where we intentionally bring people together.

“We're committed to fostering a culture where people can explore, innovate, be passionate about the work and honest with each other; where flexibility of skills, resilience and adaptability to change are valued; where diversity, equality and inclusion are embraced, and where the workplace is fun, supportive and rewarding,” she added. “As we think about our next milestone, which is entering the clinic, those are at the heart of what we do.”

Surrozen is Actively Recruiting New Leaders

Naturally, Surrozen is looking to build its team with employees who want to “climb on”. Specifically, Canning said, the company is seeking collaborators who are interested in growing into leadership roles. 

Surrozen trains every individual as a leader. Each climber goes through the Surrozen Leadership Academy, which consists of eight months of leadership training. Separately, job-related capacity development is also encouraged.

And the training isn’t only for new employees. Canning said the Leadership Academy really turns the company’s hierarchy into a flat model.

“Everyone comes together to practice a variety of  leadership skills, and also managerial skills like having hard conversations, giving feedback and addressing how to foster diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Surrozen also encourages all of its employees to capitalize on their intellectual flexibility with the opportunity to climb multiple mountains.

“I always tell people when I interview them, ‘we're making a commitment to you and your professional development. We want you to have a long career here, and if that means you want to change areas, if we can accommodate that, we will.’” 

Examples of this include a research associate who made the jump to business development and two other research associates who are now in project management.

There are informal opportunities to lead as well. “We have one employee who is really passionate about presentation skills, so he created a forum where those who are interested in developing their presentation skills can learn together and share their experiences and tips,” Nguyen said.

New leaders at Surrozen are learning from lived examples, too. For instance, Parker’s leadership was an important factor for Nguyen when she climbed on in September.

“Craig demonstrates the core values of ‘CLIMB ON’. He values it and really ensures it in the organization. He is very much all about bringing the organization together,” she shared.

Surrozen also practices intentionality when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Nguyen pointed to the company’s leadership, where the executive team consists of three female leaders, as does the board of directors.

“If candidates and employees look at our board of directors and management team, they'll see that it’s reflective of our commitment to diversity,” she said. “I think Craig was very intentional about ensuring that we had a very diverse leadership team.”

Surrozen tug-of-war_Surrozen

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVES

BioSpace decided to speak with a few of these other leaders, including Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trudy Vanhove, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Wen-Chen Yeh, M.D., Ph.D. and Chief Financial Officer Charles “Chuck” Williams, to find out more about what makes Surrozen unique, and the candidate profile the company is looking for. 

What makes Surrozen’s culture unique?

Vanhove: “The commitment to developing everybody as a leader. There's this continuous training around leadership for everyone. So, I think that's very different and quite unique. With the way we're structured and because we're small, we have sub-team leads as well as project team leads, so we give a lot of leadership opportunity to people. Then we also give people tools to actually be a leader.”

Yeh:  “We are not only truly innovative, but I think the pathway that we are working on can apply to a lot of disease areas and help a variety of severe disease patients. I think that's part of what makes it feasible to be innovative, fun and creative.” 

Williams: “For an early-stage company, there's a lot of emphasis on culture and collaboration, and team building to create that neighborhood and collegiality, which I think contributes to the high achievement and success of the organization and being able to achieve what we have thus far.”

How do you, as a Leader, embody the CLIMB ON values?:

Vanhove: “We are committed to pushing decision-making down as much as we can, depending on the risk of the decision, of course. It's a question I really ask myself within the department: Is this a decision for the project team, or is this decision that I, as the CMO, am going to be accountable for? That really develops the leadership throughout the company. I also really think about these values when I need to make a decision about what to do next.”

Yeh: “To me, everything starts from thinking about how to make things better for patients, and we work as a team to try to deliver new medicine for patients. Personally, I definitely embrace that philosophy. For the culture and the core values, I practice them myself. I try to be a role model and talk about it in the one-on-one meetings I have with direct reports. In group meetings, I tend to also bring up some examples of the values as well. We have a couple of all-hands meetings, one that is run by our CEO. There, we not only talk about our collaboration, culture and the mission to deliver for patients, we also do kudos, where people recognize each other for excellent work. At the end of each kudo, we will say which value it correlates to.”

Williams: “It’s leading by example. It's just a very open relationship with the rest of the body of the organization. We try to hear what people have to say, and react and respond in a thoughtful way in terms of what's going on within the organization. Candidly, we like to show that we can have a little fun along the way too.”

What is your favorite part about working at Surrozen?

Vanhove: “This is a really fun place to work, and we’ve formed a camaraderie. And, of course, the science is exciting. It's very cutting edge., and not for the faint of heart. I think you have to be a bit of a risk-taker because it’s not easy what we're trying to do.”

Yeh: “We want to deliver for patients, so I enjoy thinking every day about what we can do as a team to achieve this. I was trained as an MD in internal medicine, so I have seen a lot of sick patients. They don't really have medicine for these severe diseases, and we believe we can help these patients. That’s our mission. I also enjoy a lot of cooperation and nurturing, through innovation, through scientific experiments, and the results that we get. This is a creative environment. I feel that we are really helping each other, and that's the vibe I enjoy the most.”

What is Surrozen’s ideal employee profile?

Nguyen: “People that are really passionate about our science, and exploring and innovating. Individuals who are flexible, adaptable and resilient. In a startup company, we're all wearing different hats and we're going to have to adapt in different, unique situations. Employees that really resonate and align with our core values in CLIMB ON, and also people who are committed to diversity, equality and inclusion.”

What is the unique employer value proposition offered at Surrozen?

Williams: “One: there aren't many companies that are tackling a new pathway, that no one else is working on. Two: there aren't actually that many companies where principally all of the discoveries have been made internally at the organization. Three: the capabilities to do all of that lies in-house, and finally, to be a part of something pretty special that has the potential to be transforming on a wide variety of different tissue types. The contribution that employees can make on what is otherwise a pretty transformational target to go after.”                                                                             

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