CEO to CEO: Tips for First-time Founders

BioSpace picked the brains of 10 biotech CEOs and founders, to solicit their advice for first-time founders.

Chance encounters are among the most missed aspects of this year’s virtual JP Morgan Week, biotech executives say. Lacking the opportunity to chat up peers in queues to pick up conference badges, grab coffee or enter elevators, BioSpace did the next best thing. We picked the brains of 10 biotech CEOs and founders to solicit their advice for first-time founders. Here’s what they told us:

Zandy Forbes, Ph.D., CEO and Co-Founder, MeiraGTx

Before co-founding MeiraGTx in 2015, Forbes was an academic scientist and a biotech fund manager.

Build the right team. Merging science and business expertise is essential for a biotech leader, and also for the workforce as a whole. Forming a team with complementary expertise drives scale and speed, and empowers a leader to focus on high-impact decisions.

Patience and adaptability are essential. Be ready to harness unexpected paths and new opportunities inside or outside the firm, such as partnerships, new revenue lines and sector-wide advances, without losing sight of your mission – improving patients’ lives.

Amit Etkin, M.D, Ph.D., Founder and CEO of Alto Neuroscience

Etkin founded Alto Neuroscience in late 2019 and is a tenured professor at Stanford University.

Question everything. Beyond the initial innovation, constantly rethink and question everything, and have a sustained commitment to execution.

Have a clear mission that organizes operational and team efforts, catalyzing true collaborations toward a single purpose.

Build the credibility to back up your idea. Actively leverage your existing network. Deep expertise, paired with a strong sense of purpose and confidence in our vision, is critical.

Choose progress over perfection. Executing on a big vision requires a big swing. Commit to the follow-through.

The path of a first-time founder isn’t linear defined. You must take risks and learn in the trenches. Embrace the experiences and enjoy the ride.

Jonathan Rigby, CEO of Revolo Biotherapeutics

Rigby has more than 30 years of experience in the biotech industry, including founding two companies and spearheading the U.S. headquarters from his current one.

Listen to your team. As my father said, “You have two ears and one mouth, and you need to use them in at least that ratio.”

Build a strong network of peers and investors outside your company. Cultivating those relationships is crucial for seeking advice, funding, building collaborations and ultimately, success.

Welcome the unknown. In this industry, while you may see great success, you may also encounter problems. There is usually a way over, under, around or through each problem. Getting past it depends on the team you build. Problems are only solved when creative solutions are contrived from dedicated individuals coming together.

Avanish Vellanki, CEO and Co-founder of Rain Therapeutics

Vellanki was in the investment banking industry, advising CEOs on strategies to grow their businesses, raise capital and transact deals before becoming one himself.

Building an executive team and finding the right investor partners go hand-in-hand. Admittedly, doing one without the other is difficult. It’s a delicate dance.

Hire senior officers first and build trust. They need to be partners in the business, not only employees. They need to be empowered and have the autonomy to grow their areas, and they need to come from diverse and complementary backgrounds and industries to provide multiple perspectives.

Find investor partners who believe in your vision. Ideally, they will support the needs of the business and afford the company the time and freedom to execute as a team. To align investors and management, rally around the mission.

Paula Ragan, Ph.D., CEO, X4 Pharmaceuticals

Ragan founded X4 Pharmaceuticals seven years ago.

Build a strong, diverse and trusted network to help you develop connections with those who believe in your mission and who provide the insight and encouragement to meet your goals. This includes building relationships across the capital markets (bankers, analysts and investors), which will help increase your exposure.

Learn to prioritize and diversify. You need optionality to create different investments within your portfolio, driven through innovation and research, that will be appreciated and valued by investors as milestones are achieved.

Kathy Lee-Sepsick, President, CEO and Founder of Femasys

Lee-Sepsick founded Femasys 18 years ago, after executive positions at two other biotechs.

Be persistent. Founding a company challenged me in some ways that I never expected. Persistence and out-of-the-box thinking were critical.

Tell your story often. Fundraising is a constant part of the job, so routinely identify opportunities to tell the company’s story to key stakeholders – especially investors – to ensure survivability and long-term success of the business. Keeping shareholders informed to ensure deep-rooted support became essential when unforeseen circumstances arose.

Share your experience with your family. Founding a company is all-consuming, and sacrifices are a necessary byproduct. To help my family better understand those many sacrifices, I shared my experiences with them, including them in the journey. I still do this today.

Filippo Petti, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, Celyad Oncology

Petti has served as CEO at Celyad for nearly four years, following an investment banking career.

Establish strong connections with colleagues early on. It’s impossible to know every detail of every aspect of the company, so build an open-door culture where everyone feels their expertise is valued. Leaning on your team’s expertise is a sign of strength and trust, not weakness.

Learn the nuances of the financial parts of the organization. This knowledge will grow as you talk with investors, negotiate deals, and pursue major milestones, such as a public listing. Any effort that accelerates your learning process is time well-spent.

Remember the privilege of being a CEO. We get to do cutting-edge, groundbreaking work that has the potential to improve people’s quality of life. Keeping that top-of-mind is a great way to maintain a positive outlook.

Robert Connelly, CEO, Elicio Therapeutics

Connelly has more than 30 years’ experience creating and growing biotech companies.

Only be a part of a company whose mission and science you deeply believe in and are excited about. This makes the everyday work more fulfilling and empowers you to push through the setbacks.

Recruit team members who are as invested in the science as you are, and who learn from each other. Lean on them as you make decisions about trials, partnerships, etc.

Build a nimble team. Choose members who are comfortable with – and have succeeded in – the fast-paced, unpredictable life of a startup.

Yoav Kimchy, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Check-Cap

Kimchy founded Check-Cap 15+ years ago, with a device to screen for colorectal cancer.

Use mistakes as learning experiences. Be persistent.

Surround yourself with people who can guide you, correct you when you might be wrong and encourage you to continue in challenging times.

Amit Kumar, Ph.D., Chairman, President & CEO, Anixa Biosciences

Kumar has more than two decades of experience as founder, director and CEO of multiple biotech companies.

Learn to build partnerships with academic centers, government agencies, other companies and stakeholders. Work in this field often requires collaboration and pooled resources to improve efficiency and outcomes.

Become unflappable. Learn techniques to stay coolheaded in challenging situations. Take a step back to process difficult situations before reacting. Considering the 30,000-foot view lends perspective. Difficult moments will come, and they will pass, and your team looks to you as the pillar in the storm.

Gail Dutton is a veteran biopharmaceutical reporter, covering the industry from Washington state. You can contact her at and see more of her work on Muckrack.