Editor’s note: This story is part of our 2022 PharmaVoice 100 feature.
Our honoree: Rahul Ballal
Title: CEO, Imara
The company’s focus: Imara is a clinical-stage biopharma company focused on rare hemoglobin disorders. Despite disappointing phase 2b clinical results released in April 2022 for its lead product tovinontrine for sickle cell disease (SCD), Imara continues to focus its energy on rare and other serious diseases, including a new life for tovinotrine in heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF) and a new pipeline addition, an oral Nrf2 activator for iron-related and other blood disorders.
In response to the recent trial results, Rahul Ballal noted in a statement that while disappointed, “we remain deeply grateful to the patients, investigators and their teams for their participation in these trials.”
Ballal, who has worked in the biotech and biotech venture capital industries for more than 15 years — including time at Flexion Therapeutics, Novartis Venture Funds and Northern Biologics, a startup funded by Celgene and Versant Ventures — is accustomed to leading through the ups and invariable downs of the high-stakes rare disease and specialty fields. Yet, he says it’s his compassion and willingness to understand the patient condition that continues to win the day and push him forward.
Ballal’s impact: In 2020, Ballal made a significant investment — $100,000 — toward a patient advocacy grant initiative for SCD, which was championed by a recent hire who had the disease. The proposal, which would become the Real Impact grant program, was designed to develop new relationships and build support for community-based SCD organizations across the country.
“Many executives of early-stage biotechs would have been daunted by the idea of taking on a national patient community program with an investment of over $100,000, but [Ballal] was determined to give back to the sickle cell and beta-thalassemia communities — so much so that the following year he made the decision to increase the funding by 20%,” one of his nominators and the champion of the initiative says. “Keeping a commitment to patient communities in a year devastated by COVID-19 was not easy. However, he still made the choice to increase Imara’s backing of community organizations. Since its debut in 2020, the Real Impact grant program has awarded 55 grants totaling $275,000 to community-based organizations across 37 states.”
Creating champions is one of Ballal’s hallmarks as a leader, and his decision to ante up did not go unnoticed within the company. “As a company looking to treat those with SCD, Imara and Ballal were pioneers in retaining a person actually living with the disease to lead their patient engagement efforts. Before, it was almost as if we were seen as too fragile or unable to be professionals by the industry. [Ballal] hasn’t just made an impact across the industry and on individuals living with SCD and beta-thalassemia, he serves as an example to his colleagues across the company as well,” his nominator says.
“I enable people to make decisions, as it ultimately helps make good decisions for the business — and decisions that people can stand behind.”
His career path: Lessons learned throughout his career — flexibility, quick and confident decision making, understanding the value of long-term planning, and an unwavering commitment to his employees — have inspired his team to stay the course during some extraordinary times.
His credits are impressive: While at Northern Biologics, which was later purchased by Boehringer Ingelheim, “he built a first-in-class immuno-oncology portfolio, led a broad strategic partnership with Celgene and managed several key functional roles at the executive level. At Versant, he negotiated foundational assets for existing portfolio and new companies, sourced several new deals and participated in investment team activities. As vice president of business development at Flexion Therapeutics, he led several transactions, supported multiple functions during Flexion’s IPO and completed a key $175 million strategic partnership with Patheon UK,” another one of his nominator’s notes.
Why he’s inspiring: Over the past several years, most biopharma companies began touting their commitment to patients. As one of Ballal’s nominators says, “the challenge for a company’s culture, however, lies in the actual effort exerted and progress made after those initial statements — ‘walking the walk,’ so to speak. Noble, altruistic goals must be backed up by consistent behavior from everyone in the organization, and for biotech executives, this has to be balanced with a long list of other, often competing, demands. That’s why I have been so impressed with Ballal. Over the time I have collaborated with him on Imara’s executive team, I’ve noted how earnestly he has set our mission towards helping patients and communities. His approach is an example to our colleagues, and the culture he fosters is an integral reason why our employees are proud to work here.”
Colleagues note that Ballal embodies Imara’s company values — transparency, passion, dedication and courage — and are inspired by his commitment to exemplify each one every day. Noted as an empowering leader, Ballal is “masterful at knowing” when to offer his CEO perspective and his personal perspective during meetings while providing space for others to contribute ideas and solve problems.
Ballal is not one to hide bad news. He has committed to providing negative clinical trial results to competitors to help inform their trials and clinical programs.
In his own words: “Over the past two years, I have learned to further empower teams, individuals, direct reports and even peers to make decisions and take ownership of those,” Ballal says. “That has been incredibly helpful in retaining teams, inspiring junior staff and retaining top talent, even in difficult data readout situations.”