Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
As a child, Lisa Ricciardi picked up a book about Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize winning doctor, philosopher and theologian. Then she read another about Marie Curie, and that was that — she was hooked on the ideas of “service and medicine.”
“It’s not like I was a kid who loved science, but these stories really stood out in my head,” Ricciardi said.
Today as CEO and president of Cognition Therapeutics — a clinical-stage neuroscience company — Ricciardi’s drive to make an impact on healthcare burns just as bright.
“Being in Alzheimer’s disease, if we can make a dent for those 6 million people and their families, wow, it is a privilege to get out of bed and do this work. I say it every day and I mean it sincerely, I’m so lucky,” she said.
Her interest in the company and its science stems from her personal experience seeing her mother struggle with the disease.
“I know this story really well and I made a decision to investigate the company. I knew there was a clinical data deadline coming and I thought well, let me just see,” she said. “And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we got the clinical data, which was positive, I was asked to step in as the CEO. So that is how I arrived here, I was asked to be the board member and eventually asked to take over management.”
Cognition’s lead product, CT1812, is an oral, first-in-class, small molecule drug that is designed to bind to the sigma-2 receptor and help “restore normal cellular damage responses.”
“We’ve learned that the sigma-2 receptor regulates all kinds of cellular required functions, like autophagy,” Ricciardi said. “Think of it as taking out the trash every day.”
The premise is that by protecting the neurons against the toxicity of oligomers, plaque production is reduced, therefore keeping new toxins from accumulating.
“Now, the real work is ahead. We have to run the studies, phase 2 and phase 3, and then we start looking at standard of care. But three years ago, this wasn’t even an idea on anyone’s radar screen. We’re in a very new place and it’s a great time for our company,” she said. “I feel like finally CNS is back on the radar and companies are having success. That’s an important shift.”
With broad industry experience, having launched three drugs while at Pfizer, positioning two companies — Medco and Foundation Medicine — for sale and holding board roles at multiple public and private U.S. and international companies, Ricciardi is drawing on the lessons learned throughout her career to create a culture within the small, but growing 25-person Cognition team, that makes each person feel as though they are part of something “special.”
“They all of have to punch above their weight and I want them to be motivated and focused, and there are a lot of great lessons that will help me,” she said. “I’m fearless, I’m relentless, I’m laser focused on our objectives. I would say quite honestly, I know I’m a handful.”
Here, Ricciardi talks about some of the ways she is connecting with investors and shareholders — including through a podcast called Conversations — how a family tragedy changed the trajectory of her life and why some of the hardest challenges turn into the biggest life lessons.
Welcome to WoW – the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice visits with Lisa Ricciardi, CEO and president, Cognition Therapeutics.
Taren: Lisa, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Lisa: Thank you. I’m so pleased to be here. I really appreciate your interest in the company and myself as the leader of it.
Taren: We’re looking forward to digging in. You have an extensive background as an executive leader at big pharma, biotech and a large pharmacy benefit company, a really unusual mash-up. Can you give us a little bit of a run down of your career?
Lisa: Yeah, thank you. I started in pharma launching three drugs at Pfizer and then from there went to MedCo where I sold the company. I sold an entire team of people, got together and sold the company. From there, I was invited to join MedCo. We sold MedCo. I had the opportunity to join Foundation Medicine. We sold Foundation Medicine. And then, last I worked in a series of small companies. I wanted to be back in Westchester and I had the opportunity to sit on the Cognition board and then was asked to run the company.
So in a word, my experience has been, Taren, both teams, divisions, companies, the operational side, and on the other side, very large transactions and lots of licensing deals which I think is like a great line up of experiences for running a biotech company right.
Taren: Oh, it certainly is. I’m interested to dig in a little bit, if you don’t mind. What were those three launches at Pfizer?
Lisa: First was a drug called Minipres. Who remembers this, right, anymore? Then, there was a drug called Norvasc which in its 11th year of sales or 9th year of sales, still growing at 11%. This is not a credit to me. It was a phenomenal drug and a great launch. Then, I worked on Tenidap, a drug that never saw the light of day, and Trovan, which is an antibiotic, quinolone, which was launched and later recalled.
The Tenidap story is interesting because you ask a question later about pivotal experiences and my view is you learn a lot from the things that are the hardest, and that was a drug that was expected to be the biggest drug for Pfizer. I was asked by the chairman, will you launch this drug, pull together the team. Well, we got to the FDA and we weren’t going anywhere. It was 0-7 against the drug, for a variety of reasons. But I have to say it was probably the most important professional team related experience I had at Pfizer. So I was given a lot of opportunities, good and bad, and felt like I had the chance to grow through many of them.
Taren: Wow, you talk about a high from Norvasc, which is certainly a blockbuster, to then this disappointing result in front of the FDA advisory board and being asked by the chairman of Pfizer at the time to run that. Let’s talk about that. I’d love to dig into that a bit because that had to be terribly disappointing for your entire team and for the company. How do you bounce back?
Lisa: You know we had a dinner at the end of all of this when we realized this drug was not going forward, and a statistician on my team sent me an email – and I will never forget this. God knows, it’s 20 years ago now – he said something to the effect that ‘Lisa, we’re not a team without a product. The product was the team.’ So what he was reflecting on was the integration of people in the US, outside the US, research people, commercial people, and I thought it was a one-sentence email and I thought it was so powerful.
That is to say having come through that, people, all of us, being disappointed and we landed up in a place – my focus was on making sure people ended up in good roles elsewhere. But that sentiment, Taren, really helped me feel like okay, this is part of a set of experiences in my professional portfolio and I never forgot it. I just thought the product was the team. It was like rock on.
Taren: That is a very powerful message. You’re right. It’s very interesting coming out of that with a positive experience is really a testament to your leadership. But I also like to talk about – you said 20 years ago, and it’s amazing that a drug can make it all the way through like that and get such a negative review. Science has come and data has come so much further. Do you think that drug would have been killed earlier on if it were today?
Lisa: It’s a great question. I’m not sure. I don’t know the answer to your question, Taren. We were very clearly focused on bringing the strongest package possible to the FDA – probably we would have done the same thing today that we did then. I don’t know.
You know you can look at Biogen and say here’s a company that traveled a very difficult road, huge studies, lots of work, got to the FDA and when you’re that public, everyone around the globe gets to second guess you and they happily do so in print, on the radio and everywhere else, and so maybe it’s not that different. I firmly believe people over there were doing the best job they could, as we were at Pfizer at that time.
I just feel like when you work in these teams and you understand what it takes, it really is a commitment and people are trying to do the absolute best job for their patients, their companies, et cetera. I think that’s a fair analogy.
Taren: Absolutely. I didn’t mean to diminish by any means the work that was going on or the commitment. I just think that sometimes when you think how far some of the data and analytics have come since 20 years ago that it could maybe have changed it, but maybe not. You’re right. Let’s talk about selling Medco. That also had to be a huge career moment for you.
Lisa: It was tremendous. I had so much regard for the management team there. I will say you go from the pharmaceutical industry which is, generally speaking, very buttoned up and a bit formal, it varies across management teams, and then Medco was the equivalent of the Wild West. It was a very scrappy, fun environment, and it was so different from pharmaceutical.
For me, I took a lot of pride in saying ‘okay, here’s a whole new management team, Lisa. Can you find a way to integrate and operate at a high level here.’ I had a wonderful boss, Dave Snow was the chairman of the company. Smart, fast, determined to get things done. I just love the pace and energy of that environment, and it was a successful sale. It was the biggest sale in the services industry ever.
The only disappointment for me was that it was over a little bit too fast. My boss knew bringing me in, okay, this woman does business development. We have these larger plans for the company. And you know, it was a great experience, relatively intense and a very different culture. You say to yourself, okay, I have to adapt, and I’m grateful I had that opportunity.
Taren: Fantastic. That’s also very exciting. Yeah, for sure. You also have quite a bit of international experience. Tell me about this and how has that been a benefit to you?
Lisa: It’s a great question. I honestly met the board that I joined when I was at MedCo. MedCo had a little tiny partnership with this company in the UK, in Ireland actually. I didn’t know very much about it but after we sold the company, MedCo, UDG was the partner, came back and asked me to join the board.
I had met them maybe once or twice before the sale of MedCo international healthcare services company, things like contract packaging for clinical trials and then lots of companies in their portfolio around analytics, around contract sales, around advertising. It was a mix of things but our client was pharma. It was fascinating because having come out of pharma I thought, oh, this is how you think when you’re on the other side selling into pharma.
More important, Taren, I was the only woman and the only American when I got on that board, and that was very important. It made me sit there and go “wow, you’re representing the US.” Now of course, no one person represents the US, but I felt a greater pressure of being more prepared, more able to speak at a high level to really capable international board members. And for the first time, I was actually started thinking about how do people look at the US. This is more about politics than about pharmaceuticals. But we would be sitting there and they’d make comments about Boris Yeltsin or they’d be talking about ManU, Manchester. We talked a lot about sports at the beginning of every board meeting. And then I would hear how people were talking about their perceptions of things in the US, whether it was in the healthcare industry or otherwise, and I just feel that it was important to be the minority in the room to listen and to take into account where everybody was coming from because I felt like I know my environment, my industry, et cetera, and never had been exposed to the kind of different views of it. It wasn’t critical, but it was really important I think to hear that, to make you feel like wow, well as a global citizen, what do I know about these other things, how prepared am I to discuss it and what are other people thinking.
So I would have to say in large part, the value of that experience was one, fabulous board members. My husband would say to me, “Lisa, half the benefit of traveling to Ireland all the time is you love these people,” and they were very capable, very experienced people. And then the other part was this was a very active company, 17 or 22 acquisitions, CEO succession. I can’t even tell you all the things that I had the privilege of being a part of as a board member. It was like going to college again. It was extraordinary. Not every day was perfect, not every board meeting was perfect. I don’t want to sound naïve but I got so much out of it and really feel like it was a privilege to interact with some of the people on that board. They were tremendous.
Taren: That’s an amazing experience, as you said. I’m very curious, what are some of those views that stick out to you the most in terms of the perception of the US market? Did anything come out that surprised you or is this something that you already sort of knew?
Lisa: Well, clearly differences in pricing, the role in the US of the payers, the influence that that would have going forward in every market around the world, that was a topic of discussion. And I would have to say everybody around the world knows that, right; pricing is different in the US than in any other organization. But it was just interesting to think what it’s like when you’re on the receiving end of that. Now, to be clear, this company was selling into pharmaceutical organizations, so they weren’t dealing directly with pricing, but that was often a topic of conversation.
And then I would say a lot of the innovative companies that we looked at were coming out of the US. I expected as a US person that if you’re dealing with 22 acquisitions, you’d see more things in Europe and we saw plenty. But the US, to me, continued to carry forward the kind of innovation that made them acquisition targets for the US. In some ways, I guess that was a positive thing.
We met lots of great smaller European companies, bought a bunch of them. But it gave me a new visibility into the US organizations that I might not have known about had I not been sitting there in all these M&A discussions for so long.
Taren: Just to be clear, the company was UGD. Is that what you said?
Lisa: UDG – United Drug Group. That’s how it started. UDG Health and it was sold to Clayton Dubilier and Rice two or three years ago just as we are preparing for the IPO. It was in 2021. A private equity took it over. It was fabulous.
You know the other thing was, Taren, it was two businesses. One was contract packaging. When you go to CVS and you buy something on the shelf, you buy your allergy medicine, you don’t really think about oh, somebody has to get the pills in the bottle and then get the bottles on the crates. I never thought about that. It’s actually a fascinating high-value business. It was contract packaging, clinical supply packaging. It was just a whole new world and the part of the business I took for granted.
I would walk though the warehouse from time to time and I would look at these products on the shelf – and this is going to sound so corny, I would be like ‘oh my god, I remember when that drug was in development.’ It was almost like the sentimental thing. It took 10 years and now it’s here, it’s a product being packaged and getting ready for commercialization.
I had the ability to appreciate it in a way that I didn’t think I would. I was happy to see that end of it. Actually, getting out the door to customers because had that not been part of my role at Pfizer. You know, you’re developing the drugs and marketing and pricing and you’re doing all these other things, but this end of the business was new to me, and it was done so well there.
Taren: Not to go down too much of a rabbit hole but it’s part of the business – you’re right, that a lot of people don’t think about but it’s so intricate because you have to worry about piracy, you have to worry about product safety, you have to worry about all of that different stuff, and counterfeiting.
Lisa: Yeah. Absolutely.
Taren: Fantastic. Tell me what drew you to Cognition after all of this? You’ve got all this great experience, you went through a master class in a board role. So what led you to Cognition?
Lisa: I knew the prior CEO of this company. He reached out to me and said ‘I’d like you to consider a board role,’ and this was back in 2019, not ’22 but 2019. My interest in the company, Taren, in all honesty, was seeing my own mother with Alzheimer’s disease, my dad taking care of her. I know this story really well and I made a decision to investigate the company. I knew there was an approaching clinical data deadline coming and I thought well, let me just see. Let me just see.
And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we got this first inkling on the clinical data which was positive, I was asked would I step in as the CEO to raise money for the company because they wanted to deploy different set of skills and experiences to tackle raising money, which was never easy in Alzheimer’s, and it certainly wasn’t easy for the prior CEO. So that is how I arrived here, asked to be the board member and eventually asked to take over management.
Honestly, Taren, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cut across you. I have had a lot of board experience, US, international, public, private, research, commercialization, when I think about six boards and I would joke with my husband and say, ‘well, I can maybe find any body part,’ meaning kidney, renal, right, you can choose… there are a lot of opportunities out there. And I just made the decision, this mattered a lot. Having seen it and being behind a small company in a tough space, if I could throw my human capital somewhere, this one would be of interest to me. So that’s really how I arrived at the decision.
Taren: It’s such a personal decision, right?
Taren: Making it as a personal cause, and I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I know that there are so many folks out there who can – this resonates with them in terms of where we need to go to look at this disease. Let’s talk about the company’s compound, CT1812.
Lisa: CT1812, right. That’s our lead program. It’s a small molecule, so this is an oral drug. All we hear about in the news are antibodies. Great news from Lilly, great news from Eisai monoclonal antibodies to treat different forms of Alzheimer’s disease. As I said, this is old fashioned chemistry. By old fashioned, I mean the scientific founders set out to determine – okay, if we want to protect neurons from the toxicity of the oligomers that kill them eventually, let’s work backwards and find a target. And that is in fact how they arrived at this particular receptor.
And what we’ve learned is this receptor, the sigma-2 receptor, regulates all kinds of cellular required functions, things like autophagy, think of that as taking out the trash every day, vesicle trafficking, allowing neuron of different parts of cells to talk to one another. So at this most basic level, this receptor is extremely important to modulate.
And what we learned is when you target this particular receptor, it causes the oligomers –and these are toxins and this is what you see in Eisai’s drug as well – it causes these toxins not to be able to sit. They’re displaced out of the brain. It’s somewhat of an indirect mechanism, I might say to make it most straightforward. And we think okay, down the road with monoclonal antibodies that are out there, those reduce plaque – if you reduce plaque and maybe the job of our drug is to keep new toxins from accumulating and turning into plaque, could that be a standard of care down the road? I must tell you, it’s so exciting to contemplate that.
Now, the real work is ahead. You have to run the studies, phase 2, phase 3, and then you start looking at standard of care. But three years ago, this wasn’t even an idea on anyone’s radar screen because there weren’t drugs. We’re in a very new place and it’s a great time for our company. We’ve had the benefit of $170 million of NIA funding garnered over the years through scientific rigor. I would say the NIA has been an intimate partner in the success of Cognition. And these capital markets, believe me, you’re thrilled to be able to say to investors, yeah, we have $88 million of non-dilutive capital sitting here which we’ll deploy as we continue our trials going forward. What other company can you talk to that has that kind of robust financial support.
So Cognitions’ early science, its innovative science, the rigor of its science, the grant funding – I feel like these are the characteristics that have allowed us, Taren, in this long market to put our heads down and just keep doing the work. We’re very fortunate in that regard.
Taren: Wow, Lisa, it is very exciting to hear you talk about it because it sounds like you’re opening up a new area of science within the Alzheimer’s space because for 20, 30 years, there’s been a lot of hope put on certain approaches that have not come to fruition. Do you really feel like you’re breaking new ground?
Lisa: Oh, definitely, definitely, Taren. Yes, it is new ground because it’s an entirely new approach and what we anticipate is that it can be complementary, synergistic with some of the approaches now that have figured it out. By that I mean, amyloid approaches have failed and two recently have been successful.
I think part of what’s been learned is you need a certain amount of amyloid reduction to show any impact on cognition and that’s what you see with these two recent approvals in both early and mild to moderate patients. We step back and go, huh, how might we work oral drugs, small molecule, pretty benign profile, nobody is driving to get PET imaging every 4 weeks or anything like that, we’re a pretty simple therapeutic, how might we add value to what’s coming along beside us. Because no one believes one drug is going to do it in Alzheimer’s disease any more than people believe one drug will work in any form of cancer. We think there’s a lot of analogy there.
Also, Taren, our drug works, we believe in the back of the eye. We are starting a trial that gets our drug to the back of the eye as a potential way to treat geographic atrophy. There’s recently been positive news in the industry and those patients currently on drug are getting intravitreal injections, that’s a shot in the eye, and we think could an oral drug work in this area and how might that change treatment and commercialization if you could swallow a pill or take a needle. We don’t know. We have to do the study to find out.
Taren: That’s fascinating. And that whole connection to the eye is also very fascinating. The eye has become a really hot area.
Lisa: Absolutely. Absolutely. We were just at ARVO which is the research meeting in ophthalmology, and I spent an entire afternoon at a talk which was almost verbatim what you said; it was all about the eye being a window into so many other functions in the body. It is fascinating.
Taren: It’s exciting. What else excites you about the pipeline?
Lisa: Oh gosh. One of the things that really has me very personally motivated is our trial in patients that have dementia with Lewy bodies. Sometimes people go ‘oh, isn’t that what Robin Williams had?’ And the answer is yes. It’s a condition that in the world of dementia is the largest condition after Alzheimer’s disease, and yet I must tell you, Taren, plenty of doctors are less clear on the diagnosis because patients walk in, they’re falling, they have gait issues and people go, oh Parkinson’s, you need to see a movement disorders doctor. Or they come in with other types of GI functions. These are patients that good days and days when their families are like what, they’re complicated and confusing and generally, takes about a year and a half and three specialists and seven visits before somebody can identify it’s dementia with Lewy bodies.
Now, if you get through that first stage gate, you then go ‘well, what drugs are out there?’ Very few. We were given a $30 million grant award, NIA award, to study our drug in dementia with Lewy bodies.
In Alzheimer’s, you have a beta oligomers. In these patients, you have alpha synuclein oligomers and actually also a beta oligomers. We’ve seen the behavior of our drug and feel like there’s a very strong rationale for how we might be able to help these patients clinically. We’re enrolling that trial now.
So why does that excite me, Taren? Because I feel like oh my god, in the world of people who suffer with dementia, these guys might quite possibly have it worse than some of the other conditions where there are more therapeutics. And I would love for us to be able to say look, now, there’s a breakthrough. There’s something that’s going to help. And it’s not that far off.
We’re recruiting right now. We anticipate having data next year that would allow us to discuss with the FDA what a phase 3 program looks like. So that’s really progress. We’re so focused on this trial. Both of our trials actually, our advanced trials.
Taren: I have to admit, now I’m not an expert in this field obviously, but doing the research I came across that term Lewy body and I had never heard it before. And the way you describe it, it almost sounds like it’s a rare disease. It takes so long, many doctors visits to get it diagnosed, it’s a longer diagnose prognosis. I know you’re doing something about it to raise the visibility of this underappreciated, if that’s not the right word…
Lisa: That’s a good word. We are. It’s 1.5 million patients estimated in the US, so rare and orphan are typically much, more smaller diseases. But in concept, the waters get muddy. People are like dementia. Twenty years ago, Taren, people would have said, oh, that’s your mother, she’s just getting old. That’s your grandmother. Now people are more sophisticated, and say well, maybe it’s Alzheimer’s, and you realize there’s lots of parts of dementia. They need to be teased out and by very capable doctors and then still there aren’t that many drugs. There’s a lot of companies working in these areas, and I hope we’re all successful.
Taren: You made the analogy to oncology a little while ago, and it feels like it’s that same trajectory where 25 years ago cancer was cancer, and now we’ve got 25,000 different kinds of cancer, with different types of precision medicine to address those, and it feels like this is moving in that same direction.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, you’re right. You are right. And you know, you raise a really important point, Taren. I’d say 10 years ago, a lot of the pharmaceutical companies decided to shed programs in CNS. Why? Because with precision medicine, you might be able to find more clearly targets in other disease areas which frankly, we’re going to be a more efficient use of R&D capital.
Lisa: It’s a logical decision. And so I feel like finally CNS is back on the radar and companies are having success. That’s an important shift and these shifts in the industry are long cycles. So I’m glad we’re back in this cycle.
Taren: Agreed. Somebody once told me a long time ago, the brain is hard.
Lisa: Yeah, I agree.
Taren: It’s just hard. Kudos to you and your organization for tackling what’s hard out there. I know the company has its own podcast series. Talk to me about Cognition Conversations and what led to this initiative, and how is it going?
Lisa: It’s a great question. One day a board member called me and she said “you know, Lisa, I feel like there are lots of things that retail investors are not so clear on.” Our mix of shareholders is half retail, half institutional, something along those lines, and I listened to her and I thought all right, let’s consider an R&D day, let’s consider this, that and eventually, we all talked about it and decided if we had a podcast series, remember that institutional investors are people too, right – it’s not just retail investors who would have an interest. And so we developed a curriculum and decided how do we make this not some huge, it’s $50,000 and it takes 6 weeks or 6 months. We don’t have that kind of money. We said let’s get the content, let’s get the leadership and let’s do these things every 4 to 6 weeks. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
One of the recent ones was neurologists talking as if they were giving advice to primary care doctors and saying things like ‘well, what if it isn’t Alzheimer’s, what should you be looking for?’ These people are so compassionate, Taren. Listening to them, I was like wow, what a great podcast.
We just recorded another one. It’s a more technical one, and it’s on biomarkers because we just released some great data in Sweden and had some top leaders. This is an emerging part of the study of Alzheimer’s disease and from my perspective, I thought yeah, let’s show intellectual leadership, let’s get these people around the table, not to talk just about our results, but to talk about the importance of this emerging field, what’s new, what should we look forward to.
For us, it’s been a way to have conversations, if you will, with a large group of people through these podcasts. They’re 10, 12 minutes, something like that. And again, I attribute the start of this to a board member who said you know, instead of one and done R&D day, I think we’ve hit on a much better solution to the question around educating not just our shareholders but anybody who wants to listen in.
Taren: Well, quite innovative, and kudos to you for listening to your board and taking a different approach to elevate the conversation – no pun intended – around this really important topic. Because primary care physicians, they’re very busy, they don’t have time to read all the literature, but something digestible in 10 to 12 minutes is something definitely doable for them. And to form a different way to think about how they’re looking and viewing their patients.
Taren: Very interesting. You talked about some promising results that just came out. How do those play into your goals for 2023?
Lisa: Part of our goals include completing certain studies, getting data read outs. We do have another study that we expect to read out in about 5 or 6 weeks. This is a very exciting study. Our goals, more broadly, than reading these things out include continuing to enroll patients in our trial.
We have five phase 2 studies running. It’s a big lift for a small company. Two of them are intended to complete recruitment this year. One is for early, mild to moderate Alzheimer’s patients. And another trial, dementia with Lewy bodies our goal is to recruit at the latest first quarter of next year so that we have data in ’24. That will be critical for our investors and for the strategics to look at. It will be a very important insight into the value of our platform.
In addition, we just started our trial with the oral drug for the back of the eye, and we also started a trial called START with a fantastic collaboration partner on the West Coast, the whole series of academic centers with leadership on the West Coast. The really important goals are around getting patients in these trials so that we have insight into our platform and continuing to enroll patients in the other studies.
Taren: That’s quite a bit going on there.
Taren: I’m really fascinated too about the oral delivery because when you think about those treatments and having to have injections in the eye – it’s just so daunting. But if you could come up with an oral solution, wow, would that blow the market up.
Lisa: No, I appreciate that. Also, in the Alzheimer’s side, you have to go to an infusion center. You have to get imaging. You have to be looked at to see if you have aria which is a particular side effect associated with monoclonals. Everything has pluses and minuses. Quite honestly, if we have an effective agent that’s an oral drug, I really think that’s a game changer in more than one indication. We have to just do the work, put our heads down, get these trials executed and then we’ll know.
Taren: Absolutely. You’re working in such a tough area, and not everything is going to pan out as planned, probably. How do you keep – do you rely back on your Pfizer lessons to keep the team buoyed when maybe results are not as encouraging as you had hoped?
Lisa: I had so many lessons from Pfizer, I mean it was really a privilege to be there. But I would say quite honestly, Taren, we’re at a point in the company where we haven’t seen things that were a bust.
Taren: Good for you!
Lisa: If that day comes, we’ll have to deal with it. And you know what, you’re right; motivating people to stay focused is a big part of the job. I always remind people – people think ‘oh, you’re the CEO, you can do this, that, and the other thing,’ and you say to yourself, ‘are you kidding me? The CEO does very little because all the work in an effective organization is done through people.’ It’s a matter of how well are your people trained, who are your leaders, how are they operating, how are they executing.
Clearly, there are things that a CEO does. I don’t mean to minimize that, but your point about the morale of the organization and the culture is critical. It is critical. I’m proud of the culture we have. I honestly sit here some days and I go, ‘oh my gosh, when I look at people who are in this office working, you feel that they feel like they’re a part of something special.’ It gives me enormous pleasure and I also feel like that’s part of what drives us.
We’re 25 people, largely experienced people, it’s not a lot. They all kind of have to punch above their weight and you want them to be motivated and focused and there are a lot of great lessons that will help me, I believe, going forward. Hopefully, we have good news. That’s so much easier to celebrate, right, than getting people recovering from bad news.
Taren: Absolutely. I can’t believe you’re doing all this with 25 people. That seems impossible.
Lisa: Well, we have 25 full-time people. I would say we have another group of about 15 people and I affectionately call them the majors, meaning they’re consultants, partners to the company. They don’t work full time for us but they work a great deal of time with us, and so 40 people. You may know, Taren, that the trials are executed through clinical research organizations, partners that are out there, the arms and legs in the field, at the doctors offices around the US and now we have studies going on in Europe. We work very closely with these large partners.
You are right, that 25 people can’t run 30 DLB sites and another 30 for Alzheimer’s disease around the world. That would not be an effective use of time in a much larger organization.
Taren: No, but even working with partners, that takes a really high performing team. Because even when you have a CRO partner, you still need somebody to manage it on the inside because they are a partner.
Lisa: Right. No, I agree with you.
Taren: When you’re building your teams, I mean obviously the know-how is just the table stakes. But what are those other things that you look for when you’re bringing on a team member to really fulfill a high performing team. What are those traits you look for?
Lisa: I’d have to tell you something. There’s the basic capabilities, right. If you’re looking for a medical director, what’s their experience running trials and things of that nature. If you’re looking for a CFO, where have they done other financing. There’s very specific domain expertise that you’re looking for and vetting.
But to be honest, Taren, I feel like fit is a huge part of it. Culture and fit – because there are a lot of people that can do an ATM or raise money or partner with a big CRO, but how they work with the rest of the organization in a small company, fit is a really big part of it. So you’re looking for experienced people, people with a certain level of maturity and commitment.
To your point, this space is hard. Five years ago if you had the word gene in the title of your company, you’re like wow, awesome valuation, my stock options are going to be in the money, right, all these kinds of things. This space is hard and you get people and you want them to feel like I’m driving this company towards something really important and bigger. Of course, we’re compensating them well. I didn’t mean to suggest we’re not. But it’s about attitude and fit, I think.
We’ve been really fortunate. I have to say, we have tremendous people in this organization. And you know people change over time. People you started with are not necessarily the people here today and maybe when we’re in phase 3, it will be different people. That’s the nature of work, period. So I don’t overlook that, but I have to say people who are willing to say ‘it’s not all about me, I’m doing this, I’m doing that…’ – no, it’s about working with three or four other people to get the job done.
Taren: Absolutely. Since taking over as the CEO, how have you crafted that culture of Cognition? How have you put your mark on it?
Lisa: Through some of the people I think that have come in to the organization and I think importantly, in the conduct. By that, I mean, you asked a question about are you a role model, and my thought on that is when you’re the CEO, people look at everything you do – how you dress, how you comport yourself, how you talk to partners who just messed up in a really big way, how you deal with employees that are having conflicts. So you’re being looked at all the time.
For myself, I care very deeply about the people in the organization. I was joking with my husband, someone came by and said goodbye the other day and then told me something important about the plans for their wedding and it just tickled me to no end. Because that person knew that I’m like pretty excited for them, right, or their kids or whatever, I really feel that connecting with the people in an authentic and sincere way is important.
I also know, Taren – I’m fearless, I’m relentless. I try to be authentic in every instance. I’m laser focused on our objectives. I would say quite honestly, I know I’m a handful. In a small company, you have to say to yourself, how am I balancing that, how am I connecting with people, how do people know that this is a place where we care about them as people. I always think about someone walks in the door, and they’re a husband and wife, a son, a mother, a father… you know, everyone comes in here with something else that’s a part of who they are and you have to make room for all of that.
It’s not a very specific answer to how I’ve made my mark; it’s how I conduct myself. And I feel like I look around and because culture is a function of blending things where people have a lot in common and some differences, I feel like we must have hired well because it is a place where generally speaking people get along and supportive, and people care about what’s going on, who had a baby, who is getting married, who is buying a house. These seem like silly things when you talk about it, except that when you’re here, you really care about these things.
Taren: That’s fantastic. I often ask this question of our WoW guests and say how did you find your voice, but I have a feeling, Lisa, you never didn’t have a voice.
Lisa: That’s really a nice way of saying something else, Taren. Go for it.
Taren: No, no, not at all. Because we started our conversation saying that you were a board member in this European international role, you had to talk all these sports, which maybe is not something that you’re generally interested, and you were the only woman. So sometimes it’s difficult to be the n of 1 and making sure that your voice is heard. I’ll ask the question, how did you find your voice? Where did you find your confidence?
Lisa: Oh, that’s such a great question. I will observe one thing in what you just said, Taren. Finding your voice is one thing and one of the things, as I believe, as you go along what’s even more important is finding other people’s voice.
I met somebody two weeks ago at a conference and this person said to me, “Lisa, you don’t remember this but at a meeting at Pfizer, you said to me, tell me what you think,” and he goes, “you don’t even remember this, Lisa. I was the least senior person in the room.” Taren, we’re talking 15 years later, the guy remembers this anecdote. So I was pleased to hear that.
Hopefully, that’s good practice that I use all the time – making everyone feel like they’re valued. Their input is value. It’s not about me telling as much as me eliciting from people so that we arrive at the best decision. It sounds so easy and when you’re hard pressed for time and everyone is in a hurry, and some voices are louder than others, it’s like a discipline to make sure that people are being leveraged well and that means they get their voice.
I would have to say at Pfizer, I had incredible experiences. Karen Katen and Bill Steere these were people who led the division. Gary Jortner, people I worked for, incredible people, very strong leaders, they gave me lots of opportunities. My boss was the vice chairman of Pfizer, a guy name John Niblack, and I adored him. He gave me a lot of confidence. The vice chairman of Pfizer, right, I could talk to him about anything. ‘Here’s the struggle we’re having on a deal, how might we think about it.’ And so I would have to say those leaders and the experiences they gave me and the way they opened themselves up to work with me and to help me, I think that had a lot to do with it. You come out of a place like Pfizer and oh, man, it was an amazing experience, a formative experience.
There are many successful people that never go through big companies. I get that. I’m grateful for what I had and the people I worked with and their characteristics in leadership.
Taren: You said the name Karen Katen and Bill Steere and I immediately had a flashback to that time in Pfizer’s history. That’s how long I’ve been in the industry too because those are names that are very familiar to me, and I had the opportunity to meet both of those individuals. What a time to be there, for sure.
Lisa: Oh yeah, I agree. I will tell you Albert Bourla, I reached out to him for something. This man, I got a response in about three days. I could not believe it. You say to yourself ‘that is a well oiled machine.’ It was a serious business question on behalf of a group of people that we’re working together, and I’ve listened to him and he has been on podcasts. I think you and I would both agree, Taren, because we’ve got lots of visibility in this industry, there are fantastic leaders all over the place. When I hear our industry get maligned, I go “god, you have no idea what you’re missing in some of these extraordinary environments, really.”
Taren: It’s the truth and we need more people evangelizing about that instead of being beat up because of pricing or something else or what have you. It’s work and dedication that is being put in to these drugs that are going to be, hopefully, someday we’ll call them miracle cures at some point. It just can’t be underestimated or overvalued.
With all of these people who have been in your world, has there been anybody who has had – you just talked about your boss, John, correct, was he one who had the specific – anybody besides him who had a specific influence on your career maybe as a mentor?
Lisa: Well, John was fantastic for a variety of reasons. I’ve also worked with some outside advisors, one in particular, a person I worked with for 20 or 30 years. You need the kind of people that can call you up and go, okay, can we just talk about what happened there, that didn’t go really well, right? Honestly, when you’re the CEO, I’m sure you’ve been running your own operation for a long time – it’s hard to get people who will help you get straight, if you will.
So there’s been an advisor I’ve worked with, John, my chairman, this guy is great. I have some board members who are extraordinary and they really want to help. It allows you to take some risks, I’m struggling with this, what do you think. I don’t sit here going if I don’t have it all buttoned up, I better not call these people. Get real. The goal is to solve the problem and find the people who can help you get there. But you need those relationships, and I’ve been very fortunate that I think I’ve had a lot of them.
Taren: I love that. Get real, for sure. It is a relationship business. You just told that anecdote, ran into somebody two weeks ago that you had an influence on 15 years ago. Those relationships count throughout your entire career. What brought you to the life sciences industry originally? Because you are certainly very talented and certainly very driven and certainly very smart, you could have gone and done anything. Why the life sciences?
Lisa: You’re going to think I’m a real goofball but the truth is when I was a little girl, there was a book at home on the bookshelf and it was about Albert Schweitzer who was a medical visionary. Don’t ask me why I picked this up, but for as long as I can remember, the idea of service and medicine was in my head. From Albert Schweitzer, I made my way to Marie Curie. Again, it’s not like I was a kid who loved science but these stories really stood out in my head.
So time goes on, I go to college and I go I’m going to be a doctor. I’m at Wesleyan and I’m studying and completing all the courses, and my uncle who is 41 gets head and neck cancer. He’s a marathon runner. He’s stunningly good looking. He was like the lynchpin of the family, my mother’s brother. I think this gets to your wow question, I realized seeing his care at Mass General, I was like amazing doctors, one family at a time. And I realized what really was going to drive me was always going to be in healthcare but it was the ability to have an impact, and that’s when I decided I wanted to go to business school. I didn’t want to deal with one family at a time. I actually thought I was going to run Mass General. Now if I have to go to the hospital, Taren, God help me, the last place I’d ever want to be is in a hospital.
But it was the series of steps that took me there, from a passion around health and medicine to how do you really reach a lot of people. I was never interested in policy. They’re really gifted people. We need them all to figure out policy. That’s not my area of interest but this is. I think being in Alzheimer’s disease, man, if we can make a dent for those 6 million people and their families, wow, it is a privilege to get out of bed and do this work. I say it every day and I mean it sincerely, I’m so lucky.
Taren: That is fantastic. What a great story. I love that it all started with you with Albert Schweitzer. There aren’t that many kids who can say that. That’s the first time I’ve heard it. That’s amazing.
Lisa: I’m going to send you the book. I’ll find the book and send it to you.
Taren: I love it. I love getting in to finding the back stories and that’s a fantastic back story. You certainly have provided us with an open book into your leadership style and your approach to business and how passionate you are. What’s the one thing about you that maybe many people don’t know? Don’t tell me that you’re an introvert because I’m not going to believe you.
Lisa: Yes, that is definitely not true. Well, I don’t know if I’d say people don’t know this but I will tell you this, I have a group of girlfriends, the women you walk with, you go round and round and round and whether it’s your kids or an illness or something great or something you’re struggling with, whatever it is, these relationships matter a lot and they’ve mattered for years and years. I feel like being able to cultivate that and to have a group of people that really don’t care if you’re the CEO. Yeah, they were happy when they saw the NASDAQ thing. Woohoo!
But that isn’t what we’re about, and those relationships and my relationship with my sister – these things are invaluable. They keep you grounded. I laugh because we like to entertain, my husband and I, and a lot of times when we’re working with our IR team, they’re like “wow, Lisa, what’s your party this weekend.” I don’t know if people don’t know it, Taren, but the care and cultivation of those friendships matters a lot. I hope they do know it. I think it’s a great thing.
Taren: That story resonates with me very much so because I have a similar group of women who I – I like how you put it – I walk with. And it comes back to this concept of particularly for women, we really need our own personal, almost board of advisors. As you said earlier…
Lisa: Yeah, so well said. Yes, that’s exactly right.
Taren: Right. Being a CEO is a lonely place for a woman in this world, especially within the pharmaceutical industry or the biotech industry. So you need those people to lean on. Do you have a group of other women CEOs that you touch base with as well, that you lean on?
Lisa: No. Well, I’ve been invited to participate in some groups and every gets on a video and a couple of these things are in the Boston area, and I feel like if I lived in a more dense environment in terms of the industry, it would be easier to get to know people, so no.
But you know, you raise such an important point because you said two things, Taren, one is it’s a lonely job. It sounds so corny. But at the end of the day, it’s like you make the decision, you pull the trigger, you live with it. Your board isn’t going to go, oh, that’s okay, Lisa. No, you have to get it right and you have to get the whole team behind you, and sometimes you feel like I’m really hanging out here by myself, aren’t I. So you have to look in and figure out what you’re going to be doing in situations, and other CEOs get that. I think your point is excellent that it’s lonely, and the ability to talk to other people who get what you’re doing is critical. I would say that scenario where I’m liked at the moment. I bet you know a lot of great people, you should put together one of those groups – unless you already have.
Taren: Well, if I ever get there, I’ll definitely bring you along for sure.
Taren: I want to circle back to you talked about it your wow moment there and your uncle – we need to give that a little bit more space, if you don’t mind and kind of breathe into it because I feel like I kind of glanced over it and I didn’t mean to because you said something also very interesting during that piece of the conversation. Running Mass General, the hospital but that whole thing became so important to you in terms of how you want to make a bigger impact, and really resonated with me. If you don’t mind, can we talk a little bit more about that and how it impacted you and your family.
Lisa: I was a senior at Wesleyan doing my thesis and I was taking all my pre-med courses and all this jazz and you get the phone call. My uncle had this very rare head and neck cancer. It was like what? This guy just ran the Boston Marathon, how could that be? It was devastating. My mother had two brothers. He lived near us. We were very close. We saw him all the time. He was a really important part of our whole family dynamic. And so for me, graduating, being in the Boston area, seeing the care and the treatment and the high quality doctors and then from the family’s perspective, my mother taking care of him, his wife back and forth, you just lived through the whole thing and so many people have this experience. I just thought, oh my god, we were the lucky ones. My uncle didn’t make it. He had a rare cancer and he died after a year and a half, and it was just terrible for a long time. And we were the lucky ones, Taren, and so that really stuck with me.
Now, I’m not curing cancer. I can’t change the outcome somebody with my uncle’s condition had then or perhaps even has today, but the ability to give people great quality service whether it’s diagnostic, clinical support, et cetera, I figured I need to find a place in the middle of all this. I just always thought about medicine. So the shift from going from one family at a time to an incredible institution, it just seemed like ‘oh Lisa, you’re figuring out what you should be doing.’ I got to Pfizer and Pfizer was big and complex like a hospital but I just loved it. I loved it.
I loved it because of its reach, the values of the company, it was in every market of the world, did really great things, people all over the world benefited. That just mattered so much to me to be a part of that. It wasn’t the hospital, but it met a lot of those personal needs that I felt like I learned during the course of my uncle’s illness.
Taren: Lisa, thank you so much for sharing that very personal story. Our time has flown by. I have been so energized by our conversation. You’ve given me great hope for the future of Alzheimer’s. I look forward to staying in touch because I think you’re a dynamo. Wow, I wish you continued great success.
Lisa: Well, thank you. I appreciate your interest and reached out. I’m delighted you were wanting to talk with me and talk about Cognition. And I must say, Taren, I’d love to meet you some place but not on a dark e-screen but for real, so maybe we can make that work too.
Taren: That would be great. Thank you so much for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Lisa: Thank you. Thank you so much. Take care. Bye.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.