Want A Great Team? Pick Great Leaders.

July 19, 2021
Jennifer Petter, PhD, Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Arrakis

Back in 2015, I felt compelled to set out in a new direction in drug discovery. I was in my third year as VP of Chemistry for Celgene. This was a great gig – good people, good science. However, it required a level of travel that began to seem excessive. My kids were old enough to know I was missing and young enough to care. And I live in the “Hollywood” of biotech, the Boston/Cambridge area – there seems to be an exciting new biotech start-up in this neighborhood every six weeks! So in May of that year, I “retired” from Celgene. Wasn’t sure exactly what I planned to do, but likely see if one of those exciting new biotech start-ups could use my help.

However, in June I happened to attend the Gordon Research Conference on Chemical Biology and High-throughput Chemistry where I saw a session on small molecules and RNA. Though I fancy myself a widely read scientist, I confess that this combination was a revelation to me. This is a thing? I did NOT get the email. Making small-molecule drugs against RNA structures looked like a really cool problem – I want to do THAT!

I should emphasize that this newfound passion didn’t come with solutions to the numerous challenges of drugging RNA, just a clear recognition that this would be exciting and might just be doable. The discontinuity was to bring an industrial drug discovery sensibility to the problem. Raj Parekh, a partner at Advent Life Sciences, had been thinking about this problem for a year or so. He was in Cambridge that July and agreed to breakfast. As we talked at Henrietta’s Table, I think I looked like the solution to Raj’s problem; he needed someone prepared to jump into the deep end and I had already assumed the diving position. Before breakfast was over, Raj and Advent put up $1.5 million in seed funding and helped pull in another $0.5M million from Henri Termeer as a co-lead on the seed round. We were off to the races.

The first year of a biotech newco is all about building the team. Success depends on having the right people around you. Raj connected me with Alan Walts, a venture partner with Advent, and Alan was indispensable in helping me navigate the shoals to find and assess those first team members.

In that first year, the team-building process brought us many wonderful people who helped us or joined us, but on this occasion I want to focus on one particular person, Jim Barsoum. I had first met Jim many years before at Biogen, where he headed the gene therapy efforts and then later when he visited Biogen from Synta to open discussions about a collaboration. In 2015, Jim was CSO at Rana Therapeutics, but I had heard that he might be moving on. I met Jim for breakfast (again, Henrietta’s Table) because Arrakis needed an experienced, card-carrying molecular biologist who knew RNA intimately. Fortunately, Jim was sufficiently intrigued after our first meeting that he agreed to dinner with me and Alan Walts to discuss more details. Shortly thereafter, Jim joined Arrakis as a consultant; not quite full time, but we took all the hours we could get.

Over the next few years, first as a consultant and then as a full-time employee, Jim made one foundational contribution after another. He identified and vetted our first targets, did our first folding analyses (primitive by today’s standards), guided us through the jungle of RNA biology, built an outstanding biology team, helped define our long-term discovery strategy, expanded our screening capabilities, initiated our structure work, defined our discovery portfolio and target-selection strategy, and expanded the team again in support of our Roche collaboration. In all of this, he has been a relentless, unflagging champion of our science and our team, rising to and overcoming one head-shaking challenge after another. I am convinced that without Jim, we would not have achieved many of our noteworthy successes.

The occasion of this reminiscence is that Jim has decided to retire. This is sad as we will miss him dearly, but not entirely sad because Jim is looking forward to a well-deserved rest and more time with Sue and the rest of his family. At Arrakis, Jim leaves behind a solid foundation and a vibrant, talented team of biologists. Jim, “Thank you. Thank you for taking a flyer on a crazy, out-there idea and helping us create something wonderful where there had been nothing. We are poised for greater things because of what you built. We look forward to you joining our SAB so you can check up on us periodically.”


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