BioBoss

#05 - Bijan Almassian: President and CEO of CaroGen Corporation

March 31, 2019 John Simboli Season 1 Episode 5
BioBoss
#05 - Bijan Almassian: President and CEO of CaroGen Corporation
Chapters
BioBoss
#05 - Bijan Almassian: President and CEO of CaroGen Corporation
Mar 31, 2019 Season 1 Episode 5
John Simboli

"In any venture, you need to have courage. Courage is the thing that I think is most characteristic of any leader." -  Bijan Almassian, President and CEO of CaroGen Corporation

Show Notes Transcript

"In any venture, you need to have courage. Courage is the thing that I think is most characteristic of any leader." -  Bijan Almassian, President and CEO of CaroGen Corporation

Bijan Almassian:

In any venture, John, you would need to have the courage. Courage is, I think, the most characteristic of any leader.

John Simboli:

That's Bijan Almassian, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at CaroGen corporation. Listen in now to hear my conversation with Bijan. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss. This morning I'm here with Bijan Almassian, Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of CaroGen. The first question I'd like to ask you is how did you find yourself here at CaroGen?

Bijan Almassian:

Good Morning John. It's a pleasure to be speaking with you. Basically really by accident. In 2012 I was building another startup company called Aria Neurosciences, focusing on Alzheimer's disease. And I came across a former colleague of mine who approached me that he has identified a technology from Yale and he wanted to see if I'm interested to look at it. I looked at it, I liked it. We set up a meeting with the inventors at Yale, two professors. We went and we met them. We asked them if they would join us in this new venture and they accepted to join us. And I think that was one of the best decisions of my life, to make sure that these two high caliber scientists be involved and participate in this venture.

John Simboli:

Did you ask yourself, how did this happen to me that I had this good fortune?

Bijan Almassian:

I believe so. From childhood, I've had a calling in me that I have to do something really positive and huge to basically influence and have a positive impact on the other human beings across the globe.

John Simboli:

How did you decide you wanted to lead a biopharma company?

Bijan Almassian:

I have been working in the biotech field almost 30 years. So seven biotech; several public and a few private, have been in a number of the big cities and biotech hubs. I have got to learn and know a lot of highly experienced people in this field. And my background is really diverse and in a different area of the R&D operations. And I wanted to really to start something huge and risky and a breakthrough in science. And I think this was a great opportunity and I'm so glad that I took the opportunity.

John Simboli:

So what were you hoping to achieve here that you might or might not have been able to do someplace else?

Bijan Almassian:

A number of a number of things. First of all, we came across this platform that is good, could really be a game changer in the field of immunotherapy. The other thing is the strength of our team from the team that works for CaroGen and as a part of the founders, a management team that we have built and also the great relationship with the scientists at Yale, UCONN,, because as you know, our first target is developing immunotherapy for patients chronically infected with hepatitis B virus and there is no cure for it. So it's a huge undertaking. So we wanted to make sure that we have the experience and brainpower and the connection to good science to be able to carry on such a huge task and challenge. So it's our thing, it's a combination of expertise and team that keeps us moving forward.

John Simboli:

How do you answer the question, what do you do?

Bijan Almassian:

We develop new medications to ease the pain and suffering and hopefully cure patients that currently have no drug available to them all across the globe. I think there's nothing more rewarding than being able to participate in such a mission.

John Simboli:

One more on that personal side of it too . . . that picture of a little kid asking, What do you do, dad? Do you say I run the show or do you say something else?

Bijan Almassian:

It's not a one man show. It's a group, it's teamwork because the challenge and scientifically and from the business. Plus, we have a platform. HPV is the first product we are advancing but we're also looking at our technology and collaboration with other academic laboratories to develop the platform for oncology, many different types of oncology programs. So we need to work with a lot of people. It's a peers assessment of the challenge and working together to achieve. You you have to be like a glue bringing these individuals—high caliber, highly motivated, but in terms of really how it's easy, John, when you really recruit outstanding people, when you have also a lot of money. The challenge is when you recruit upstanding people and you don't pay them. I call it that, really, in terms of leadership because you convince people. I never tell people what type of titles or salary or packages they get. First I try to sell them what the mission is, what is our calling, what are we trying to do? Once they're on board, they never get off. But then, of course, we make sure that they get appropriate compensation, but it's not the first topic to discuss.

John Simboli:

You touched a little at the very beginning of our conversation about how you knew you wanted to do something to help people. If you go and rewind even earlier in that and picture yourself as a boy, if you can remember at eight or nine or ten or whatever it was. And you know, sometimes people want to be a astronauts or fireman or something. Do you remember what you wanted?

Bijan Almassian:

I wanted to be become a doctor, a medical doctor and oh, and also at the same time I want them to be an Air Force pilot. But I, I think I was rejected because my eyesight was not perfect. So I pursued my other option, which is the medical field and the investigation, doing research in medical areas.

John Simboli:

Do your loved ones and your family understand what it's like for you to be the CEO of biopharma company?

Bijan Almassian:

I think they sacrifice a lot. It's because this is a mission. It's when you take on a challenging position of being a member of a team o CEO of a company that wants to develop a drug that has never been discovered for a disease that has no cure. So it's a lot of commitment. And it's not only committment of the CEO. It's a kind of the commitment of his family or her family and the entire team, really, because for many years nothing comes up. There's no, very little rewards. You have to have such a deep passion for what you do to keep you going and move forward because you get a lot of rejection. You get set back in the data, you just have to believe in yourself. Of course it's data driven, but one of the characteristics of the CEO is you don't easily give up. Because in science you don't always get the positive data with the first trial. So you just have to keep trying, look at the plan, discuss your plan with other more experienced people, apply their knowledge and go out at it again. To answer your question, really, there's a lot of sacrifice that comes with it and the family also understands and basically the key to success is to make sure they are in line with you and they keep supporting you.

John Simboli:

Does being a CEO of a clinical stage biopharma require courage?

Bijan Almassian:

In any venture, John, you would need to have the courage. Courage is, I think, the most characteristic of any leader. It's just taking a risk, being able to reach out to other people, convincing them to participate and help you when you don't have money and help you to shape your vision, shape your ideas and help you to introduce you and expand your network. As I said, it's not a one man show. The key is to get other people to help you out. And there are a lot of wonderful people out there to help you out. So as a leader, you reach up and you stay focused on your goal and you don't give up.

John Simboli:

Bijan, what's new at CaroGen?

Bijan Almassian:

The new things at CaraGen is we're very happy to have selected a clinical candidate after doing discovery for almost five years. Of course, with the help of our collaborators at two academic institutes and being able to get ourselves ready to get into the clinic. So that's the newest thing. And the new discovery that we made with our platform, it's application as an oncolytic platform, being able to get into the cancer cells and basically lise and destroy the cells. The platform that we have is a vector. It's a delivery system so we can arm it with additional protein of interest to make it more effective, targeting the disease target from different angles. I think the selection of clinical candidate, getting ready to go to the clinic for the first time, and testing our platform and also raising capital. That's what we are trying to do. And we have recruited investment bankers to help us achieve that.

John Simboli:

When people say, what's your company do? What does Caragen do?

Bijan Almassian:

Developing immunotherapies to be utilized in patients who have limited choices. Like patients who have been infected by nasty viruses that that is no cure for them, that there are drugs that may just maintain a disease but they are not cured. So that's what we do. Developing new therapies to boost the patient's immune system to fight off the disease. Whether it is infectious disease or cancer.

John Simboli:

When people hear you tell that story that you've just been telling me and you kind of hear it back in different forums you'd hear them explain to you what you just explained to them.. Sometimes you say, ah, I must have been very clear and sometimes you think they didn't get it at all. So when they don't get it, what do they not understand?

Bijan Almassian:

Most of the times they confuse us with the vaccine for prevention. But we are a vaccine for treatment. There's a huge difference. The vaccine for treatment has different components and it behaves differently after given to the patients, basically induces all the different arms of the defenses in the patients to fight off the disease. So then vaccination, in general, is prevention. What we do is mostly for treatment. But our platform has the capacity to also be used for diseases where there is no vaccine for prevention.

John Simboli:

What makes CaraGen different from other biopharma companies?

Bijan Almassian:

The most effective and most potent technologies are viral based. So also the difficulty of viral base, there's potential toxicity and side effects. The platform that we have keeps the good things of the virus and gets rid of the bad things of the virus. We do the same characteristic virus. We want these particles of this technology to replicate. Why is that? It's important, like a virus, because of how you use the genetic codes for whatever needs to be made in the body and replicates. So it becomes a continuous manufacturing in the body. And then once the job is done, it dies out because it doesn't have the machinery of, like a virus, to survive and penetrate to the areas that you don't want to penetrate. Because of the most difficult parts of some of the virus spaces, the ability to get into the brain and cause inflammation of the brain and in some some cases kill the patients. Ours doesn't have that. That's the advantage of our platform. The other advantage of our platform, it can be given as a boost. Given a prime, given a boost. So a lot of viral based vaccines you only can give them once because the body generates immune system against it and you cannot give it for the second time. There are other advantages of our platform technology like carrying more ammunition to fight the disease. Viruses are limited, most of the viruses are limited in how much you can put in genetic codes to express that protein armament to destroy the disease.

John Simboli:

So when you're looking at potential partners for CaraGen, what tells you that they might be a good fit?

Bijan Almassian:

Depending on what we develop. For the hepatitis B, because it's a global problem, we're looking for a major pharma with ability in immunotherapy, high capacity of manufacturing, global sales and marketing. For smaller, more focused diseases, we can work with a smaller company, as well. And also our platform has the ability to generate immunotherapy vaccines for both human as well as animal. So we could work with any type of partners, depending on the focus, we can use our platform using their targets so they can utilize ours if they have difficulty delivering their target proteins or cytokines or whatever they need to load on this type of delivery platform.

John Simboli:

As you build out your team, can you generalize what kind of folks are going to be the best fit to you?

Bijan Almassian:

The people who have the experience, definitely relevant experience, whether they come from a small company or big companies. Because the training and expertise in applying those skills in a team fashion, I think those are the individuals, at every level, that has been our philosophy to hire people who have the knowledge, have the experience and will and passion to work within the team to take on a challenging jobs like HPV and other cancers. Because all of those three components are needed for smaller start up companies because we have to roll up our sleeves, work with others depending on how big and small it is. But also the other things I always said, look, if you're really looking for a safe routine jobs you are at the wrong place. Here you are challenged every day. We're challenged by science, by the operations issues. So we roll up our sleeves and whatever skills that we have available, we apply it. And if you want to be a part of building a company, you are of them. And I think that's motivating to a lot of scientists to be a part of building a company from scratch and developing drugs that has never existed.

John Simboli:

How was it that CaraGen came to choose Farmington as its base?

Bijan Almassian:

The business model for CaraGen is to work with academic laboratories. So UCONN has an incubator that we are part of that incubator program because we collaborate with the academic professor at UCONN Medical School on oncology program—colon cancer is one of the areas. We also have access to their very expensive equipment that we can utilize. We have access to their student graduate students. They come in, they learn and their skills. Also we train them in the industry. There are a lot of incentives to be in a community like this community that we're in, the incubator, which is a part of UCONN. And also they provide some small grants small investment, which sometimes is extremely important for some additional product that we develop using our platform. In fact, for our colon cancer, we will receive some funding from UCONN.

John Simboli:

So in terms of access to capital, does your location here help you or does it work against you?

Bijan Almassian:

It doesn't hurt, but I think definitely in Connecticut there is a new life in biotech, so investors are paying more attention. It was sort of a drought for almost a decade. But success of some biotech going public, some investors received good return. Now they're looking at these second tier companies, in terms of the stage, not in terms of science, to basically evaluating them and investing in them. For us, we haven't seen much difference whether we're here or downtown New Haven.

John Simboli:

Do you see your vision for your work succeeding primarily within this community? Do you see that as part of New York and Boston community? Do you see it as part of a national community, global community? Our vision is global, but also it will have a local impact. We want to really become one of the leaders in the immunotherapy companies creating jobs and opportunities for a lot of young people. There are outstanding schools in the state of Connecticut. And we want to develop a lot of very good products in cancer as well as infectious disease. And this is the best place to be in. And with the downsizing of the major pharmaceutical companies like BMS, Pfizer and Boehringer-Ingleheim, there are a lot of talents that we can tap in. So Connecticut has several academic research centers, one very close to you, the connection to UCONN at Storrs, Yale, of course, the labs that are located in Groton. There are lots of different places to plug into. How do you stay in touch with them? Are there, are there vehicles, are the organizations, are there mechanisms for you as a CEO to be in touch with other CEOs? How do you do that?

Bijan Almassian:

A number of ways. One is we have collaborative efforts with both UCONN and Yale. We're among the small companies that have that luxury. And it's not a really luxury, it's a blessing that we have those kinds of relationships. As you know, two of our co-founders are two professors from Yale and since we have got the funding, we have a sponsored research agreement with them. That's where we have made good progress with HPV,. Who is better than two professors from Yale to work with you and work for the organization. The other one, tapping into UCONN, we collaborate on colon cancer. We don't have to build infrastructure. They already have the animal models, they have the expertise. We don't have that in small biotech but we know how to develop those products. We know how to engineer who has products for cancer. So we're already collaborating with two of the most important academic institutes in Connecticut, but also that are vehicles like Connecticut Iinnovations really sponsors a lot of us. And we're funded by Connecticut innovations, they have a lot of events that bring CEO's and biotech executives to have a network and communicate with each other. But we also have our own network of the CEOs at the TIP companies. We meet once a month to do brainstorming formally or informally. We have access to each other so we can reach out if we have any questions or need help.

John Simboli:

What role does BioCT play at CaroGen?

Bijan Almassian:

Well, they have been helpful in terms of promoting our name, our press releases. If we need to fill a position, we can use our job description and post. And also they have been sponsoring some events that we've benefited by going there and networking, getting to know contractors, potential investors, potential collaborators.

John Simboli:

You mentioned Connecticut innovations and I know that recently you brought Harry Penner. onto your board and I believe Harry's roots go back deeply in Connecticut and biopharma. Do you want to say anything about what role Harry plays with CaraGen?

Bijan Almassian:

I've worked with Harry almost 15 years. He and I set up a company in 2002. He was the chairman. I was the president at the company that was based on cannabinoids for the central nervous. So that's where I started knowing Harry. Harry is really a statesman and a gentleman with a tremendous amount of calmness and is full of ideas, good ideas. So I reached out to him and he is a great mentor and has been a great mentor and I'm so happy that I asked him and he joined our board of directors.

John Simboli:

Thinking about the Farmington corridor, let's call it, there's several biopharma companies that are in the space along with you and you're growing something in this area. Is that similar to or different from other places where you may have been geographically? So similar to or different from say, Cambridge biopharma, San Francisco biopharma, London?

Bijan Almassian:

You know, the, the good thing is I worked in the Cambridge, Boston area. I worked for Integrated Genetics, one of the early biotechs in Boston. I've also worked in San Francisco for seven years. I worked in Maryland and also in New Jersey, so I have a nice understanding of how it works. Connecticut is not really known as a biotech hub. There's a lot of efforts from Connecticut Innovations. I think the government and the governor gets credit for sponsoring the growth of bioscience. I think they did a great investment in the future. I can see a great future for bioscience in Connecticut. The only issue that I see that is delaying the growth of some of the companies, like ours, is insufficient funding. Because there are not too many major investors who invest in the Connecticut based companies. Only a few; they select and they put a lot of money in those few instead of really considering putting a smaller amount in those and then giving some money to the other so they can, they can basically develop their products. I think that that is being improved, as I said, in terms of comparison, in lack of funding, I think the VCs are, in general, they haven't discovered the really biotech, the strength of the state of Connecticut, but that's improving.

John Simboli:

Thanks for speaking with me today for you, Bijan. I look forward to our next conversation.

Bijan Almassian:

I appreciate it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity.

John Simboli:

At the start of our podcast, I chose a quote from Bijan where he talks about courage as the defining characteristic of a leader For Bijan, it's not hard to make the connection to courage when I think back to his answer about what he wanted to be as a young man—a fighter pilot, But for Bijan and other leaders who believe in their cause, courage isn't the goal, it's a means to an end. As the late John Mccain said, "In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss.