John Simboli 0:00
Today I'm speaking with Andrew Hall, CEO of IMV, headquartered in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, with offices in Quebec and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Welcome to BioBoss, Andrew.
Andrew Hall 0:11
Thank you, John, for having me.
John Simboli 0:13
What led you to your role as CEO at IMV?
Andrew Hall 0:16
I've stepped from many roles in my career, given the right opportunity, and had the, I guess, the gumption to believe that I had the chance to step into it. I stepped into this role after being the Chief Business Officer at IMV, stepped into that role after sort of heading up a function in business development at a larger company. And then that role came from another and I don't think there's a real sequence to any of it, John, I really feel that you've got to be in the right place at the right time. And then you've got to have the confidence that if you step into that opportunity, you'd be able to do it well.
John Simboli 0:49
How did you decide you wanted to lead a biopharma company?
Andrew Hall 0:52
So in the last three or four years that I was at Celgene, 90% of my role was looking outside of the organization into small, biopharmaceutical startups, interesting technology, and through a filter of business development. So through a filter of trying to identify whether those technologies worked with Celgene's infrastructure, trying to understand if that technology was worth spending a lot of money on either acquiring or partnering. And what I really learned was a curiosity in . . . a lot of the innovation sits in these companies like IMV, these small companies. And I think through that process became really acutely aware that this was something I wanted to do. And this is something that, I fancy, I might do well enough to be successful at. And so whether you call that providence, whether you call that blind ambition, however, it turns out to be, from that experience from a large company looking into a smaller company gave me this great curiosity. Go see what it's all about.
John Simboli 1:55
Is it the kind where you say, this is in my path, I hope, someday, I'd like to lead a biopharma company, or is this more an expression of one step, one step, one step, and this is where you arrive?
Andrew Hall 2:05
I think I always wanted the opportunity to make the biggest difference possible. And that difference has the greatest chance to make real from the very top of an organization with a technology that's going to potentially change the world. I don't know, if I ever manifested in the sense of wanting to be a CEO, I just wanted to be able to make a difference. And, you know, large roles, smaller company, is a much more effective way to make a difference than middle-sized role at a larger company. And I feel really empowered and really excited about what I get to do in this role here.
John Simboli 2:41
Turning over 10s, 100s, and 1000s of potential fits to Celgene, was it a sudden realization? How did you come about saying, I would like to learn more about this company?
Andrew Hall 2:55
The thing that attracted me to technology most was technology. The fact that you could have a platform that would give you the chance to create multiple endpoints for an organization. There are a lot of companies that are built on singular assets. And that's spectacular. But that's not necessarily, that binary, it all works, or it all doesn't work was not in my style. I wanted to have a chance to be strategic, to be thoughtful about how that technology would then be sort of sent in the right direction. And maybe that's more my management style, maybe more, that's my sort of ambition, if you will, to try and create the strategy behind something rather than just cracking a whip on a horse and getting it to the finishing line. That was really what I was looking for. And found that opportunity here at IMV.
John Simboli 3:42
Andrew, what were you hoping to achieve that could be done at IMV and not at another company?
Andrew Hall 3:47
The things that we are doing, make a difference. And anyone that works in any disease where there is really tragic consequence, and oncology is certainly one of those. If you get it right, you get to give people life back. Now, that's not curing them of disease, perhaps it's not even going so far as to make their lives perfect, but you get to give them life back. At an organization like IMV, what attracted me here, what brought me to this technology is having the experience set of knowing what to do with technology in this space. And having a company that had spent many, many years developing this amazing technology. It did feel like the meeting of the right worlds at the right time. And I felt really enthusiastic on day one, I feel even more enthusiastic now, having been here for a little while, on what we can actually do here to make that difference. I believe that we have at this organization, a technology foundation that is different from anything that I've seen anywhere else and treated right and with the right kind of partnerships and the right kind of science applied to it, that vision I have of maybe being nine years old and looking forward and wanting to do something with my life manifests into changing the world and maybe 5-10 years from now, we get to do that in a way that's really profound. And that's really exciting for me personally.
John Simboli 5:14
I've talked to several founders and CEOs from different parts of the world who brought back an image of, when I was a kid, I saw this character, or I read this book or identified in some way. Is there anything from popular culture from when you were a kid in Australia, that you said, "That's me, that's going to be me."
Andrew Hall 5:30
They always say that the two most important positions in Australian life are the Prime Minister of Australia and the captain of the Australian cricket team. And not necessarily in that order. And it was interesting, I think, if you talk about the ambition I had as a child, it was to captain the Australian cricket team. Now, I was clearly never going to be a good enough cricketer to do that. But the opportunity to step into a role that was a leadership role, but then a recognized leadership role that made a difference in people's lives. And it sounds terrible to say that the Australian cricket team's performance makes a difference in people's lives, but it does. And maybe that sort of role model figurehead-ship was the one that was always most appealing to me. And it's, it's funny through all of the sports teams that I played in, I deferred to captain most of them, even though I was clearly one of the less talented members of all of those teams. But there's always been a bias towards leading talented people, that I've fallen into. And that clearly has continued into where I sit today.
John Simboli 6:36
When someone from outside our industry says, hey, Andrew, I haven't seen you for a while, or maybe someone through your family who really doesn't know you particularly well, from your, your wife's side, and they say, someone asks, Andrew, what do you do for a living? How do you answer?
Andrew Hall 6:50
I believe this with all my heart, what I do for a living, I cure cancer. Now, I am not a scientist, I'm never going to sort of go through a scroll of molecules and find the one that finally cures cancer, I'm also not a clinician, I'm not the one who's going to pull it through clinical study and prove the benefit that the scientists discovered. But what I do get to do is instruct all of those functions in a very meaningful way to create the outcome that makes a difference. And it's funny, I talk to my children because they ask me this question, Dad, you spend an odd amount of time working. What do you actually do? And the default is I cure cancer. The real deeper answer, though, is I lead brilliant people to change the world by getting better therapies to patients with cancer. And I think that in a more deep and complex way is much more informative to what I really do. But at the very top of the mountain, the simplest explanation that I can ever give is, I am here to cure cancer.
John Simboli 7:55
My experience with working from the home office is that several founders and CEOs I've spoken with, their kids come into the frame, at unexpected moments, and I hear stories along the lines of yeah, my kids said, says, Dad, is that all you do? Or Mom, is that all you do? Just talk on the phone all day long? So on that part of it, what is your job? What does a CEO like you do all day.?
Andrew Hall 8:24
So if I had read the brochure, with more focus on the fine print, I'd have realized that the CEO of a public company is much less about running the company and much more about architecting the environment around the company. You know, public companies need cash runway to function. Public companies need a dialogue and a discourse with their shareholders that's functional, and that is informative so that they can be confident that their ownership has been validated by the company doing the right thing. The CEO of a public company also has a board to work with and try and create a positive relationship such that that board can provide meaningful direction, and that you can provide meaningful communication so that it's all productive. And then after all of that stuff, then you get a chance to try and do the real work, which is run the company. And it's been a really eye-opening experience.
John Simboli 9:20
Your picture of what your job would be as CEO, all of us form these images of what it might be like sitting down that first day, what was that experience over this past year, year and a half? What's that been like compared to that picture you formed before you started?
Andrew Hall 9:36
So the picture I formed was, in any organization where you report to a very senior person, which I had done all through my life, your ability to make changes to then influence that senior person, whether there are three people between you and the CEO, whether you're reporting to the CEO. And when you sit in that position, there is no more influencing anyone. That's right, you kind of look around for someone to influence and you realize that the buck stops with you. I had always dreamt and imagined this on many levels, and I think I mentioned before with respect to the sporting teams that I played on other elements of my life, feeling as the captain was never something I was afraid of. But all of a sudden, when you've got something as profound as we have, and you want to make sure it gets done right, there's a bit of foreboding pressure that comes on that. And I'm really, really lucky to have some super-talented people sitting around me to sort of help share some of this burden. But for the first little while, when we'd sit in those meetings, and I'd say, hey, what do you think? And the response would be, uh-uh; we've told you what we think, what are you going to do?
John Simboli 10:49
What have you learned through your work as CEO about your management approach, what makes it distinctive to you? What makes it work for you?
Andrew Hall 10:56
So my management approach was always transparent and authentic. I tried to stay true to that from the first day I can remember till today. What I'm realizing is, that's great. Being an authentic person, being an available person, and being a transparent person is great. But in a role where so much, there are so many moving parts, being transparent all of the time when things are still moving, and not yet determined, takes a little bit of executive function. And so my management function is very, still, transparent and authentic and very available. My challenge to myself is, that I've almost had to step back from that a little bit in this role, and just say, be patient, allow your management approach not to be so quick and so dramatic. And with my authenticity, try and create solutions immediately. It's actually been to be a little bit more patient and to be a little bit more listen first speak second. And I think, as a leader, I'm evolving into a more positive version of that by thinking, okay, rather than just driving for our common, you know, sharing with people my vision and expecting that they will follow along with that. There's got to be a little bit of pause, smell the roses, pause, hear what is being talked about, how that's affecting people in their own ambition, reset and restart. And so it was always transparent and authentic. I think it's now people-focused, transparent and authentic, like just making sure that as people come along with me, make sure that they're seeing the same vision for the journey that I am and stay connected to them.
John Simboli 12:45
When someone says, Who is IMV, how do you like to answer?
Andrew Hall 12:49
We're a company that has a technology that educates the immune system in a meaningful way. And why that's really important in cancer, is immuno-oncology is not a foreign concept, but thoughtful education of immune response in oncology is not something that's been done well, and that's really what we're doing. The really interesting thing, and I think this is the main reason I joined the organization, is despite all of that great technology and all of the amazing science that's been done, the company, and you mentioned this in the introduction, has been in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is not a hotspot for biopharma pharmaceutical research. Now it was initiated out of the university there. And there are very good reasons why that science makes sense to be centered in that place. But it does mean that without the right communications vehicles, without the right connectivity, that science can be a little bit lost on what else is going on in oncology development. And a lot of the charter that I've set for myself and I've set for the organization is to break down some of those communication barriers that come from a company that is Canadian-centered out of Halifax, Nova Scotia and become a lot more understood and competitive in the dynamic of 'What's New in cancer therapy and what's making a difference for patients with cancer?"
John Simboli 14:11
How would you describe the technology that makes IMV distinct?
Andrew Hall 14:16
In cancer research the word cancer vaccine is dirty. And it's a real shame that it's dirty, but it's dirty because so many things have promised so much and then constantly failed to deliver. The reality is that the way we approach our therapeutic ministration is to find specific peptides to targets on a cancer cell that we will then distribute through the immune system through the creation of specific T cells. And there's a more complicated story, obviously, it's effectively a cancer vaccine. The difference is, rather than just taking that therapeutic target, putting it in some sort of emulsification, expecting the body's natural immunity to pick it up, distribute it in a thoughtful way, was really basic. What we've effectively targeted with our whole science is to say, let's focus less about the therapeutic target, because I think those things have been well understood. Let's try and figure out the middleman. Let's try and figure out how immune processing happens in a way to take that target to the cancer cell. And so what the IMV technology is, is really a multiple of things. And I won't go into details with this, but by making a lipid and oil formulation, rather than just a lipid and water, it actually reduces the ability of the product to disseminate systemically after being delivered. By creating a T helper peptide, which actually is part of the formulation, there is an element of creating some immune activation when the therapy is actually delivered to the site of injection, which kind of creates the momentum to get the system kicking along. There's an innate immune activator, in the lead product, it's poly(dI-dC) but it could be a number of different other immune activators. And so all of what IMV has created is the ability for our platform to allow the system to pick up the therapeutic target that, in fact, for our lead product we've licensed from somebody else, to present it in a way that's then meaningful for therapeutic application. And there's a great example of this. And it's difficult because this trial wasn't done in the same lab at the same time. But the therapeutic target we're working on for our lead product is five targeted peptides focused on the major human expressions for survivin, which is a well-understood cancer target. In the hands of Merck KGaA, who discovered the sequences, the product had when it was distributed through a classical mechanism, about 14% of the patients showed some evidence of T cells, identifiable T cells with the target. Same product, same dose, formulated differently, we showed 67% of patients had expressed those T cells. And there was nothing different with the product, there was nothing different with the way it was made. It was just reformulated in a way that was thoughtful. And that DPX technology is thoughtful reformulation. And what it allows for is for a really interesting target like survivin, and there are 1000s of them, to be presented to the human immune system in a way that's a little like educating it to get re-motivated to be therapeutic. The ability that we have to traffic and to enable an immune response against targets that have forever failed in development is really special. And I think our lead product, it's showing benefit in now two solid tumor types and a third liquid tumor type. So that's lymphoma and then bladder and ovarian cancer, it's almost an example of what our platform can do, rather than an example of what the lead target in the first product is. Now, that's not belittling the massive opportunity that the lead product has to make patients' lives with cancer significantly better and to make patients who currently suffer from cancer suffer a whole lot less. But why I'm really excited about what IMV has, is there are 50, 100, maybe 200 targets that have been dismissed, historically, in cancer research, because they didn't work. It wasn't that the targets were bad, it's that they were never presented in a way that was going to be giving those targets a chance to succeed. And that is really, beneath all of the things we're doing at IMV, the way we are going to make this world better. Because survivin is a great target, survivin is expressed on over 60 tumor types. And it's got a great chance to be an amazing therapeutic breakthrough. But the whole category of cancer vaccines could get reignited through platform technology, like what we're developing. And that would be I mean, then I can probably tell my children that I'm curing cancer.
John Simboli 19:25
What kind of partners are a good fit to IMV?
Andrew Hall 19:28
IMV, at its center, is a platform technology, because what we have is the ability to create immune education. If you don't have anything in that box, all you have is a pretty parcel without a present and everyone knows on their birthday, that's not a very exciting present to unwrap. So the partners that we have, and that we want, are the partners that have those technologies that aren't pretty enough without the basket or the parcel to be delivered in a meaningful way. The best example, our lead product is made up of collaboration we have with Merck KGaA for their product that wasn't effective as a standalone therapy that is now incredibly effective as a reformulated therapy with DPX. We've got historical collaborations, similarly around other oncology targets and we've got a formulating collaboration that's going on now with an academic institution. These are the collaborations that my sort of strategic vision for the company is centered on creating many, many more of. And our technology, because it has the ability to use, or to take on board, so many of these previous targets that have been interesting but never successful. We call it a plug and play where you can basically put something else into our technology, very quickly turnaround an understanding of whether we've enhanced its activity, and then create meaningful therapeutics from that. And the conversations that we're having today with the large strategic pharmaceutical companies are centered around, you've got five or six targets that, years ago, you may have had interest in, but you gave up on because they're either too hard to get to because they don't sit a nice pocket for a small molecule or on the cell surface for a large molecule, that we might be able to provide a solution for. Let's talk, let's collaborate. And I'm really, really encouraged that in the last couple of months, as our story has started to get a little bit more momentum and the science supporting when I say the science, the translational science that supports the clinical benefits. So this is, you know, what's happening beneath the surface. When that's all now pointing in the right direction, the interest level for these types of company collaborations is really high. And what we need to do is we just need to ready the organization for what might be a swell of new compounds coming to us that we can do exactly what we've done before, but just turn it around in a very repeatable and very meaningful way. And with each, let's never forget this, with each product that we create, there are going to be people's lives that have changed because of that product. And that is a really strong motivation. And it's a really heavy burden to wear because I see what our technology can be and see what our company can be.
John Simboli 22:30
What kind of people are the ones who will thrive to help you make that happen?
Andrew Hall 22:34
So this is where I love to quote Steve Jobs and say it's the innovators, the weird ones, the pioneers. That's not the truth. The truth is, the people that will make the difference here are the people that believe what we have is what it is. To do that, you've got to make that leap of faith to say it's not my grandfather's vaccine. To do that, you've got to believe that science in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Dartmouth where the office is in Nova Scotia, is great science that can change the world. To do that, you've got to believe that therapeutics that may not have been in vogue for many, many years can all of a sudden become cutting-edge. And in a world where cancer research is focused much, much more on complexity than it has on simplicity. cell therapies are such an intricate, complicated but fascinating field, gene therapies, with CRISPR and gene editing and these sorts of things. It's such a fascinating and interesting field. To think that giving short sequences of amino acids as peptides against well-understood cancer targets could have actually been the real difference-maker, takes a bit of belief. But once you believe it, and once you pull back the cover and see what's going on here, you start to walk down a hill that is not that difficult, there's not a huge amount of resistance to it. What we just need is the time, the story, and then a couple of interested partners to get on board with this. And John, it's not 10-15 years away, it's two or three years away, that this may be a different story that we're telling on how this whole therapeutic field has been changed by what IMV did with its platform to re-energize a whole therapeutic category that had almost been abandoned because it's too hard. And that, to me, if you want to sort of come back to my core, sort of right at the base of my spine, what I believe most, to create that world would be so special to be a part of it. I'm getting to lead the charge in this seat, and that's really exciting.
John Simboli 24:16
How does the pipeline express your vision for the company?
Andrew Hall 24:53
What we have, and I think being right to do in the last five years, is focus on proving that that first exemplar of the platform, this is Maveropepimut-S, the product that's now completed phase two studies in multiple indications, we had to prove that it worked. And we had to disproportionately invest in that success. Because without it, we would have been still in that bracket of these things just eventually fail. We've got a second product that's entered the clinic, which is going to determine whether or not this platform can provide two targets, rather than one, within the platform and have a multi-pronged approach to therapeutic excellence. And that's a really exciting element as well. But the real vision for this is, by the end of, let's say 12 months from now, for there to be 3, 5, 7, 10 targets that have been well interrogated, well understood that we've now in collaboration brought on from other strategic partners, that we are working on reformulating through our technology and demonstrating first, preclinically, and then clinically, that we've enhanced their ability to be therapeutically potent without enhancing their therapeutic consequence, which is safety and tolerability. And that is the vision of the company. The real vision of the company is to continue to accelerate that lead product towards registration, to where a physician can make a choice that isn't in a clinical study, to make a difference in a patient with cancer's life, to put them on a meaningful therapy. That's always the goal of everything that we do. But behind that, to have the recognition that the reason that product is successful is less about the target, and more about the way the target was presented to the human immune system, and then to have many, many compounds behind it, determining similar types of outcomes. These targets are not curious, these targets are understood, these targets have been written about for 20 years, it's just that there's never been a way to bring those targets to a treatment protocol or a therapeutic application that is meaningful. And I believe in my heart that this IMV story is yet to be written in its most significant end. And its most significant end is what Dr. Brown, 20 years ago, discovered is all of a sudden now the recognized way to deliver and distribute therapeutics with application and immuno-oncology. And, wow, if we could be that, that'd be pretty cool. This is not one of those organizations that was started up yesterday. That technology, that I keep referring to, has been developed and optimized and improved gradually and continuously, in a way that's really meaningful. And it is a really exciting spot that I get to sit on, overseeing now what is going to be the coming of age of this whole story. And so I'm very grateful, John, for the opportunity to share this story with you and those that will be touched by this podcast. But more important than anything else, I want to make sure that any of that story that you heard from me is certainly at the hands of smarter, more likely better-looking people than me, and pulling this whole thing together. And I'm really excited and really grateful to be leading forward with this charge.
John Simboli 28:32
Andrew, thanks for speaking with me today.
Andrew Hall 28:34
John, it's been lovely to speak with you. I always enjoy these conversations.