BioBoss

#08 - Martin Mackay: Co-founder of Rallybio

June 28, 2019 John Simboli Season 1 Episode 8
BioBoss
#08 - Martin Mackay: Co-founder of Rallybio
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BioBoss
#08 - Martin Mackay: Co-founder of Rallybio
Jun 28, 2019 Season 1 Episode 8
John Simboli

"We want to hear everybody's voice. It's all well saying that you believe in diversity and then only listen to yourself." - Martin Mackay, Co-founder of Rallybio

Show Notes Transcript

"We want to hear everybody's voice. It's all well saying that you believe in diversity and then only listen to yourself." - Martin Mackay, Co-founder of Rallybio

Martin Mackay:

We want to hear everybody's voice. It's all well saying that you believe in diversity and t hen o nly listen to yourself.

John Simboli:

That's Martin Mackay, cofounder at Rallybio. Listen in now to hear my conversation with Martin. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss Today. I'm speaking with Martin Mackay, cofounder and CEO at Rallybio. Martin. how d id you find yourself here at Rallybio?

Martin Mackay:

Well after a career, which quite unbelievably, goes back to the seventies when I joined the pharmaceutical industry 1979 and I've been in the pharmaceutical industry since. I did a little bit more studying in the 80s. And just really enjoy what I do. I love the industry. I love the notion of discovering and developing new medicines for patients with diseases. So in some ways it was a very natural thing to go into our own company and I say our carefully, three of us set it up after many years working in big Pharma and then working for Alexion for five years, a small biotech. And that really gave me a taste for, gosh, you know, could we do this ourselves and build a company, bring forward some medicines that were important and novel. So it was as simple as that, really, not a lot of deep thought, not a lot of, you know, decades of absolutely wanting to do this. Much more, you know, in the moment; this is the time to do it.

John Simboli:

What's it like to have the ultimate decision for these things? I know you're part of a team.

Martin Mackay:

It's quite different. It is one of the enjoyable pieces. I I think as I've mentioned before in my career, I left school in 1972, 16 year old, from a very working class upbringing in Scotland. And over the course of my career I've had 31 bosses. I can name them all. I have a list of them all named; actually just technically it's 29 human beings because two people had to suffer me twice in their career. So 29 human beings; 31 bosses. And I've learned a tremendous amount from them. And, actually, as I write my memoirs, which I've started, I don't rate them one to 31 because they all had different skills and some of them I'd rate high on leadership, some high on execution, some high on people and the likes. I have this wonderful grid of the 31 of them all mapped out. And now I don't have that, right? I don't have a boss to either work with or look up up to. And it's magnificent, actually. I really enjoy it and I've worked with great people and we can go on to name them as really good people. People I've learned a lot from; people that cared for me; were enormously influential in my development. But this world is different. And it's really, you know, a very small company. We sit around a table like this and make decisions. It's a little bit cliched, but you can do things really quickly. And that manifests itself in so many ways as we're thinking about the work that we're going to do, the diseases that we're going to work in , the types of things that are going to attack those diseases. But the simple answer to your question is ,yes, 31 was good, but that's enough for me.

John Simboli:

When you made that choice to, to head up a biopharma company, you must've had a lot of ones you looked at; a lot of places, you kind of tried on in your own thinking. What was it about Rallybio, the idea that you're going to form Rallybio, that made you think I can achieve with this what I want not have been able to achieve to someplace else?

Martin Mackay:

Yeah , that's a really good question and . . . a little bit o f the history of Rally is t hat one of my co-founders and I, Steve U den, another scientist who's very steeped in pharmaceutical R&D. We had been talking about this for a wee while. Once it was decided that we were leaving A lexion, the q uestion i s w hat, what next? I knew I wouldn't retire. That was not on the cards. My wife would never have allowed i t. And so we actually l ooked at a lot of stuff and what we decided to do was let's both go out and look and if there's a nything we'll keep each other in touch with things and if there's anything that we see that we want to do, then we'll tell the other one and that's what we'll do. But always in the back of our mind was to start together and start, y ou k now, a company. Didn't know it was going t o be Rallybio, but start company. And we looked at a lot of things. And in my own case I looked at, you know, I was approached, and I say this not immodestly, b ut I was approached for jobs i n big pharma, things that like I'd done in the past all the way down to twinkles in p eople's eyes to set up a new company with their idea or with their money. And each time Steve and I came back together, we'd say, it isn't better than starting our own company with our ideas and r aising our own money and doing it. And that's basically w hat happened over about, you know, six months to a year. And then we landed on, okay, we want to, you know, start o ur o wn company. What was very clear to us, were the areas that we wanted to work in. So it wasn't like we thought of a million things and chose one. At Alexion we really liked the commitment to devastating diseases. We really liked to commitment to ultra rare or rare disease, patients that are just poorly served just now. And we really liked the idea of bringing forward medicines from probably late research/early clinical and all the way to the market. And so what we wanted to work on was quite clear. How we would then go about it; where we'd set up and all of those things. And the name Rallybio is a good example of that. We had been thinking about names. We didn't hire any really smart people to help us with that . It was just then three of us cause Jeff Fryer on the business side had joined us then. And one day Steve was on one of his very typical rants and he was ranting about we are going to rally people round this company and you know, fight disease and conquer disease. And he was really on his platform and doing a great job. And when he said Rally and he looked at me and we looked at each other and thought , that's a good name. So it was all down to Steve. Steve came up with Rally, I added bio and it just made sense to us truly. That says a lot. We are trying to rally people around this mission of coming up with medicines for really bad diseases and for patients that don't have medicines today.

John Simboli:

When I think of rally I think of a team. It's kind of hard to rally by yourself, I guess. So that must be part of the fun of it, putting the team together.

Martin Mackay:

Definitely. And you know, through our careers we had worked with just such great people. Really lucky to work with such good people and such great companies. And you know, despite the kind of press that's often leveled against the pharmaceutical industry, by far and away, the vast majority of people I worked with wanted to come up with good medicines, mostly R&D, but not exclusively, people all over the company on this mission. And so, you know, we had worked with great people and you know, we're pleased to say that, though small, just now, we've attracted them and all of those people had the options. We could all choose where they wanted to work and so, small team just now, but we'll grow over the next period and keep that level of talent up. Everybody's very dedicated to this mission. That's why they really joined. I'd love it to think it was my charisma but truly it was new medicines.

John Simboli:

I'm thinking back to one of the very first press releases I saw that said something like, Martin says he's got at least one good medicine left in him.

Martin Mackay:

A number of people commented on that from kind of strange places who'd write and say, yeah, just, "A," it just sounded like you and you've got more than one left in you. Get going! What are you waiting on? And so just that one little phrase kind of summed us up as well. Steve is in exactly the same position and Steve Ryder, who joined us, who's another colleague that we worked together in past companies, you know, just has that same belief, there's medicine's left in us. It's almost like, I like to think of it as a time to harvest. You know, we've made lots of mistakes in our careers; there's been too many failures to mention. Fortunately, there's been some good things as well, but a lot of failure and kind of where our experiences now should help us. We won't be immune to failure, but we think if we really apply the knowledge and experience that we have, have a diverse group of people in the company, diversity is important to us. And then I do think there's some medicines in there. I read an article recently, as you know, I'm a big fan of the New England Patriots and I can truly say I supported them when they were bad. So I started watching them 1990, 2000 and Tom Brady, in an article recently when people were saying to him, Why aren't you retired? I mean your age and all you've done. And he said, why would, I retire at the time when I really, by now, think I know what I'm doing and actually can apply all of that to every game and be even better. And I thought, yeah, that kind of sums up Rally a little bit. Why would you stop doing this at a time where you think you're best placed to bring, great medicines forward.

John Simboli:

What's it like to actually be the guy?

Martin Mackay:

Interestingly, we don't kind of work that way in this company. We never use titles. The only time, the only reason I have the title CEO was for legal purposes. You need it, to do your jobs and you need to sign things, and that. But actually if you looked at my business card, there's nothing on it about titles. None of us have titles. We've tried to really diminish the hierarchy in the company. We want to hear everybody's voice. It's all well saying that you believe in diversity and then only listen to yourself. You know, and I've seen that in the past, you know, leaders and bosses that took up far too much of the air time. And so I don't want to be like that and we don't want to be like that. We really haven't. Now, we realize sometimes there's decisions to be made and we take those, and take them quickly. But by and large, the way that we work in the company is to get the ideas on the table, debate them, challenge them, and then make decisions and move on. We make decisions in different ways, but we're always up front about how we are going to make decisions. Whether it's this is a consensus decision . . . this actually is , yours, Steve, there was one this week where I said it's your decision, Steve ,and so on and so forth. I don't know how scalable that is and it'll be really interested as we grow, how far we can take this, but certainly at the moment that's how we work. And how that manifests itself, day to day, then, we're actively scouting new assets and truly, globally. We had people in Korea the week before last; people in the Nordics this week; I was in Boston; going to Europe next week. So w e're really looking globally. And day on day, it's head down to the gindstone looking at these assets Now that we've done our first deal, then a percentage of that we'll be executing against those assets, but we'll still be very actively scouting. What makes it really fun is it's all to do with science and drug discovery and drug development, just know. We clearly need to fiscally responsible and Jeff plays, that role just brilliantly for us. Clearly, with our board and our investors we're very responsible how we're using their money that they've generously provided to us to run the company. But the vast majority of the day has to do science and drug development. And for someone like me as that, golden.

John Simboli:

I asked John Houston a similar question, Martin, and I said something like, so it sounds like part of the fun of it is to be a scientist who is in collaboration. He said, yeah, it's funny you should mention, he says , because scientists , we're in our own world. Did you go through that as you had learned how to be a leader?

Martin Mackay:

Yes. Academia, and I think it's the same the United States. I did all my academic work in the United Kingdom. And I mean, you're really trained to go it alone and fight whilst, in those days you may have collaborated with laboratories outside, the person at the opposite side of the bench was often competing. And so, you know, this notion of teamwork, and that, didn't come into . . . That's the wonderful thing about industry, actually, you be a lone ranger in industry. You have to collaborate both within the company and outside of it and these skills are kind of honed over the years. Not everybody adapts them well. I have to say, and there's some, luckily there's some great scientists who even in industry maintain that level of uniqueness . You know, you just have to work with that and manage it accordingly. Usually it's worthwhile because they're great scientists and you know, every so often you need to have a discussion about working together. But as a leader, you don't have that luxury. You have to really collaborate across many groups.

John Simboli:

So in this time o being a leader, making a transition from being a scientist exclusively to being a leader and a scientist, what have you learned about what works for you as a manager? Do you feel like you have a style or an approach that you've learned works for you?

Martin Mackay:

Yeah, I was really lucky. I was talking about this earlier today, actually somebody that I'd worked with, called me in the room trying to make decisions about two positions that were taken. And I just, I thought back and another wonderful thing about our industry and working for big companies is how much they were willing to invest in you . So if I think about my days at Ciba-Geigy in Switzerland and you know, Pfizer in the UK and the U.S., -- invested enormous amount in my training. And you know, as a scientist you have your scientific training, but then you go into a company in they say , now we're going to try and help you be a leader. And so I was offered so many courses and programs and really wonderful things to build your leadership skills andm simply put, the, the more that I try and understand leadership. . . I worked out one day, there's an algorithm that I'm working on in terms of my leadership trajectory. And by the time I'm 80, I'm going to be really good. And the challenge for me i s can I do in my own lifetime and be really good? So leadership is something I think about daily. In terms of working with people that , some real old adages, you know, just treat people well. Just think about them as human beings and what they're going through day and day. The obvious parts of leadership that you hear are set a vision, give people a direction to go to, but that's kind of textbook. Underneath all that is working with human beings and how you interact with them. And over a career you can put hand on heart and see, wow. You know, as I think about, I'd like to think I helped more people than I ever hindered. People developed when we work together and that continues to this day. You know, people in a small company like Rally, I still think about them a lot in their development. We're at different stages. But it's kind of some really fundamental things but I wouldn't dismiss the training that I was offered and lapped up and I'm, to this day, continue to think about leadership and improving as a leader, being a better leader.

John Simboli:

So can you remember when you were eight or nine, can you remember what your image of yourself was?

Martin Mackay:

I can, actually, and it's pure luck if you think about it . Because how do you have these images that actually come to fruit? Of being a scientist? I mean I played soccer and still do, all my life. So you know, always this notion of playing for Juventis in Italy. And I haven't given up on that actually. I still think I'd be good enough. But unfortunately they don't. But truly on a kind of life thing. I always want it to be a scientist. This notion of white coats and glasses. I was intrigued by kind of nerdy professor. And again, luckily in the UK, the BBC invariably had programs about scientists and I was totally compelled by it. So literally, left school at 16 to become a scientist. And you might say, well that's a bit weird leaving school at 16, but everybody did. Nobody in my family went to college, university, none of my friends went to college or university just wasn't, you know, where I was brought up. It just didn't happen at all . And what did happen is you left school at 16 and you went, usually, to apprenticeships. So people would become carpenters or electricians. And very similarly in the laboratory work, there was an apprenticeship, you go in and you become a, what at the time was called a junior medical laboratory technologist or technician. And I did that. And you go to college to do day release, it's called. So part of your education about learning. And I ran into a bacteriology laboratory, so this was the best job I could ever have. Right? I've thought about it for years. I've studied at school, like all my subjects at school were science, so it was chemistry, biology, physics, math, statistics, you know, so a very scientific high school.

Speaker 2:

And then I found myself in the job I want. That's a lab technician doing lab work, playing with my hands and fume covers . Luckily I had qualifications from school. Even though I was 16,, I was able to get enough qualifications that you could go to college. So by the time 18 comes in, I'm looking around and everybody in the good jobs had degrees. Which I didn't really understand, truly, what a degree was, but what I did know is everybody in the big job had . And I thought, yeah, I'd like some of that. And so at 18 I went to university, had the qualifications, full time university and then did my four years and my microbiology degree in Edinburgh and then went into the industry, pharmaceutical industry, which I knew that's where I wanted to apply my science. This is 1979, now, and then really enjoyed working there as what was called a graduate. You know, you had your first degree, worked as a graduate working on penicillins, antibiotics and then exactly same thing happened. I looked around and all the people in the best positions had PhDs our were physicians. All the big jobs were there and I thought, okay. Then I went, did my PhD, post-doctoral work to get these qualifications. Then I went back into industry, this time with Ciba-Geigy, the Swiss company. And by that time you've got all the academic piece behind you. Then it's a case of building a career in industry, but it does go back to being a wee boy in Scotland, loving this notion of science.

John Simboli:

That's an unbroken line. I don't think I met anybody quite like that. That's interesting.

Martin Mackay:

It goes really way back, way back and just really lucky at 16 to work in a lab. Right? I mean, this was perfect for me and for all I knew this was going to be my life working in a lab for a whole career until other things came into play. Like, gosh, I really like that job there . This person's directing things, and I probably had something inside me to say that I wanted to lead things without really ever been able to articulate it . It was much more experiential. There's a person in a job that I like the look of and to get ther, you need qualifications, you need your PHD, to do your scientific apprenticeship. But yeah, very lucky to want to do something and see it all the way through. Here I am today, still doing it, right? Sitting in a lab, thinking about experiments and . . .

John Simboli:

You're lucky.

Martin Mackay:

Yeah, lucky or sad. Maybe a bit of both.

John Simboli:

What's new at Rallybio?

Martin Mackay:

You know, I think by the next few months . . . as I say , we've completed our first deal and although we haven't broadcast it, it's a highly competitive area and we want to keep it, the euphemism is, in stealth mode, just know , so we won't be broadcasting our first assets. As it happens, it's a number of them that we've brought in. I'd like to think we'd do another couple of deals. We always set out to say that our portfolio would be somewhere between 40 assets. We can manage that. So I'd like to think that we're at that number. That we would have hired a few more scientists to work alongside us to produce, those medicines. And then if you think about the balance between scouting for assets and executing against development plans, we'll be much more the latter . So I think there'll be a really big transition in the company. We like the scoping piece, we like going out, doing diligence on assets and thinking about how they could be used in clinics and the like. But very quickly, we're going to have to transition into actual execution. So actually doing something. That should be fun. We'll still always scout, because if we see things we want to bring them into the company, but I think the balance will then move to execution.

John Simboli:

When people now ask you who is Rallybio . . .

Martin Mackay:

Rallybio works on devastating diseases and come up with transformative treatments. I mean it's as simple as that. Easy to say . Of course, to execute is a bit more difficult. But, really bad diseases, really great treatments. We haven't moved from that. We've moved our thinking about how you do it, at what stage you do it, maybe who you need to work with yet to, you know , execute against plans. But fundamentally the notion is bad diseases, great treatments.

John Simboli:

When you make that explanation, you just gave to me, that simple, clear, here's what Rallybio is. Maybe you made a presentation for half an hour at a conference and someone comes back after coffee and says, oh thanks, Martin; now I understand. But that didn't. Maybe they didn't hear it right. Or they had filters on. What do they hear wrong? And then when you come back and say, oh no, it's actually this, what's that conversation like ?

Martin Mackay:

It's really interesting. We had that conversation. So I mean there are some within that grand, really bad diseases , really good treatments, we put some filters in. So one would bea therapeutic areas that we work in . Whilst we're largely agnostic to therapeutic areas, and if you think about ultra rare diseases, they go from metabolic, neurological, bone, you know, you name it; it goes across a lot of therapeutic areas. We decided early on that we wouln't work in oncology. It's a couple of reasons. I don't think the world needs another oncology company. I don't think we'd be best placed to bring forward oncology agents. I think our people a lot better than us to do that. And from a scientific perspective, it's difficult to conceive of too many things that are truly transformative as happening but doesn't tick that big box. But interestingly, as we go through this with all sorts of people, you know, from scientists, lay scientists, physicians, venture capitalists, you name it, they'll invariably after I was going through this pitch, say, oh, I've got this oncology program that I think you'd be interested in. So we've really had to work on clarity a lot more. And , we joke about when Steve goes through it now, he'll say, but not oncology. I want to make sure, not oncology. So sometimes, folks, you know, because oncology is such a big area to work in but it really it comes down to our communication and how well we do that. And it's not something that we've given enough thought to yet, but we have to get better.

John Simboli:

When you decided to build this, whatever was going to be called, I'm sure you've thought about it could be in Silicon Valley, it could be in London. It could be wherever. How did you go about choosing where to locate?

Martin Mackay:

I've been in Connecticut for 20 years now. I worked for three companies during that time, over the 20 years. And I just think it's a really great place to discover medicines. Lots of medicines have been discovered in Connecticut, so that's good. You know , and great companies, Pfizer, Bristol, Myers, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bayer, Alexion. So inherently this is a good place to discover medicines. The talent is outstanding. And when Steve and I were conceiving the company, we did think about, you know, some investors wanted us to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, without doubt, some wanted us to be in New York, probably mostly in Cambridge, Boston and environs. But we thought, you go to New London rail station on a Monday and see all these people training it up to stay the week in Boston. There's something wrong there. They should be staying here. And so , we thought, great place to discover medicines, great talent here. We live here, although, as you can tell, not from C onnecticut originally. You know, made homes here. W hy not? And that's kind of what's born out. I think out of the eight of us, something like seven of us would be in Boston by now h ad Rally not started, including myself. I think the state could do a lot more to really encourage the life sciences, a lot more. Now we are sitting in the TIP incubator, here, which is terrific. I mean, the people here couldn't have been better., Paul could not be more welcoming to us here as a small start up, but already we're outgrowing here. I mean, if you're successful, you're going to outgrow quickly. And you know, hence our move. We'd like to absolutely keep a presence here in the incubator but, we're going to outgrow now and we're going to be looking for new premises, new laboratories, more people. And there's essentially nothing welcoming about the state to be able to do that. Whether it's politics, I don't understand, but if I think about the interactions I have with MassBio, for example, and what they've done in there . And it wasn't always like that. I mean , I first moved a lab to Cambridge in 1997-98, and we were only one of two big companies, I think at the time there. If I think of how that's grown, I think, right? Why shouldn't that be Connecticut? But there's too little in place to really incentivize people. I'd hate to think down the line that we're going to move to Massachusetts or even San Francisco. That's possible; it's possible. And the politics of it, you know, the finances, the incentives, all of that will dictate. So I think the local government could do a lot more. Connecticut innovations; they've been terrific. They've actually invested in us and they've invested in many companies here and I couldn't say better things about them, but there's more to it than this level o f investment. It's needing much more vision about the state and life sciences. Being really political, it's all too self-congratulatory that we're a great place. Without incentives, really, to grow here and build here and actually grow back the base that we had here. You know, thousands of jobs are flooded out and that's just shameful I think. I would actually be happy to help in that, although I suspect I'm far too outspoken to ever get invited to do so.

John Simboli:

When I first started working with you, one of the things that really stood out was how willing you were to ask for an honest conversation and you uses the term "courageous conversation." What's that mean?

Martin Mackay:

Probably the first time you heard it was in a town hall at Alexion, which was the one ask that somebody said, if you had one ask, what would it be? That'd be for people to go back to their labs and offices and have the courageous conversation with their colleagues. You know, it's really simple. As human beings to both get feedback, receive feedback and give it is a really hard thing to do. And it's way harder than I think it should be. And the more you do it, the easier it gets . And in our environment at Rally with only eight of us, we built that from the start. So Steve Uden was giving me feedback this morning and I'm thinking, I don't really want this now . Friday morning, but, I welcomed it with open arms and he started it by saying, in the spirit of openness, I'd like to have a courageous conversation with you. And it just makes it really easy and allows people to develop and grow. There's an adage that came from Jack Welsh who's not my favorite guru, but he said many good things as everyone knows. And one thing he said was tell the people the truth because they know it anyway. And, yet we've been often in leadership resistant to give that truth and that feedback. There's a lot of courage associated with being able to do that. I guarantee that if anybody's listening to this, it gets easier to do it each time you do it and people will thank you so much for it. Maybe not immediately cause it can be hard, but will definitely thank you in terms of thinking about their careers.

John Simboli:

Martin, thanks for spending time with me today.

Martin Mackay:

Thank you.

John Simboli:

One of the really satisfying things about working with Martin is his plainspoken approach. In our conversation, he mentions the advice, "Tell the people the truth because they already know it." In the same way, when Martin says at the beginning of the podcast, "We want to hear everybody's voice. It's all well saying that you believe in diversity and then only listen to yourself" — he's getting at something real—the power of what he calls a courageous conversation. For Martin, that means not only giving feedback, but being willing and able to receive it—all in the spirit of making things work better. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss.