BioBoss

#01 - John Houston: President and CEO of Arvinas

January 07, 2019 John Houston
BioBoss
#01 - John Houston: President and CEO of Arvinas
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BioBoss
#01 - John Houston: President and CEO of Arvinas
Jan 07, 2019
John Houston

“I really wanted to be in a place where I could see if I could build something" —John Houston, President and Chief Executive Officer of Arvinas. John is the 2018 BioCT Entrepreneur of the Year. 

Welcome to BioBoss.

Show Notes Transcript

“I really wanted to be in a place where I could see if I could build something" —John Houston, President and Chief Executive Officer of Arvinas. John is the 2018 BioCT Entrepreneur of the Year. 

Welcome to BioBoss.

John Houston:

When I was making the decision about what I wanted to do next, I really wanted to be in a place where I could see if I could build something.

John Simboli:

That's the voice of John Houston President and chief executive officer of Arvinas and BioCT entrepreneur of the year. Listen in now to hear my conversation with John Houston and his vision for Arvinas. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss. Today I'm speaking with John Houston, president and CEO at Arvinas. John, how'd you find yourself here at Arvinas?

John Houston:

Well, it's an interesting story. Well, for me anyway. I spent 18, 19 years at Bristol Myers Squibb, mainly based in Connecticut. A large staff and based at other BMS sites. And it got to the point where the company had made the decision to start to move, certainly, the Wallingford site in Connecticut to Boston and to staff into New Jersey. And I was very focused in helping that happen and making sure the staff were getting good roles and good positions in these other sites. But then I had the decision to make, do I want to move? And I decided I didn't. I really thought, I like living in Connecticut. I want to stay in Connecticut. So I took some time off to enjoy myself, which I did. And I started looking around at what other opportunities might be. And Luckily, met Tim Shannon and Craig Crews and they told me about this wonderful opportunity at Arvinas, ostensibly to be the chief scientific officer. And so I listened to the story about the company, what they're trying to achieve, the platform, met the scientists. And at the end of that thought, my goodness, what a great opportunity. And so, that's why I joined Arvinas. I thought, fantastic location for me, brilliant science, great technology and a wonderful leadership team.

John Simboli:

So when you look back at that, how you feel about your decision,

John Houston:

It's one of these things where you end up seeing something very obvious. I wish I'd done it earlier. But if I'd done it earlier, I may have not got this particular opportunity. So I'm glad I did it. It's worked out, obviously, in the last, just under two years, remarkably well, both myself and the company has done very well. So it was, as it turns out, it was a really great decision for myself.

John Simboli:

Can you remember when you were eight or nine? Can you remember what you told your mom and dad what you wanted to be when you grew up?

John Houston:

Oh yeah. I was absolutely determined to be an astronaut. At that time, it was around the time of the Apollo missions. We hadn't quite landed on the moon, but we were just about to do it, I was a bit a bit younger for that, but when the first landing on the moon occurred, and I was living in Scotland, obviously, and my dad stayed up to let me watch it on TV. It was black and white and all the crackly noise that was coming from the microphones and I was absolutely determined, I'm definitely going to be an astronaut. Of course that lasted for about a year. And then I thought, no, I'll probably end up being a soccer player. That was probably more manageable. But actually what I found is I have a real passion for understanding the science. And so, understanding astronomy and the stars, I was really feeling very inquisitive about the world and I think that led me into science. So I enjoyed science at high school and clearly that's what I wanted to be when I moved into the university. But the kernel for that was all the moon landing and the astronauts and it grabbed everybody's attention when the kids between nine and 13 at that time. That tells you what your journey's like.

John Simboli:

Me too. Two things I heard from that were "I'm was fascinated by science" and then the other part I heard , I thought about the soccer part because my son is a soccer player. Soccer is about teamwork, largely. There's other sports that emphasize individual skills more, but is there something about teamwork and something about science that made this all come together?

John Houston:

It's a really interesting question because science and scientists don't naturally lend themselves to teams. When I first got into science and, and was doing my PhD and doing post-docs over in Scotland, it's very individual. You're in the lab, there's other people in the lab. You usually have a lead professor who's driving the grants, that's their interest and you're doing some aspect of that work. There wasn't much, at least in my experience, in the way of teamwork. You did your work, you worked with your supervisor to get things that may be published. So my first several years, both in PhD and post-doc, I didn't get a sense of team. I got a sense of individuality, driving your own science, making sure you publish and beating the competition. But my first sense of science and the team was when I joined Glaxo, then in London. And then immediately it was in the scientific lab where you were part of a team, you had a function, but you were connected to other parts of that process. And as I grew up as a scientist within the Glaxo environment, you realized you were part of a bigger R&D process and the whole process only works because it was a team. So yeah, I like that aspect. I like the fact that to make medicines you have to have some people that come together and know what part of their process needs to work to hand over to the next part. But yeah, initially scientists aren't naturally designed to be in teams. The design is very individual thinkers and the science is very individualized. But then you get a context, like a big pharma company and you have to be part of a team.

John Simboli:

So I imagine that's a learning process to some degree. I mean, leaders are naturally born, I understand that, too. But can you say anything about what you learned about how to manage and lead? What did you learn about yourself, what did you learn about what worked, what didn't work?

John Houston:

I was lucky when I joined Glaxo. Relatively quickly I was given some kind of supervisory experience. And I did like it. I like working with people and I like giving advice. What I found is that giving advice can be a double-edged sword. So there's giving advice and there's telling people things. And I learned pretty quickly that people don't really respond to being told stuff. They like being in a dialogue and having things explained. And so I think I learned pretty quickly as a supervisor, is that getting people engaged, getting people excited about the work and also listening to their ideas is that's basically the way to manage your team. And I've tried to do that all through my career. I've always tried to surround myself with people who are either smarter than me or know things better than me and what I add to them is some kind of environment where they can perform really well. And for me that's always been a win-win. If you get a team that likes working together and you've got some of the smart scientists working together and you allow them to get headroom and a lot of credit for what they're doing, they win. I win because I've just created that for them. So I've tried to do that in every environment and, but the first lessons I got were those first supervisory experiences where I was trying to explain and tell people and you can see, hmm, I know that already. Why are you telling me? And so I learned that really rapidly. Listen to the staff that you have, the people you're going to be supervising, create the right environment for them to be successful.

John Simboli:

What were you hoping you could achieve here that you might not be able to achieve at another company. You had, I'm sure, lots of opportunities to think about during that interregnum between . . .

John Houston:

When I was making the decision about what I wanted to do next, I really wanted to be in a place where I could see if I could build something. And the opportunity here at Arvinas was clearly there to build something. There was a platform technology that was unique. There was the ability to create medicines in a number of different disease areas and there was the opportunity to build a team. So all of those tick the box for me in terms of the things I wanted to do next. I also wanted to get away from, and this is not trying to be negative about big pharma because you know, I've enjoyed the 28 to 30 years I was there. But I wanted to get away from some of the kind of the overlay of governance, the overlay of elongated decision making, into an environment where decision making can occur in a day or less. I wanted to get into a situation where people were not permission seeking, but saying, look what I did. And I have to say from the first day I was here, that's what was happening. People were coming to say, hey, look, I did this yesterday. Whereas in other settings, people say "Can I do that?" And worse than that, they may say, can I do that over a period of months to get to a governance meeting where you say you probably could, but could you come back next month and tell me more? So when, when that gets multiplied up across a number of the programs, you can see why, in the the very big companies, there's a stasis in trying to get decision making. In these smaller companies, it happens really quickly. And so I want to make sure that in this environment I never overly, that type of governance and that inhibitory kind of effect of saying you gotta tell me first what you're doing. People here, they come up with ideas, they work on them, they come with the data and say, look at that. And that's fantastic. It's very invigorating.

John Simboli:

What's it like being a chief science officer and also being a CEO?

John Houston:

Yeah, two for the price of one, I think. I think I was clear when I joined I was very happy to do the CSO part because that was right in my wheelhouse. I knew exactly what that would feel like. Sure it would be in a smaller setting, but it was clearly good. I knew exactly what an R&D process would look like. I knew what projects I had to do and you had to deal with the scientists. but then, after, I was asked, do you want to also be the CEO? And it took me a while to think about that because my real first instinct was, well my, my biggest benefit is driving the R&D process. But I'd already been intrigued by the fact that dealing with investors, talking to banks, telling the story externally, I was enjoying. And I was getting told that's a large part of what doing the CEO piece is and you're already leading in the majority of the group. So why don't you go for it as long as you keep doing the CSO part. And so that's why I agreed to do it. And I became the CEO and continued to do the CSO work and it's been a perfect amalgam for me of two activities and accountabilities that I enjoy. So I can do this new thing for me, which is dealing with the external world, getting people excited about the company, taking it through major transition points, like getting, you know, CAC done, going through an IPO, at the same time being grounded in the science. So it's, for me, it's so far, it's been a spectacularly enjoyable.

John Simboli:

You must, every now and then, pinch yourself and say this is great.

John Houston:

I do. You know, things can change, because it is the world of R&D. But so far it's just been been great.

John Simboli:

Let's talk a little bit about the company. So I wrote this question, what's new at Arvinas. And I know that's kind of a long answer.

John Houston:

There's a lot of new things this year. This year has been spectacular. I mean, you started the year announcing a deal with Pfizer, which was very exciting. A target-based deal, they give us targets. And it's a very good interaction with Pfizer. But then we rapidly also moved into our C-round to raise more capital so we could invest in a pipeline, which we did successfully. Then at the end of March this year, we raised 55 million, brought on board some new investors. And then the view was the R&D pipeline is moving forward very effectively, the market looks quite good. Why don't we, from a position of strength, go out and maybe do an IPO. And so we did a lot of analysis on that, you know, talk to investors externally and testing the water meetings. And the feedback we got was, yeah, even though your preclinical, this is an exciting new modality. It's really worth pushing for the IPO and bringing in the capital that allows you to advance the company rapidly. So then we spent several months in a fairly intensive process talking to investors or potential investors culminating in the kind of the two week road show which I'd heard so much about prior to joining of the company. And then this really successful IPO last month. And that's put us in a position of financial strength. We can move our pipeline, our two major assets, forward through into the clinic. We can move the rest of the pipeline forward, expand the platform. So it's given us a real forward trajectory and a line of sight of where the next three years is going to be for the company. So it's been an exciting year. And, in the process, we've doubled in size. We've expanded in this building into two more floors, over 40 people. So it's been a great year.

John Simboli:

When you tell that story, it must be fun to just get up each day and say, I have another opportunity to tell this story. There must be times when you say they got it and there must be times when you hear them back after you have the presentation and say, they didn't quite get what I was going for. Can you tell me a little bit about when you're saying it, this is what they're getting and you're happy about that when you're saying it and they're not hearing it?

John Houston:

Well, I've also got the confusion of my Scottish accent, so I never know if it's the story of the company or just my, my accent. But, I think most of the people get the story, they understand the concept, but you know, the story of our technology is not simple. I mean, what Craig Crews had been doing is studying protein homeostasis for many years and really understanding how the cell naturally turns over proteins, how it monitors dysfunctional proteins, how those proteins are tagged by the ubiquitin ligase system and drag the proteins off to the proteasome, which is, basically, the garbage disposal unit of the cell. Proteins are then broken down into peptides, amino acids. Those are flushed back into the cell for new protein synthesis. That's the natural way the cell maintains a healthy protein balance in the cell. Craig observed all of that and wanted to hijack it. He's, saying, I wonder if I can bring that whole machinery into close proximity to a protein I want to degrade, I want to get rid of. And so he came up with these small molecules called protacs, proteolysis targeting chimeras, One end of the molecule brings in this ligase machinery, the natural machinery of degradation. The other end of the molecule targets a protein you want to degrade. And sure enough when those proteins are brought into close proximity to the ligase machinery, they're tagged and they run off to the proteasome and are degraded. It's just a wonderful technology and now our lead programs for androgen receptor and estrogen receptor are moving forward. They're still in the preclinical stage, but hopefully all things being well, we'll be in the clinic with them as some point next year. So it's been a fabulous technology. As we explain the technology. some people do get it immediately and they say this is fabulous. Others, it takes a little bit more time to explain it, but eventually we get there. I think it's a compelling story and a compelling platform.

John Simboli:

Is there anything you can say about the kind of people that you're finding succeed at this kind of culture you've built?

John Houston:

Oh yeah, definitely. So when I'm looking for people here, first of all, you want high quality scientists, you want really good scientists. So people who understand their area, whether it be a development or formulation, you name it, really good experts. And we're lucky in this Connecticut base, actually having a lot of really superb scientists available. The next thing I want is people who are just incredibly inquisitive. People who are inquisitive, they'll do the work, but they're also thinking of the connections. And in a small biotech setting, you want people to make those lateral connections all the time, to be so inquisitive about the work that they can add value above and beyond just the basic science. And we have a number incredibly inquisitive scientists here. They drive the platform in different directions, they ask questions that really probe the science. So yeah, top quality science, but a real inquisitive nature. And of course, if they have the obvious ability to work in a team, then you've got the kind of the perfect collection of skills that you need to have a good scientist and a good forward-looking team.

John Simboli:

So if that team you build develops the way you hope it will, have, the company develop as you hope it will, what good can you do? What, what do you allow yourself to say? Ah, if a all works out work on we've got to help some people?

John Houston:

Oh, I mean absolutely. I think all the people who move into science and certainly to the pharmaceutical area of science or biotech, they're all driven by a passion to get medicines to get to patients. And usually you find that where you talk to people and say, well why are you in this part of science? And they'll talk about a family member or a friend who has a specific disease. And they'll say that's why I'm doing this work. And we've just gone through breast cancer awareness month and it's this whole building was full of people wearing pink shirts, and charitable events related to the breast cancer charities. But a lot of people talking about friends and family members that had breast cancer and every door had a pink sheet with a name of somebody that had been suffering or fighting breast cancer. That's what drives people's passion and I think we've got a lot of really passionate scientists here. And that's really what you hope for, you're eventually going to get a medicine that gets to patients with unmet needs and you can help change their lives. And that drives people every day forward. And this particular community are closer to that chance because you're going to be able to discover and develop in a very integrated way. Again, the big pharma setting you do get opportunities to do that, but there's usually another big team takes your asset, goes there, then another team takes it, it goes over there. In this smaller setting you can actually track it much, much farther. So that connection to the patient is much, much stronger.

John Simboli:

Let's segue over to the environment that Arvinas is a part of. So how did you make that decision, and how did the company, in general, make the decision to be here in New Haven?

John Houston:

Yeah, I think, you know, I obviously wasn't at Arvinas when they made the decision. The company was formed in 2013, Professor Craig Crews, Yale professor, came up with this great idea, this great concept of protein degradation. He loves being in Connecticut and he loves Yale. This was the second company that he formed. His first company was actually formed and was, was set up in San Francisco and I think he learned a lesson for himself, which is he wanted to be in much closer proximity to the company he set up. So he was determined to have a company set up, it would be, you know, very, very close proximity to him and we can't get much closer. He's only five minutes up the road, so he's, he's in here every week. And Tim Shannon, with Canaan, the VC firm, they are Connecticut based as well. So it was a very good local Connecticut focus, both from Yale, Craig Crews, and Canaan. And then they started recruiting in scientists that were based in Connecticut. You know, either good or bad, some big pharma companies have made decisions to either leave the state or downsize. And we've had the benefit of being able to attract scientists and leaders into the organization that we're getting at a stage of our evolution that we wouldn't expect to get then. We'd expect those people to stay in the big pharma companies and have fabulous careers the way they normally do. But they decided, well, my company's leaving, but I'm not leaving the state, I love living here. And we've been able to bring them into Arvinas, which has really accelerated our progress. I think it was a great decision, obviously, that Craig and the team made to set the company up in New Haven and we haven't seen a downside to it at all.

John Simboli:

How about personally? When you had that time in between, you were deciding where you want him to go, what you want to do, how did you decide that you wanted to be in Connecticut rather than say Cambridge or San Francisco?

John Houston:

So I've been living here for over 20 years, which I still find amazing. Because when I first came over from, from Britain, I thought, yeah, I'm going to, this will be great working in America for a couple of years. And then you look by anything. Wow. That was 20 years ago. But I've loved working here and the opportunity that working in America gives you. But you know, looking at the decision making of it being in Connecticut and why I would stay here, I love the environment in Connecticut. I love living here. If you want the big city access, you've got New York and Boston right on your doorstep. If you want to be in the countryside, you've got Vermont, you've got New Hampshire. If you want to be on the shoreline, you've got Connecticut, you've got Rhode Island. It's just a perfect combination of different small states. And some of them are hidden gems, you know, which is great for me. You know, if nobody wants to go to places on holiday, that's fine. But it's a fabulous place to live, to bring up a family, and, and part of my drive is to be able to make sure there's a great scientific community that stays here. As an executive at Bristol Myers Squibb, when the company decided to move out of Connecticut, I made the decision I would stay, but I also was very excited when I joined this company to be able to attract quite a number of BMS scientists who didn't also want to leave the state. And so we have a large number of ex-BMS scientists. We have a significant number of ex-Alexion scientists. We have Pfizer scientists, we have Boehringer Ingelheim scientists, we have Bayer scientists. So we've, when you look at the record and the histories of the staff we have is a little echo of the history of big pharma in Connecticut and we hope we'll be able to use the experiences of those great scientists to build the scientific community here in New Haven and in Connecticut.

John Simboli:

In terms of that community, just staying in touch, I know you probably don't have a lot of time as a CEO, but what organizations do you touch and communicate with? I'm thinking of BioCT as an example? What organizations do you find help you to tell your story and help you to find out what's going on?

John Houston:

So BioCT is one of the good ones. They are very focused on the scientific community within Connecticut, obviously the biotech community in a significant way. I've been lucky to be part of that board for several years and I think they do a great job explaining the story of Connecticut and New Haven. I think we can do more. I think the story about Connecticut science and the biotech community is not as well known as it should be. You could argue, well, you're dominated by the fact you've got Cambridge, Massachusetts right there and you've got a burgeoning New York biotech community, as well. But the science that's taking place here in Connecticut is exceptional. And the ability to build on that backbone, I think, is exceptionally strong and I'd like to see more of that happening. So BioCT is really driving that as an organization. And we need more of that kind of communication about the strengths

John Simboli:

You're familiar with the Connecticut Economic Resource Center.

John Houston:

We clearly we get a lot of support. We have had a lot of support from the Connecticut State and Connecticut Innovations. And so as the company was setting off and a lot of support from the state. I like the fact that the state is very supportive overall with with biotech. And so we keep in touch with the state organizations quite regularly.

John Simboli:

Is there any advantage or disadvantage to being here, rather than being in New York or San Francisco?

John Houston:

I have to be honest, I didn't notice any real reaction from all the investors. We talked about whether we were placed here or somewhere else. We did get asked, every so often, do you have plans to move to Cambridge or whatever? And we just said, no, we're doing great. But it didn't change anything in terms of the range of the depth of investors that wanted to invest in our company. And it wasn't the location that was driving their interest. It's the science and the people and they said that over and over. Good science with good people. that's an investment choice to make. And if it's in New Haven, fine. So we haven't found that detrimental. We have not had any issue getting access to really interested investors. And that's clearly shown through our IPO, which was very successful. I think this location is great because of the environment we talked about, and there's some great scientists here as well. I just want to be able to build on it over the next few years.

John Simboli:

I'll just finish up here and say thank you, John for talking with me today. I look forward to coming back and hearing what's new next time.

John Houston:

Thank you. Thanks for the time.