BioBoss

#02 - Erika Smith: CEO of ReNetX Bio

January 31, 2019 John Simboli Season 1 Episode 2
BioBoss
#02 - Erika Smith: CEO of ReNetX Bio
Chapters
BioBoss
#02 - Erika Smith: CEO of ReNetX Bio
Jan 31, 2019 Season 1 Episode 2
John Simboli

"It's like an orchestra . . . I feel very much like a conductor." — Erika Smith, Chief Executive Officer of ReNetX Bio.

Show Notes Transcript

"It's like an orchestra . . . I feel very much like a conductor." — Erika Smith, Chief Executive Officer of ReNetX Bio.

Erika Smith:

You know, I think in some ways I feel very much like a conductor.

John Simboli:

That's Erika Smith describing her role as chief executive officer at ReNetX Bio. Listen in now and hear Erika's vision for ReNetX. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss. Today I'm speaking with Erika Smith, CEO at ReNetX. Erika, can you start with telling me, how did you find yourself here at ReNetX?

Erika Smith:

Well, I'll give you a little bit of my background. I actually, previously, had been at Yale and had launched and run a number of life science investment funds for the university. And prior to that I had really been mostly on the investor side of things. So I've seen dozens and dozens of companies in my career and helped them and managed them and supported them. And this company came across my desk from Yale, from a faculty member at the university and never in my career had I found something that was so exciting. And I literally quit my day job having read about and learned about the science. And so that's kind of how it came to be. So it's, I've been in the company about a year and a half now. You know, it's, it's funny how you have your career built over many, many years and it really does feel like the culmination of a lot of all the experiences kind of coming together to make this successful.

John Simboli:

So going way back in time, one of the questions I'm interested in is sort of the formative image somebody had of himself or herself early and whether that transfers. For a lot of people, they didn't become a fireman or a, a nurse or a princess. But do you remember way back to when you were maybe eight or nine or 10, what it was you thought you wanted to do?

Erika Smith:

You know, it's funny. I don't know about eight or nine or 10, but I know kind of in my early teen years I really want to travel the world. I wanted to be a translator. I wanted to speak French and communicate. And the sad part about that is I have no talent in that area. So, philosophically, it's a very cool idea but if you talk to anyone, don't even try to tell it to me on that. I think in some ways I've, I still am a translator. I'm still a translator in regards to science and business. I love science. I've always loved science. As I went to college, I studied biomedical and electrical engineering and I really felt that on my my epitaph, there's going to be Erika changed something in medicine. I didn't know what it was. I do feel like I've kind of continued down that path and that translation piece of being able to understand the science, but yet put the business needs behind it is, you know, really it is kind the piece that I accomplished, even though it's not French, so to speak.

John Simboli:

When I think of a translator, I think of someone, on one level, who takes something and moves it directly to something else. But I also think of the word interpreter, which is rather similar, and I'll bet part of what you do is interpreting.

Erika Smith:

Absolutely. I mean you have the deep science, you've got all the, the molecular interactions, all of this sort of, the deep pieces. And you do need to take that up to a level that lay people can understand. And actually, one of the really interesting things about this company, and we didn't really talk about the, the nuance of it right yet, but we are working in the central nervous system. We're actually, if we're successful, we'll be able to reverse spinal cord injury and we'll be able to provide function to people that haven't had that before. So at the end of the day, the science is deep, there's so much there, but it's a very simple kind of concept that people can get. And so that interpretation between the deep science but the outcome to individuals is really kind of the thing that resonated with me and resonates with many, many people that we speak to about our company and what we're working on. You know, my default is as a scientist that kind of brought business on. So I always kind of feel like there's always, you need to . . . people that have deep science backgrounds have an ease, in my opinion, you know, those are the people that can best translate to the business. Not to say there aren't unique individuals that just have business and are able to go backwards. But I, I kind of take it from that perspective, is science, and moving it forward.

John Simboli:

How'd you decide you want it to lead a Biopharma company?

Erika Smith:

I have been spending the majority of my career in investments and I had a fund where Johnson and Johnson had put money in and we were putting capital into everything from biotherapeutics to healthcare I.T., Then at Yale, I launched and ran two investment funds for the university. So, when you see a lot of different technologies and ideas, all very exciting where there's money that's been put behind it, you support it. You're, you know, you're there. But I think it's kind of like the concept of am I the the hammer or the egg? When you're talking about are you really committed to doing this? I never had really found a company and an opportunity that had the the potential that this one had and that my background and experience would be core and critical to making it happen. And so, it was, in some ways, sort of the swan song of my career where it's all been additive. And I, yeah, I feel very privileged, very lucky to be able to have sat at the university, have had the experience and the connections and then to be able to jump out and lead this organization. Sort of as an aside, maybe I'll mention is an important part in my role previously and really throughout my career has also been to encourage women to be leaders in science, which is still sorely underrepresented in investment, sorely underrepresented in certainly has at a C-level, sorely underrepresented. So, in some ways I, I certainly hope my role and my activity and actually going forward can potentially continue to change the world with different models.

John Simboli:

What were you hoping to achieve that you might not have been able to achieve if you'd chosen a different company?

Erika Smith:

It's actually sort of funny. When I first connected with ReNetX and the science, again, I'll go back. I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer and there's nothing more biomedical and electrical engineering then working in connections in the central nervous system. It's the body's electrical system. So way back, you know, 25 plus years ago that I studied the science, so to speak, it's very different. I mean, it's not the same, but it's quite extraordinary to be working in a company that is, that's the core and critical piece of what we're trying to achieve

John Simboli:

For someone who's outside of the field who says,, Erika, what do you do . . .?

Erika Smith:

I kind of simplify it. You know, I'm working with the technology that can make people walk again or, or have functionality where they've been paralyzed. So people get that right away. You know, we don't go into, you know, it's a biotechnology company doing all of these things. I can certainly talk that talk, but I think at a very high level, people get that and people are excited about it. They want to hear more. And I think that's what we're doing as an organization is working in an area where there's people that are . . . and very often when I say what I do, frequently, people will say, I know someone or my brother or my, you know, my neighbor . . . I want to find out more about what you guys are doing. And so it brings it really, really quickly to a personal connection many, many times for individuals. And so that's rewarding because I know that we've connected both on the science and then the opportunity that we're developing as well.

John Simboli:

What can you say about being a leader and what you've found that works for you? What management style? Did you have one that you sort of anticipated you would have? And then one that you have had based on experience?

Erika Smith:

It's a really good question. We're a relatively small team. We're the five of us and we manage a lot of people. It's like an orchestra that we are people that we manage externally because you don't have to necessarily have everybody within the organization to accomplish what you need to. So for example, on the manufacturing side of things, we probably have dozens of people that work at a different facility for us. On our bioanalytics, dozens. So I think in some ways I feel very much like a conductor and being able to sort of like pull people forward that need a little bit more but I've got great individuals at the company. I couldn't feel happier about the team that we have right now. Everybody has such depth, such commitment to what we're working on. They're more driven than I am. They worry more than I am. And so really, at the end of the day, I'm just as a supporting mechanism to make sure that they have what they need. Sometimes I dig into the details because I, that's who I am, just to kind of pull pieces out, but at the end of the day, it's just making sure that you kind of keep all the plates in the air. You keep people pulled in and are additive to the work that the individuals are doing in my organization to support the many, many, many, many people that are extended from the company.

John Simboli:

What's new at ReNetX?

Erika Smith:

So we are in the process, we're still a preclinical organization, but we're right on the cusp of working with the food and Drug Administration, the FDA, to be able to get approval for our program and our product to be able to test it in clinical trials. So that's a huge inflection point from a company. It takes the culmination of a career from Stephen Strittmatter, who's our technical founder. And it actually makes it real. It makes it something that has been tested many, many times in animals. And now this is the big translation, is can we take what was done early and actually impact human life with our benefit?

John Simboli:

Do you feel the mixture of giddiness and excitement?

Erika Smith:

I hope I do. I think right now it's just, there's so much you're so into the details of making sure that everything goes well, that everything that we need to have in place is there. So maybe you can ask me once we get to that point, but right now it's literally just making sure that we're checking every box. It's so important to have the right . . . to have a safe product protocol. It's critical that what we're doing for patients. And so we're kind of really, really focused on making sure that we're doing everything correctly right now. And then, hopefully, we get to the other side, we can talk about the giddiness of accomplishment.

John Simboli:

Right now it's focused on flawless . . .

Erika Smith:

Execution. Absolutely. Absolutely.

John Simboli:

Who is ReNetX?

Erika Smith:

So we say we're a privately held organization that's located in new haven, Connecticut, spun out from Yale University's research. So yeah, that's kind of what we do. And as I said at the higher level, the lower level, but the point is where we are reversing injury in the central nervous system. So brain, spinal cord, where, really, there is no treatment today. The science has shown, and this is kind of been well established for many years, is if you have a brain injury or you're in a car accident and damage your spinal cord, there's no, there's no coming back from that. The damage is permanent. That's been well understood for many, many years. If you cut yourself, you cut your hand, you cut your leg, there can be regeneration, but there is no regeneration in the central nervous system. The technology that we're working with has the ability to create regeneration, recreate connections that haven't been established to date. And so it is a, a very, very big picture of what we're doing. And if we are successful, will be the first time that there's ever been sort of a reconnection after disease or damage in those systems. So, huge unmet need and that's the sort of the big picture of what we're working on, what the opportunity is.

John Simboli:

Near the beginning. I think you said something like you hope that some day people would say of that eight or nine year old, oh yeah, Erika is someone who changed things and changed life. That, would change things.

Erika Smith:

Absolutely. This is this, this is not the . . . so I was on a panel at one point and they said we're doing some disease-supporting therapy, so not changing. And I'm like, that's great. I mean people need to work on, all parts of the spectrum for therapeutics, but I'm like, this is disease modifying therapy for central nervous system disease and damage. That's a swing for the fences. This is not a small incremental step. If we are successful, this will be absolutely . . . it's something that's never been accomplished. So the bar is very, very, very high. But if we're able to be successful, it will be something that has never been done before, without question. So, you know, you can't ask for anything more than that.

John Simboli:

If I can picture someone who's so severely debilitated, they hardly exist and then potentially, someday, they could be . . .

Erika Smith:

What our hope and our goal is, and in our trials, we are trying to create functionality where people who have specifically, in the first trial that we're working on, is in spinal cord injury. So people that have been paralyzed that, after about a year of having injury, there's basically a flat line. There's no improvement that patients will see because there's no regeneration. There's no regrowth. It is what it is. And so what we foresee if we're successful in what we've seen on animal studies is that functionality, for the very first time, will be able to be accomplished. And if you can extrapolate what we've been able to see and in rat studies, early on, and we've had some nonhuman primate studies as well, is that nearly a third of rats that were treated with our technology, regained weight bearing. So in other words, they were not able to walk on their hind limbs, and a third of them, after therapy, were able to— even after what is defined as a chronic time point, so where they've been damaged and there's no continued improvement—even after that. So, it's a high bar that we want to accomplish, but we have models to show that we can accomplish that. And that's what we're aiming towards.

John Simboli:

When you tell a story that you've just been telling to me about what ReNetX is and what you're trying to accomplish, I imagine sometimes you hear the playback from them and you say, they got it. And I'm sure that feels good. And then sometimes you hear them saying something to you and you probably think, they didn't get it. So when you tell the story and people don't understand, what kinds of things do they not understand?

Erika Smith:

There's people that are working in this area, or in general in this area. So probably the most common question I get is the stem cells. It is not. It's a biologic. But that's typically what people think about. And the interesting thing that our molecule is, is actually . . . there's inhibitors that exist in the central nervous system that, that basically are there, that when you have damage, there's no regeneration.,They're there, sort of as an adult protective mechanism. What our technology is actually doing is removing these inhibitors and letting the body regenerate naturally. So it's a small but very, very important differentiator from other kinds of technologies that are out there. For people that understand cancer and oncology, what has happened in a lot of therapies is you use the body's own immune system to fight the cancer. That's kind of been the therapies. There's a lot of interest. It's a lot of success that's been happening and very much along those lines is using the body's own abilities. That's what we intend to do in the central nervous system for the very first time. Let the body actually regenerate by removing these stopping mechanisms and let the protection happen internally.

John Simboli:

This is a little bit about partnerships that you're talking about before about being a conductor. The conductor has lots of partners to work with the horn section, and all. So let's look at it a couple of different ways. What kinds of partners do you find, make a good fit to the company?

Erika Smith:

Although we're a small company, we don't think small. We have the very top talent that we've engaged in outsourcing the pieces that we need to put into place. That an important part, is being able to have that extension of ourselves be in a very, very top tier of individuals. And so that's what we look at. And I think, actually, a lot of my role coming into the company is, has been about filtering and interviewing and making sure that we have the right people around us. You sometimes can start down a direction and as you learn more about those individuals or those groups, not that there's anything wrong with them, but they're not the right fit for us. And so, I think probably over the last year and a half, we have the absolute superstars in our back pocket, be it individuals or be it large organizations. And I absolutely feel 100% confident about that. And that's, that's what our job is, is to bring those individuals our team and extend from there.

John Simboli:

A couple of years from now you're hiring 200 people and they're saying, Gee, I wonder if I'd be a good fit? Trying to look down the road, what kind of people would thrive working here with you?

Erika Smith:

There's so much ups and downs in a small company. Maybe when I have 200, I'll be at a different place. But you've got to be willing to ride the rollercoaster in biotechnology, as a whole. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity and the ability to, to run it a million different ways and have things that you lined up not necessarily always work as expected. But I also think you have to be committed to the bigger picture. There's a lot of other easier jobs to do. Tons and tons and tons that are more predictable and all of that. So there has to be a bigger vision of why people are connecting and working on this. And you know, those are the people that ideally you would recruit, that you would be part of that really are inspired with the work that we're doing, that you're not punching a clock, you know, that you're just driving and you're making everything happen. And then I guess sort of top of that, people that are in the details, thinking a couple steps ahead, where could we go off the tracks? That's the way companies are going to be successful. Any company. And I feel that very, very specifically here and maybe that's the engineer in me coming out because you know, getting into those details is how we're going to be successful, is not taking anything for granted and making sure that we're thinking about all the specifics as well.

John Simboli:

When you allow yourself to picture success, and I know you're not eager to do that until the company is successful, but not in terms of money and in terms of fame that in terms of any of those things, but in terms of the good you might do, what do you allow yourself to think of? Like, this could really change things.

Erika Smith:

For me, and this is the reason I'm in the company, this technology and this opportunity could be the very first time that you can actually address and reverse damage in the brain and then the spinal cord. So this is a very, very big picture of what we can achieve. These are, think about stroke, think about people in car accidents, think about any kind of damage in those systems. And this will be the very first technology that has the potential to reverse those sorts of conditions. So it's big, big vision. And that's what I would hope we achieve through our trials going forward.

John Simboli:

Why did ReNetX choose to be in New Haven?

Erika Smith:

Our faculty founder is still a university professor at Yale, so it makes it easy. I'm relatively new to Connecticut. I've lived here six years now. I had, since moving here, had been commuting up from Westport to Yale for four or five years in my previous role. I love New Haven. And so from my perspective is I, number one, this is the place to be. This is where biotechnology is. I have colleagues, I have connections. There was just really no question about us being in New Haven.

John Simboli:

Do you think about your work in terms of New Haven, Connecticut, the corridor from Boston to New York, the whole nation, the world?

Erika Smith:

We'll start with Connecticut. I mean, Connecticut is not a very, it sort of goes without saying, but it's not a very big state. So when I first moved here, I felt like I kind of within six months felt like I had a pretty good handle on most of the movers and the shakers that were in the biotech community. And, and I still feel that way. I feel like we're a small community. We can get to know each other on a very personal level. Hugely important when we're, when you're recruiting or you're looking for funding, I feel like there's just this foundation of support that exists. So I think Connecticut plays a very, very important role in those connections. But I don't also, I, I've lived so many places in my life. I don't see myself just as a Connecticut person because I do recognize the importance of connections up to Boston and down to New York. And I spent a lot of time in both, as well as on the west coast. It's funny, I grew up in the midwest and so I've been out there talk to sort of technologies and they really have a more of a challenge of getting connected to capital. And it's changing, but when we look at ourselves, we're really, we really are a corridor. I mean it's, we couldn't be in a better part of the country. And so I feel very lucky that we have that extended community up and down from where we are. And it makes it easy to recruit, fundraise, and to do all the things that you need to do as a startup company.

John Simboli:

I know you touched on this, but I'll just ask it directly. Is it possible to have access to capital when you're not in New York, are not in Toronto or not in Hong Kong?

Erika Smith:

Yeah. I mean, absolutely. You've just got to have good science, at the end of the day. It can be wherever. But I think that the access sitting here to go to Boston and down in New York and within the state itself is, there's no excuse that you can't raise money here. I mean, I think you just have to have the right pieces in the right story.

John Simboli:

How do we communicate that there are multiple centers of research and science in our state?

Erika Smith:

I think Farmington and the work that's going on up at UCONN is amazing. The way I think about Yale is, certainly you've got to leverage it, to the extent that it has been. It's a centralizing point. It can bring people from all over the world to Connecticut to sort of see research and, without question, there's other amazing things that are going on as well. So it is really just trying to make sure that we can pull together and speak with a common voice for the community as a whole. I think we'll certainly be stronger for that. I definitely think having connections and having a point of ways to bring things together is very important. BioCT, for example, at Bio, the large organization, had a really, really wonderful pavilion last year. I've seen it grow up from basically very little early, early days, just over the last few years to a very substantial exhibit. I think we're getting there. It takes time. It takes leadership to make all that happen. You know, Connecticut innovations is a supporter. They closed . . . and, they sit on our board, have been a supporter of the company from its early days, way before me. And you know, without that foundation, this company and the technology that we're working on would not exist. So they have been unbelievably valuable as a supporter, as an asset to bringing what we have forward on, not just on the funding side, but also on the leadership and everything else. Dave Wurzer sits on our board and I could not speak more highly of an individual that is committed and really goes beyond the day job, so to speak, to make things happen. We're very lucky to have that organization within Connecticut and supporting our community as a whole,

John Simboli:

What role does Women in Bio play in making things happen here?

Erika Smith:

Having avenues to encourage diversity in science and in leadership is, is really important. Women in Bio is one key area, but kind of holistically, I'm whatever . . . be it biotechnology, be it investment, be at anything, you know, anything that we can kind of get the word out and additional support. I was actually selected to write a book for JP Morgan about encouraging women and diversity for accelerators that entrepreneurship centers. And so, you know, it doesn't live just in one area. Anything that we can do to expand that is incredibly important. That's a side job. It's not my day job, but it's absolutely critical. It's something that I live and breathe is to making sure that we have more diversity kind of across the board. So organizations that do that, I'm very supportive of and definitely want to continue to do what I can to make it happen.

John Simboli:

One of the good things about being in Connecticut is not only can we attract top talent but we can retain retain that talent.

Erika Smith:

Absolutely. I mean our team is together because there is interest in staying in Connecticut and it is an important part. At the end of the day, listen, we're not going to be able to compete with Boston. If people want to go, they're going to go. But if people want to have the quality of life and they have kids in school, they've set down roots here. They don't want to go other places. It puts us in a huge advantage, in some ways, to be able to attract them. And, in fact, I feel that's part of the reason that we've been able to hire the quality of individuals that we have, that have 30-plus years of experiences. Because they want to stay here and they don't want to commute and they don't want to drive two hours. Not that there's anything wrong with other parts of the country, but it is a huge advantage. I think the piece that people say quite frequently is we just need to have enough of a group of companies that if one doesn't work out there's some other place that they could default to. In Boston, you can walk down the street and you've got another job offer. So I think that having additional successful organizations that come out of this community will help us, in the long run, to continue to recruit and certainly retain the talent.

John Simboli:

Thank you for talking to me today, Erika.