Martin Brenner - iBio - Part 2

Autonomy at Eli Lilly vs. Structure at Pfizer | Transitioning from AstraZeneca to Merck | Joys & Challenges When Relocating for Work | A Biotech Vision Leading to an Exit From Big Pharma

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Show Notes

Part 2 of 3. My guest for this week’s episode is Martin Brenner, CEO and CSO of iBio. iBio uses its AI drug discovery platform to tackle complex and challenging drug targets to develop safer and more effective immunotherapies for difficult-to-treat cancers. Rather than leaving drug discovery to chance, iBio guides the process using artificial intelligence, making therapeutic development smarter, faster, and more precise. Martin is a seasoned executive and drug hunter with a unique journey spanning electrical engineering to veterinary medicine to scientific leadership roles. He has led drug discovery teams at several top global pharma companies, including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Merck. Prior to his current role at iBio, Martin was VP and head of R&D at Stoke Therapeutics, CSO at Recursion, and CSO at Pfenex, which was eventually acquired by Ligand Pharmaceuticals.

Join us as we sit down with Martin Brenner as he talks about his transition from Eli Lilly to Boston where he rebuilt part of Pfizer, his move back overseas to Sweden with AstraZeneca, and his fascination with Moderna’s speedy biotech approach to pharmaceuticals. Martin discusses his vision of building a biotech within a large pharmaceutical company at Merck and how he ultimately decided to leave big pharma.

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Martin Brenner is CEO and CSO of iBio. IBio uses its AI drug discovery platform to tackle complex and challenging drug targets with the goal of developing safer and more effective immunotherapies for difficult-to-treat cancers. Rather than leaving drug discovery to chance, iBio guides the process using artificial intelligence, making therapeutic development smarter, faster, and more precise. Martin is a seasoned executive and drug hunter with a unique journey spanning electrical engineering to veterinary medicine to scientific leadership roles. He has led drug discovery teams at several top global pharma companies, including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Merck. Prior to his current role at iBio, Martin was VP and head of R&D at Stoke Therapeutics, CSO at Recursion, and CSO at Phoenix, which was eventually acquired by Ligon Pharmaceuticals.

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Episode Transcript

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Intro - 00:00:01: Welcome to The Biotech Startups Podcast by Excedr. Join us as we speak with first-time founders, serial entrepreneurs, and experienced investors about the challenges and triumphs of running a biotech startup from pre-seed to IPO with your host, Jon Chee. In our last episode, we spoke with Martin Brenner about his childhood in Germany, his transition from electrical engineering to veterinary medicine, discovering his passion for pharmacology and his experience at Eli Lilly. If you missed it, be sure to go back and give part one a listen. We continue our conversation in part two, talking about Martin's time at Pfizer, his move to AstraZeneca, his vision of building a biotech within a large pharmaceutical company and the importance of balance between structure and agility.

Jon - 00:00:59: At that point, it sounds like this was decently well into your time at Lilly. From there, did you have a thought, I could stay at Lilly forever? Or were you starting to think of, I need to figure out where my next opportunity and company would be?  

Martin - 00:01:13: At this point, I really thought Lilly is the spot for me, right? And of course, when I came back from that training, adjusted my behaviors in some areas, learned a lot of things, how to do things differently. I was back on my trajectory. But obviously, Lilly, like many companies, got a little bit into financial trouble at the time, and they had to consolidate their R&D sites, right? So the first actually place I could really employ and use my newly learned skills was in the site closure, right? These are bad times, right? And there's three days in my life that I do not want to relive. But at the same time, I also know you have to do this. And if you don't hurt letting people go, large amounts of people, if that doesn't hurt you anymore, it's time to get out. If you're not anymore a human being that can relate to the pain that is inflicted, it's time to leave. So that time in Hamburg when we closed the site, that was one of them. I knew relatively early on that Lilly wanted to retain me. The question was, talking with my wife, should we relocate to the US? And that was not a slam dunk, at least in the beginning. But kind of being there, making sure that all of my team members, I made sure all of them had a job before I left. So that site closure went on for a year. It was very painful. And I actually extended my stay in Germany until everybody had a job of my team. And so once that was done, I was ready. And so relocated then to the US. That reset the clock at Lilly. So I thought, wow, now it's a completely the corporate center, right? In Indianapolis. This is where the power is. Now I'm getting to know the real big things, right? And see how Lilly actually works internally. And so that reset the clock for me a little bit. But at the same time, as I said, Lilly was really kind of compressing down a little bit. And I was in a meeting where we had people that had been at Lilly for 40 years that were told that they're laid off or had to be laid off. They were crying in their cars in the parking lot, right? And so this was a first for Lilly. This was extremely painful for the entire company. That was not Lilly. Lilly was always, we take care of our people. And for the first time, kind of the environment drove Lilly to do things that were not really in line and what the company did before. And I think that was the first time in Lilly's entire career that because they're not growing, they had to actually lay off people. And so it was a tough time. And so obviously my development opportunities shrank as well, because again, if you're narrowing down your therapeutic areas, if you're narrowing down the teams that you're building, I had a reset because I built Lilly a lab for pancreatic eyelid research. And for in vivo pharmacology specifically to look at insulin sensitivity. That was my job. So I went back from 20 people to two back in the signs, rolled up my sleeves, got back into doing actual experiments in the morning. My boss came in one morning and I basically dropped the vial because I didn't hear him. And he said behind me, you're actually working in the lab. And I said, yeah, yeah, I'm actually working in the lab. And so, you know, this is actually how I started and this is what I can do. So it was really kind of a reset. And I focused a lot more on broadening my scientific skills at that time. So it was a good time. It was different. It was a good time. But at one point you just hit a ceiling where, yeah, there's so many talented people and they have been longer with the company and they needed to be promoted. Again, typical it is unfortunately what large companies do, right? This is a lot better these days, but at the time it was very, very hierarchical at that. And so that was when I realized I can wait now for two or three years until an opportunity pops up or I'll just take everything I learned, go to some company that can utilize it and also provides me with stuff that I don't know. For me, it was always important. Don't take a job you already can do 100%. That's boring. Take one that you can do 80%. And that's how you learn, right? You make mistakes with these new things that you need to learn. Absolutely. I make mistakes every single time I take a new job, but you also learn with those, right? And so it was important to me Pfizer at the time in Groton, they just went through this massive layoff and needed to rebuild. And it was a very, very hard thing to do for them, because again, Pfizer's Metabolic Disease was not exactly known at the time to be stellar in the field, to rebuild that credibility with really good science. That was a hard act, but it was suddenly like you're playing with the big boys. Pfizer was much bigger. They did massive, massive strategic decisions, which then reverberated through the entire company, right? It was also another family organization that had one location. It was kind of an amalgamation of multiple companies that had been brought together. So it was a very different environment. Very important for me to see coming from Lilly to a completely different company culture, right? They do literally the same, same targets, same disease areas, but ultimately very, very different companies. And we could influence a lot to the better, I believe. But at the same time, we also learned a lot. And a lot of the things I learned is things that I don't want to do. So that's also important, right? You see how things got handled and you think, meh, that is not exactly how I would treat people. And so this is also really important, not just to learn from good experiences, but also to say, wait a second, this could be done better, right? And so in that case with Pfizer, me becoming a lot more into a strategic role, a lot more into, again, my team was growing rapidly from a few people back to 11 or 12 people. So I got back into this more kind of leadership role, but now laced with all of the strategy. What are we going to do in the future, right? How do we deploy our resources to kind of make a drug? Because Groton did not have a really good track record of generating medicines. And that ultimately, led Pfizer to kind of say, okay, let's move up to Massachusetts. But yeah, it was heartbreaking for me to leave Lilly behind because it was like a family, but it needed to be done because I would have put my career on hold for two to three years. So it was the only choice to kind of keep growing fast.

Jon - 00:06:56: Totally. And I feel the exact same way about these hard-learned, painful experiences being the most important ones. I would never want to relive it. I'm glad those experiences are in the rear view mirror. But the lesson that you take with you, I think it is inextricably tied to the pain aspect, where it's like seared into you. That is a lesson that you are going to take with you to the grave, because of how painful it was. But again, not trying to relive it, it really, really resonates with me. And I think you're exactly right about if you don't feel that pain anymore, you need a change of environment. That is important, because if you're starting to get desensitized, that's a red flag for sure. And at Pfizer, it's very interesting to me, the same target. Vastly different approach to it. Can you describe the differences between Lilly and Pfizer and their approaches?

Martin - 00:07:46: So Pfizer was a lot more directed, right? Pfizer wanted something, Pfizer went after it, right? So a lot more power behind every move they made. It was strategically well thought out, right? And sometimes, again, also to be brutally honest, if a strategy didn't work out, you get rid of it, right? You don't do it, right? Again, like an entrepreneur, you do something, you see it's not working, you don't throw good money after bad, right? And so you needed to make this change really rapidly. And this was what drove Pfizer. You realized, this is operating on a much, much bigger level. I was there when Wyeth got acquired. Pfizer grew at the time to 140,000 people. I mean, this was, I couldn't even imagine the amount of people. And then basically three years later, Pfizer was back to 90,000, right? So again, the so-called synergies, right? I'm not a big fan of this, right? I'm a huge fan of doing deals where two winners walk away, right? That's in my eyes, the best deals you can strike. And so I had a lot of people that I got to know from Wyeth, really talented and smart. People that would just not fit into the Pfizer mold, right? One of them being the CSO for diabetes at Lilly now, who just Pfizer didn't appreciate, right? And so again, there's these differences and very important, right? If you don't fit, there's a reason why I have never worked for Roche, for example, right? There's just certain companies don't fit your personality and how you do things. And you know this upfront, Novartis is another one, right? So these are very, very successful and great companies with fantastically talented people. But I know personally, after doing a few interviews with those companies, not my shtick, right? I wouldn't be happy and they wouldn't be happy with me, right? So you need to learn this as well and accept this because again, it doesn't make you a bad scientist, doesn't make you a bad leader if one company doesn't think you're a fit, right? You find the company that you fit and that you can actually help to do something meaningful with your skillset.

Jon - 00:09:33: Absolutely. And I think when I talk to colleagues and friends about whether it be the interview process, or just like trying to figure out if you want to join an organization, it's kind of like a date, it really is like dating. And there's got to be a mutual fit. And when one person is like forcing it, and others like not really bought in, it's just like way better to just be like, okay, maybe we look elsewhere, versus like a marriage where it's like, oh, God, I tried to turn a blind eye to this cultural mismatch, and I'm now paying for it. It's always like, as painful as if you're interviewing for a job, and maybe you don't get the job, but maybe that was a bullet that you have dodged. Like, it is not a knock on you, it might have just been a bad fit. And you might have been unhappy if it went otherwise, which is an important thing to think about.

 Martin - 00:10:22: It's exactly like this, right? You know, don't force it, right? Find the right connection, right? Find the right company where you are being appreciated and you appreciate what the company is doing for you. That's really, really important. And again, no knock against any company or any scientist who does not get that job, right? And a lot of my mentees, when they start their career, say, well, I've tried so many times. I said, well, that's the game, right? You need your first job. Once you have your first job under the belt, we're talking a different game, but get that first job, get it done, get it out of the way. Don't give up, right? You're going to hear a lot of no's. And then at one point, there's going to be a yes. I haven't had any person that I mentored that didn't ultimately get a job, right? Some, it took longer. Others, it was faster. But at one point, you get that first job. And from that point on, it's all up to you. Because again, the way you treat your job, the way you soak in information and try to learn on the job, this is all up to you, right? From that point, it's you. And it's not the chance anymore.

Jon - 00:11:17: I think my friend had a funny example, kind of like the orchestra and the conductors. Like you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet your prince. And it's okay. Everyone goes through it. And just knowing that, knowing what you want and you don't want and figuring out that cultural fit. But when you find that cultural fit, you're off to the races and you move so much quicker. At Pfizer, you've been kind of tasked with rebuilding. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

Martin - 00:11:40: Yeah, so there's two ways of doing this. And one way I can talk later about Merck, where you start from scratch, blank canvas, right? This is the much, much easier path because you can literally design the house from the ground up, right? A much, much more complicated path is if you're having an environment already established, if you have the people established and you really can't move in one or another direction, then it really comes down to, can you actually engage or re-engage people? Because one of the things you see a lot in larger companies that people get completely disengaged. There's this misconception, misperception to basically say big companies are much more stable than biotechs. Not my experience. I had more changes at Pfizer than I had in any biotech company I ever was, right? Because things change rapidly, right? Strategies change, sites close, and you move your team. And so again, you can easily disengage your team, right? And so what I walked into at Groton was a team that just went through a really bad phase of layoff. Lots of good friends and colleagues over the years had gone, right? There's this new guy coming in. What does he know, right? How do you engage people, right? And again, this straight out of the playbook of a biotech, right? All value is created by people and you need to re-instill this, right? You need to make sure people understand you're important. You're important to me. You're important to this organization. With everything you do, data is what is important, right? If you generate that data, you're important. And so basically drilling back down saying, you guys know everything. It's like a soccer player who's really, really good, but just has a bad season, right? You have to get them out of the rut and have to get them into starting to believe in themselves. And this is something that I spend a lot of time advising, just kind of making people believe in themselves again. Of course, it shoots you in your behind if 10 months later, company says, hey, by the way, we're moving to Boston and you can't bring more than two or three people over your team. That's the hard part then, right? You still have to deal with this and you still have to stay human. And all of this and treat your colleagues and everybody with respect. But this makes it a lot harder, right? But I mean, I was able to get people back on board, most of them, apart from, I believe, one, that it just wouldn't work out. Some people are just at one point burned out, right? And so we got back to this and we got actually a fun group of scientists together and it worked for a good amount of time. But then this move to Massachusetts, to Boston was announced. And so, first everybody was a little... Ah, you know, do we like this? Do we not? And Pfizer was nice. They offered a relocation package. Honestly, Boston is not one of my favorite towns, to be frank. I like to be outdoors. I do a lot of hiking and cycling and lots of outdoor activities. Boston is not exactly a town where I feel I can do all of these things. So we looked at this and I commuted for a year from Northern Connecticut to Boston by car, which was also a pain in the neck. But what was really good is we built Pfizer a really top-notch science team, probably first time in a long time. So we got all these kids from the golden years of, for example, UCSD, Jerry Olefsky's lab, Saswata Talukdar, who's today a big shot at Merck, a really talented scientist, probably the smartest person on the planet that I know. We recruited Saswata to Pfizer. We had a lot of local people coming from MIT, Harvard, and it was suddenly a fun group, really smart. We did a lot of really great science. And unfortunately, what happened is that the hierarchy set in. And so middle management was replaced with people who were not necessarily the most brilliant scientists. And that drove a lot of people at one point. I said, okay, I just can't do that anymore. And I need somebody I can look up to and I can learn something from, not somebody I need to educate on what RNA and DNA is, basically. And it literally got to this point. And at this point, it was clear we had built something that was very, very special. We had built a science team that was exceptional for the time. But at one point, it's just, you build these hierarchies in where you literally kind of suppress ideas, suppress growth. And at that point, I knew it was just time to move on. And this is when AstraZeneca came calling. And that was actually my first really, really big job that I took with AstraZeneca. 150 people were reporting to me when I started three big siloed organizations that I had to painfully take apart and rebuild. A lot of fun doing this and a lot of great people that I met there. But that was basically Pfizer. For me, it was just at one point, it just didn't move forward anymore. And specifically in the cardiovascular space, there was a little bit of a misalignment between the R&D group and also the clinical group or kind of the commercial group, because we came with really cool ideas of new targets. And the clinical group, in a foreshadowing of what happened to diabetes research after the SGLT2 inhibitors, basically said, yeah, you need to prove to us that you're having cardiovascular benefits. And we said, well, that's why you do outcome studies. So how can I prove this before I do an outcome study? There was a misalignment and it just made your life really horrible because we had great programs. We wanted to move them in the clinic and we were sure that would help people. But again, there was just this misalignment and it cannot work that way, right? This is why smaller organizations with a tighter communication structure and strategic structure are way more efficient in getting this out.

Jon - 00:16:52: That's really fascinating. And I think from the outside looking in for anyone who hasn't been at Big Pharma would imagine it's just like this perfectly well-oiled machine. It just, can do no wrong, just headline after headline of success after success. But it is incredibly eye-opening to hear about these inner workings. And again, it's just like exactly what you said, where at the end of the day, it's the people. And making the wrong organizational change and having like the Avengers team that you've assembled not want to be there anymore. It is just like, be so careful. Just be so, so careful. It can be easy when you're just like thinking about it from an Excel spreadsheet. But it's like, you can't forget that science is not only a creative endeavor, but they're like all stars. Like you got to make sure they're in an environment where they can continue to do their thing. And Pfizer, you just imagine they have that part figured out. But if Pfizer is still having these stumbles, you can imagine that is happening everywhere in any organization of any size. So after your time at Pfizer, you mentioned you were now heading towards AstraZeneca. Can you talk a little bit about the opportunity you saw at AstraZeneca, how it presented itself and what you ended up doing there?

Martin - 00:18:04: So it was very funny because a European headhunter reached out to me because I was born and raised in Germany. And AstraZeneca had that job offering in Gothenburg in Sweden. And at that time, we already lived here in the US, my wife and I for five years. And you get used to having friends from all over the world, right? I have friends from Kenya, from everywhere in Asia, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, from South America. So you're getting used to kind of that diversity, right? And so AstraZeneca told me saying, hey, there's 21 nations working here at our center in Gothenburg. And I thought, oh, so maybe this is kind of a little island of diversity. So this is great for me. And of course, when I came there, it was Germans, Dutch, Danish, Central Europeans, right? I don't mean any disrespect to any nation in Central Europe, but we're all the same. 

Jon - 00:18:54: This is not what I thought, but okay. Yeah, yeah.

Martin - 00:18:57: I had, I think, one colleague from India and one from China in the 150 people team, or maybe two from China. So it was really kind of not what I expected. And outside of work was much, much harder. But, you know, it was a great time. So my boss at the time, who also started basically with me, Markus Schindler, he came from a biotech in the UK. So he was German as well, but spent a lot of time in a foreign country living and working. And I can tell usually people apart within three seconds in a conversation, if they actually have lived outside of their country, because it changes how you see things, right? Because you have to adapt to a different culture. And you don't do this on vacation. You do this when you actually work in a country. And so he was really experienced and he was a biotech guy, right? They brought him in because they wanted to kind of refresh all of this. And Markus pulled us out to his entire leadership team, the first week we all started and said, let's huddle up in a room. Let's decide what we want to deliver, what we want to build. And then let's decide how we're going to do this. And last but not least, how do we communicate it? This is the first time somebody came actually with a strategy to kind of overhaul an organization, a real thought through strategy. I learned a lot from this guy. It was really amazing, right? And so we literally sat down and redesigned the entire organization, right? So I had these three silos, 50 people. Each one was a diabetes group with diabetes obesity. One was cardiovascular. And then there was a screening group in the middle. And again, there was a lot of hierarchy at AstraZeneca at the time. So the old dudes were controlling everything, right? And they were suppressing really good people. And I had one woman, Karina Emela, who was literally a first author on a science paper, right? And she was not thriving in that environment, right? She was suppressed by layers and layers. And so the first thing we did after we started to rebuild this, I took these three silos apart and built teams of about ten. And each team was semi-autonomous. So they could do their own portfolio work. They could do their own work. They could perform most of the tasks for their projects, but not all of them. They needed to reach out to partner groups. So that's how I connected them back in. First of all, I moved my office away from the tower where all of the management sat next to the lab. And we had a cowbell outside. And whenever somebody had a great experiment and great data, they could ring the cowbell. And because it was Sweden, we had a glass of champagne. 

Jon - 00:21:19: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Martin - 00:21:21: So it was culturally very different. And I truly enjoyed my job. I truly enjoyed the people that I was working with. One morning, I actually walked into my office. And since we're just among you and me, there was a whole, I don't know how many boxes and crates of alcohol under my desk. And I said, guys, what's happening here? And they said, oh, inspection. So they're looking at the freezer. That's why we momentarily put the booze under your desk. We're going to move it out later. 

Jon - 00:21:48: Oh, my God. That's so funny.

Martin - 00:21:50: That was kind of classical, right? So it's a different culture. And it was so important and also kind of nice to be part of that, right? It was very, very different. But although all of that was working really well, and one of the key moments in my life was actually that connection with Moderna. When Moderna was eight people strong, right? Stephane had just arrived. He wasn't a billionaire at the time. And so it was so fascinating to me because Moderna could do experiments in three days and it took us three weeks. And they could do something in a week that took us a few months. And I was always fascinated. How can I get my team to perform that fast? And again, with a large organization comes process. Process is good. If certain things happen over and over and over again. Process is really, really bad. If you need to invent things, right? So again, there's the separation. Big pharmaceutical companies are really, really good as an engine. They're really not good at being nimble and fast. The benefit of a biotech is we're fast. We're really, really fast. So that ultimately ignited that biotech sparking me. And that's what drove me basically to Biotech, ultimately. To work with Moderna on this and see how absolutely fascinatingly fast and efficient they were doing research. And of course, there was a very personal component for me leaving Sweden. At work, I had 13-hour days and we had one great summer where the sun was shining for six weeks and it never got dark at night. It was fantastic. The landscape was beautiful. We were out with our dogs hiking all night. But outside of work, we just didn't connect really well with people. It was very, very strange for whatever reason. Might have been us. We don't have children. We just have dogs. And it was just very hard for us to integrate in society outside of work. And of course, being at work for a long time, it didn't hit me as hard. But my wife basically was there all day long alone. And so at one point, it came literally down to us. We were depressed outside of work, really depressed. And we said, okay, either we white knuckle this through or we're going to pull the plug and move back to the US. And that's what we ultimately decided. It was a very personal decision. It had nothing to do with AstraZeneca. I loved my job. I loved my team. It was just this very, very personal living in Sweden and being not among friends from all over the place, which you get used to so, so fast. And you don't want to miss that anymore. I have the same feeling when I go back to Germany. It sometimes feels like people are still talking about the things they talked 20 years ago. So it's just not moving forward. And so that was the feeling we had. And it was just really hard for US to kind of accept this for the foreseeable future, at least. So that's why we started looking to come back to the US.

Jon - 00:24:27: And it's important. Like, do we just white knuckle, bite the bullet here and just like stick this out? But the mental toll, eventually something would break. There's only so long you can do it. And then you wouldn't be able to bring your best self. I would imagine it would start to spill over. And then after that, AstraZeneca would not be a good time anymore. Because whatever was going on in the personal side just starts to bleed over. When I speak to my wife about this. It's the same thing. It's like you have one cell, you wake up, you go into the lab. And you also go home that's the same person. And you can't have it be this thing where it's like, oh, I'm like depressed when I get home. Like it needs to be this thing where you feel generally good about all of it. So you can bring your best self going back to the US. How did the opportunity at Merck come about?

Martin - 00:25:09: So one day I get a call from Mark Ahern, and Mark was the CEO at one of the San Diego biotechs, one of the first generation San Diego biotechs. And Mark had probably also suffered through a little time at Merck being the site head in, I believe, Kenilworth. And he's a scientist by heart. He's a very, very good strategist. And Mark had this vision. He said, I want to build a biotech within the walls of a large pharmaceutical company. I want the speed and the innovation coupled with all of the artillery coming in, right? The cavalry coming in. And so I thought, wow, you know, I just had seen how Moderna operates. That sounded like something, wow, I want to do that, right? Of course, you know, you can flip that coin and say, well, instead of getting best of both worlds, you could actually get the worst of both worlds too. There's a non-zero percent outcome that could be like that, right? And it was a little bit of a mixed bag. But when I started talking to Mark, I said, look, I love this idea, right? Let me be as fast as I can. Let me assemble a team of really kind of top-notch people. Give me some money. Give me some lab space. We'll carve out a disease area. Let me be flexible. Let me go a little into rare diseases as well. Let me not just focus on cardiometabolic and NASH and what have you. And so he was all up for that, right? So I started first in New Jersey because we were not sure where we wanted to build that team, ultimately. And ended up being in Boston. Again, I owe my wife so much. Because again, in Connecticut, we had just built a house, moved in. And a month later, we basically knew we would be moving to Boston. And our house in New Jersey, we had just moved in. And literally, the day we moved in, I told her, would you mind moving to Boston?

Jon - 00:26:47: Your wife is a saint. She is a saint.

Martin - 00:26:49: She's a saint. I will never make enough money to pay her back.

Jon - 00:26:52: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Martin - 00:26:53: But this was exciting, right? And so after just kind of training people up in New Jersey so that they could run kind of the late stage group, right? I started building the team up in Boston. And, you know, because I had built a reputation in the industry. If you are joining me, I have your best interest in mind, right? If you're joining me, I will give you every growth opportunity. So SaswataTalukdar, who I hired to Pfizer, I think in his second year, he was running a clinical program at Pfizer, right? This is all kudos because he's a really smart guy. But also, you need to have that opportunity, which I gave him. And so I think this reputation helped me a lot finding the right people. I'm always interested in people that are scientist entrepreneurs. I want them to feel like, in a few years, I'll start my own job. If I get them to do that, I know I've done my job, right? If they stick around for too long, right? It's probably not in their best interest. I want them to really grow, grow, grow. And if I taught them everything I know, time to move on, right? Get to your next job. And so I got a really stellar group of people at Merck. I had a couple of - So Saswata Talukdar joined me again from Pfizer. Ying Zhang Zhou from Pfizer. Again, a very, very overlooked scientist. A brilliant mind. Just very quiet. And all it takes sometimes is a little encouragement. And those brilliant minds just start to explode and deliver really fantastic stuff. A few other people that joined us. It was a really, really strong group. And we scared the hell out of most groups at Merck. And that was ultimately really a problem, right? Because we ran a portfolio of five programs. We had collaborations with three, four biotechs in Boston. I had collaborations at the same time with the University of Kobe, the University of Tokyo. And then I had a triple collaboration with UT Southwestern, Columbia and UCSD that delivered literally five targets within a year and a half. So we were running like crazy. And it worked as long as we kept it within our scope. 15 people we could execute. The second we interfaced with the rest of Merck, because our speed was so frightening, I felt like everybody was trying to slow us down, right? Everybody was kind of afraid. Is this the new norm? Can we live up to that? And ultimately, you know, that model actually took off at Merck, right? Merck started building all these little satellites in Boston, literally exactly the same design I put up, right? And so it was very successful, but at the same time, self-limiting. Because at one point, again, you run into politics. And Merck at the time was charged with politics, right? Roger Perlmutter had just come back. There was a strong focus Keytruda and immunoncology. And we broke our backs to move a program into IND-enabling that would have been really useful for heart failure. And we had a really smart idea. We wanted to use a population in South America that had Chagas disease. So it's heart failure coming from one etiology only, from a parasite. Always the same, basically, history. If we could have done a trial there for cheap with a very defined population, we could have easily expanded that into a population with general heart failure in the US, in Europe. But we heard basically, hey, before I do that trial, I'm going to rather do one more trial with Keytruda. And that was for me... I did a mic drop at this point, right? You don't get a group of 15 people dedicating basically their life to generating medicines and then tell them halfway through, nice try, but we're not going to do that. And that was, for me, that was it. And don't get me wrong. Merck is extremely successful. No question at all. And strategically, it was the right move. Absolutely correct, right? But for us as scientists, it was just really gut-wrenching, right? And so since I had just built more or less a biotech within the walls of a larger company, I thought, okay, let's just go out in the wild and do it in the real world, do it with a real biotech. And this is how I got out of Big Pharma. I just got very, very tired of strategies and strategic decisions that I either couldn't influence or, you know, I just became a passenger and I just wanted to be able to kind of make these decisions by myself.  

Jon - 00:30:52: That's really fascinating. It's really fascinating to me that the first reaction is like, we don't like all this winning that's taking place right now in your teams, Barton. Maybe we should not do that. You would imagine it would be a flip, more a receptive, oh, perhaps this could be a new way to do things that could... And obviously now, exactly, you said they're starting to do it. But you would imagine that when you see a winning formula start to emerge, you want to double down on this and see where this goes. And sooner than later versus just like, oh, let's ruminate on this and figure out over a long span of time. And by the time you ruminate on it, everyone's like, I'm out. What I'm seeing is the responsibility kind of being pushed down and these smaller, nimble teams that lets you iterate quicker and not get bogged down with all the red tape. Would you say that's how you kind of think about and engineer the hierarchy or just org structure?

Martin - 00:31:43: Yeah, exactly like this, right? You want to have the smallest functional group together that can actually execute certain things without actually slowing them down with process, right? And again, I don't want to bore you with the resource meetings I had to sit through at Merck, right? Again, for a large organization, you need to organize that. And there's people who thrive in this environment, right? I know a lot of people who go to bed very proudly to say, I got the 10 million that I wanted and another VP didn't get the 10 million. And they're happy with this. To me, it felt like you're standing in my way of helping people. And if you stand in my way, I have two choices. Either I can try to kind of get you out of my way or I'll be out, right? And ultimately, organizations can change from the bottom up. We could show this at Pfizer. At Pfizer, sometimes, you know, after the move to Boston, a lot of people were really kind of still upset with the move up to Boston. And we built this small circle where we met in the morning, had a coffee and had a laugh. And it grew from my team to other people stopping by and wanting to have a laugh too. So you can change the environment. You can change the culture of an organization from the bottom up. But it is extremely laborious. It takes a lot of time. And again, if you don't get that support from the top, at one point, you're just going to fail, right? You can build a microcosm. That's fine. But beyond that microcosm, you just don't have that influence. And this is what is the difference between people who really enjoy that process, right? Who enjoy doing this. We know exactly how this is going to play out. That's great. For people who are wired that way, it's a great environment, right? And I think this is the strength of a pharmaceutical company, right? You execute these things, not just one program in the clinic. You execute 100 per year in the clinic or more. That's where it's great. But leave the innovation part to the teams that actually are built for that, right? And you cannot combine this. I actually made the suggestion at Merck to say, look, you're spending X amount of dollars in my team per year. Why don't you just give me that money? We go look for our own facility. We start our own biotech and you have first rights of refusal. Very simple, right? And for the love of God, Merck would not let go. Because if you lose control, you're never going to gain it back, right? So on the one hand, there's this need to innovate. On the other hand, there's also this fear or used to be. I've been out of pharma for a while now, but this fear of letting go, of letting go something that you can't bring back. But again, it comes down to what are you good at, right? And where do you excel? And that's where you focus on, right? And if you do not excel at innovation or internal innovation, you outsource this, right? You could take all of the early R&D budget, put it in five, six, seven biotech companies. You probably will have a much much better outcome. But again, then you lose your engine, right? Even if that engine stutters and sometimes it doesn't produce in other moments, there's this fear, this angst to kind of lose the engine, right? And so I think it's been a struggle for every large company, not necessarily only for biotech, for tech industry as well. How do you retain that innovation piece? How do you let people really run free and let them do what they do best without actually locking them down, but still kind of keep the direction that you need to go, right? And this is, to me, an unsolved problem. It's an art form to kind of do that, but it is dependent on the team, on your members, on the environment. It is a very, very multifaceted problem.

Jon - 00:34:58: Yeah, totally. It feels like threading the needle, really. These like opposing forces that are just fighting on each other. It just doesn't meld well. I think someone described like these larger organizations, it's like trying to move an aircraft carrier. It's going to take its time. There's a lot of mass to move here, and it will take a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears.  

Outro - 00:35:20: That's all for this episode of The Biotech Startups Podcast. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Martin Brunner. There's Tune in to Part 3 of our conversation to learn more about his journey. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, leave us a review and share it with your friends. Thanks for listening. And we look forward to having you join us again on The Biotech Startups Podcast for Part 3 of Martin's story. The Biotech Startups Podcast is produced by Excedr. Don't want to miss an episode? Search for Thee Biotech Startups Podcast wherever you get your podcasts and click subscribe. Excedr provides research labs with equipment leases on founder-friendly terms to support paths to exceptional outcomes. To learn more, visit our website, On behalf of the team here at Excedr, thanks for listening. The Biotech Startups Podcast provides general insights into the life science sector through the experiences of its guests. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from the podcast is at the user's own risk. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not the views of Excedr or sponsors. No reference to any product, service or company in the podcast is an endorsement by Excedr or its guests.