I wish someone had told me that your competitors are not your enemies. So much of the industry is based off the idea that your competitors are out to get you. I have learned that in fact, you can actually benefit from your competitors. Not only do they make you stronger, but they can also be your collaborators. Often times when you are working towards the same goal, you gain more by working with each other rather than against each other.
I had the pleasure to interview Sanjeev Luther. Mr. Luther has more than 30 years of experience in healthcare, specialty pharma and biopharma industry segments in strategy, business development, alliances, commercialization and operations. Under his leadership, Rafael has made significant progress towards strategy, business portfolio, clinical development (leading to two Phase III programs and several Orphan Designations) and has enhanced its discovery portfolio.
Thank you for joining us Sanjeev! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I began my career as a consultant, I quickly became interested in pharmaceuticals because it was strategic and long term, meaning there is always a need for it and drugs are constantly in development. I found the industry to be both challenging and rewarding, and I became passionate about taking care of humankind and creating hope!
Fast forward and I now serve as the president and CEO of Rafael Pharmaceuticals, a leading company in the growing field of cancer metabolism-based therapeutics.
I was drawn to this company because of their unique approach to treating cancer through cancer metabolism, and the development of their drug called CPI-613® (devimistat). Something immediately stirred something within me during our conversation about the treatment. I personally hadn’t seen anything like it in my 30-year career. It was agnostic and drastically different than any drug I had ever seen before.
While the thought of being part of a groundbreaking find energizes me, it’s my focus on the people who will benefit that drives me. I continue to picture patients and families across the globe who can be helped by this treatment. I believe that there is a real opportunity to do good, change and save lives.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company?
Overcoming our financial limitations was the biggest challenge. When I first joined Rafael four years ago, we were on the brink of bankruptcy. We had a great drug, but we didn’t have the resources to move it forward. We all believed in the drug, and then thankfully found a philanthropist who believed in it as well, Howard Jonas. With Howard’s leadership we were able to more than just keep the lights on; the team was able to move full steam ahead, recruiting top talent in the medical industry and rolling out more than six clinical trials for pancreatic cancer, followed by acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and Burkitt’s lymphoma. We now have more than 30 clinical trials sites open across the United States, and are beginning to reach patients internationally.
What lesson did you learn from that?
The biggest lesson I learned from overcoming financial limitations is that there is no “cookie-cutter” approach to raising money and capital. Everyone will tell you how you should go about it, but I learned that the key is persistence. Every company is different and deals with different situations, with varying strengths and weaknesses. You can never give up, and if you believe in the organization, you have to try every avenue possible to make it succeed.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I can speak to the few factors that led to eventual success at Rafael Pharmaceuticals, specifically. The first is the team. Every employee we brought on had a passion for the organization, and a strong desire to succeed. In addition to this, the drug itself was a factor, both because it was so different than other drugs on the market, and because it inspired the employees and energized them to keep going. Then, of course, Howard Jonas, the individual who believed in our dream and invested in the company so that we were able to access the resources we needed to move forward.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO?” Please share a story or an example for each.
- I wish that someone had told me how lonely it would be at the top of an organization. There is so much pressure that resides on your shoulders to make the right decisions. If you make a good decision, then everyone is happy. If you make a bad decision, they take shots at you. The responsibility lies on your shoulders, and yours alone.
- I wish someone had told me that your competitors are not your enemies. So much of the industry is based off the idea that your competitors are out to get you. I have learned that in fact, you can actually benefit from your competitors. Not only do they make you stronger, but they can also be your collaborators. Often times when you are working towards the same goal, you gain more by working with each other rather than against each other.
- I wish that someone had told me it would not be easy. There are always going to be challenges as a CEO; it will not always be smooth sailing. Every day brings its own set of unique challenges, and you need to be prepared for anything. Dedication to the company and to the mission of the organization has to come first.
- I wish that someone had told me how to be prepared for all different kinds of employees. Different types of talent will have different requirements for their work life. When you take into account different personalities, generational differences, and different work habits, you have to learn to work with all kinds of people who have varying needs and expectations. When I first started at Rafael, I became frustrated when employees didn’t show up at exactly on time. I quickly realized that you need to connect with your employees and understand that everyone has a different way of working. At the end of the day, you need to find a common denominator, whether it be a goal, work ethic, or routine.
- I wish that someone had told me how difficult it is to build a passionate organization. Even when you think you know how to do it on paper, the reality is much more difficult. It takes hard work and dedication to find the right people, which can sometimes feel hopeless. It can be very challenging to find the right people for the mission of your company. However, even though it can be incredibly difficult, it makes it all worth it in the end when you do find those passionate employees.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out?”
I would tell my colleagues not to make work the only thing in their life. I have made the mistake of having work be my whole life, 24 hours and 7 days a week. It is important to take it one step at a time and ensure that you make room for other things in your life. It is also important not to try and achieve something that you know will take longer than the goal you’ve set for yourself. That puts tremendous pressure on yourself and the organization, and doesn’t do anyone any favors at the end of the day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’d like to share a few people, one in my personal life and two in my professional life. Personally, I would not be where I am today without my wife. I owe my success completely to her. She has allowed me to do what I do, which included moving jobs and even countries to get where I am today. She put her own career as a physician on hold to build our family, and to raise our three beautiful daughters who are all very successful. When they were younger, they used to call me the “ATM dad” because I brought in money, but I was hardly ever there. Without my wife working as hard as she did, and making sacrifices to take care of our family, I would not be in this position.
Professionally, I owe my success to my good friend and colleague Steve Carchedi, along with Howard Jonas. Steve is the person who brought me to Rafael, and I ended up taking over for him as CEO. We had worked together for more than 17 years in some capacity or another. He came to Cornerstone first, which is what Rafael was called at the time, and he brought me in when they needed my help. At first, I didn’t want to take the job, but he convinced me to come and look at the company and the drug. After learning more about the company and its mission, I immediately signed on.
Howard Jonas helped guide me from chief business officer, to chief operating officer, and eventually to my current role as chief executive officer. Without Howard’s belief in me, I would not have the strength to take on the role of CEO at Rafael.
It is very important to never forget the people who helped you get where you are today. I am very grateful to both Steve and Howard, and all of the help they gave me to get where I am today.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally, I am still figuring out “work-life” balance. I am pretty much working at all times, so my goal is to figure out what life outside of work looks for me. I don’t take vacations, and I don’t really have hobbies other than work. If I stopped working tomorrow, I don’t know what I would do. I have always been focused on providing for myself and my household, so that has led me to be singularly focused on work. My goal for the future is to create a life outside of my career.
Professionally, I want to create harmony within my organization, while still delivering results. My goal is to be able to bring my employees from the bottom all the way to the top. People are very important to me, and I want my organization to operate like the harmony of a symphony, with me as the conductor. My ultimate goal would be to achieve smooth sailing within the company and my employees.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to achieve Rafael’s mission of helping and creating hope for as many patients as we can around the globe. There is nothing more fulfilling to me than helping people, and if I left a legacy of hope for cancer patients, that is all I could ask for.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
If there was any mission that I could start, it would be to help those who are less fortunate than me. My father always said, “don’t always look up because if you look down, you will see how much better off you are than others, and how fortunate you are.” It is so easy to get caught up in not being as successful as those around you, that you can forget how fortunate you are to be in the position you are. I do not work for the money, I work because I want to enhance people’s lives, and that is the goal here at Rafael with CPI-613. There are people in need everywhere, from the children in Yemen and Syria, to cancer patients, to people right here in the United States that can’t afford many of the things that we take for granted. I would want to start a movement to do everything in my power to help those who are less fortunate.