Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

Female Founders: Carla Grandori of SEngine Precision Medicine On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Maintain your optimism. When we started, I could see from the data that our tech would work. But it’s a long path from founding to market, especially in biotech, and there were times I wished we could just fast-forward to now. It would have given us even more steel in our spines. You need to start small, acknowledge that some failures will happen along the way, but keep your eyes also on victories — in our case, that means improving the life of one patient at a time.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Grandori.

Dr. Carla Grandori, a physician-scientist and cancer research innovator, is co-founder and CEO of SEngine Precision Medicine, a biotech that created the PARIS Test to guide better medicine development for more targeted, personalized cancer care. The company was inspired by the pioneering academic work that she and several colleagues produced at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Carla studied medicine in her native Italy and obtained a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the Rockefeller University in New York, launching a research career in which she developed new technologies to help unravel the function of genes that drive many human cancers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I always had a great interest in science, spurred on by a family of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I was especially inspired by my grandmother. She was a high school teacher, mother of four boys, and worked in her husband’s laboratory — he was a professor of entomology at the University of Milan. I grew up fascinated by all of her stories about science changing the world — the discovery of DNA, how cells divide, how chromosomes carry genetic information, how butterflies change colors, and so on. My grandmother had a poster of Watson and Crick in her bedroom! She made sure I knew that a woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin, played a key role in that discovery.

Like so many of us, cancer touched my family and changed the trajectory of my life at a young age. I watched my grandmother suffer not just from her disease, but from barbaric chemotherapies that ultimately did not change the course of her disease. I had been studying physics at university, but after she passed away, I abruptly changed plans and applied for medical school, and dove into my studies. I felt a great need to understand why people developed cancer, and an innate sense that if I studied, I could help change outcomes for other families.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When you work in academia, even if you make important discoveries or invent groundbreaking technology, you don’t often get to see it through to the point where it can impact patients. You’re always thinking ahead ten years to see potential applications. So those moments at SEngine where we can really see the impact of our work are all the more special for me.

For context, we’ve developed the PARIS Test, which we built to complement the unique and very complex genetic information of each tumor now used in precision medicine. Everyone thinks of DNA as an instruction manual for how cells work, and it is, but it is written for the most part in a language that’s been lost in translation. This is why the PARIS Test is designed to be unbiased, meaning it empirically tests a broad menu of oncology drugs directly onto each patient’s own cancer — but outside their body. With this method, we find drugs that are potentially effective. It’s helping match patients with the right drugs, and also facilitates drug discovery for new first-in-class medicines for personalized care. Ultimately this approach will enable “translation” of the DNA manual to fully enable personalized precision oncology.

I remember clearly how excited we were when our testing identified novel cancer targets from a sample, and a rudimentary drug against one of them cured a mouse of cancer. And we had a similar feeling the first time we found an unexpected drug match that helped a patient go into remission. But perhaps the most interesting moment was during a more recent trial for head and neck cancer, where our platform had identified a specific investigational drug would be effective for this type of cancer. The first woman to be treated was in such extreme pain that she needed high doses of painkillers, and she was addicted. One week into the trial on this new medicine, as soon as she was pain-free and able to open her mouth, she said she didn’t need any more pain medication.

You never forget something like this, and as we grow, we are having more and more of these experiences. The woman with ovarian cancer who supposedly ran out of treatment options — we matched her unexpectedly with a lymphoma medicine and saw remarkable results. The patient with metastatic pancreatic cancer who is disease-free a year and a half later after we matched him to a therapy. It’s so rewarding.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can remember one of my first experiments in grad school, where I ruined a long night’s work by dropping an entire tray of petri dishes onto the floor, spilling chicken-derived embryo cells everywhere. My distinguished, Lasker Award-winning advisor smiled and helped me clean up the mess. It was a lesson in humility and patience.

But we all make mistakes, especially when learning something new. I think it’s an important part of leadership, to acknowledge them and grow. When I moved from academia to running this company, I was perhaps too trusting of others and envisioned that our interests were aligned with potential partners. But after time and money lost, I learned the value of getting clarity on the partner’s goals — early in negotiations. It was important that we had an experienced corporate lawyer, so that is a key choice for start-ups.

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 about that?

I could name 100 people — friends, family, colleagues. Artists, writers, businessmen and Nobel Prize winners who helped and inspired me, such as Dr. Lee Hartwell who eventually joined our Board of Directors. Among these there are several women scientists and managers that have contributed to the success of SEngine. In particular, I’m grateful to one woman scientist, Rachele Rosati, who worked so hard to find methods that let us keep cancers from many different tumor types alive outside the body, so that we could test if drugs work without harming patients in the process. Her power of observation, learning from every sample, was key to our success. I’ve also surrounded myself with like-minded women and men with extraordinary compassion, they are my closest circle of friends. Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the serial entrepreneur, cancer scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies is among them.

I’m most grateful for SEngine co-founders, Christopher Kemp (cancer geneticists), VK Gadi (oncologist), Brady Bernard (computational scientist) and Eddie Mendez (surgeon). Also, our early employees at SEngine — we started with six people, and five of us were 40 or younger. From the beginning, everyone was willing to take on Mission: Impossible, every day — creatively clearing obstacles without negativity. I remember we were in a shared space and could only book a conference room at 9 a.m. on Mondays. Everyone was there, on time, enthusiastic.

We have been extremely lucky to attract the talent we have early on and the engagement of champion oncologists who understood the power of personalizing cancer treatments. We were approached by an experienced business development strategist who was familiar with our IP, Ulrich Mueller. He said, “Can I be your Chief Business Officer?” Our Chief Financial Officer, Tom Neary, with years of experience as CFO, found us too — with his help, we’ve grown from a scrappy startup to the company we are today. When those opportunities arise, they call for fast decisions!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

It’s perhaps obvious: I think women are expected to think more inward about their families and prioritize them before the world around them. As a woman, my priorities were to first raise kids, and be our family caregiver. But during my scientific career, I also needed quiet focus to finish my experiments, so that often meant heading back to work after dinner with no kids around. It’s hard for anyone to balance family and work life, but expectations are much harsher for women. I was lucky to have a very understanding mentor.

I’d encourage women to look beyond one’s family and community and think about the world more broadly too. What does the world need in a big way? Women need to be more entrepreneurial and dream big.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Because of these expectations I mentioned, we need support. Within families, we need helpful partners. Companies should offer more flexibility, and not just to women — one positive thing that arose following the onset of the pandemic is that the business world became more accommodating, and I don’t think we’ll go back. And I would love to see more women VC’s too — not just to back women-run businesses, but because I think we’ll see a broader set of values represented in investments. When the time is right, I plan to begin supporting women-owned companies myself.

Looking even more broadly, yes, government programs that ensure reliable childcare and schooling would make a big difference. It’s a challenge to keep dreaming and pursue your dreams, even more so without help.

I helped start SEngine at a time when I had fewer obligations, which is the way it had to be — starting a company is an all-absorbing enterprise.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women are half the people in the world! In some ways, maybe in terms of product niches, we have unique needs, and who better to meet them than companies run by women?

I don’t mean to suggest that men can’t set out with a good mission when they launch a company, but I think as we see more women entrepreneurs, we’ll see more cause-driven enterprises, with goals beyond just power and profit. In my case, the biggest factor driving me to start SEngine was what traditionally could be seen in the business world as a weakness: my compassion for human suffering in general, and particularly for the cancer patients I had a hunch that I could help.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

First, I think people believe that founding a company is a solo activity, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. No one can do it alone. We had a team of co-founders, and worked hard early on to develop a diverse, inclusive culture that would support growth, exactly because we understood that our mission would require a strong interdisciplinary team that relied on each other.

Also, I don’t think people realize how much the job of a founder — and a CEO — is to carry the message of many. It’s an important job, to share the story of the company, the mission, our values. Obviously you become a key spokesperson externally, but even within the company, we have a role to play as we grow in making sure new team members understand what we are all about.

Lastly I’d say, visionary founders may think long-term about what the company will do, but they don’t always consider the operational needs of a growing company. In our early days with a small team, supporting our core cultural values like openness, positivity, kindness, striving for excellence and collaboration was more straightforward. But we’ll be at 40 people by the end of this year and restructuring to support this stage required many new considerations. It was hard to picture we’d look like this in those early Monday morning all-hands-on-deck boardroom meetings, and while openness and flexibility got us here, now creating a strong infrastructure and organization has moved front and center .

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Successful founders must be absolutely convinced that what they have, in terms of technology, knowledge and mission, are worth the investment — not of just money but of many peoples’ efforts and sacrifices. They also must be always willing to learn, be resilient, be flexible, and remain optimistic despite the unavoidable challenges. Especially in the early days at a life science company, new data can push you in unexpected directions all the time. For that reason, you need to be able to problem-solve, adapt to situations, and maintain a dose of humility — not every idea will pan out.

It would be easy to get discouraged, but the strongest founders don’t lose faith in the vision so easily. It takes a strong grounding in product knowledge, a positive outlook, and vigilance. And I think people who maintain connections and have the support of friends and family are the best at balancing all the hard work required without getting lost.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Maintain your optimism. When we started, I could see from the data that our tech would work. But it’s a long path from founding to market, especially in biotech, and there were times I wished we could just fast-forward to now. It would have given us even more steel in our spines. You need to start small, acknowledge that some failures will happen along the way, but keep your eyes also on victories — in our case, that means improving the life of one patient at a time.

Be aware that the path will inevitably be harder, longer (and more expensive) than you think. One practical application of that realization is in preparing for the struggle, avoid tight budgets — you’re going to need wiggle room. Never underestimate! The risks are high and your company may fail, but your inspiration and conviction– the need, your technology or idea, your product — is worth going for it. It took 7 years to get from founding the company to making the PARIS Test commercially available. So it takes patience and perseverance, but keep focused on the vision and pay attention to positive results early on.

Both your mental and your physical strength will be tested. Actually, I think it’s best I didn’t hear this too much before starting out. This path sometimes means absence from loved ones, an obsession with running the business and constantly learning, with little time for socializing and the rest of what makes life full. For me, consistently making time for relaxation and meditation recharges me to take on the next challenges.

Learn to delegate and mentor. The best possible investment of your time will be to train and mentor others and let them amplify your mission. I wish I’d learned this earlier, but like so many founders, I felt such personal ownership of our work that it was hard. But take the time to understand both your strengths and your weaknesses. This will guide you to bring in people with complementary talents, those better suited for certain tasks, and share burdens that you just won’t have time to handle alone.

Founding a company is a much different experience than anything that’s come before it. Particularly in life sciences, many of us are coming from an academic background, and I wish there was a class for how to transition from scientist to CEO. In academia, introverts can thrive, but founding a successful company requires networking, and connecting with a diverse group of people. That includes investors, advisors, employees, business partners, and media. And I’m sure this is true of many other fields as well — the skills that served you well earlier in your career may not be what you need to succeed as a founder. You have to be open to re-inventing yourself, and practicing new skills.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

This has always been clear to me based on our mission — if the product is good, we’re going to help patients with cancer get safer, personalized, and more effective medicines. We’re seeing the fruit of that now, and already many patients have been helped by drugs they might not have found otherwise.

Here’s what gives me and our team major strength: the awareness that our everyday progress, with every patient we match with existing or with newly developed drugs, we also gain knowledge that will help future patients and fuel future cancer therapy development. By building a viable, sustainable and growing business, we’re supporting products that will make a difference for cancer patients by helping oncologists select the best treatments. And I take seriously the responsibility of ensuring our company is good for employees, too.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want to encourage more women to engage with the world. That includes in politics, where I’m sure we would promote peace. Many women have instincts to care for their family, yet that strength can be channeled toward their community, their country and humankind.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to sit down with Elon Musk. First, he has amazing vision, and an undeniable talent for generating excitement around his choices. I would love to talk with him about his experiences, and maybe get him excited about our technology and how it would fast-track cancer cures. I’ve also heard him compare starting a company to eating glass, and I know just what he means especially when revolutionizing an industry.

But I would also love to tell him about my father, Carlo, who was a technical CEO like Elon and I. In the 60’s he developed patents for drilling technology at a time when much of the industry worldwide was using dynamite, with a high casualty rate for workers. With a small bank loan, he became an industry pioneer, and the company became a world leader in precise, powerful tunnel drilling. Given Elon’s Boring Company, I’d love to share some stories with him.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

825 Followers

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.