Founder Spotlight #39: Chris Gardner @ Sequence Bio
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Sequence Bio is discovering the true signals of disease to power life-changing medicines.
Sequence Bio is a discovery biology company based in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The company’s platform leverages Newfoundland’s biological founder effect to power discovery cohorts for novel target identification across numerous disease indications. Sequence Bio collaborates with the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and partners with leading pharma and biotech to help accelerate the development of new medicines for global unmet medical needs.
Chris Gardner is the President and CEO of Sequence Bio.
Chris is a Canadian healthcare innovator with a proven track record of innovation strategy and policy leadership. As CEO of Sequence Bio, Chris led his team to create the technical and operational infrastructure to bring the power of Newfoundland’s founder effect to drug discovery programs around the world. He was the sole corporate lobbyist for the passage of Bill s-201, Canada’s Genetic Nondiscrimination Act, and the amendment of the Canadian Human Rights act to prohibit discrimination based on genetics. Through his passion for innovation, Chris was appointed to Canada’s Health/Biosciences Economic Strategy Table by the Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development to guide federal efforts in creating long-term growth in the industry, and also sits on the Government of Newfoundland & Labrador Innovation Advisory Committee.
Chris holds a MBA from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the Institute of Corporate Directors Director (ICD.D) designation from the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.
What prompted you to pursue a career in Life Sciences? Was there a specific moment in time or influence that you can remember?
I’ve always been driven to make a lasting, positive impact on humanity. For me, that means accelerating the pace at which industry adopts innovation to improve health outcomes for people around the world.
Those inside the healthcare system are overtaxed and overworked, and aren’t always put in a position to innovate and catalyze change. A moment that stuck with me was learning that Ontario, Canada was — until very recently — the highest per-capita user of fax machines in the world. Fax machines were foundational to the operation of the province’s health care system.
This example is just a microcosm of the larger, systemic barriers to innovation in the health care sector, and the life sciences sector by extension.
The specific moment when I decided to dedicate my career to life sciences is clear: it’s when I realized that I was in a unique position to address a major innovation barrier in drug discovery.
Drug target discovery is a critical stage of the drug development process. Too often we get this part wrong: identifying and advancing the wrong drug targets because we don’t understand the true signals of disease. The result is that 9 out of every 10 drug candidates fail before they can be commercialized.
Addressing the major cause of failure would mean better drugs, faster, with fewer failure rates to satisfy unmet medical needs around the world. This is exactly what Sequence Bio is built to accomplish. Working with the founder population of Newfoundland and Labrador, we have developed a fundamental discovery resource with the power to improve drug target discovery efficiency by 10–170x.
How did you get your training to be able to build your company?
Bringing IP to commercially viable innovation is not just a scientific or academic challenge. It’s also a business strategy, finance, and human resources challenge.
I am a business and technology founder, not a technical founder. That’s why I built Sequence Bio from day one to be able to work with the brightest minds wherever they were in the world. I hired foremost experts in their fields — the best qualified people for the jobs that needed to be done.
A CEO is like a maestro: they do not have to be an expert at every instrument. Instead, it’s about helping each musician play the best music they can, at the right tempo, together in harmony. That’s my job.
There really isn’t any silver-bullet training to be a CEO. It’s more about having sound decision-making ability, and knowing when to make those decisions, with the best information, and at the right time. You’ll never have all of the information you want, but you need to know when to go and when not to go.
That said, my formal training was through an MBA and executive leadership roles at high growth, data-driven tech companies. I then immersed myself in learning about the life-sciences industry from the ground up in any way I could. Through conferences, books, journals, networking, and learning directly from global leaders in ethics and population-scale research.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background & career thus far? What were you doing before you started running a high potential venture backed startup?
Prior to Sequence Bio, I was working in big data for a technology company in the risk management sector. Like the life sciences industry, structuring and analyzing data at scale could derive insights and new ways of understanding our world, and finding novel solutions to globally important problems.
I always communicated to my then CEO that I would eventually leave to start my own company. As an entrepreneur himself, he valued that honesty and mentored me in my position, allowing me to take on new strategic roles and projects, and build experience pitching large enterprise clients and investors.
What problem is your company solving? How did you become motivated to tackle this particular problem?
90% of drug candidates fail in development before they can be commercialized. Pharma development pipelines are dry, and they urgently need druggable targets.
The direct cost to pharma ranges from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars per failed candidate. The problem is compounded by equally significant opportunity costs and lost competitive market position. Most importantly, however, unmet medical need remains unmet.
Quite simply, what does your company do?
Sequence Bio addresses the major causes of drug development failure by discovering better drug targets, faster.
We build and license powered target discovery cohorts to global pharma and biotech clients by a single disease indication in focused target discovery and validation deals, or more broadly across multiple indications in strategic partnerships.
Now in more depth, what are the specifics of what your company does?
In drug target discovery, cohorts with sufficient statistical power are fundamental to correctly identifying the biological components for therapeutic interdiction.
The biological complexity of a given disease, combined with the genographic composition of a study population, determines the size a research cohort must be to achieve statistical significance and meet the thresholds for target discovery.
The discovery power gained from the Newfoundland and Labrador founder population is related to both increased frequency of otherwise rare variants, and also increased biological homogeneity. Not only does this make the discovery of relevant variants much more economically feasible, but the length of time needed to enroll and analyze smaller cohorts is also significantly reduced.
Why does your solution matter for the world when you get it right?
Sequence Bio’s mission is to discover the true signals of disease to power life-changing medicines. Our work has the potential to greatly accelerate the discovery stage of the drug development process. That means better, safer drugs faster for millions of people around the world.
What is your company’s founding story?
Sequence Bio was founded in 2013 in Newfoundland and Labrador as a colorectal cancer (CRC) diagnostics company.
CRC is the second leading cause of cancer death, and can be treatable if caught early enough. I wanted to empower people to take better control of their health and reduce preventable death. I initially set out to develop a clinical genetic test to more easily screen for CRC and assess someone’s predisposition to developing the disease.
Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rate of familial CRC in the world, so it was the ideal place to investigate this disease.
This is where the company started. Where we end up going is quite different.
How did everything come together?
My mandate as an entrepreneur — as a CEO — is to remove structural barriers that can unlock many solutions to many problems at once.
For Sequence Bio, the question I asked myself every day was: how can we help as many people as possible in the most effective way possible?
What I learned was that there was an urgent need in the pharmaceutical industry for better drug targets.
At the same time, there was new evidence that drug targets with human genetic evidence of disease association are twice as likely to lead to approved drugs. Massive and integrated layers of human biological data and health information can provide multiple lines of evidence that guide correct target identification; it has the potential to significantly improve R&D efficiency.
We saw the leading indicators and recognized that it was only a matter of time before the vast majority of pharma development pipelines would be built from drug targets with physiologically-relevant validation.
We also saw that pharma’s challenge was going to be accessing the biologically-relevant, statistically powered discovery cohorts necessary to drive these discoveries.
This was the pivot point for the company: when I recognized that the data behind the CRC diagnostic may be more impactful than the diagnostic itself.
What makes Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) such an interesting place for research is the population’s founder effect. The discovery opportunities in NL span a wide range of common, rare, and oncology diseases.
We saw a future where Sequence Bio was at the middle of pharma drug discovery processes around the world and set out to make it a reality.
Timing is everything — how did you know the timing was right?
A market was being created right before our eyes. We knew the right business model didn’t yet exist, and that we were in the right place to develop it. But, we couldn’t have said that even just 10 years ago.
- Thanks to advances in high-throughput research platforms and virtually unlimited cloud-based compute power, we are now at a point in time where it is possible to fully and capital-efficiently harness the power of systems biology for at-scale target discovery.
- Technology and service costs have decreased to the point where it is economically feasible to execute large-scale discovery efforts. The cost to generate biological data was decreasing faster than Moore’s law, and many of the tools and resources to store, structure, and interrogate that data were becoming commoditized. What cost $1B to build 15 years ago is orders of magnitude less expensive today.
- Drug development pipelines are drying, and resources are rapidly being re-focused on discovery research and preclinical assets. The global drug discovery market is growing; by 2025, the market is expected to be valued at $110B, a >250% increase from 2010.
- Early adopters have proven the value of omics-driven target discovery to improve R&D efficiency. Drugs with genetic evidence were proven to be twice as likely to lead to approved drugs, and the discovery power of founder populations demonstrated a 10–170x efficiency advantage.
- Alternative solutions can have limited commercial use; some require researchers to work in pre-competitive consortia that demand shared IP rights on discoveries, and are quickly picked over for novel insights. Other cohorts are now wholly owned subsidiaries for exclusive research. The result is an underserved market with growing demand. It is precisely the market gap Sequence Bio is filling with bespoke, exclusively licensed discovery cohorts.
What are some of the notable milestones your company has achieved thus far?
Sequence Bio spent the last few years validating fundamental aspects of the business. Specifically, we:
- Completed a major research study to prove that the Newfoundland population embodies the discovery power of the founder effect. This work is being published, and is currently under review by a leading human genetics journal.
- Developed multiple commercial partnerships with global therapeutics companies, including a three year, multi-indication discovery collaboration agreement with LEO Pharma for the identification of novel dermatologic drug targets.
- Hired business development and drug target discovery veterans from deCODE Genetics, Complete Genomics, WuXi NextCODE, Genomics Medicine Ireland, and Adaptive Biotech to execute on our next commercial milestones.
What are some of the biggest hurdles ahead? How do these create points of value inflection?
For Sequence Bio, the next 24–36 months are focused on expanding our partnerships with global therapeutics companies.
Pay It Forward
Throughout the journey, what have been some of your biggest takeaways thus far? What advice/words of wisdom would you share from your story for other moonshot founders?
Building relationships with investors, and potential future investors is critical — I encourage everyone to start building early and often. The fact is, you will need money to build, so it’s never too early to start having these conversations. Our early conversations helped us pivot our business to what it is today, and we have built a network of really well-connected people that have facilitated introductions to not just investors, but employees and partners as well.
One of the keys to Sequence Bio’s growth and success has been building with intention, and an eye towards the future. In our case, that meant starting from the ground up with the technology and mindset to build a distributed, remote oriented company. As we’ve grown, that foundation has opened up doors for talent, networks, and support.
And as a founder, you should know — and appreciate — your strengths and weaknesses, and then surround yourself with complementary talent. Once you know what your unique talents and advantages are, you can build a team of experts around you to fill in the gaps. In my case, I was a tech founder with a business background, not a scientist, so I found the scientific experts — through contracting, mentoring, hiring, etc. — to help me solve the problems I saw in front of me.
What are some of the must-haves for an early stage Life Sciences startup in your eyes?
Understand, appreciate, and invest purposefully in technology from day one. The right tech can allow any company to be larger and more effective than they currently are, and a smaller team can have a larger impact by leveraging technology. That can be anything from productivity tools, outsourcing, code building — it depends on your business. It can also make you competitive when it comes to attracting talent. Sequence Bio was purposefully built to support remote work, and that has allowed us to attract not only the best local talent, but also global experts.
What are some of the traits that make a great founder? What type of risk profile/archetype does someone need to have to be a founder in your opinion?
Your team will take their cues from you. That’s why it’s important to be aware of, and manage, the energy you carry into a room. As a leader, you are going to face significant challenges — it comes with the job. And, you need to be able to shoulder that burden with an incredible amount of resilience and tenacity.
You also need to be willing to tackle systemic barriers and lead in a way that benefits other founders and innovators too. For me, that includes the policy work that went into passing Bill S-201 to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination, and co-authoring and sharing a gender diversity playbook to help STEM founders build more diverse companies. I truly believe that when you tackle a problem, you should be doing so for the benefit of everyone, because in doing so, you have positive impacts on other potentially world-changing ideas.
For folks coming out of academia, what advice would you share?
This advice applies to everyone, not just folks coming out of academia. Sometimes you need to think creatively about the value you can bring to a startup, because your skills might not equate to a specific job title. You may need to think beyond fitting yourself into a role that already exists. Thinking innovatively means thinking about what you’re interested in and how your skills can impact a company, process or innovation, and then pitching your ideas and yourself.
Also, take chances on earlier stage companies. Even though you may feel like your qualifications don’t match, whether you’re feeling over or under-qualified, these opportunities are valuable and can expose you to new skills, ideas, and passions that you might not find elsewhere.
Not everyone knows everything. Often founders have to learn either the science or the business side better. What advice would you give for someone picking up a new skill set such as this?
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know everything, because acknowledging that is the most important thing you can do as a founder. Leave your ego at the door, and then find and surround yourself with experts and people who have the skills, abilities, and experiences that you need.
It takes confidence in yourself and your strengths, and the drive to constantly learn more. Find mentors and support — people who have done or who are doing what you’re interested in doing — and then immerse yourself in their teachings and advice.
Can you demystify the process of what it was like to raise VC funding? What were the highlights & low lights? Any advice or words of wisdom for future founders?
Start by reading the book Venture Deals: Be Smarter than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist (Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson). Familiarize yourself with the language and expectations of the process. This book does a great job demystifying the process.
Where possible, it’s better to build the relationships with VCs before you need the money. Be a stage ahead. If an investor can follow your development for a couple years, it makes it a lot easier to raise the money when the time comes.
It’s always going to take more time and effort than you think, even if you think it’s a lot. Building your pitch isn’t a one-and-done process, either. You need to prepare and anticipate questions and you need to be adaptive by making incremental changes based on the questions and feedback you’re hearing. It’s a very active process that’s a lot more than just taking meetings.
You need a team beside you that you respect and trust, because raising VC funding is all- encompassing and requires your full attention. As you prepare, it’s also time to look around and hand off responsibilities so the wheels keep turning. As a leader, I talk a lot about this with our team. We’ve codified it into our core values as a company — as we evolve, everyone is expected to take on and hand off their responsibilities to facilitate our growth.
What advice for managing and hiring a great team can you share?
- Don’t hire a roomful of people who look like you or think like you. Diversity helps drive innovation: companies that hire diverse teams perform better financially, and you’ll get important perspectives and backgrounds that can help you make better decisions.
- Build a team of complementary talent that can help you drive your company where it needs to go. You can’t do it all yourself, so find people that you can learn from, whose skills, talents and experiences fill in the gaps and then acknowledge and respect their perspective. It will make the whole team stronger.
- Top performers hire top performers. If you hire the best senior talent you can, they can help build the next layers of the team by bringing on and mentoring other high performers.
- Timing is important. You need to hire the right talent at the right time — like finding talented generalists when you’re just getting started, and projecting who you will need moving forward. You’ll also need to decide when and where you trade off between your network of advisors and mentors and hired resources.
- Think about what your company looks like 5–10 years from now when you’ve achieved major goals and are wildly successful. Do a workback with that in mind: ask yourself what people in what positions got you to this place, and work back from there. It takes a long time to build out the team (and hiring can take longer than you anticipate), so figure out who you’ll need to get where you want to go and then start searching for the right people.
- As often as you can, be willing to hire a good person when the opportunity presents itself. And be flexible, as high performers and top talent are more rare than you think.
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