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“Every successful business delivers value by solving a problem for its customers” With Keith Lovell, CFO at Antidote

I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Lovell, CFO at Antidote, a digital health company on a mission to bridge the gap between medical research and the people who need it. Antidote has developed Antidote Match, a clinical trial matching platform that uses structured eligibility criteria, proprietary algorithms, and machine learning to explore a patient’s eligibility for every trial. Antidote’s clinical trial search tool is now available on hundreds of patient community and health websites, reaching millions of patients per month. Keith has worked in businesses of all sizes and, perhaps most notably, was part of the Shazam executive team that transformed a small struggling company into a major global mobile brand.

What is your “backstory”?

As a youngster, I always dreamed of being a veterinarian, but eventually I ended up studying for an Honours degree in Microbiology and Virology. After Uni, I didn’t want to pursue a PhD so I (reluctantly) shifted to Chartered Accountancy, qualified with KPMG, and found that I revelled in the business environment. I view myself as a business person with a good financial training — just don’t ever call me an accountant! I love commercially-oriented roles in fast-paced, dynamic organizations. The tech sector is perfect, and Antidote has drawn a nice connection from my current expertise to my roots in life sciences.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting startup story?

Sure, here is an embarrassingly funny story from about 2008, when I was at Shazam. We had just started talking to Kleiner Perkins about potentially investing in Shazam, and Andrew Fisher (CEO) and I went out to see KPCB in Palo Alto.

We stayed at the Rosewood Hotel on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto. About an hour before our meeting, we asked reception how best to travel to KPCB for our business meeting (keep in mind the iPhone had only recently launched, and so this is before Google Maps became ubiquitous on smartphones.) We were told that the hotel would call us a car.

About 20 minutes later, we shuffled into this big black limo, drove out of the hotel car park, across the junction on the Sand Hill Road, and straight into the car park of Kleiner Perkins — which turned out to be right opposite the hotel.

I’ve never been so embarrassed. Taking a limo to drive across the road is just the kind of impression on investors you’d like to make as a startup CFO!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Antidote stand out is our mission.

Every successful business delivers value by solving a problem for its customers. Antidote is trying to solve a very big problem that affects us all: Medical progress is slowed because researchers can’t find enough participants for over 80% of clinical trials. Antidote has identified a fundamental contributing factor, that it’s not easy for patients to find clinical research studies that are right for them, and we are tackling this massive challenge with technology.

The great thing is, there is a very real social benefit attached to the work we’re doing every day. There are many examples and stories of how this impacts and affects people, and some of these can be seen in the videos on the Antidote website. One video in particular tells the story of Nina Beaty, a lung cancer survivor whose life was saved by an immunotherapy trial. Here is Nina’s story:

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 was very lucky early in my career. Just after I qualified, I asked KPMG for an assignment in Australia. Of course, the “career advancement” locations were Hong Kong or New York, but I just fancied seeing Australia (and ended up living there for almost 3 years). I joined the Melbourne office, and I was fortunate to do a lot of work for an expat partner named Mike Ullmer, who gave me a very early and valuable lesson in management.

Mike handed me a range of “special” projects ranging from litigation support to acquisition advisory, and even a major medical insurance investigation. His management style was to give people wide responsibility and plenty of rope; he sought people he could trust and would let them get on with their assignments. Never micromanaging, he was always there to help. I felt that I personally excelled under his direction, and that it was a great model for effective leadership.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am not so presumptuous as to see myself as hugely successful or having the influence to make some sort of major difference, but I do believe in the ripple effects of being a person of integrity. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” So, I try to make my way through life with kindness and sincerity, to be a consistent and generous friend. If you can be a positive influence in the immediate circle around you, that hopefully permeates out to the wider world in some small way!

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

I have read so many books — as a teenager in particular, I think I almost went through the entire library at Winchester, fiction, non-fiction, the lot. I’ll go with a recent one, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It is a powerful memoir of Paul’s life as a neurosurgeon and husband who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

This book hit so many chords for me: the intersection between science and the human experience, the vitality and meaning that children bring to parents, the potentially ephemeral beauty of honing expertise in a field, and the absolute necessity that we accelerate medical research to cure cancer.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why.

  • Build a team out of the best people you can find — and trust them to get the job done. Anyone working for you should be capable of taking your job (and in fact, someday, somewhere, they should take your job). Your value as a founder/executive should be to add experience, oversight, and direction. If you are successful, you will have provided your team with the tools to one day do the same.
  • Remember that all businesses are ultimately about people. In one of my first senior executive positions, I had to attend a full-day session with an occupational psychologist, who came to the conclusion that I lacked empathy. I was taken aback. I had always tried to live in a way that was understanding of others — but at the time, he was actually right about how I was approaching management. I have worked hard at this over the years to not only be a focused and passionate leader who’s able to make tough decisions, but also to always act with care and consideration of others.
  • Work with people you like. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but forming a team of people you like and trust is important to me, and I believe is a good foundation for a positive, productive culture.
  • Find something you care about and turn it into your career. You are going to spend a large part of your life doing it, so having a passion for it is a must. In my case, Antidote is a great fit because it combines my passion for high-growth businesses with my interest in science.
  • Family is more important than business. Work can be all-consuming, but it’s crucial to make sure you have time for your family. The greatest satisfaction I have these days is not from anything I do at work, but in seeing my kids achieve. Whether it is academic success, sporting achievements, or personal growth, nothing beats that.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I’d love to share a meal with Barack Obama. This doesn’t have anything to do with politics, but rather with his being a man who handled one of the biggest roles in the world with intelligence, dignity, and charm. It would be amazing to get a download of his values and tips for success, and how he maintained his sense of humour!

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