"Build an environment where people are comfortable to be themselves."
“Tell me what you want to know - everything you wish you knew about Amy but she won’t say about herself!”, her colleague Ellie McGuire joked as we tried to keep up with her brisk pace through halls of the life sciences startup launchpad LabCentral. “Of course you want to hear everything directly from her - Amy’s such a rock star!”
Not that we needed to be told. Yale Law School - Top partner at global law giant DLA Piper - General counsel and senior vice president at Pfizer - An $11.5 billion deal with Nestle to acquire Pfizer Nutrition - The first female venture partner at Polaris - And now at the helm of three different biotech startups. This was Amy Schulman.
As we arrived, Schulman was already waiting. “Remind me in two minutes - I’ll have to run out and get my coffee.” Then she paused and looked at us. “Where are the women?”
Schulman’s concern stems from her management philosophy’s core principle: build an environment where people are comfortable to be themselves. She cites a mountain of evidence that shows how a range of perspectives and inclusive workplace culture improves company outcomes. For example, an employee that has negative results from an experiment or makes a mistake needs to feel comfortable being open and honest about that with the rest of the group.
Outside of her roles at the three startups, Schulman lectures at Harvard Business School about overcoming barriers in the workplace - a course titled, “Why you should care: creating the conditions for excellence” - and broadly promotes women in business and law. In fact, she had met women interested in biotech careers at Harvard the day before our interview.
"I see three essential qualities in successful biotech entrepreneurs."
Schulman’s three companies all spawned from Polaris in collaboration with serial entrepreneur and MIT Institute Professor Bob Langer. Arsia Therapeutics, where Schulman serves as CEO, is working to move many treatments from hospitals to patients’ homes by replacing IV injections with a novel drug delivery technology. She is also executive chair of SQZ Biotech, which developed the CellSqueeze platform to deliver different materials — such as antigens to stimulate the immune system — directly into cells, garnering awards such as Scientific American’s World Changing Ideas of 2014. Most recently in May 2015, Schulman co-founded Lyndra to develop a slow release technology that extends drug release beyond one week, increasing patient adherence to treatment regimens.
Schulman notes that compared with her role at Pfizer, at startups she isn’t as sidetracked by administrative and/or managerial policies and can stay focused on the innovation itself. Nevertheless, small companies need to be able to show that their technology can be in fact turned into a commercial venture and that they own the IP needed to do so.
After many experiences moving technology out of the lab and into the market, Schulman’s key points to translate an invention are:
- Get the patent rights
- Have outstanding data to support the invention
- Solve a new problem, not just an incremental solution to a mostly solved problem
- Demonstrate market potential and the ability to scale (e.g., manufacture in a cost-effective manner)
- Have a desire to focus on the startup instead of staying within academia.
With each of these points checked off, a startup can raise seed money to investigate whether the technology can be turned into a company and produce a minimal viable product.
In similar fashion, Schulman sees three essential qualities in successful biotech entrepreneurs:
- Integrity - the science they’re doing has to be accurate, and they can’t misrepresent the data or the feasibility of the idea.
- Fearlessness - have trust in their abilities and be able to find a way to bring their ideas to life.
- Curiosity and passion - a biotech startup is incredibly hard work, Amy notes that her current role is the hardest yet! Entrepreneurs will get burned out quickly from the uncertainty and innumerable hurdles along the way to commercialization if not driven by their curiosity and passion.
As our interview came to a close, it was clear that Schulman’s dark roast coffee hadn’t yet worn off, the conversation remaining equally as captivating as when we first sat down. Despite having joined Polaris Partners less than two years ago, she has already made her mark on the Boston biotech scene and will doubtlessly play a critical role in future companies lucky enough to come across her desk.