Kentucky Biotech CEO’s Message For McConnell: I’ll Be Muslim, Too

Xconomy National — 

President Trump’s order to bar refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries is on temporary hold, and a court hearing later today could eventually force a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of the latest biotech executives to speak out against the ban is in the backyard of Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the top Republican in the U.S. Senate. Cedric Francois, the founder, president, and CEO of Louisville, KY-based Apellis Pharmaceuticals, penned an open letter to McConnell last week to urge McConnell’s opposition. He also wrote that if the Trump administration expanded its policies to include a registry of Muslims, he would mark down his own name in solidarity.

Francois is a U.S. green card holder from Belgium. His 20-person company employs people “of all faiths and origins,” and in his letter he called Trump’s order “deeply disturbing.” He also noted that McConnell (pictured), as of last week, had not taken a stand against the order, unlike some of his Republican colleagues. “You were conspicuously absent last weekend, but we need to know,” Francois wrote. “After all, thanks to the most beautiful governance document ever drafted, you are the one person in the world who can counterbalance Mr. Trump’s words and actions. Tell us Mr. Majority Leader: What is America? That shining city on a hill, or a dark citadel in a valley of fear?”

Francois is now one of dozens of of life sciences leaders taking a public stand. Nature Biotechnology published a letter this morning co-signed by 165 biotech executives, investors, and others who oppose the travel ban.

In a national context, Apellis is just one of hundreds of biotech startups scrambling to raise cash and move its product candidates forward. But it stands out in Kentucky, where it is almost certainly the top venture capital recipient. Apellis has raised $92 million since 2010, about half coming last year as the firm put a hold on IPO plans. For comparison, the entire state’s startup community raised $89 million from 2010 through 2015, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

Francois told Xconomy that he would like McConnell to understand that diversity is “quintessential” to Kentucky’s “fragile” innovation landscape. “You’d think he would want to protect that,” said Francois.

McConnell appeared on CNN Sunday and went farther than his previous comments toward criticizing the ban, saying the U.S. couldn’t “shut down travel” and should be careful about barring “Muslim allies who have fought with us in countries overseas.”

McConnell said Congress would not necessarily work to re-institute the ban if it is thrown out by the courts. “The courts are going to decide whether the executive order the president issued is valid or not, and we all follow court orders,” McConnell said.

He also took issue with Trump’s weekend attack, via Twitter, of the federal judge in Seattle who put a hold on the order. “I think it’s best not to single out judges for criticism,” McConnell said. “We all get disappointed from time to time.”

McConnell’s press officers did not respond to inquiries.

Even with Trump using his bully pulpit to target companies, as well, Francois said he had no hesitation posting his open letter and didn’t bother checking first with his investors. “This is a letter from me, not the company,” Francois said. “These are my personal views.”

But Francois is worried about his employees. Two of the 20, he said, are from the countries named in the ban. He declined to name names or countries, but he said they are concerned about traveling out of the U.S. Those complications could affect Apellis, as well. It is running clinical trials for its top experimental products that target a rare blood disease, paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, and an advanced form of eye disease called geographic atrophy. Parts of those trials are taking place in Europe and Australia. “We have to run an enormous amount of work at high speed,” Francois said.

Francois came to Louisville 15 years ago to work on the nation’s first hand transplants. He was part of the research team working on the cocktail of drugs to prevent the recipient’s immune system from rejecting the donor hand: “The immunological response is different when skin is involved.”

Francois is one of several biotech CEOs who have spoken out against the ban. The national trade groups for biotech and pharmaceuticals have remained silent, however, even while praising the president for his promises of less regulation.

Francois said they have to be “more political than I’m being.”

He said he is confident that “there’s work being done to protect the industry, but it’s happening more in the background—in part to avoid the reactive nature of our new president.”

To date, the only biopharma-related organization to make an official statement about the ban is the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, whose CEO Robert Coughlin called it “a threat to the sustainability and growth of the life sciences industry throughout the United States and, in particular, in Massachusetts, and a threat to scientific discovery.”

The National Venture Capital Association also took a stance last week, pointing out the contributions immigrants make to U.S. entrepreneurship.

In his letter, Francois pledged to count himself as a Muslim if the administration creates a registry of Muslims. “I will proudly sign on,” he wrote. “The purpose of Islam is to be kind to others. It is pretty much identical to what I was taught in my Jesuit boarding school and what I deeply believe in.”

The administration has denied that the executive travel order targets Muslims or is based on religion, saying the listed countries are high risk because of terrorist activity. But comments from Trump and his proxies, such as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, have indicated otherwise. Trump himself said last week that Christian refugees persecuted in majority-Muslim countries should receive priority.

The Jan. 27 order placed a 90-day ban on immigrants from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. It also barred Syrian refugees indefinitely and other refugees for 120 days.

One Iraqi Christian immigrant who has settled in San Diego and now runs a biotech firm told Xconomy he liked the idea of refugee priority for those facing religious persecution. But he also said the travel ban has already disrupted his business, forcing a customer from Iran to cancel a trip.

“We are wasting time, wasting opportunities with this order,” said Calbiotech CEO Noori Barka. “We are letting these terrorists win in some ways, because we are letting them impact our business.”

It’s unclear how much of the biotech grassroots opposes the ban. The only industry-specific reading hsa been an online poll a week ago; 87 percent of more than 1,400 respondents registered their opposition, according to the poll-taker Endpoints.

But even those unaffected by the order fear that, whatever the courts decide on this particular executive order, the overall climate for immigration is not going to improve.

“I’ve never felt that people didn’t want me here until the last year or two,” said Ashish Kalra, a native of India who came to the U.S. in 2002 to study. Now at Cambridge, MA-based Scholar Rock, he holds a green card and is raising a family in the Boston area. “I’m not a Muslim, but tomorrow it could be Asians, Indians, who knows,” he said. “Who’s there to stop this?”

Kalra said he could become a citizen, but he now is weighing the decision and wondering whether this is just a political cycle, or “if this is really the mindset of America, and what America stands for. Has it really changed?”

Photo of Mitch McConnell by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons 2.0 license.