To succeed as a CEO means having the fortitude to make the tough decisions that all companies face. Often, that means persevering in pursuit of a mission, whether that’s proving a new class of drugs can work, turning around a company that’s facing financial difficulties, battling much larger competitors, convincing investors to back cutting-edge technology, or successfully building a company in an area that has been historically poorly funded.
Each of the finalists in the CEO category for the first-ever Xconomy Awards San Diego program have shown this kind of mettle. Here’s an introduction to each chief executive who made the cut:
Stanley Crooke, Ionis Pharmaceuticals
Thirty years ago, Stanley Crooke made a bet on a new class of drugs called antisense therapies, which interfere with how the cell makes disease-related proteins. It has been anything but a smooth ride, with public disappointments and stretches of time in which the survival of his company, Ionis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IONS) (which launched in 1989 as Isis Pharmaceuticals), was uncertain.
Today, however, a drug developed by Ionis is allowing children with spinal muscular atrophy, a deadly genetic disease, to gallivant about like their peers. The approval of the drug—nusinersen (Spinraza), now marketed by Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB)—validated a therapeutic approach that, over the years, had attracted many naysayers. Another Ionis drug, inotersen (Tegsedi), a treatment for a rare genetic disease called hereditary ATTR amyloidosis, was FDA-approved in October and is now being commercialized by Ionis’s affiliate, Akcea Therapeutics. Now that his company has marketed products and a pipeline of more than 40 drug candidates, Crooke has done another rare and difficult thing: Put in place a succession plan, and acted upon it. His protégé and co-founder, Brett Monia, Ionis’s chief operating officer, will become chief executive in 2020. Crooke will transition to executive chairman.
Francis deSouza, Illumina
Gene-sequencing hardware and software giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) has made its name selling its products and services to genomics researchers. Francis deSouza, who was named president and CEO of the company nearly three years ago, has overseen a nearly 80 percent rise in profits since the start of 2016, along with revenue reaching $3.3 billion. As the cost of sequencing continues to fall, demand for Illumina’s products and services has risen; but so, too, has competition. Under deSouza’s watch, the company has made acquisitions to position it ahead of the trends that are shaping the genomics industry.
Last year, as Illumina’s revenue reached into the billions, the company paid $100 million for Edico Genome, a startup that developed a way to speed up sequence data analysis. Illumina also agreed to acquire Pacific Biosciences, for its “long-read” sequencing technology, for $1.2 billion. DeSouza anticipates the PacBio purchase will increase Illumina’s already sizable market and will give researchers and clinicians the tools to gain a more comprehensive picture of the genome—which is becoming more important in this era of precision medicine.
Kevin Gorman, Neurocrine Biosciences
Roughly a decade ago, Neurocrine Biosciences (NASDAQ: NBIX) sold its corporate campus and cut hundreds of employees, reducing its headcount to fewer than 70 just to keep the lights on. CEO Kevin Gorman has since turned that small R&D-focused neuroscience company into a fully integrated biopharmaceutical company with two FDA-approved medicines. Gorman, who was named CEO in 2008, steadied the ship and pushed ahead Neurocrine’s valbenazine (Ingrezza), the first FDA-approved treatment for tardive dyskinesia, a severe side effect of some psychiatric drugs. The drug has since brought in more than $500 million in net sales.
With AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) as a commercial partner, the company has also brought to market the first FDA-approved oral treatment for endometriosis, elagolix (Orilissa), in more than a decade. The company anticipates that by 2020, it could have three more medicines approved for four indications. The company, with a market cap of more than $8 billion, recently moved into the hot area of gene therapy. Earlier this year, Neurocrine agreed to pay Voyager Therapeutics $165 million upfront for the rights to its experimental gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease, plus two preclinical programs.
Sabrina Martucci Johnson, Daré Bioscience
Women’s healthcare had long been a passion of Sabrina Martucci Johnson, but at a point in her career, she realized that she had never focused on that professionally. To remedy that, she became an executive at WomanCare Global Trading, a nonprofit organization focused on reproductive health. It was there that she noticed a gap between early-stage innovation and clinical development in women’s health. That was the inspiration for Daré Bioscience (NASDAQ: DARE), the company Martucci Johnson founded in 2015.
Just two years later, she took Daré public via a reverse merger, after raising only $800,000 in angel funding. The company now has 10 drug candidates in its pipeline, including a one-time treatment for the most common vaginal infection in women of reproductive age, which is slated to enter Phase 3 clinical testing this year. Daré also has an experimental, non-hormonal contraceptive ring called Ovaprene in Phase 2 testing.
Kevin Sayer, Dexcom
Painful finger sticks to measure blood-glucose levels are becoming a thing of the past for people with diabetes, thanks in part to Dexcom (NASDAQ: DXCM), which makes devices that use disposable sensors inserted under the skin to do continuous glucose monitoring (CGM). Dexcom’s revenue from the sales of such devices has grown from about $400 million to over $1 billion annually since Kevin Sayer was named CEO in 2015. That growth has happened even as the company competes with giants including Medtronic, Roche, and Abbott.
Last year, the FDA OK’d Dexcom’s G6, the first CGM system that the agency has approved to be used as part of an integrated system, meaning it can link up with other compatible medical devices and electronic interfaces used for diabetes management. That means a patient who uses the G6 transmitter can get blood glucose data on mobile and wearable devices. Under Sayer, the company has also teamed up with Verily, the life sciences arm of Google parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL), to develop even more advanced glucose monitoring products.
Laura Shawver, Synthorx
Students have long been taught the four letters that make up the genetic alphabet—A, C, G, and T. But Synthorx (NASDAQ: THOR), led by CEO Laura Shawver since late 2017, is expanding that alphabet, adding new letters to bacterial genomes as a way to make synthetic proteins that could be used as new medicines. Synthorx engineers E. coli bacteria to produce a variety of synthetic amino acids, by inserting into the bacteria’s genome two new nucleotide bases, X and Y.
The company is based at COI (for Community of Innovation) Pharmaceuticals, an incubator in La Jolla, CA, that provides shared facilities and management for portfolio companies of Avalon Ventures, a founding investor of Synthorx. Shawver led Synthorx to the public markets in late 2018, where it raised $131 million in an oversubscribed IPO. With the funds, it is, among other things, pushing forward its lead drug candidate, a less-toxic version of interleukin-2, a decades-old cancer drug.