Five Questions For … Austin Biotech Entrepreneur Paul Lammers

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin—Two years ago, Paul Lammers was riding the cancer immunotherapy wave in biotech. His firm, Mirna Therapeutics, hit the Nasdaq after raising $80.5 million in an IPO.

Two years and one unsuccessful early stage clinical trial later, Mirna is history. In May, the company was absorbed in a reverse merger with Cambridge, MA-based Synologic, whose shareholders ended up with a majority stake in the combined company. Lammers, the CEO of Mirna, is no longer involved with the company, and is now doing biotech consulting while he considers his next gig.

“In Phase 1 oncology, there’s a 5 percent chance of making it; it’s a high-risk, high-reward game you play,” Lammers says.

Failed trial aside, Lammers says he pulled the plug on the 8-year-old biotech because once 2016 rolled around, Mirna couldn’t finance itself as easily as during the life sciences IPO boom of 2013-2015.

“We had a lot of money in the bank, $60 million, but if we spent it all, we might not be able to raise new money,” he says. “Should we throw another $10 million to $20 million [at development]? That would be good money after not-so-great money. That’s not in the interest of the shareholders. I’m glad the board agreed with me.”

In this week’s “Five Questions For,” Lammers, a native of the Netherlands, speaks about the importance of hiring the right people; how his background in pathology led him to explore medicine, business, and innovation; and hand-pumped lighting. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: As an executive, what’s your blind spot?

Paul Lammers: The blind spot … I still feel the most difficult thing is to truly determine if a new potential employee candidate is a real fit with the company. I’ve hired a lot of great people; I also have made mistakes in hiring. Every CEO will say that; that’s a fact. You do a day of interviews; reference checking is very important—and not just the ones the person gives up. They always say the decision to hire somebody is made in the first four seconds of the interview. You look someone in the eyes, shake their hand, and see if there’s some kind of connection. I made the mistake once of hiring somebody against what I thought what we should have done chemistry-wise. It didn’t work.

It doesn’t matter what position, what level, if it’s a scientist or a board position—obviously it’s very important for the management team. But even a scientist at the lab can disrupt the whole bloody thing if not a good fit. I like to be very close to employees. I talk to them, walk around, stop by their cubicles, chat with them: ‘Tell me what’s going on.’ I want to establish a kind of relationship. I thrive on relationships. I think that employees love it if you [take an interest in their lives and goals] but there’s always some tough apples.

X: If you could change just one regulation that affects your industry, what would it be? What could be the unintended consequences of making that change?

P.L.: The clinical trial system is broken. Luckily the FDA is changing. I’m so glad the science side of the FDA is thinking with industry to come up with different ways to do drug development. People need to realize the studies that you do for [win FDA approval] have nothing to do with clinical practice. I’m not talking [just about] oncology. In real-world life, you don’t prescribe placebos. The FDA insists we do placebo-controlled studies. The Europeans are far more ahead with active-control studies; those trials are getting more mainstream in the U.S. as well, for which I’m glad. Placebo [studies] are just tough. It’s just a shift that is happening. It’s not a slam dunk … It’s all about progress.

X: What’s your most impressive or quirky skill that has nothing to do with your day job?

P.L.: We love to work out, be on the boat on Lake Travis. I love sports; I’m just an active guy. It’s good to work hard and play hard.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

P.L.: A professor. The reason is my father was a big professor back in Holland, in anatomy and he was dean of the medical faculty. I was the youngest of five and i wanted to be just like my dad.

My whole family is in the medical and/or biology fields. I got my master’s degree in biology. I got my medical degree and went to pathology. I quickly realized I’m a real people person, which is tough to combine with pathology and being locked in a lab with a microscope eight hours a day. I was interested in the combination of medicine, research, and business. I joined Organon when it was a standalone Organon, a Dutch company. I loved drug development. I traveled around the world and worked in reproductive health, antidepressants, oncology, erectile dysfunction.

The pathology training was good background; you do everything from head to toe. I love to learn new things and dig into new therapeutic areas. People thought I was an OB-GYN because I spent a lot of time on contraception and hormonal health.

X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one thing you would have to have with you?

P.L.: One of these little squeeze lamps. You use your own hand power to generate light. If I was stranded on an island, the batteries would run out. So that’s what I would do so I can see what the hell’s going on, and perhaps get the attention of some planes flying overhead.