Changing the world – Sirtris Pharmaceuticals

The other day, I saw this 60 Minutes piece on the potentially world-changing work of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals.  Sirtris is developing compounds that attempt to prevent and even possibly treat various diseases of aging, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.  There were acquired by Glaxo Smith Kline in 2008 for $720 mm.  I was fortunate to have played a very small role at this company during the early days, and I wanted to write a bit about it, because it is such a great example of entrepreneurial success.

When I was in my first year in business school at MIT (2004), I was introduced by a friend to Christoph Westphal, who was then working at a venture capital firm.  His reputation as an entrepreneur was impeccable; he already had co-founded and acted as startup CEO for several successful biotech firms including Alnylam (ALNY) and Momenta (MNTA). I asked him if I could work with him for free on any project that he thought might be relevant.  He told me that he was just starting a new biotechnology company that might be an interesting learning opportunity.  That company was called Sirtris Pharmaceuticals.

Christoph started the company with David Sinclair, a professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School.  David was one of the first scientists to focus on studying the Sirtuin enzymes and is credited with connecting Sirtuin pathway activation to metabolic disorders.  Not only is he working on some of the most amazing science in the world today, he is one of the most charismatic scientists around.  David is someone who will probably win the Nobel Prize someday.  Christoph and David formed the most amazing startup team that I have ever seen firsthand. 

They recruited an world-renowned group of advisors, hired very passionate people to help build out the company, and followed a very focused strategy to essentially become the dominant researcher of the Sirtuin enzymes.

As an intern/consultant, I spent a lot of time shadowing Christoph, David and the leadership team, and I tried to observe and take it all in.  I think that I learned a few key lessons from watching this team in action.

1) Dream Big – Sirtris was formed to attack some of the biggest problems in biotech: longevity, obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases.  They are literally trying to save lives with all that they do.  These target areas also happen to potentially be some of the biggest commerical markets for novel therapeutics. 

2) Envision Going Big – It is critical to have a unifying vision and a CEO capable of rallying support around that vision. Christoph + David = the all-star team, and Christoph is one of the most amazing entrepreneurial CEOs I have ever seen.  I would say Christoph is clearly a Visionary Entrepreneur.

3) Validate – Having some validation that Going Big in your market is possible/plausible really helps Build the Onion. The existence of the French Paradox and the effects of Calorie Restriction, which were pre-existing phenomena, supported the cutting edge research conducted in David’s lab and in the labs of other researchers around the globe.

4) Make sure you have the team and advisory team that can enable you to Go Big: Sirtris recruited to their advisory team such luminaries as Dr. Phil Sharp, Dr. Bob Langer, and many others.

5) Make sure you have the funding and resources you need to Go Big: Sirtris raised a lot of money from leading venture investors and then went public only 3 years after being founded.  They were acquired by GSK, which provides them an even bigger platform to support their efforts to Go Big.

6) Create differentiation: Among other things that they did that made them an incredibly unique and valuable firm, Sirtris devised and executed an incredible IP strategy that made them the clear leader in an emerging field that could Change the World.

With such an amazing success, there were so many things that they did right.  I just tried to highlight a few lessons that I took from the experience.

In all my life, I may never again witness such a passionate group of people working in such harmony toward a goal as great or as big as what Sirtris focuses on.  I feel blessed to have been a junior passenger on the rocket ship, and I am glad that I tried to learn as much as I could from the examples that they set.


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