Persistent Vitality At #JPM15

Posted January 20th, 2015 by Kevin Pojasek, in From The Trenches, Portfolio news

This blog was written by Kevin Pojasek, Founder and acting CEO of Quartet Medicine, as part of the “From the Trenches” feature of LifeSciVC.

A favorite quote from the Jazz Age king that nicely captures life as a biotech entrepreneur.  Breaking it down further (courtesy of Merriam-Webster):

quoteVitality – the power or ability of something to continue to live, be successful; and

 Persist – to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning

These themes are intimately familiar to those of us involved in starting and running early stage biotechs.  I find “the ability to start over” especially relevant entering yet another JP Morgan Conference with a new early stage company, Quartet Medicine (here). F. Scott’s hard living ways also happen to perfectly embody the spirit of most JPM evenings.

I’ve heard folks complain that JPM can be an expensive way to start the year – the financial cost of travel, hotels, and dinners; the team distraction in preparing for and following up after; an exhausting run of meetings sandwiched between late nights and early mornings – with very little to show for it at the end.  While there is a bit of truth in this meme, I actually find the annual pilgrimage not only worthwhile, but also incredibly invigorating.

This year was a fantastic opportunity to share the Quartet story to diverse audiences – investors, BD execs, R&D leaders, potential board members, friends and former colleagues – all within a 3-day period.  The Union Square cauldron provided real-time feedback on our narrative, science, and progress that will help us chart our near-term BD and fundraising efforts.

The meeting started on a high note with the Monday announcement of the acquisition of Annovation BioPharma by The Medicines Company’s CEO during his 7:30a presentation.  Personally, Annovation was a 2-year rollercoaster of hard work and intensive learning with a fantastic group of people dedicated to transforming surgical and procedural care. With a lean team of a handful of full and part-time employees, we advanced our novel intravenous anesthetic from development candidate through clinical proof-of-concept, generating the package that triggered MDCO to exercise their option to acquire the company.

My JPM by the numbers: 21 meetings, 9 receptions, 3 dinners over 3 days.  Eight meetings were with senior biopharma BD and therapeutic area heads, 7 with VCs or buysiders and 6 with potential board members, consultants or CRO partners.  To help survive, I scheduled no early morning meetings.  This allowed me to squeeze in a run or, as was required on a couple mornings, get an extra hour of sleep to help clear the SF fog.

So having had the weekend to reflect (read: catch up on sleep), here’s my take:

Bilateral diplomacy – The concentration and diversity of meetings is great for evaluating what elements of our story sticks with whom as well as sharpening the narrative where necessary.  The discussions were also a fantastic opportunity to assess who is sitting across the table and whether they’d make a good long-term partner for Quartet.  Our meetings ranged from one-on-one intro’s to a 6-on-1 substantive dive into our science and forward plan.  And the interactions spanned the gamut from nuanced and thoughtful to oblivious and even arrogant.  Needless to say, we came away with a clear sense of with whom we’d like to continue discussions making this an ideal forum for 2-way partner assessment.

Suit and tie – Yes, I’m a proud member of the “old school” crowd wearing a suit and tie at JPM (much to the chagrin of @LifeSciVC and others from Atlas!).  I view it as an important sign of professionalism for our company, as well as sign of respect for the teams with which I’m meeting.  Besides, there are really only a few times a year that I get to reach into the way back of the closet.  Great to see @michael_gilman, Jeff Hatfield, @TEHughes2009, @biotech69 among the other Atlas portfolio company CEO’s rocking the suit and tie.  We can save the “venture casual” attire for meetings back in Cambridge.

Cab lines…Really?? – It’s called Uber, people! Each evening outside of the Hilton and other large hotels, I was shocked to see mobs queuing for taxis. Frequent Ubering, whether up the 2000 vertical ft from Geary to the Fairmont or down to SOMA receptions, made this meeting immeasurably more efficient than pre-Uber JPMs, even with the $230 in Uber receipts I have to show for it.

Exuberance and a lot of it, but… – Plenty has been written on the pervasive exuberance this year (here) including a fantastic comparison of JPM 2015 to Burning Man by @Urban_RG (here).  An interesting counterpoint was a “when is it going to end?” discussion I had over dinner with some of the younger partners at OrbiMed, New Leaf, Polaris, Fidelity, Sofinnova and NEA.  Paradoxically, their (semi-)restraint was in contrast to the views of some of more senior industry vets.  Our cohort of early stage investors and entrepreneurs were in graduate/medical school during the 2000 bubble.  While we’ve certainly been hoping for (and now enjoying!) boom times like today, we grew up in the darker days of 2008-2010, perhaps providing a healthy skepticism amongst the maelstrom of exuberance.

Some good karma – After being distracted by a drive-by conversation, I managed to leave my laptop on a chair in the Nikko lobby (where it is was hard to even find a seat) for a couple hours before realizing it had wandered off.  Thankfully, a woman manning a nearby check-in desk noticed it, put it aside and handed it back to me as I came plowing back into the lobby out of breath.  Even more remarkable, I had a friend who left his full laptop bag in a taxi one evening only to find it returned by the driver to the cab company at the end of his shift the next morning.  Nice to see people paying it forward.

“Starting over” – I was struck by the job kinetics in the industry right now, especially when it comes to early stage companies.  A majority of folks I met or caught up with at receptions are in different jobs now versus a year ago or are seriously considering jumps this year.  Some were coming off successes, others were just looking for new challenges, but increased job movement appears to be a sign of the times. Targeted job transitions supported by a cohesive career narrative can be a compelling way to build up experience, akin to the traditional approach of moving roles within a large Pharma over a 20-year career.  Today appears to be a seller’s market for top talent.

Foie gras is back with a vengeance – California reversed the 2.5-year old law banning the controversial French delicacy days before JPM.  Top-notch restaurants like the Michelin-starred La Folie were keen to hock exuberantly portioned duck livers to many a meeting attendee.

Evening shenanigans – Fitzgerald’s “vitality” and, as the evening progressed, “persist(ence)”, were on full display once the sun set over Union Sq.  A few highlights for me: watching VC’s hand out “cloned” Clift room cards to avoid waiting in line; hearing all about one exuberant exec’s new Maserati; having one of Quartet’s existing investors dash off after a quick hello to toast a company their firm is about to invest in; and an entertaining 1:00a water cooler (literally, with cucumber no less!) session with friends at Padlock and Atlas.

Here’s to an exuberant 2015 filled with vitality and persistence…and perhaps, some starting over when necessary!  Let’s enjoy this healthcare Jazz Age and hope it doesn’t end like the first one…

Kevin Pojasek

Co-founder, President and acting CEO at Quartet Medicine
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