This post was written by Ros Deegan, President and CBO of Bicycle Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
In May 2007, I trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Situated at an altitude of over 17,000 feet, Base Camp is the starting point for an ascent of the world’s highest mountain. The first feature on the climbing route is also the deadliest: the Khumbu Icefall. The Icefall is a frozen waterfall that cascades for more than two miles in length – and 2000 feet in height – from a spectacular hanging valley known as the Western Cwm to a point just a few minutes’ walk from the tents at Base Camp. At half a mile wide, you can’t go around the Icefall: you have to go through it.
The Khumbu Icefall is an especially formidable barrier to aspiring summiteers because of its imperceptible yet relentless downward movement. Crevasses deep enough to swallow a Jumbo Jet, and blocks of ice (called ‘seracs’) the size of neighborhood shopping malls, appear and disappear with no warning.
My husband, Paul, has made several journeys through the Khumbu Icefall. He told me that on one occasion he had to clamber over a serac the size of a nine-story building. The next time he climbed through the Icefall, that particular serac had been pulverized into a pile of icy rubble. Given that you’re already in the wrong place, you don’t want to be caught in the Khumbu icefall at the wrong time.
To make the Khumbu Icefall passable, climbers clip into synthetic ropes that have been temporarily fixed to the ice. These ropes are supplemented with the kind of aluminum ladders you might use on the side of your house whilst clearing the gutters. The ladders are positioned to enable mountaineers to traverse crevasses and ascend seracs. All of this climbing hardware is put in place by a specialist team of Sherpas called the ‘Icefall Doctors’. Whilst at Base Camp, I met some of the Sherpas who had climbed with Paul on his Everest expeditions and thanked them for leaving a ladder down.
Last September, I was sharing an after-work drink with a friend when she brought up the concept of leaving a ladder down on different type of ascent: the career climb. My friend mentioned how liberating it was for her to be at a point in her life when she was no longer focused on her next promotion. Having become a CSO and knowing that she didn’t want to be a CEO, she was now dedicating herself to the development of her colleagues by leaving a ladder down to help them reach their own summits.
I’ve been lucky in my career to have climbed the ladders left down for me by Ad Rawcliffe (CFO, Adaptimmune), Maxine Gowen (former CEO of Trevena) and Kevin Lee (CEO, Bicycle). When we worked for GSK, Ad sponsored my move from its R&D organization into the commercial business – a rare transition in such a large pharmaceutical company. Under Max’s leadership, I ascended the rungs from Manager to Director to Vice President and finally to Senior Vice President over the course of eight years. And at Bicycle, Kevin has continually encouraged and supported my development. During the last three years, we have openly discussed my aspiration to be a CEO, so the ladder Kevin left down for me is now leading somewhere else.
I’ve had a fantastic experience at Bicycle and leaving is bittersweet. When Kevin took over the reins of Bicycle at the end of 2015, he inherited a UK-only company with a formidable technology platform and a nascent therapeutic pipeline. In just three years, Kevin has capitalized on the promise of the technology to transform Bicycle into a transatlantic company with a robust development portfolio (one clinical asset plus two programs in IND-enabling studies) plus an exciting immune-oncology discovery pipeline. It has been invigorating to be a member of his executive team.
In America, we have built our presence from a single person (me!) to a 20-strong team on the outskirts of Boston, and established Bicycle’s oncology discovery capability in our new US labs. We have also executed collaborations with AstraZeneca in cardiometabolic and respiratory disease, with Bioverativ in hematology, and with Cancer Research UK to accelerate our clinical asset (BT1718). Bicycle is racing through the gears and yet it’s the right time for me to emerge from Kevin’s slipstream.
In the summer of 2018, I started thinking seriously about the next step in my career climb. As my mid-year performance review approached, I started to fret that Kevin might not continue to be quite so supportive when my future became our present. I was completely disarmed when Kevin began our conversation by stating, “Ros, I think you’re ready to be a CEO.”
A career climb is less harrowing than an ascent of Everest. But just like on the world’s highest mountain, we all need people to leave ladders in place for those who follow. Reflecting on my career to date, and the leaders who have left ladders down for me, I know that in order to be truly successful in my next role, I need to hang up my climbing boots. It’s time for me to become an Icefall Doctor.
With thanks to Ann Corkum and Mariana Nacht for reading drafts of this blog post.