This blog was written by Mark Manfredi, CEO of Ikena Oncology, and guest blogger Maude Tessier, CBO, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
When we started to think about changing our company name, we knew it wasn’t something to take lightly — changing our brand and outward facing image was a big deal! Several companies rebranded over the last few years and built successful biotech companies, some publicly-traded (e.g., Translate Bio, Aimmune); nevertheless the process as well as the ultimate messaging seemed tricky and important to have a solid grasp on and plan for. We considered changing our name last year and decided to hold off, preferring to wait for a more ideal time. We built some brand recognition following our January 2019 Celgene (now BMS) alliance, which included the AHR antagonist and kynurenine degrading enzyme (“Kynase”) programs, but we were still a young company of just over three years. If we were going to change our name, it was now or never. We are working to build a sustainable clinical stage company and felt that the rebranding was an important component of establishing a solid foundation for the future.
We announced the rebrand of Kyn Therapeutics to Ikena Oncology last week and couldn’t be more excited about what’s ahead. Why did we decide to change our name? How did we go about implementing this total rebrand, i.e., new name, logo, website, etc.? What influence and effect has the rebranding had on our company so far, and what do we hope it will accomplish? The rebranding was a long (over 6 months) and fascinating journey that required engagement of both the right and left sides of our brains. Here we recap the path that led from Kyn Therapeutics to Ikena Oncology.
In Mark’s recent blog post, he conveyed the evolution of Kyn from a single asset to a pipeline company, as well as our efforts to build a long term biotech company. We’ve been advancing a pipeline of oncology product candidates within the kynurenine pathway (Kynase, the original program at Kyn, and an AHR antagonist which obtained IND clearance recently) as well as outside of the kynurenine pathway (our clinical stage lead program is an EP4 antagonist). We have been incorporating robust biomarker strategies into these programs. We had a vision of focusing on personalized approaches in oncology R&D, our core area of expertise, and diversifying outside of immuno-metabolism and immuno-oncology.
But first, we had to close the Celgene deal. It’s challenging to even think about anything else when you’re in the thick of a transaction. Once the dust settled on our partnership, it gave us an opportunity to devote the needed time for introspection. A key consideration for us as we kick started the rebranding initiative was a renewed focus on cancer patients as our fundamental purpose. We were keen on centering the rebranding around the patient, in terms of our new name & mission, but also in terms of our R&D strategy for existing and future programs.
As announced last week, we will soon initiate a first-in-human clinical study in which the anti-tumor activity of product candidate IK-175 will be evaluated in cancers with activated AHR as determined by a biomarker, including prospective selection of patients believed most likely to benefit from IK-175.
Another example of this broadened strategy is our recently disclosed Hippo pathway program, currently in lead optimization. The Hippo signaling pathway is a key tumor suppressor axis with tumor cell intrinsic dependence and immune system mechanisms of action. It is highly mutated in several cancer types, providing a streamlined path to clinical proof-of-concept.
There were two clear catalysts for re-branding: (1) Advancing and diversifying our pipeline and (2) our plan to build a long-term company focused on oncology therapeutics. The Kyn name has served us well – we grew beyond its specific technical origin. Our name change is not about forgetting about the past (in fact, a frame with Kyn mementos hangs in the office to honor our legacy), but rather reflecting the company’s evolution. Our new name, Ikena Oncology, is a core element of fully realizing the renewed vision we have for our company.
Once we made the final decision to go forward with a complete rebranding, generating the new company name was the very important first step in the process. How hard can it be? Turns out that selecting just the name Ikena took us three months – here are our top five takeaways and lessons learned:
- Work with an outside firm that specializes in re-branding if you can: Some of us thought we could get together, open a few bottles of Burgundy wine from Mark’s cellar and find a new name ourselves. It was challenging to find the ideal name we were looking for which included the following attributes: original, patient-oriented, optimistic and hopeful, all of which represent our approach to discovery and development… and, importantly, a name that no one else was already using (more on that below). To increase our chance of success in finding a name that met all these criteria and would stand the test of time, we decided to partner with an expert who could advise us throughout the entire process. We selected Tom Haan (formerly of Pure/W2O, now at his own firm 22 Filmore) who had worked with our chairman, Ron Renaud, on Translate Bio’s rebrand. We consider ourselves a group of talented individuals, but we would very likely not have come up with Ikena! The new name, “Ikena,” is derived from the combination of “i” which refers to the individual patient and “ken” which means knowledge, thereby illustrating our focus on using its insights to identify patients most likely to benefit from its therapies. It also happens to be a real word in Hawaiian, meaning “special sight.”
- Prepare yourself for an emotional ride: Our rebrand team (CFO, Doug Carlson; Office Manager, Vanessa Thompson; SVP Small Molecule Discovery, Alfredo Castro; and VP of Therapeutics Development & Manufacturing, Jim Nolan; in addition to the both of us) went through multiple rounds of name iterations, and subjectively debated about one hundred choices. Some names felt good right away, others grew on us. We changed our minds on a few, liking them at first and then feeling completely different less than a day later. In addition to analyzing what the name meant, we considered the name’s look and feel. How did it sound? What feelings did it evoke? How did it look on the page? From there, we had five top contenders, including Ikena, to put through the trademark screen. We had been warned that we would likely lose a few promising prospects at this stage, but this was still a challenging part of the process that triggered some soul searching. In retrospect, it was meant to be – we could not imagine us as anything other than Ikena as we enter this next chapter at our company.
- Know thyself: We’ve come to call our consultant Tom our “spiritual guide.” Through in-depth discussions and challenging introspective questions, we really got to our essence as a company. What do we want to be known for? How do we want to make a difference in the world? What drives us? With his guidance, we were able to articulate our key attributes (passionate, insightful, deliberate, tenacious, etc.), beliefs, aspirations and strategy for the future. That insight fed into the new name, but also into all other elements, from the logo design to the theatre banner on the website. Self-awareness is critical – a clear perspective of who we are (and who we are not) as well as who we want to be was vital to the fruitfulness and authenticity of the rebranding.
- Do your research: Although it’s a subjective process overall, much thought and analysis did come into play. For example, a series of internal and external stakeholder interviews were performed to better understand our audience. We reviewed the competitive landscape in terms of names of competitors/comparator companies, as well as their positioning, logo designs and colors, and online presence. We were keen to stand out from the pack with our new corporate identity, but also wanted to be true to ourselves.
- Gain alignment across the company: Although we elected to have a subteam to make key timely decisions along the way, we were intent on engaging everyone (we had 20 employees at that time). It was important that our full team was involved in this process – their opinion mattered deeply as the foundational members of our company. During a lively late afternoon happy hour, all weighed in on the top contenders for our new name. We walked around the office, drink in hand, contemplating the potential names which were pasted on the wall. Each colleague got to vote for their favorite. Ikena resonated with the group; other names, which will remain secret, did not.
Once we selected Ikena as our new company name, besides a few spirited debates on topics such as barely distinguishable shades of blue and green, it was fairly smooth sailing. We completed the rest of the rebrand (i.e. logo, business systems, campaign development and website) in about three months. We made the strategic decision to circle back with our board once we had the new name and logo, as well as mockups of the updated business systems (signage, swag, cards, etc.). We thought that having all these elements together would better bring the new brand to life.
Although it’s early to assess its full impact, our rebrand to Ikena Oncology already has already had a positive influence on our organization. In addition to bringing our team even closer together, the rebrand initiative catalyzed the documentation of our previously unwritten culture. Led by Associate Director of BD, Scott Yerganian, our “Culture Club” (SVP non clin tox and DMPK, Alex Constan; Sr Manager Program Management, Andrew Hanna; VP Discovery Biology, Karen McGovern; Interim head of HR, Lee Ann Marchionna; and Office Manager, Vanessa Thompson) thoughtfully defined our top three corporate values and associated behaviors in a similar process as described here. Running the rebrand and culture initiatives in parallel allowed productive synergy. The redefined vision and mission, and crystallized culture allowed us to align our “outside” and “inside” brands. Moreover, it tied our new identity together with our renewed purpose as the company.
With the ongoing preparations to unveil Ikena Oncology for the first time at JP Morgan (yes, we timed it that way), we were fortunate to have the chance to reflect on the path we took to get here. This rebranding process was truly art and science – a mix of analytical and methodical thinking, creative and artistic ideas, as well as logical and emotional decisions. Going forward, we hope that our new brand will become a competitive advantage for us, an intangible value driver in the crowded oncology biotech space, in the eyes of investors, talent, partners, and patients. Our new name is just the beginning – we are committed to building a leading translational-driven oncology biotech company, delivering on our mission and programs to generate value for stakeholders and for every patient.