By Robert Clarke, CEO and founder of Kinaset Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
2022 has been a hallmark year for Kinaset Therapeutics as we’ve continued to advance our P1b trial with our lead asset. We’ve also nearly doubled the size of the team…to 5 employees from 3. A testament to our team, we’ve received a fair amount of praise (and sometimes incredulity) from investors and business development colleagues alike with regard to the amount of progress we have made with such a small team.
Since the company uncloaked in November of 2020, we’ve efficiently advanced our lead program through formulation development and scale-up, non-clinical safety testing, and made we’re working on completing a Phase 1b safety/tolerability/pharmacodynamic trial in moderate-to-severe asthma and COPD patients leading into a planned Phase 2 in severe asthma targeted for mid-2023. We’ve managed to do this split by the Atlantic Ocean (60/40 staff) in the US and UK after launching during a global pandemic.
The above I know reads as a snarky humble brag or soft flex (the “I am so honored…” type of lede we often see in the biotech social media feeds) which is not my intent. My goal instead is to provide an alternate view of how an effective small team can push drug development forward. As we all know, drug development is inherently difficult and I acknowledge so far so good on our development path. But this good fortune is most certainly augmented by the decision-making and inherent knowledge of the Kinaset team.
I would like to share some of the key tenets that have allowed us to operate efficiently and speedily and that this might help others as they consider ways to structure a newco.
- Experience matters
In our small team model, there really is no way to substitute for experience and time on the job. In the case of Kinaset, all five of us have worked in drug development for over 20 years. We all had some of that experience at mid- to large biotech/pharma and multiple entrepreneurial experiences under our belt. We’ve worked from VC-backed to the public markets. Collectively we have seen a few things and that gives us some advantage in anticipating and reacting to challenges. By no means will I be so arrogant as to state we have all the answers but with the level and breadth of experience around the table, we do have a significant number of past lessons to draw from which is highly valuable.
For the “founder-led” movement out there, I cheer you on for following your dream of turning your invention/idea/experiment into something that can help patients in the future. In fact, Kinaset is a “founder-led” company with three of our experienced C-suite as founders. For less tenured founders, I would only suggest that somewhere early in the genesis of a newco you think about adding a senior team member who does have that longer track record. That experience and their lessons learned can help you achieve your vision.
- Leverage the network
Per the point above, we’ve all been doing this a while and therefore we’ve developed extensive networks. When you are a small team, accessing the network is a critical part of managing our tasks and deliverables. Every one of us on the team has a specific area where we are the team Subject Matter Expert (SME), but with our experience and network, we also all have the ability to wear multiple hats. This inherently means there can be no silos in our approach. We all can and must contribute to multiple areas. In that sense, the company goals are everyone’s goals.
In our case, we have another valuable resource at Kinaset. As a venture-backed company, we have the potential to tap into expertise at the firms (VC/EIRs/KOLS, etc.). In fact, those EIR/KOL might well have assisted in due diligence on the company pre-Series A so they already have a solid handle on the story/strategy. They challenge the team’s thinking with their own perspective and that is a good thing as diversity of thinking is part of a winning strategy in biotech.
Pro Tip: When you are a smaller company, the BOD can play an outsized (and important) role. However, the company is still led by the team. When faced with a challenge, the team needs to process the possible outcomes and recommend potential paths forward. It is the team’s responsibility to identify and recommend a solution. The BOD can then provide collective guidance and help the team get to an actionable plan forward. I thank Terry McGuire from Polaris for that valuable guidance when I was first starting as a CEO.
- One-on-one time
While we don’t have enough team members to field a company softball team for nights of team building on the diamonds of Cambridge, we do want to have a company identity and culture that keeps the team engaged and connected. With a small team, you are going very fast and being pulled in multiple directions. It will be no surprise that we all talk/see each other on a nearly daily basis. However, with such a small reporting structure and group, a critical component is one-on-one time with individuals. These can be critically important conversations around a key development activity but just as important are the conversations about weekend plans or family or that concert you went to. When there is so much contact and familiarity, it is always worth thinking about the individual and finding some time to interact on the little things.
- Burn, baby, burn
One significant advantage of a small team is the effect on burn rate. In the current market environment, our small team does feel like a good place to be as we advance our program. We are a virtual company, so we have very low overhead with no R&D HQ. With a small team, we maintain a healthy consultant/KOL budget that might be offset by additional FTEs. But back to point #1, with our experienced team, we are able to carry quite a bit of water on our development activities. We will definitely grow and make sure the company stays right sized as we advance in our development programs. But for now, coming out of COVID-19, our virtual model and our approach of CRO/KOL contract use is serving Kinaset and our burn rate very well. So as our BODs ask us to extend capital, perhaps consideration of some near-term outsourcing could prove to be less expensive than FTEs over the next few months.
As we head into the latter months of 2022, all our companies, large and small, continue to deal with the choppy waters of the market. I encourage us all to stay the course as what we are doing is very important to people in need. Thanks everyone and I look forward to seeing more people in 3-D in 2023!!!
Sincere thanks to Roger Heerman and Erika Clarke for suggested edits and content input.