By Mike Cloonan, CEO of Sionna Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about leading an early-stage biotech company. It’s a chance to be at the forefront of groundbreaking science and deliver game-changing therapies. You build relationships with the researchers making the discoveries and the clinicians looking for new options to help their patients. You meet families who are battling serious diseases with incredible courage and strength.
One of the most exciting opportunities when you lead a smaller company is the ability to establish a strong culture from the very beginning. Building a strong and diverse culture includes creating a shared vision for the company that can inspire and attract diverse talent. Individuals take pride in the culture and vision of their companies, and it is that strong culture that creates the desired ‘stickiness’ required to build a successful company. Culture evolves over time as the company grows and advances its programs, but focusing on getting it right from the beginning is a critical success factor.
We are working through this process right now at Sionna, where we have methodically built our team over the last few years. We are transitioning from a preclinical to a clinical stage company focused on bringing advanced therapies to people living with cystic fibrosis. If you look at the individuals who are shaping the future of cystic fibrosis care, you’ll see the tremendous impact being made by women.
During Women’s History Month and in recognition of International Women’s Day the biotech community is celebrating all women who are forging change in our industry. That is significant for us at Sionna because we need to follow the lead of the women who have deep experience in cystic fibrosis if we are going to be able to change the treatment landscape.
One example is Dr. Bonnie Ramsey – a clinician with 40 years of experience treating people with cystic fibrosis. She was the final recipient of the Richard C. Talamo Award in 2022, when the award was renamed in her honor, and is a member of the National Academy of Medicine. Dr. Ramsey drove cystic fibrosis clinical research to where we are today. While we have come a long way with treatment, there is still more work to do. Engaging with Dr. Ramsey through our Clinical Advisory Board has been one of the most important decisions we have made as a company.
A member of our Scientific Advisory Board, Dr. Taiyin Yang also has more than four decades of experience in research and development, advancing numerous investigational compounds to market. Dr. Yang serves on several Boards and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Sionna is very fortunate to have hired several accomplished women leaders who will help us achieve our vision to improve the quality of life for people living with cystic fibrosis and their families. Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Charlotte McKee, served as a pulmonary and critical care faculty member and cared for cystic fibrosis patients before and after lung transplantation. She also carried out translational research studies hoping to improve their lives and survival before joining the biotech industry.
Elena Ridloff, our Chief Financial Officer, has over 20 years of experience in finance and the life sciences industry. In a prior corporate finance position, she played a critical role in successfully raising $600 million in capital. She was also responsible for investments in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and life science sectors at a hedge fund.
Our Chief People Officer, Vanya Sagar, has more than 15 years of experience focusing on people and culture. She has led companies through pivotal transformations, including mergers and transitions from private to post-IPO. All the while attracting, retaining, and developing world-class diverse teams.
At Sionna, we believe the quality and caliber of our senior leaders can inspire the next generation of women leaders. Across finance, human resources, operations, regulatory affairs, and development we have diverse leaders at the helm. At the VP level and above, more than 60 percent are women and/or people of color. Their work empowers and motivates our team every day. Many of us in biotech recognize the significance of having that kind of culture. We have been purposeful in our approach to building a diverse team because we feel diversity of thinking, background, and demographics is a source of strength and competitive advantage.
We must continue to focus on fostering diversity in our hiring and in building leadership teams if we are going to have the kind of impact that’s possible in the biotech industry. Establishing a culture starts on day one with a commitment to building something special and has a lasting impact on the success of early-stage biotech companies. A diverse team is a key component of a great culture and enables a shared commitment and vision to improve the lives of so many patients and families struggling with debilitating diseases. That is a vision we all share in biotech, to make difference and potentially change lives… and a strong culture is critical to deliver the vision.