The Emerging Biotech Leader

Career Path to a Biotech CEO - Niren Shah

October 3, 2022

When most people think about the path to becoming a CEO, they conjure up a straight climb up the corporate ladder, rung by rung. But that’s not the only way. In fact, a few detours along the way can provide you with valuable tools that broaden your perspective and launch you into executive roles at a young age.

This was the case for Niren Shah, CEO of Cove Therapeutics. A biotech company focused on developing gene therapies forthe eye and muscles, with established proof-of-concept in other tissues. Shah earned his PharmD, started in academic research, later became a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at Novartis, earned an MBA, and even did a stint as a restaurant owner before ending up at Cove. This diverse range of experience has prepared him well for the role of CEO.

In this episode, Ramin Farhood, Vice President of Medical Affairs at SSI Strategy, and Kim Kushner, Senior Vice President at SSI Strategy, talked with Niren about his journey, lessons learned along the way, and where his company is headed.

The Takeaway:

  • Look for unmet needs and create a technology with a Unique Selling Proposition (USP)
  • Develop a scalable, highly efficient manufacturing process
  • Be strategic about building your team and leveraging partnerships

Diving Deeper:

Niren’s Journey to CEO. It’s not every day that someone goes from an MSL to CEO within a decade post-graduation. This journey includes not being afraid of taking risks, creating opportunities to learn, and Niren deliberately surrounding himself with successful CEOs and Founders to gain first-hand experience. His resume includes three opportunities as an MSL, Director of Communications, Executive Management, and finally CEO, Co-Founder, and President of Cove Therapeutics. Throw in owning two restaurants and earning an MBA, Niren’s career trajectory is inspiring, and there are practical takeaways sprinkled in his answers.

Stepping into the CEO role. The variety of experiences that Niren has pointed directly to carving his own path through the various organizations he’s been able to join. One of the most influential experiences was learning about risk while owning not one but two restaurants.

Niren has made investments in many biotech and tech companies, which opened the door for him to operate as an advisor and be on the board of several companies. He attributes much of his learning to these activities compared to what he learned in many of his previous roles.

He also cites that surrounding himself with other CEOs and Founders and seeing what worked and what didn’t was invaluable hands-on training. All of the experiences collectively serve him in one way or the other, but ultimately, he says: “I don’t know if you’re ever truly ready.” After listening to his path, though, it’s easy to conclude that there is plenty of confidence to be had with Niren at the helm.

Building the medical office and securing an excellent CMO. When thinking of building staff for the medical office, a key differentiator is having a CMO who has deep knowledge of the niche. In this case, gene therapy experience. Other focuses include development and translational activities, leaning on experiences from KOLs, and leveraging outsourced firms (such as SSI Strategy). Stacking the office with people who are knowledgeable from a clinical perspective, as well as a molecular biology perspective.

Cove Therapeutics is a unique and differentiated technology company with the potential for large cost savings. Cove’s manufacturing system is simple, rapid, efficient, and reproducible. Their secret sauce allows them to develop and test samples side by side within weeks, which allows for de-risking because of the number of samples.

The Investor Space.

“Different investors have different appetites.” At the onset, Niren and his team looked for investors who had deep knowledge in the gene therapy field for seed-round investments and who wanted to dig in alongside their team. What Cove is looking for as they continue are people who understand where they are as a company, as a team, and the specifics of what they’re working on. Each franchise focuses on a different niche and, consequently, will interest different investors. Their main priority and Cove’s mission is to focus on patients and continue to be their advocates–a focus that translates to the investor side.

Key Tips for Aspiring CEOs

  • Focus on development and how you can get your product into the clinic
  • Hire a staff you can count on, and count on your staff–especially a CMO with experience in the field
  • Leverage outsourced firms
  • Staff your board with people who understand your technology
  • Manage relationships with Key Opinion Leaders
  • Develop multiple paths to success but focus on a few high priorities

Memorable Quote:

“Seek opportunity, and you will find it.”

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