Dr. Nagesh Mahanthappa is the CEO and President of Cambridge-based Scholar Rock and a Polaris Repeat Entrepreneur having previously served as a founding employee of both Avila Therapeutics and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. We caught up with Dr. Mahanthappa to discuss his latest company which targets the microenvironment.
Can you explain in layman’s terms what Scholar Rock does and how you think it could change the world?
Scholar Rock is a drug discovery company focused on fundamental biologic therapies for diseases such as autoimmune disease, fibrosis and diseases of musculoskeletal systems. What these diseases have in common is they are all mediated by a particular family of proteins called transforming growth factors. These particular growth factors have been studied for many years; however, there has been little progress in being able to manipulate them for therapeutic outcomes. Scholar Rock is creating truly groundbreaking medicines that can be administered to the whole body, with have very specific effects at sites where the growth factor causes disease, without impacting other areas where the growth factor is needed for normal functions.
Imagine that you are in a house filled with people, and some want to stay up and watch the “Tonight Show,” while others want to go to bed. You wouldn’t go to the circuit breaker and cut all of the lights to the house would you? You’d turn off and on the individual lights as needed. In theory, that’s what we’re trying to do with growth factors.
What are the biggest challenges you face in moving the company forward and how will you address them?
I think that the key challenge is staying focused, yet remaining open to new opportunities as they arise externally and within our own data. Sometimes you become so fixated on the task at hand that you miss an opportunity that manifests itself on the side. At the same time, you can’t get distracted from bringing breakthrough medicines to the marketplace. It is very much a balance.
What are the key factors of success for Scholar Rock during this phase of the company?
I think a huge aspect of early success revolves around the team you assemble. We have been fortunate to hire very talented people at all levels – research assistants, scientists and management. We’ve made huge progress with a small team of ten. I think the number one (if not number two and three success factors) is the team — hiring the right people who can work together, and good management. The science can then align with building the enterprise.
Who inspires you? Are there other CEOs or industry leaders you look up to for their leadership qualities?
Two people that are tremendous role models are actually two CEOs of former Polaris portfolio companies: John Maragnore and Katrine Bosley. John is the CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. What John represents is vision–he has really strong vision and he has taught me about how one navigates the challenges of building a solid platform.
Katrine Bosley is the former CEO of Avila Therapeutics and now a Board member of Scholar Rock. She is the perfect complement to John. I admire her for her tremendous discipline and focus. While John really engaged me in how you think about the broad vision, Katrine taught me about the value of focus, constraints, and boundaries to make sure you channel the resources in the most effective way. John and Katrine are both phenomenal role models and CEOs.
What is your favorite part about your job?
When I know that we have the right resources in place to be able to do what we need to do, that is a favorite time for me. I think that you can take the boy out of the lab, but you can’t take the lab out of the boy. I’m still a scientist at heart and nothing gets me more excited than talking to our scientists and looking at the data.
The only thing that rises above that is when you take a molecule into the clinic and get it into that first patient. You know then that many people may benefit from all of your hard work and their lives will be changed for the better.
If you could give one piece of advice to a startup CEO, what would it be?
Don’t forget to breathe. You can get so wrapped up in the immediate task at hand that if you don’t take in all that is going on and appreciate what your team is doing, then you don’t feel the excitement and the joy in the process.