When veteran CFO Ivor Macleod first contemplated joining an early-stage pharma company, the condition known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) was not appearing in nightly news headlines and was yet to be ranked as the number one cause of death among COVID-19 patients. Nevertheless, ARDS captured his attention—or rather, Athersys did.
The Cleveland, Ohio–based company, with fewer than 100 employees, met one of Macleod’s foremost criteria in that the company was focused on the area of medicine known as “critical care”—a space that Macleod characterizes as having “high unmet medical needs.”
“It was the science that attracted me and not necessarily the capital structure,” explains Macleod, when asked whether he may have preferred to join a privately held firm instead of a public one.
As the former CFO of F. Hoffmann–La Roche, Inc., North America, and vice president of finance for Merck Research Labs, Macleod knows better than most the risks being taken and the high rate of failure when it comes to introducing new medications.
“You take big swings at big diseases, and you are not always going to be successful. So you have to be prepared for failure,” explains Macleod, who says that he came to view “the job” of finance leadership in pharma as being one of enablement.
Says Macleod: “I didn’t want scientists to be worrying about resources. I would take care of that. I had to make certain that they had all of what they needed to continue on their path.”
Last January, when he entered Athersys’s CFO office for the first time, he would have only a mere few weeks to work alongside his new colleagues before the spread of COVID-19 within the U.S. led management to encourage employees to work from home.
Suddenly, as the disease spread, ARDS began to garner headlines, and last spring, within a span of 6 weeks, Athersys was granted FDA approval for a COVID-induced ARDS study and subsequently began populating designated sites with patients.
“There is no known treatment for ARDS,” comments Macleod, who appears to be savoring his role as an enabler of science now more than ever. –Jack Sweeney
Guest: Ivor Macleod
Headquarters: Cleveland, OH
ARDS captured Macleod’s attention—or rather, Athersys did.
CFOTL: Most of your finance career has been spent in large enterprise environments. Were small or early-stage companies always part of the plan, or was this an entirely new chapter? If so, why now?
Macleod: Well, my first real exposure to a small company was my present experience, Athersys, and Athersys is a very unique company. Yes, they’re small, fewer than a hundred employees. It’s a regenerative medicine company. You can tell by looking at my resume that I’ve always been attracted to scientists and science and good science. What I think sets Athersys apart from a lot of the other opportunities at which I looked is that they’re very focused on what we refer to as the “critical care” space. This is a high area of unmet medical need. The two leading indications are ischemic stroke and ARDS, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which both have Fast Track designation from the FDA. They have good data in both. They are currently in phase three in both areas, and there are more indications to come. ARDS actually has received a lot of press recently because, of course, it is the leading cause of death in COVID-19–infected patients.
For those who eventually end up on a ventilator, it’s ARDS that they’re dying of. This is unfortunate. It’s a condition very similar to that of people who die from influenza or pneumonia or MERS or SARS. When I joined the company, it was the science that attracted me initially because there is no known treatment for ARDS. Now here we are with Fast Track designation and good phase two data going into phase three. Hopefully, we’ll be on the market in a couple of years. This would be fantastic. To have an impact on this part of the healthcare market, that, to me, would just be a phenomenal topping on my career.
The management team of the company has been around for 25 years, which in itself is unusual, but the leadership primarily are friends from Stanford Medical School. They’re all from the Bay Area. My wife is from the Bay Area. So we all had an awful lot in common, but they came out to Cleveland, which is where we’re based. Of course, everybody has heard of the Cleveland Clinic. Everyone’s heard of Case Western Reserve—maybe not so much University Hospital, but this is a hub for regenerative medicine. So, was it the small company that attracted me? I must admit that I’m enjoying walking into the office next door for a decision rather than flying across the Atlantic. That’s refreshing. And I feel like I’m really contributing. In a company of 80,000 people, you can have influence, but it’s limited. There’s also a lot to be said for the structural inertia in some of these big companies, but in a place like Athersys, if you drop the ball, people know. And I like that. It’s an exciting environment—dynamic, lots going on. So, that’s really why I joined. jb