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Jamie Samuels still recalls some of the raised eyebrows that he saw after having completed in short order both the verbal and written portions of an exam that his future employer administered to job applicants.
Not unlike many of his fellow applicants, Samuels had been invited to take the exam after responding to a newspaper advertisement, but, unlike his peers, he had been the only foreign applicant—or, more important, the only foreign applicant able to complete both portions of the exam in fluent Chinese.
“At that time, my written Chinese was very good because I had only recently completed my senior thesis,” explains Samuels, who first became immersed in the Mandarin-speaking world in the early 1990s when at 18 years of age he spent 12 months in China in a gap year before returning to the U.S. and entering college as a Chinese language major.
“Language is a tool to go do something else, so I spent a lot of my early career in trying to figure out just what that ‘something else’ was,” remembers Samuels, whose stellar exam performance earned him a junior sales rep position with a Taiwanese medical device company.
“While I was good at sales, I discovered that it wasn’t for me—it was too much of an emotional roller coaster,” observes Samuels, who would remain in Taiwan but change companies as he migrated from sales into a corporate development role.
The job switch was enlightening.
Says Samuels: “It taught me that my financial toolbox was lacking. My response was to get myself into the most quant-oriented MBA program that I could.”
Samuels returned stateside and nabbed a Wharton MBA before being recruited by Johnson & Johnson to fill a CFO role at a small Taiwanese operating company.
“They don’t give CFO roles to fresh MBA grads for nothing. They had an operating company that was in a little bit of trouble in Taiwan, or so I figured out after starting the job,” confesses Samuels, whose career with J&J would last more than 10 years and span a variety of senior finance positions in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
Next, Samuels stepped into a CFO role for a privately owned manufacturer of air compressors. Based in Taiwan, the company operated six plants in the United States and Europe.
Finally, with more than 20 years abroad behind him, Samuels began considering CFO career opportunities back in the United States.
“When you spend as much time as I did in the Far East, you risk getting pigeonholed,” says Samuels, who, as CFO of EXUMA Biotech, may have finally figured out what that “something else” is.
Headquartered in West Palm Beach, Fla., EXUMA produces cancer-fighting therapies largely developed at research facilities in Shanghai and Shenzhen, China—a strategic advantage that Samuels seems uniquely experienced to leverage. – Jack Sweeney
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Guest: James Samuels
Company: Exuma Biotech
Headquarters: West Palm Beach, FL
Communicating Your Strategic Plan…
CFOTL: Tell us about Exuma – and what was the opportunity that brought you there?
Samuels: So this is an interesting and exciting company. The CEO is Greg Frost and he did some really innovative things with his prior company Halozyme. And really that was about taking long, drawn out processes with IV drips and turning them into a subcutaneous shot that again, that’s all about compliance. It’s all about reducing the cost and increasing access. He had an interesting idea, CAR-T, so that’s using a patient’s modified T-Cells to go and cure cancers.
It’s been very successful so far in blood cancers, basically because you can live without your B-Cells. What it does is the CAR-T’s go after an antigen and kill it, just like they would any other kind of thing. That’s one of the big obstacles that CAR-T faces, this what they call on-target, like on-target with the antigen off-tumor toxicity. These antigens exist all through your body and when you introduce CAR-T it’ll go and take out all the antigen, including the healthy cells.
Now, if you’re doing a blood cancer, it’s okay if it kills everything, because you can replace it, but you can’t live without your liver and you can’t live without your stomach. If the CAR-T goes and kills all of those healthy cells, you’re going to be in trouble. So what we’ve tried to do is come up with a solution that allows … come up with a basic, a logic gate, so that … and it’s reversible logic gate. So as the CAR-T floats through your blood system, it’ll see the antigen, but it won’t turn on unless it’s in the microenvironment of the tumor. This is something called the Warburg Effect.
To do a solid tumor, you need to be able to have these floating around in your blood system for several weeks to a month. So that’s one thing. Being able to get CAR-T to be able to safely go after solid tumors without damaging any healthy tissue. That’s the first one.
The other one is really around access, sort of going back to sort of the Halozyme experience. Autologous CAR-T is hard to manufacture. It’s expensive. It’s expensive to administer, you’re immuno-suppressing the patients for long periods of time especially if you’re going after a solid tumor and you have to do it for several weeks. So what we’re trying to do is come up with a way to avoid the chemo, avoid the immunosuppression, and basically come up with a once and done injection where we can transduce the cells in six hours or less. So basically the patient could come in in the morning, we draw some blood, we go do the transduction in about six hours, we inject it back in and basically that’s it, you’re done. And that knocks an order of magnitude off the cost.