For many professionals, the period stretching roughly from March 2020 to December 2022 will forever be known simply as “COVID,” as in “I changed jobs during COVID.”
Thus it was for Erin Colgan, who in July 2020—after having invested 9 years within the finance rank-and-file of pharma giant Vertex Pharmaceuticals and 8 years with PWC—opted to become the 20th employee of a promising biotech start-up.
Still, Colgan’s game change was prompted not by COVID’s well-earned reputation for employment displacement nor by the allure of start-up dreams but by what recruiters sometimes refer to as “the call to leadership.” For Colgan, this meant joining Sensei Bio as senior vice president of finance, a title that guaranteed her the status of being the firm’s senior most finance executive.
At the time of her appointment, the pandemic had already begun to be recognized as having certain accelerant qualities for business, which were perhaps nowhere on display more than inside the biotech realm, an industry that was experiencing a COVID-fueled adrenaline rush.Read More
“It was only about 6 weeks after I joined the company that we found ourselves meeting with banks to talk about how we could go public to capitalize on the market being especially hot for biotechs,” explains Colgan, who alongside her CEO spearheaded an IPO process that ultimately raised $152 million for Sensei Bio in February 2021.
However, as Colgan was to learn, a more formidable leadership challenge still lay ahead, as a Phase 2 trial program began raising doubts about a drug’s future trajectory and the biotech market at large suddenly began to cool.
“Six months past our IPO, some data on a Phase 2 program came in that wasn’t what we had hoped for, so we huddled,” recalls Colgan, who reports that the company’s cash runway then became top-of-mind as management debated whether the capital markets for small-cap biotech firms might turn around in 6 to 9 months.
“I said, ‘Let’s assume that this period lasts a lot longer and see how long we can stretch our cash while still enabling ourselves to achieve what we feel is most important,’” continues Colgan, who tells us that Sensei Bio ultimately advanced down her preferred path, which allowed the firm to extend its cash reach by a year and a half.
In the 6 months that followed, Colgan remarks, the finance, science, and medical areas of the business achieved a shared mind-set that allowed them to work together in the new, capital-constrained biotech environment.
In January 2022, nearly a year after Sensei Bio’s IPO and 6 months after Colgan had made her compelling argument to extend the firm’s cash coverage calendar, she was named CFO—an appointment that we would argue she had sealed up a half-year earlier when certain hard decisions had been called for.
Colgan observes: “You can’t make those types of decisions ‘later.’ You have to make them early and often.” –Jack Sweeney
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CFOTL: Tell us about Sensei Bio … what does this company do, and what are its offerings today?
Colgan: We’re a small biotech firm, newly clinical-stage—we just started back in the clinic in May of this year. We are an oncology company, and specifically an immuno-oncology one. For many folks, a product like KEYTRUDA might ring a bell. There are several blockbuster immuno-oncology drugs on the market, but they actually tend to have a pretty low efficacy rate. Far less than 50% of patients who are treated with these products see a long-term benefit. So, what Sensei is really after is to help the vast majority of patients see some additional clinical benefit from a product. We’re doing this by trying to take advantage of a specific set of qualities that exists within a tumor as opposed to in the regular immune system. If we’re successful, this could be a real game-changer for patients who don’t have anything in the market that works for them right now.Read More
My main priority is to make sure that we remain really financially diligent so that we can get this clinical asset as far along in its progress as we can. We’ll be at a point in the next 12 months when we’ll need to go out and raise additional capital to get the program into bigger trials in Phase 3 and beyond. We’ll need to figure out how to differentiate ourselves from all of the little biotechs out there and how to get people’s attention and interest. We’ll need to deliver the data that we get from our early trials in a really, really thoughtful and comprehensive way so that we can raise this money efficiently and effectively.
Sensei Bio | www.senseibio.com | Rockville, Md