Leadership for social impact with Rachelle Jacques, CEO of Enzyvant

Interview by Lauren Harris, Director of X4 Life Sciences

Rachelle Jacques, CEO of the biotech company Enzyvant, shares her thoughts on Boston biotech’s gender gap, tactics to narrow the divide and the rewarding nature of developing a therapeutic treatment in a relatively new area.

What’s the story behind Enzyvant?

We are a biotech company focused on regenerative medicines for rare diseases. It is a really exciting time as we’ve just received our first FDA approval and are in the process of growing our team and pipeline. Our lead asset is a tissue based regenerative medicine, and it is indicated for treating Pediatric Congenital Athymia which is when a child is born without a thymus causing severe immunodeficiency and immune dysregulation. Sadly, with only supportive care available, most of these kids would die before the age of two or three years old. We are incredibly proud and humbled to be able to serve our patients and their families.

RETHYMIC is only the third product in the US that has been approved by the FDA with the special designation called the RMAT (Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy). It is a special designation created in 2016 – so we’re doing some really different things here!

How did you navigate your career moves?

I come from a business education but went to a liberal arts college, where I was lucky to learn how to work across disciplines. I think it’s part of the foundation that led me to where I am. My career path has been a combination of working on both the depth and breadth.

I was very lucky in my career to have mentors who helped shape my thinking. I think most people can understand the power of depth in understanding, but for me the biggest learnings came in the roles where I was working on the breadth aspect, as I would be outside my comfort zone. I found that by having those experiences early in my career it helped me figure out that if you’re not the expert, you can find people with the expertise. By finding new ways to succeed, you can bring an organization together to deliver business results. It involves some risk taking, but I like challenges and it’s been a fun path for me!

How did you grow your relationships with mentors?

I’ve had so many great mentors throughout the years, and they come in all varieties! I would put them in two categories. The first being a mentor who challenges your thinking, encourages taking chances and helps to stretch your perspective and consider alternatives. The second includes mentors I’ve had later in my career who have helped me grow, succeed, and required me to be myself and bring diverse ideas to the table. I always tell people “everyone loves to give advice,” so even if you don’t have a long-term relationship, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go in and have a chat with them.

How did you know you were ready for the challenge?

The perspective of learning how to succeed in areas where you don’t have expertise helped me to have more confidence in decisions. I think, especially in regenerative medicine, we’re doing things where there’s no playbook and a lot of innovation is necessary. In biotech, we think we can predict a path forward, but it can be bumpy and take turns we don’t anticipate. In talent, I look for people who have the functional experience we need in the company but also individuals who can learn quickly and are agile. I haven’t approached it alone. There was always somebody in my corner saying “you’re ready” and sometimes you need the reminder to continue to take bold steps.

Boston’s biotech gender gap is narrowing, but what do you think needs to be done to get more women involved in biotech to help balance the gender divide?

We’re making progress but we’re not there yet. The good news is that in the biotech industry there are so many talented women – but not at every level. We need to have more women in senior leadership positions and I think we should drive change from the top down.

One of the observations I’ve experienced is that as CEO there is the expectation that you come into the role with your fund raising network in place.  It’s no secret that fund raising networks are male dominated. So right away there is a disconnect. This is an example of where we should be stepping back and have boards ask the question “tell me how you build critical business relationships that can evolve to meet the business needs and outcomes” rather than a question like “do you already have a fund raising network in place?” If we can change the frame on some of these prerequisites so we are instead assessing underlying capabilities, we are going to more women in leadership positions, and we will start to see changes in the makeup of companies.

What would you say are your biggest challenges when competing for top talent in the biotech industry?

For a year and a half, we had a streak of zero resignations and I think that’s pretty rare. We care a lot about the culture that we’re building and are very hands-on about it. When we talk with candidates who are in an active search and are potentially looking at multiple companies, the one thing I’ve heard is the promise of getting rich quick on the IPO. Financial rewards are important, but what happens then? Our approach is to try and turn that around and instead ask the question “are you interested in serving our patients and do you share our ambition?” This way, no matter the hurdles or roadblocks, it makes a big difference in how resilient and committed your employees are to delivering on ambition.

How did you manage the process of developing a therapeutic treatment in a relatively new area?

We see all our experiences prior to working in regenerative medicine as having built our toolbox, and now we need to figure out which tools we take out for a particular aspect of what we’re trying to do. I can’t tell you the number of times the team would be working on different aspects such as development or manufacturing challenges, and we’d have to stop and reassess the question “what is the real need here?” Quite often, we must start with the patient and construct new ways and methods of working to solve the issues. It can be messy, and you spend a lot more time on thoughtful decision making. It’s a different way of working and it can be uncomfortable, but it can also be really fun and rewarding.

What was your reaction 18 months ago about the changing work environment?

In a small company, you know everybody and run into people in the hallway with questions and ideas. We had to figure out how to keep the energy and connectivity. We thought it was going to be for a short time, so we decided to experiment with a Monday morning meeting called the Jumpstart with all of the company. Its purpose was to hear what everyone was doing in the week and to use as platform to make specific requests of members of the team. It’s something that’s still going strong – everyone enjoys it, and you get exposure to what everyone else is doing.

What are your predictions for the future of regenerative biotechnologies and therapies?

I think regenerative therapies are the future, and while the science has come a long way over the past decades, we have a lot of work to do in different aspects. From my perspective we’re in the early stages of the innovation curve, so each time a company achieves a milestone it means that others can learn from it, and it has exponential impact. Many people’s lives revolve around chronic therapies. Regenerative medicines have the potential to replace therapies that today must be used over the course of a lifetime. The advancements are going to allow us to build and expand, improve scalability and our ability to reach patients. .

What has been your biggest learning curve as a leader?

Letting go of what everyone else is doing. I think early in our careers there is a view of the one way to do a role or the rigidly defined attributes of a leader. You quickly realize that this is not true. When you let go of that it’s pretty powerful as you can use your own perspectives from life and work that differentiates you from anybody else. As a leader, you must stand for something and it’s challenging if you’re trying to be somebody else. I think the faster you learn this through your career, the easier it will be for success.

I’m always striving for people to bring up the messy stuff and disagreements that nobody else wants to talk about. We really believe in that idea of creating an environment where people are comfortable, so it allows us to make better decisions and handle problems before they become worsened. Nurturing that environment takes effort and purposefulness but it’s worth it.

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