Nurturing a culture of “smart speed” to bring gene therapy to the world

AVRO

Georgette Verdin - Chief of Human Resources Officer | Deanna Petersen, MBA - Chief Business Officer

As we approach our 5th anniversary and surpass our 125th hire, we have come to recognize that one of the most important characteristics for success at AVROBIO is a commitment to our mantra of “smart speed.” We’ve been thinking a lot about what that term means for us – and for the field of gene therapy.

We coined the term back in the earliest days of AVROBIO, when the entire company consisted of four people sitting around one table, trying to figure out how to fulfill our vision of bringing personalized gene therapy to patients worldwide. We were committed to going about our work with the knowledge that every second of every minute of every day counted. 

This may seem obvious, at face value. Most biotech companies focused on treating serious diseases know there are patients and families waiting. The urgency feels especially acute to us because we’re developing lentiviral gene therapies for relentless lysosomal disorders. We have to move fast to reach today’s patients in time to halt or reverse the progression of their disease.

But the imperative of speed also has direct implications on the business model when applied to a gene therapy company. Biotech companies that develop chronic treatments typically can count on an annual revenue flow for as long as their patents protect the IP, often out 20 years or more. The business model for a gene therapy company is very different – the opportunity to generate revenues is pulled forward in time because of the one-time treatment model and price. Gene therapy companies can potentially make 20 years’ worth of annual revenue in the first 10 (or so) years following product approval. The idea, after all, is to deliver a one-time treatment that may last decades, if not a lifetime. In the rare disease space, that means the first company to market with an effective gene therapy has the potential to collect higher revenues quickly in the initial years, but revenues will fall off after most existing patients have been treated, given that just a small number of new patients will be diagnosed each year. The gene therapy business model brings the need for smart speed into focus.

To build a sustainable gene therapy business that can consistently deliver returns for its investors, we decided early on that we would have to work on multiple programs in parallel, all with the same sense of urgency. We needed to have our second, third and fourth clinical programs waiting in the wings, just a half-step behind the first, to build a sustainable revenue model. To succeed in gene therapy, you can’t afford to work on each consecutively. 

A work ethic and a business model


It was with these imperatives in mind that Deanna, chief business officer, coined smart speed. The term encapsulated both our work ethic and our business model – and it quickly became woven into AVROBIO’s DNA. 

What does it mean in practice? It means feeling that urgency in the gut, day after day. It implies you have a deep understanding of the needs of patients and families who are waiting for new treatment options. It also requires casting aside some of your preconceived notions of how to run a business. 

We set out to nurture a culture that empowered people to make smart, calculated decisions to move programs along faster. A culture that encouraged every single employee at AVROBIO to rethink tried-and-true approaches to their work. Standard operating procedure might bring in data in four months. We challenged our team to find a way to get that down to three months – and they did. Multiply that same urgency to disrupt the status quo across every function and you start to see how smart speed works. Job descriptions in the company included the phrase “ability to re-think and re-imagine every step…” and it wasn’t window dressing. It requires everyone to be a pioneer – and everyone to be driven.

We also had to re-engineer our understanding of efficiency. We didn’t want our teams to be so lean that they wouldn’t have the bandwidth to seize unexpected opportunities. We tolerated some duplication of effort in service of our imperative to advance multiple programs in parallel. 

It’s important to note that the “smart” is just as important as the “speed” in our mantra. You must have a deep drive to win, but not at the expense of your data, your protocols or your colleagues. We can never, ever be reckless about our work. It does not mean speed for the sake of speed, or speed at any cost. Our vision centers around smart decision-making in service of our goal to bring potentially transformative gene therapies to patients and families as fast as possible. 

Building a culture that nourishes smart speed


As you might imagine, smart speed requires teamwork. You can’t assess the opportunities or meet the challenges alone. Everyone around you must be committed to acting with integrity, transparency and urgency for this to work.

Nurturing this mindset while operating a start-up with limited resources requires great clarity of purpose and an exceptionally strong company culture. Last year, we upped our game by hiring Georgette as chief human resources officer to focus on organizational development, recruitment and building a robust HR function as well as building out AVROBIO’s unique culture.

If you’re going to work this hard and move this fast, you really have to trust – and like – the folks around you. And you need an abundance of goodwill. We built that into the AVROBIO model early, setting aside time to bring people together in a relaxed environment. Like many biotechs, we hosted twice-a-week catered lunches before the COVID-19 pandemic. We also launched company traditions, such as our cutthroat chili cookoff, our “Thirsty Thursday” poker games and our over-the-top Halloween festivities. Our CEO, Geoff MacKay, often sets the tone. (He spent Rare Disease Day dressed in zebra-striped pajamas and came to a recent Town Hall in full Darth Vader regalia.)

Beyond ensuring strong employee engagement, we have worked to create a well-functioning executive team that trusts and likes each other. Georgette and Geoff have worked together to craft quarterly offsites with the executive team. At these sessions we work on strategy and draft action plans, and also strengthen our relationships with one another. We hired an executive coach to help us all communicate honestly and constructively, especially in high-stress situations. We took the lessons very seriously; like any sports team, we practiced the scenarios the coach had laid out. We even graded ourselves. These sessions weren’t always easy, but they were essential to build the bonds we needed to establish a strong company culture. And importantly, we balance these sessions with opportunities to have fun.

Recently the executive team opened our offsite (we’ve all gone virtual) with a “Secret Santa in June” exchange. Everyone was tasked with buying a gift for another member of the team and sending the gift to their home with instructions that they could not open it until the day of the offsite. When we opened our gift one by one on Zoom, the giver shared why they had chosen that particular item. The results were hilarious and heartfelt. We all realized how much we missed seeing each other face-to-face and appreciated the thoughtfulness of our colleagues.

Those events take time away from the day-to-day work, but they’re essential to maintaining a culture of smart speed. It’s our friendships – our genuine affection for one another – that keep us all afloat as we move mountains to advance our purpose of bringing personalized gene therapies to patients worldwide. 

Cultural biomarkers that showcase our values


Good organizational development pivots on culture, so last fall we kicked off an effort to codify our core values. 

We conducted focus groups representing every function and seniority level to bubble up ideas and hone into what was really core to AVROBIO. We got great insights, but Georgette pushed us to go deeper – to identify the “cultural biomarkers” that showed our unique company culture at work.

During the month of January, we tacked blank sheets of paper to a kitchen wall and encouraged everyone to share their reflections. The comments reflected a mindset very much aligned with smart speed:

  • “Maybe I’m not always going in the right direction, but my team won’t let me fail.”
  • “When we hit obstacles, we go over, around, under – whatever it takes to figure it out.”
  • “We hear from patients almost every month. They’re our north star.”
  • “Disagreements are not personal – they help move us forward.”
  • “We feel very connected to patients.”
  • “I really don’t want to let my colleagues down.”
  • “Every second, of every minute, of every day, counts.”

Then there’s this one, which genuinely captures the camaraderie of AVROBIO:

  • “I notice that Elise begins to sing when the office gets a little tense. She has a way of calming the vibe.’’

From these exercises, we came up with a set of values that resonate across the company: At AVROBIO, we are passionate, making a powerful difference for patients; problem solvers, overcoming obstacles and always learning; collaborative, working together with respect and openness; pioneers, pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo; and driven, tenacious in pursuit of our greater purpose.

AVROBIO Core Values

Underpinning all these values is the concept of smart speed, which remains foundational to AVROBIO. People love to be part of team that is determined to succeed, and they don’t mind working hard if everyone around them is pulling toward the same goal – smart decision making and advancing with a do-it-now, do-it-right, do-it-fast mentality.

It’s the secret to our success so far. We can’t wait to see where it takes us next.

We’ll end with the hashtag coined by our CSO, Chris Mason: #EverySecond.

This blog was co-written by Deanna Petersen, chief business officer of AVROBIO, @dmp9818 and Georgette Verdin, chief human resources officer at AVROBIO, @VerdinGeorgette as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC. 

AVROBIO is currently conducting clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of its investigational lentiviral gene therapies. None of these investigational gene therapies has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other regulatory agency. For more information, go to www.avrobio.com.