Kelsey Moody on leadership: Be coachable and hire people who can teach you
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Kelsey Moody was a medical student at Upstate Medical University when he landed a $540,000 research grant and set up his own pharmaceutical research company.
"After we had cleared our first million dollars in funding for the company, I had to choose: Did I want to finish my medical doctorate or did I want to gamble on the company? I chose the company, and it's continued to take off since then. I think I made the right choice."
He pauses, points to a wall of photos, and laughs: "Every year, we kind of celebrate that I haven't killed the company yet. That's what these pictures are. We do a company retreat every year at my parents' camp on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh."
Moody is CEO of Ichor Therapeutics Inc. He founded the company in May 2013 in his apartment on Bryant Avenue in Tipperary Hill. In 2014, he moved it to LaFayette.
Ichor now employs 19 people, including technicians and scientists, from bachelor level to Ph.D. level.
Give me the elevator speech for Ichor.
Ichor is a company of companies. We have several of our own pre-clinical programs working on drug development for a number of age-associated diseases. We also perform contract research projects for third-party clients, which helps to cover the bills for our own research.
It's a mix between our own intramural programs and contract work.
So, you conduct research to create drugs to bring to market yourself while also making or experimenting with drugs for other pharmaceutical companies.
Right. Once you have the infrastructure in place, which we do, you can really scale that and take on lots of diverse projects.
Bearing in mind that we only started about four years ago, we've been doubling in size annually. I've bought a new building to expand the company every 18 months. We're on task to purchase another building and expand again in 2018.
We're expecting our contract work to more than double. We've done around $5 million dollars in capital for our various programs.
We have programs ranging from regenerative medicine to oncology, macular degeneration, a type of age-related eye disease, and, probably one of the hot new areas that's becoming big, cellular senescence. Cells that get old in your body and contribute in a significant way to a variety of age-associated diseases just by lingering around.
There's been interesting research coming out in the last two or three years that shows that if you can selectively destroy these cells it might be effective for chronic age-related diseases.
I started off the normal run-of-the-mill stuff. I was a high school and college athlete. I held management positions in some small businesses when I was in high school (Beekmantown High School, near Plattsburgh).
Tell me about those management positions during high school.
My pastime was playing paint ball. There was a little paint-ball shop that I started to run for the guy that had started it. The first event that I ran, I quadrupled his revenue by making changes. He ended up letting me run that entire thing.
That was one of my first jumps into thinking about process and organizational management.
I worked at McDonald's.
Most people say: OK, McDonald's is a stepping-stone or something like that. But what was amazing to me about McDonald's was the process end of it. They could plug any individual into their process. Within even a few hours, they had a productive individual that could meet exacting quality-control specifications.
Those lessons help me with this company. We set up very robust processes and systems. It means we don't require as many M.D.s and Ph.D.s to do all the things that we're doing with technicians and people with undergraduate degrees.
Tell me more about your path to leadership of Ichor.
I did my first year of college at SUNY Potsdam, where I also did Army ROTC. Then I transferred to SUNY Plattsburgh, back to my hometown to finish my undergrad degree (graduating in 2010). I double-majored in psychology and cellular biochemistry. My original intent was to go into the military in intelligence. I was taking Arabic and Farsi. Then, I ended up being inspired to get into the Wounded Warrior project and regenerative medicine. There's overlap between that and pharmaceutical development for age-related diseases.
I got an MBA from Concordia University in Wisconsin. It was an online degree. That allowed me to do the MBA concurrent while working in California and in my first year of medical school at Upstate.
In California, I worked at a startup in Silicon Valley. One of my mentors, John Schloendorn, received $1.5 million in investment capital from billionaire Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal. I was recruited to this company out of undergrad. We did stem cell research.
During that time, I learned how to buy lab equipment very inexpensively. I didn't have a real income because it was a startup, so I would buy equipment for pennies on the dollar at auction, refurbish it, and sell it to UCSF and Stanford for a thousand-x. That's how I fed myself. When it came time to start my company in Syracuse, I was able to put online an extremely robust infrastructure for quite literally pennies on the dollar.
That frugality and having that level of infrastructure allowed the company to take off.
What's your advice for effective leadership or for someone who aspires to take on leadership responsibilities?
There are a lot of things, but a main one is hiring really good people who not only can do the job, but can teach you.
When I evaluate prospective employees, I'm not just looking for people who can do the job well, but I'm also looking for people that can teach me why they're making the decisions they're making, how they're operating. So then I understand where they are coming from and why those decisions are being made.
This is especially true in a regulated environment, where we operate. For instance, we have a quality assurance director responsible for insuring that we meet rigorous regulatory requirements.
A lot of people in my position (in other highly regulated companies) don't know the details of the regulations. They hire a specialist.
In our case, I chose to work with someone who has spent an exhaustive amount of time teaching me all aspects of these regulations and explaining to me what FDA auditors are looking for when they audit a facility like ours, what goes in to the compliance standards, why the standards are, the historical context of the standards. So, I understand not just what needs to be done, but why it needs to be done that way. That's very different from hiring a specialist, saying get this sorted for me, and assuming that they're doing everything right, have it sorted, and know what they're doing.
Kind of in line with that is some advice that is a hard thing for anyone - especially for anyone like me who is competitive by nature and likes to be the best at everything. When you're doing any sort of venture, you need to be humbled by how little you actually know about things. You have to step aside from your ego.
Allow yourself to be coachable. It's not sufficient to hire good people that can teach you; you have to have an element of coachability about you.
The more successful you are, the harder it is to sidestep the barrier of personal ego, the harder it is to have an open, coachable mindset.
Another thing that has been absolutely essential for our company is working with employees to understand that mistakes happen. And they will never be penalized for genuine mistakes.
What do you mean by "genuine" mistakes?
We're in a highly regulated environment where studies need to be done absolutely perfectly.
Even so, it is very, very easy to say: Oh I was supposed to do this thing in a very particular way. Out of a hundred-step protocol, I forgot step 79. It seems kind of minor, so I'm just going to check that it was done. Or: Oh, I left that sample heating just a little longer than I was supposed to because I was busy doing all these other things. People kind of brush over minor violations in the protocol if they think they'll be punished for making the mistake.
We share mistakes in a very open and humbling way.
We actively reward any of our people for coming forward to us with mistakes. It's OK if a mistake is made.
What we can't have is a result come out of an experiment and bet millions of dollars on those results only to find out about some minor thing that someone was too afraid to share with us, that the result is based on something that's just not true.
When we're betting millions of dollars on having products that work, we can't get to the end and discover that they don't work in the way that we thought.
So, we spend time getting that to our staff. Anything that you do wrong, as long as it's documented and reported, is acceptable. You won't get in trouble for that. If you lie, it's an immediately fireable offense no matter how minor the lie.
We have discovered the result of that is incredible. We had a recent experience where an intern grabbed a vial from the freezer to do a study. She accidentally grabbed the wrong vial. When she realized she made a mistake, she reported to us that she had made the mistake. She was completely upfront about what she did.
As a result of her accident, we discovered an interesting and potentially impactful pathway. We've now committed hundred of thousands of dollars and hours and resources to go after that. We wouldn't have known to look at that path if she had been afraid to share with us the mistake. The results wouldn't have been able to be replicated and it would have been chalked up to a false finding during confirmation studies that were done correctly.
So, mistakes can be beneficial if you acknowledge them.
Sure. And that's the basis of value. Value is finding something that is worth more than you think it is. If a mistake is made, then there's always an opportunity to find something unexpected. That can be a huge driver of value for a company like ours.
A lot of our value is based on intellectual property for nonobvious things that are discovered. When you're always reporting mistakes and the minor variances, there's a lot of patentable content and other protectable findings that you identify in that process.
Any other advice for someone moving into a leadership role?
All the usual suspects apply - treat your people well, work hard, understand the business you're operating in.
Understand what your people's wants and needs actually are, rather than what you think they are. I'll give you a short example.
When we started expanding, I was excited to offer a better benefits package - matching 401(k), health insurance, and all sorts of things.
I went around and I had this list in my mind to roll out in our benefits package. We ended up doing most of those things, but I spent time asking: If the sky's the limit, what do you guys want? I individually talked to all employees. The thing that has driven more employee satisfaction at this company than any other perk is a water cooler.
A water cooler?
I didn't mind the tap water here - I think it's fine. But many employees wanted a water cooler in the break-room kitchen. It didn't even come on my radar as something anyone would care about, much less a huge driver of satisfaction. And yet, employees wanted a water cooler so they could conveniently fill up their water bottles.
So I put that in.
We do little gag awards for different exemplary things that employees do. All of that drives satisfaction and happiness.
Listening to people means you don't work on your own assumptions. You ask and act on what you learn.
Yeah. Make data-driven decisions, and data is obtained by listening to the people you want information from.
What do you see as the qualities of effective leadership?
Obviously, you're looking for someone who is treating people well and trying to work for the greater good.
The two things that I think that would be most important would be vision. You need someone who is setting a standard. Think of Elon Musk with SpaceX. Ask anyone there what they're doing there, and they know they're putting a person on Mars. That's a pretty profound thing and everyone from the engineer to the custodian and everyone in-between understands they are working to put somebody on Mars. That's a vision bigger than the individual leading the organization.
For a leader, the best thing you can possibly do is to put that kind of vision into your employees.
What are attributes of poor leadership?
The main thing is not distinguishing between what they see and what it can become.
People can be good or bad.
Projects can be good or bad.
I think a good leader can distinguish. OK, you can have a very good person with a really bad project, and that person might still be worthy of support even if the project is bad.
Or, you could have a very good project and not a very good team.
What happens if you work with that person to put the right support around them or the right team, and compensate for their deficiencies? Maybe there is a ton of value that is being glossed over and underrepresented.
So, really separating out different types of value and understanding where things are and extrapolating that to what they could become. That's something I don't see often. I think a lot of people aren't very good at it.
Tell me about a single decision or challenge you met that's come to define the direction of your company.
Certainly dropping out of medical school would be the obvious one to point to.
I wish I had some kind of stoic: Wow, that was the pivot point.
But it was the accumulation of lots of different things combined with just finally betting on doing something that we had no business even attempting to do and then discovering that we could pull it off.