Recently, Kleanthis sat down with Dana Tennis of RetirementDNA to discuss his early years in biotech, his recent move into venture capital, and his strong connection to his overseas roots in Greece.
Q1: Kleanthis, you’re the founder and CEO of an exciting company. What was the inspiration to start Anadys? By the way, what does the name mean – we assume it’s Greek for something!?
It’s all about being passionate about what you do. I wanted to create a company with a mission to discover, develop and commercialize novel medicines to treat serious viral infections. In the past year the company has expanded its mission to include another therapeutic area – cancer.
The company was created by combining assets from both east coast and west coast academic centers and businesses, thus the name Anadys, which is a combination of the Greek words for east and west. You guessed correctly.
Q2: Tell us about the very early days. What was your first source of funding and share with us any funny stories about how you stretched those early dollars!
Anadys started in the tradition of an enterprise “created in a garage” with four Anadys employees working out of my home. The company was seeded financially by its founders and received its first institutional venture funding within the first 12 months. As an entrepreneur you learn quickly to value every dollar and put it to work with an end goal in mind without compromising the potential of the outcome or your ability to excel. Our motto was and continues to this day to be… “Armani at a discount”.
Q3: What do you remember most about those early days?
These are the most formative years of the company’s life. You are creating the culture by defining the company’s core values, vision and crafting its path to success. This is the period I fondly recall as the “creative chaos” of Anadys.
Q4: You have a fascinating background and have spent some time in great places. Tell us about the road from Greece to San Diego.
I was both a Greek government Scholar and an Onassis Scholar and following my undergrad studies in Biology in Greece I moved to Stockholm, Sweden to receive my M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Molecular Biology.
I crossed the Atlantic twice. I initially moved from Sweden to the U.S. to start my post doctoral work at the Rockefeller University in New York, supported by National Institute of Health and Swedish Government scholarships. I then returned to Sweden and was a tenured Associate Professor at The Karolinska Nobel Medical Institute, in Stockholm. Ultimately, I moved back to the U.S. and was recruited by the NIH to join the Human Genome Project. In 1997 I was recruited by a San Diego company, Aurora (now Vertex Pharmaceuticals), to head their efforts in Genomics. I founded Anadys in the beginning of 2000.
Q5: If Greece were to develop a flourishing biotech and life sciences industry, how strong would the emotional pull be to return home?
Greeks have always been peripatetic people - colonizing the corners of the earth. There will always be a strong emotional connection to the land I was born in, a land with incredible history and culture. However, San Diego is my home, where my family is and where I love to create business opportunities in biotech. As long as my family and I carry a small but important part of Greece in our hearts, I am very happy living in San Diego and raising my family here.
Q6: What are some of the biggest changes you expect to see in the biotech and life science industry over the next 5, 10 and 20 years?
Evidence-based medicines and drug-price controls are going to be the themes in the future. Funding innovation and creating new companies that address unmet medical needs will continue to drive and improve healthcare. Since we only address a very small fraction of the medical needs, there are tremendous opportunities for innovative new medicines.
Q7: We know you’re making a move over to the VC side of the business. Your career path would suggest intellectual curiosity is part of the reason for the move. Are we partially correct?
Yes, you are partially correct. Working as a serial entrepreneur, including building Anadys, has been an intellectually challenging experience. I have had the opportunity to merge my love of science and business, and at every stage of development I have learned something new about myself and company creation. Translating science to successful business is an enormous task that requires intellect, skills and luck. I have had to maintain a risk-taking attitude, sustain optimism, and focus on team-building and perseverance; all skills I believe I possess in varying degrees.
The decision to transition from president and CEO of Anadys to board member was an emotionally difficult one. We have accomplished a great deal at Anadys in a relatively short period of time - six years. I am very proud of the team we have brought together at Anadys; the technologies we have assembled and continue to develop; the value we are creating for shareholders; and finally the novel best-in-class or first-in-class therapies we hope to deliver to millions of patients with hepatitis C, hepatitis B and certain cancers in the coming years.
As a venture capitalist I will have the unique opportunity of sharing my expertise with other entrepreneurs who are building their companies while continuing to play a key role with Anadys as a board member. It is incredibly exciting to have the opportunity and the associated challenge to impact the industry on an even greater level.
Q8: Why do you feel that you’ll be good as a venture capitalist?
I was born with the genetic make-up of a Greek merchant banker; I'm always looking for opportunities to transact. In order to be successful in VC you have to create assets and transact with a profit. To create assets you need to have strong operational expertise, to distinguish between opportunity and waste, to guide and nurture and finally exit at the right moment. I hope to be able to create companies like Anadys in my career as a VC.
Q9: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a firm looking for funding in the biotech space?
Begin with the end in mind. Show a path with multiple successes to satisfy the ever-changing investor basis. Show vision and passion. Convince me that this company is the most important thing in your life, second only to your family. Then we can talk…
Q10: Any thoughts on how biotech companies can better leverage and allocate the money they do raise? Is Ascenta – a company based here in San Diego – the model for the future?
Recently there have been some significant structural changes in the market. It costs too much money to build companies, it takes too long and the exit is not always clear. My advice is to select carefully where to build and where to outsource. I believe companies like Ascenta represent the new way of creating value.
Q11: What do we need to do to improve speed-to-market for biotech companies?
Get decisive leadership at the FDA. Maintain an open and frequent dialogue with the regulatory authorities (e.g., FDA). Perform careful but dynamic developmental planning. As always, recruit and retain outstanding people with experience.
Q12: What differences are you seeing – political, regulatory, religious or economic – in international biotech markets as compared to the U.S.?
In the public markets there is clearly a trend to evaluate alternative markets that are being developed outside the US. Although the vast majority of innovation is still in the US, political and religious pressures (e.g., stem cells) will reduce US competitiveness. Outsourcing will become a standard process.
Q13: Vioxx and drug-coated stents are two examples of the perils of even successful companies and products in the industry. From a liability standpoint, is there a lurking problem in the industry in not better understanding the difference between product defect and side effect?
Public education is key to understanding. Right now there is close to zero tolerance for drugs with any side effects. This intolerance is more societal than scientific. Ironically, there is no drug with a therapeutic effect that does not have a pharmacological side effect. This includes drugs such as aspirin. You are correct that this is indeed a side effect and not a product defect, and the major difference between the two examples you mentioned.
Q14: Anadys was focused on the immune system. With so many major illnesses and diseases seemingly involving the immune system, including autoimmune diseases, should more research, Federal dollars and VC money be directed here? At some level, isn’t even cancer really an immune system problem?
One of the two core therapeutic platforms of Anadys is the area of immune regulation. The other is structure-assisted drug design. The innate immune system is regulated by a group of powerful receptors, known as TLRs, that can be targeted by small molecules to create novel medicines. It is a fascinating new area of biology with applications in viral diseases, cancer, allergy and asthma, and vaccines adjuvants. More research now conducted is supported both by Federal and VC funding. I am proud that Anadys pioneered this new field of Medicine and Biology.
Q15: Do you ever envision a day when we will have a “nano-Navy” available to circulate throughout the body to kill disease and repair the body?
Yes. In fact we already see such applications in nano-technology, regenerative medicine and targeted drugs. This new era of medicine is closer than we think.
Q16: The Greeks were great philosophers. Do you have a personal philosophy in reconciling the goal of living longer and healthier than ever with the sense of urgency and limited life that is core to human existence? Isn’t our sense that “I have only so many good years” important from a societal perspective?
In my view, life is about experiences, creating memories and leaving behind a legacy, however small. One hopes that your life work contributes to improving the world and makes it a better place. Its fun to live longer and healthier but a meaningful life has to include passion, creation, curiosity and hope. The world will be a better place if all of us think of what we can create, if we know that we cannot fail. Think of all the impossible things that we could have made possible by now.
Q17: If you were to be President for a day with unilateral authority to make changes that would stick, what would be your top three initiatives?
- Protecting the environment
- Banning all weapons
- Providing medical care for all in need
Q18: We all improve by working on our weaknesses. What weaknesses does San Diego have as a biotech cluster city that you feel warrant improvement?
For a long time San Diego has been viewed as the distant poor cousin of San Francisco. There are some structural weaknesses that we need to focus on, such as infrastructure, the presence of meaningful capital markets, investment banking institutions and additional private equity funds.
Q19: There’s a bit of a rock star vibe about you in town. What do you attribute it to?
Rock star? Is it my long hair? I will confess to you that I never really liked rock music, with the exception of U2. I prefer jazz, classical and Greek music. Perhaps, the “vibe” is about the passion to excel, to be unafraid to challenge your own life, to love what you do, to be unafraid to show that you enjoy life, to be humble and confident and at the same time to be inspiring, visionary and different. And that’s ok.
Q20: Kleanthis, you’re a father. What do you feel we need to do in this country to catch up to other countries and instill a passion for math and science in our kids?
I believe we need to inspire our children to think more, and not just to complete homework or learn what is necessary to score high on state academic tests. The Lyceums and various academies in ancient Athens taught different and sometimes contradicting things to their students but they all had something in common: they taught their students how to THINK. Working on a complicated math problem is not about providing a specific solution. It is simply conditioning the mind to think and create a solution.
I believe it was the late astrophysicist and astronomer Carl Sagan who said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
Science is exceptionally fun. Let’s teach our kids more about the beauty and creativity of science. And let’s reward and support our teachers. Education is the great social equalizer and everyone should have the chance to be educated.
Q21: San Diego has many great places to escape to your thoughts. Where do you go to get away and think?
I love to watch the sea and walk along the seaside. Just being in any of the many beaches in San Diego is an invaluable experience. The best pleasures in life are free and San Diego offers many, many opportunities to enjoy them.
Q22: When you want to enjoy a quiet dinner in town, where is your favorite place?
The Tapenade on Fay Street in La Jolla. It's an outstanding Southern French restaurant with a great environment.
Q23: Kleanthis, it’s time for our classic question and we’ve heard you love to cook. What is the signature Kleanthis dish to prepare? What wine would accompany your dish and what music selection would be playing in the background?
I love to be inspired by the simplicity and exceptional taste of Mediterranean cuisine. There is one simple yet very tasty seafood dish I call “Salmon Attica”: Take one salmon open filet and add sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese and a touch of oregano. Enclose in aluminum foil and grill on a BBQ for 12-15 minutes. Serve with wild rice and a good Greek salad.
A nicely chilled Chablis will be the appropriate wine for this dish. "Follow your heart” by Mario Frangoulis, a tenor with an amazing voice, should be playing on your stereo. You will like him a lot, particularly if you are a fan of Andrea Bocceli.
FROM SPOTLIGHT ON SCIENCE
Chief Executive Officer,
Chief Executive Officer,
Al Kern, Ph.D.,
Cal State University,
Chief Executive Officer,
Herrnstadt, Principal & Senior
VP, Navica Partners
Xanthropoulos, Ph.D., Managing Director,
Lisa Haile, J.D., Ph.D.,
Partner Co-Chair, Life Sciences Practice Group,
DLA Piper US LLP
President & CEO,
Biotech Vendor Services, Inc.
Senior VP Business Development & CFO,