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By the time he co-founded PDS Biotechnology Corp., a clinical-stage biotech company in North Brunswick, N.J., Dr. Frank K. Bedu-Addo had experienced a career in the pharmaceutical industry that took him from research scientist immersed in drug development to biotech executive with broad management experience.
PDS (which stands for Protein Delivery Sciences) has developed Versamune®, a nanotechnology platform developed to effectively deliver cancer proteins to the immune system and enable our immune systems to overcome our immune tolerance to those cancer proteins in order to create safer and more effective cancer immunotherapies and preventive vaccines. As its co-founder, President and CEO, Dr. Bedu-Addo has assembled the management team and board of directors, developed and implemented the company’s business strategy, negotiated and signed key licensing deals, established partnership agreements with industrial, academic and government institutions, and raised private and government capital. He has also led the company through the development of the Versamune® technology and its application to the treatment of human papilloma virus-related cancers (e.g. cervical cancer, as well as head and neck cancer). The product is currently in the final stage of the Phase I human clinical trial.
Dr. Bedu-Addo’s comprehensive background in research and development, which included overseeing the production of multiple pharmaceutical products at various stages, from the pre-clinical stage through clinical and commercialization stages, provided him with critical industry knowledge that set the stage for his founding of PDS in 2006. His dedication to his own process of mastering the myriad organizational and management aspects of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, however, is what enabled him to become a C-level executive with a deep knowledge of the industry.
In an interview with Ashton Tweed, Dr. Bedu-Addo concedes that building his considerable organizational management skills took both time and effort. “Not all aspects of running a business came naturally to me,” he says. Dr. Bedu-Addo credits a lot of reading and discussions with mentors to strengthen his business management skills.
It was a gradual transition. I’ve always been interested in how the body works, and I became interested in how drugs affect the body. But I did not want to become pigeonholed into being a formulations scientist only (which is where I started). Often in the industry, you may focus on a single aspect of the drug development process throughout your career. Even though I started out as a formulations scientist, I was very interested in applying my background in engineering and biophysics to areas such as process development and manufacturing. In addition I have a lot of interest in the big picture, so while I didn’t initially see myself going into business management, I did want to be in a position to see and impact how all the drug development and commercialization pieces come together, not just participate in one small part of the process.
For example, when I was at The Liposome company I got involved with applying my engineering background to better understanding and developing our manufacturing processes. At Akzo Nobel, I took the opportunity to apply my biophysics background to process development. As an Associate Director, I started getting involved with the management of people and broader aspects of the drug development cycle. I took advantage of opportunities to expand my knowledge of the industry from different perspectives. At Cardinal Health, I managed the entire East Coast biotech division.
I did a lot of reading on various aspects of business. I bought books on business law, venture creation, and setting up a strong board of directors for example. I also looked for the right mentors and I’ve tried to make sure that I take advantage of the situations I’m in. This means understanding what the leaders around me are doing, building good relationships with them, and having discussions with them about how they think and how what they do applies to what I’m doing. At KBI, for example, the CEO and I would discuss his vision for the company and what he would do in various situations.
It’s a continuous process of seeking out knowledge and trying to understand why certain things have been done the way they’re done and what possible alternatives exist. Despite your knowledge, it’s always good, in my opinion, to also understand how other successful people think and how they may address similar situations that arise in their work environments.
One of the biggest hurdles I faced was convincing investors that I’m not just a scientist. When we founded PDS, I often had to point to my previous experiences at KBI and Cardinal Health, where I successfully oversaw all business development activities and managed people, in addition to directing the drug development process.
Investors and collaborators are often pleasantly surprised and encouraged by my broad knowledge of the pharmaceutical process and industry. At PDS, in the early stages when we had less funding, my background allowed me to play multiple roles, and my ability to effectively manage finances was an advantage. Our investors and board appreciate that I can sit down with them to explain what is happening in each department of the organization.
I can’t immediately think of one that stands out, but early-stage biotech companies always have a number of unique issues, and one key issue the CEO faces is managing the expectations of the board of directors.
Take clinical trials, for example. During the preclinical development phase, there is much more control over development time lines and operational costs.
But once a drug gets into human clinical trials, there is less control. It’s now in the hands of the clinicians and the patients. For example, it is difficult to predict with high accuracy the patient recruitment rates. Not all of our investors and board members had in-depth clinical development expertise. So naturally, when the process took longer than they expected, they started getting worried. It took some skill to bring the full team up to speed on how the trial protocols are performed, what was realistic to expect with our trial and how we are managing resources on our end to make the process as efficient as possible. It did take some interpersonal skills to make everyone comfortable that the situation was normal.
While there are books on managing boards, actually understanding the personalities of the board members, what they expect, how to interact with each of them and managing their expectations takes some skill and work. It’s been very interesting and I’ve enjoyed working with our board to build a successful biotech company.
We’re currently completing Phase I human clinical trials. So my next big challenge is raising the funds necessary to perform larger clinical trials. Successful trials will be followed by sales and marketing of the products.
We are also expanding the company. PDS’ strategy has been to operate as a semi-virtual company where we have a small core group of drug development scientists and multiple third-party collaborators (academic, government and industrial) who perform the testing and manufacturing of the products we develop. Although 30-40 or more people may be required to work on a product at a particular time it still allows PDS to maintain a small team. This is currently a core team of seven, which we plan to increase to 12 in a month or two. PDS will continue to grow the internal team as the company’s pipeline is developed. PDS is currently interviewing for both scientist and senior executive positions.
Take every opportunity you can to learn about every aspect of the business you hope to manage. Read as much as you can about topics you don’t know much about and find knowledgeable mentors. Most investors will expect the CEO of an early-stage company to properly understand every aspect of the company’s operations.
I’ve been quite lucky in terms of how my career has progressed. Fortunately, I was recruited to my last few positions and primarily had to make the management teams comfortable with my ability to deliver – understand and manage the budgets, grow the business, manage the science, business and people.
Although opportunities may present themselves, you have to be ready for those positions and to strive to do well in them. In my case, I haven’t taken any of my positions for granted—I’ve always tried to work very hard, and for the most part it’s paid off.
And keep in mind that usually the more visible you become, the harder you actually have to work. More visibility brings more pressure.
Ashton Tweed would like to thank Dr. Frank K. Bedu-Addo for this interview. If your company needs help from members of the Ashton Tweed Life Sciences Executive Talent Bank, we can supply that assistance either on an interim or a permanent basis. Additionally, if you are among the many life sciences professionals affected by the changes in the industry, Ashton Tweed can help you find the right placement opportunity — from product discovery through commercialization at leading life sciences companies — including interim executive positions and full-time placements. In either case, please email Ashton Tweed or call us at 610-725-0290. Ashton Tweed is pleased to continue to present insightful articles of interest to the industry.