Transforming The Traditional World of Pharma and Biotech
Kevin Lustig was a co-organizer of OBR-San Diego’s Lab to Launch Workshop that provided scientists valuable insight for transitioning from academia into an industry setting. Kevin is the founder and CEO of Assay Depot, a company that provides a one-stop shop for scientists interested in all sorts of services, whether it is custom antibodies or laboratory equipment. The aim of his company reflects the science research that Kevin envisions for our current research environment. Drug discovery is time-intensive and expensive. Assay Depot provides scientists a way to access a broad variety of research services in order to improve research efficiency.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kevin in beautiful Solana Beach to chat about how his career decisions and approach to research shaped his view of current science research.
Did you always know you wanted to go into industry?
No, ever since I was 9 or 10, I planned on being an academic professor – teaching and doing research. I was always headed towards an academic career. I was fortunate to get an interview at UCSD in 1997 right after my post-doc, for a tenure-track position in developmental biology. I actually also got the offer and it truly was a dream come true. I was going to move to San Diego and become a professor at UCSD.
However, while I was in San Diego, some colleagues suggested that I look at Aurora Biosciences, which was a start up at the time, and it blew me away. Everything was at a much grander scale, and I looked at some other companies in the area as well. But before settling down, I looked at Tularik, which was the first company spun out of Genentech. What was so special about Tularik was that it was focused on basic research, where basic research was going to fuel the drug discovery process. It also became the first biotech company to start the biotech boom, after going public in 1999. I started out as a scientist but the Senior Lead of Discovery left so I was offered that position.
Was that the first time you were someone’s boss?
No it wasn’t, I actually had 2 RAs (research assistants) working under me as a graduate student, and so I had experience as a boss prior to working in industry.
Do you think that being a boss as a graduate student helped you when you worked at Tularik?
I quickly saw that I would get out of doing the work myself, and instead managing the work. However, we are not trained to manage in graduate school, and so more often than not, PIs are bad managers because they have never been trained to do it. I found it immensely useful to be trained in this. At Tularik, they had a scale of the work that I wanted to do. For example, I had post-docs, $1 million start up money, a beautiful lab, and I wasn’t getting that sort of support in academia for basic research. However, the basic research did have to have a “bottom line.”
Do you think your style of managing has changed since you first started?
In the beginning, I had more confidence that I would be able to affect more change in people. Now, I realize that almost all of that comes from within, and you have to start out in carefully assembling the team.
So is the hiring process more important then?
Yes. I do believe in mentoring, but I came to realize that it could only go so far. The passion has to come from within. It’s the passion that really makes things happen. So you have to surround yourself with people who are smart and passionate, who are self-starters and who have a bigger picture.
On that note, what do you look for when you hire someone to be on your team?
Well, I want people that will one day take over my job and completely eclipse me in every way. I want to hire the outstanding people and who I can give resources to help them continue to excel. What I want to see thoughtfulness, that they are prepared, that they’ve done some background work. But at the same time, I want people who are fun, fun loving, have a sense of humor. It’s almost like putting together a family, you want the camaraderie, but you also want people to begin with the end in mind to get things done. I guess what I really look for are people with half their mind to take what we are doing and make it incredibly efficient and look at it from an operational standpoint. But I want the other half to tear it completely down and build it up completely different. You need someone who is half of a dreamer and half of the operator. This duality is very rare.
Have you ever hired the wrong person for the job?
Even with all the interview processes and the multiple dinners that you have with interviewees, it can be hard to tell. You can’t tell until you’re in the trenches working with them. And then you can usually see it pretty quickly. The old saying is that A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s. And this is very true. B’s are too focused on trying to protect their job. A’s are trying to change the world, and they will do whatever it takes to change the world, even hiring someone who may be better than them to do the job. Always hire someone better than you! That’s the advice you give to the hiring person.
After working at Tularik, you founded Kalypsys. What was the transition to that venture?
I got a call to help out with running Kalpysys, and had the opportunity to really run the company. I wanted that opportunity, and decided to come down here. I really wanted to improve upon the Tularik idea and build a better pharmaceutical company. Since we were spinning off of Novartis, we had the capability of doing that. We decided to work on a compound validation approach for drug discovery. The idea was to make it very interactive, so that 120 workers in our company could do as much work as a large pharmaceutical company. Our motto was that any one of us could make the difference between success and failure.
It sounds like Kalypsys was a great company, what made you want to start Assay Depot then?
What we realized was that at Kalypsys the pharmaceutical company structure is broken. While we could screen a lot of target compounds, there weren’t enough scientists downstream to continue the research, and so drug discovery had a huge bottleneck. 120 people wouldn’t be able to do it all and we needed help. What we realized at the time was that the industry started outsourcing to many different research services. Now there are 8000 of these companies that provide various research services. And these services could help improve the efficiency of scientific research. This way, any scientist anywhere could get access to a research service. So the idea for Assay Depot spun out of the need for improving the efficiency of drug discovery research and getting out of the pharmaceutical company bottleneck.
Can you tell me more about Assay Depot?
We really started Assay Depot to initially to target academic scientists. We wanted to empower academia and give them the same resources as the big pharmaceutical labs for drug development. This way academic scientists could do larger scale research that could be more efficient.
That’s really interesting, but I think that the culture of academic scientists may need to change to outsource research. Do you think it is heading towards that direction?
I do think that academia will change, but it will change much slower than industry. The pharmaceutical industry will be forced to change, but academia does not have to change to continue to make money. However, as young scientists such as you become professors, they will want to be more efficient and may be more open to outsourcing research. So yes, academia will go towards that but it will be a slower change. I think that industry will push academia towards more translational research. Assay Depot is a resource that will allow for this change, and it can even allow biotech start-ups to run a company via a laptop!
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