No Fear: Lessons from Lebanon to Life Sciences with Dr. Moise Khayrallah

Moise Khayrallah grew up in Lebanon, and saw firsthand what real danger looks like as bombs exploded nearby during the Lebanese Civil War. Upon coming to America, Moise had already seen the worst that could happen, so difficult decisions or tense conversations – things that might stress out some entrepreneurs – that all came easy to him.

Dr. Moise Khayrallah is the CEO of Emergo Therapeutics, and Founder of The Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at NC State University.

Transcript

Trevor: Hey everyone, before we get to this special live episode with Anna Tharrington, I wanted to share a special promotion we’re running. 

Inspired by the Robbie Hardy episode where she shared the unbelievable story about how she used a magic 8-ball to help her decide whether or not to sell her company, we are giving away a Hutch 8-ball to anyone who writes a Founder Shares podcast review. All you need to do is write a review on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen – and let us know by sending an email to podcast@hutchlaw.com.

Trevor Schmidt:Hello, and welcome to the Founder Shares Podcast. We’re so happy that you’ve chosen to spend some time with us. I’m your host, Trevor Schmidt. I’m an attorney at Hutchison law firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. We work with founders and entrepreneurs as they fight, grind, stress and push to bring their visions to reality. We are inspired by their incredible stories of success, failure, reworking and trying again.

Trevor Schmidt: Today’s guest is Dr. Moise Khayrallah, CEO of Emergo Therapeutics. Moise is a serial entrepreneur in the pharma space, having built, grown, and exited on three pharmaceutical companies prior to joining Emergo in 2017.  

Moise’s entrepreneurial journey is very different from anyone else we’ve had on the show so far. His upbringing in Lebannon shaped what who he would become as a business leader.

Moise: I went to the American university in Beirut, which added quite a bit to my education and my formation. The war came in and that actually added a little bit of a spice, if I may call it that way, to my life in that. It allowed me to learn to be resilient. So during the war, we had to really survive quite a bit. I was in, several times, I was in situations where bombs were falling over my head and in a very precarious, risky situation. And so you had to learn how to survive and be resilient. And also, I have to say that growing in an environment like that gives you a lot of courage to take risks that may scare other people.

So it gave me a little bit of this ability or aptitude, if you want, to be able to tolerate more risks, because I’ve been in much worse situations. So sometimes when I’m sitting across the table from another, business person and I’m trying to negotiate a deal. In the back of my head, I’m thinking what, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ve been in way worse situations than this before. And so that adds a lot, a lot of courage to really take the risks that you need to succeed in business. 

Trevor Schmidt: No fear. That’s what most entrepreneurs need to reach their maximum potential.  Most don’t get it from wartime as Moise did. Instead, maybe they get it from watching a family member run a business. And it turns out, Moise had that as well, as his father worked his way up from waiter to owning a cafeteria in a major hospital.

Moise: And so we all participated in the business. This was a family business, and I remember just basically the days where he was strategizing with my mother, with us, about how to build the business. And so that was one of the early opportunities for me to observe how a small family business starts. And when I was going to school to college in Lebanon, I also want it to be financially independent.

So I sold encyclopedias and that I undertook quite a number of research positions in two universities where I was and that gave me a little bit of the ability to think through opportunities. And then when I first came here to the United States, I also started very early on looking for opportunities to start my own little research business on the side of my studies to continue the trend that I had started in Lebanon.

Trevor: So it sounds like you’ve had in the back of your mind, this desire to start businesses and run businesses all along. 

Moise: Correct. Early on I wanted to be in research and so I was always looking for opportunities to learn research methods, and I geared my education because I decided that I did not want to be in the practice, but I want it to be a resource. So I geared a lot of my education and courses to give me these tools in research and statistics and, that formed kind of the basis of my career, eventually. 

Trevor: Now kind of going back to either some of those early businesses that you mentioned, sell encyclopedias or working in the family businesses. is there you know, any particular event or something that stands out in your mind as far as lessons that you’ve learned, kind of at that early stage?

Moise: Yes. Again, going back to this idea of taking risks, when my dad started to build the family business, it was fairly risky because it was a year-to-year update and renewal of the lease and renewal of all of their agreements.

And so every year it was a very tenuous, very risky situation. And, by surviving year to year and looking for opportunities to network and stay on good terms with the people at charge, that taught me a big lesson about being careful planning ahead, but at the same time, not be afraid of taking risks. So it again This is a common theme that has been in my life is this ability to tolerate risks where risks may be too scary for other people to do. And so I, I think this is a major cornerstone of my life and my career. 

Trevor: Now you mentioned the fact that, I think you said that it was in your twenties, that you moved to the United States. Was that to further your education or what prompted the move? 

Moise: Yes. I had finished my bachelor’s degree at the American university in Beirut, and then started my master’s degree there as well with the help of the USAID scholarship that was given to me. Unfortunately, the ward intervened and I was not able to finish fully my master’s degree, but all the coursework that I took allowed me to then apply to the United States, come and finish my PhD.

And that’s what I did. I applied to several institutions and UNC was one of them. And at the time I recall being in bed with and asking some colleagues who are American where have to go, and everybody was unanimous that I should come to RTP, to North Carolina because there is this wonderful university that’s the oldest state university and one of the best in the country, and I would get a good education. And, oh, by the way, that it’s this thing called Research Triangle Park that maybe one day you can find a job there. So it was really very important for me to come and further my education. And that’s what I did. I came and finished my PhD here at UNC. 

Trevor: Okay. I mean, it’s interesting to think back, you know, if you hadn’t had those suggestions and recommendations what a different course, your life may take. I mean, clearly when successful, wherever you ended up, but you know, you ended up here in Raleigh. 

Moise: And it was a very fortuitous thing. I’m really, I never regretted having come here to North Carolina.

Trevor: So now when did you start? So what, am I correct in understanding kind of your original studies were in psychology? 

Moise: Correct. So I came here in 1983 and enrolled in the psychology program here at UNC Chapel Hill. And I was very interested in learning and memory phenomena.

I never envisaged that I would be in healthcare and in pharmaceutical research. So I, early on, I decided that I did not want to be in the practice of psychology, that I really wanted to be in research. And so by acquiring all the tools for research and statistics, that really opened the window for me. So a friend of mine who was working at a company here in the park, it’s not in existence anymore.

It was called Burroughs Wellcome, it was one of the major companies here and it merged with Glaxo eventually, but that opening really gave me the chance to get involved with pharmaceutical research, which are found to be compelling and very, very interesting because I was working on drugs that made a difference in people’s lives and had the practical application, rather than the theoretical application.

And I found it interesting because I was able to use all the tools of research that I’d done in psychology and apply them to research in the pharmaceutical and the biotech world. It’s interesting because a lot of the people who come into the pharmaceutical and the biotech world come either through the pharmacology background, basic sciences or medicine, pharmacy, et cetera.

And I was a little bit of an odd duck in this, but it’s actually was an advantage than a disadvantage because a lot of the people who come into the pharmaceutical world through the basic sciences don’t learn how to do research on large samples, but if that’s really the main stay, the main thing that we learned in psychology is how to do research on large sizes because the tools there are much more appropriate.

And so I found actually that having a training in psychology was an advantage, not a disadvantage and that whatever lack of knowledge I had the basic sciences of the medical sciences, I was able to supplement with my team, with people who had, who brought that knowledge to me. And I was able to think through this is the research, how to maneuver a whole program say from point A to point B, and then supplement the lack of knowledge I had with team.

Trevor: So now how long did you work with, is Burroughs Wellcome? Is that correct? 

Moise: Yes, I was there actually for about nine years, three of those early on as a consultant and a contractor, and then six years, roughly as a full-time employee of Burroughs Wellcome. I stayed on through the merger with Glaxo when it became GlaxoWellcome.

And then I was really unhappy with the large company environment after that. I had always chaffed at the restrictions and Bureaucracy that accompanies large organizations and I always wanted to have my own show. And so I lasted only about a year through the merger and then after that I broke it out.

Trevor: And is that when you kind of started one of your own companies or, or was there a step in between?

Moise: Yeah, there was stuff in between. So I decided that I really wanted to acquire the basic tools of what it is like to, I, I knew that I did not want to be in large company environment, that I wanted to be in a small company environment and eventually my own.

So my entrepreneurial bent, if you want, kicked in at that time. But I knew that I did not have a lot of the tools to succeed as a business person, because I never got any formal business education, and there were lots of pieces to building a business that I was not familiar with because I was focusing mostly on research.

And so I ended up joining early on with one of my former bosses at Burroughs Wellcome, who started a contract research organization. And so with him, I learned what it was like to be in a very small, I was one of the very early employees in that CRO, and that allowed me an exposure to what it is like to build the company from two or three employees all the way to 75, 80 when I left.

And so I loved that ability to learn from somebody I respect. And who had been a great boss for me and who continued to be a great boss for me, but then I really did not want to be in a contract organization. I wanted to be in a company that produced something and not, did not do just working on contracts, work for other organization, but before I had to do that, I had to learn a little bit more about funding and raising funds and partnerships. So I ended up joining a small biotech company in Seattle for three years, where I learned some of these basic tools. And then it was time for me then to start leading my own businesses.

Trevor: Yeah. So it sounds like, you know, at each stage you’re really kind of building on that skill set that you’ve had and are accumulating all the tools that you need to kind of go out on your own. And when you decided to make that leap, did you feel like you had all the skills that you needed or were you still kind of nervous to make that jump?

Moise: There is always this nervousness. I remember with my very first company Addrenex, I wanted to partner with this psychiatrist who used to live in Charlotte, who still live there actually, and had this idea about repositioning drugs from the hypertensive indication into Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder.

And I remember at the time being excited, but at the same time nervous because of all the uncertainty. It didn’t stop me, but I remember nervousness. I mean, there is no question, and every time I started something new that is always this nervousness, but it did not stop me from making the leap and then taking the risk that I knew I had to take.

Trevor: And of these different skillsets, you know, you talk about kind of the science background, being familiar with the numbers, kind of managing an organization from small to large and financing, is there a part that you really enjoy more than others, or do you just like the whole package? 

Moise: I would say that because my background is not in commercial undertaking, and I don’t have the formal business degree, that’s always been the least favorable part for me. It’s always been the most favorable part has always been the strategy as to what it takes to take a product and make it successful, however you define that with your team. That that’s always been the strategic aspect of it.

And of course, I had a lot of knowledge in clinical trial and clinical trial development, regulatory aspect, because I had acquired those over many, many years. And so I focused on that and supplemented my lack of knowledge in the commercial and the business arena with people who were very savvy and came in and became part of my team who always provided me with that.

And so that’s really founded the success, if you want, is the ability to identify something that you’re really good at, focus on it, and then supplement what you’re not good at with other people who can do it better. 

Trevor: Yeah, and it may tie into my next question, but you know, you are a serial entrepreneur at this point. You’ve had multiple companies with multiple, you know, successful exits, and a lot of the people we talked to think this may be their only company or, you know, they may strike success once, and I wonder if you could speak to what you think is the key to finding success, not just once in a startup, but again and again and again, is there, is there certain aspects that allow you to be successful on a repeat basis?

Moise: Yeah, a couple of things come to mind. The first one is really the ability to identify a core set of strengths, and the space or the niche where these strengths are magnified and can then make you successful. It’s really, I think and that’s what I counsel the younger entrepreneurs who come and talk to me is to really identify what is your strength and not be too overly ambitious or thinking that you can do it on is to really identify something that you read a really good at and then stick with it. So that’s the first thing, and I was able to identify that I knew for example, that I did not want to build large organizations because that entailed very large teams and I was not very good at that.

I was much better being part of a small, nimble team that can move fast and achieve something without the layers of bureaucracy. Whenever you put bureaucracy in my way, I was, I was not in my element. And so by identifying projects and companies where we could do something in a short amount of time and be fast about it that provided the niche that we were successful at.

And the second is really this idea that I talked about already, which is surrounding myself with a team that could supplement my weaknesses. For example, again, the commercial side, which I was not very good at all, for example, the legal side, because that that is very well to what you do. My partners, Steve Butts provided this ability to think through commercial applications for what we were doing, because he had been in commercial parcel pay pharmaceutical, large pharmaceutical company. So he really had that depth of vision into that arena that I had nothing to do with. And then somebody like Bill Wofford who came in and provided the legal expertise to help me really think through the legal implications of what we’re doing, which I did not have at all before that.

And so this ability to surround yourself with people who can really supplement what you’re trying to do, and it’s, it’s all on their shoulders, it’s really all on the team that can deliver. 

Trevor: And do you feel like your network had allowed you to identify those people? Or how did you kind of attract these key players to come and work with you?

Moise: Yes. It’s been the, been a network, for example, a lot of the people who are still together to this day. So we have, I had to put a different team for my last company for Emergo, because I had thought I was retired, and so my previous team that I had put together for the previous three companies, they’re still together. And some of these people that I’ve known for years and years and years, I’ve worked with them for 20, 30, 40years. 

And so it’s really the ability to stay connected with people who, you know, are good and then bring them back again and again, to help you in your endeavors, and that’s been a major part of my success is to have connected through the networks, through the different carriers that I’ve had, jobs that I’ve had, and the connections that I’ve had, is to really bring back people who are essential to your success. 

Trevor: And I was wonder if you could tell us a little bit about kind of the three exits that you had, what were the companies and what problems were you trying to solve with them?

Moise: Yeah, so I started launching my own companies. I did some consulting. I had my own company doing consulting in 2002 timeframe, but to real product company started in about 2005, 2006.

And so we had three major successes back-to-back to back Addrenex, Neuronex, and Aerial Bio. In all three of those companies we kept the same playbook and we stayed focused on the neurology space because that was one of the areas that I was most familiar with, and so we worked on things like Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder. We worked on fatigue and narcolepsy. We worked on depression. I mean, things that I was pretty familiar with. 

The playbook, in all of these three companies was to think through creatively about a known drug that you can either position into a new indication, or you can tweak to make it better for something different from what it was intended for.

And we identified, my team and I at the time, identified this as a great niche to be at. And again, going back to what I said earlier, so identify something that you’re strong at, and this is this idea for us, that some drugs are out there and they could be useful for other things, or if we are able to tweak them and I learned that when I was at Burroughs Wellcome actually. For example at Burroughs Wellcome we took a drug that was intended for depression and we developed it for smoking cessation. And so by doing that, I learned that the brain is really very mysterious to us, and there are certain things that we don’t understand, and there is a lot of trial and error, but if you’re savvy about the signals that you can look for, we can really do it.

This idea of repositioning drugs into brand new indications or into different formulations that make them better. And so, this was really the key to the success of our three companies is that we thought creatively about new uses for these drugs, and then also another thing that we determined very early on is that we were very clear from the beginning about the path from the start to the, to the exits. We had a very clear path. We wanted something that we understood very well. We knew that there were exciting opportunities out there, but then they were maybe in areas where that are poorly understood or where there is not a lot of regulatory clarity and a lot of questions.

And so we decided to tackle on the products where we had the clear back to the exit. So very well-defined objectives from the beginning. Very good exit plan from the beginning. And then we shared that without investors, and we went on to deliver exactly as we had said. And so this this idea of clarity on the objectives and communicating that to the investors and going on to deliver, it was very, very important for us. And I think that explained the success for the three companies that we did back-to-back. 

Trevor: Yeah, and it sounds like, you know, you had your playbook and executed on it very well. Were there any times in any of the lifespan of those companies where you hit a roadblock that made it look like a playbook wasn’t going to pan out, or did you just find success with the playbook that you have?

Moise: Yes. As a matter of fact, the second company, the middle one, succeeded to a certain extent, but unfortunately the drug did not get to be on the market because of lack of delivery from our partner, and we are still uncertain to this day what happened. So even though we were able to recover our costs and we pay our investors for the investment, it was not the success that the other two companies garnered.

And it was a to this day, it’s a bit of a mystery what happened, but our modern goal calls for our taking the drug up to the certain point, but not into the commercial realm, and relying on a partner to do the last stretch and then get it into the market. So with that comes the advantage is that you have, then somebody capable on your side that can continue on in an arena that you don’t want to be in the disadvantage is you lose control.

And you have to hand that over to another, and so this is one of the roadblocks that we hit with that second company. Neuronex, we were developing the drug, we were positioning a drug into the acute repetitive seizures field, and we had scored early successes, but then when our partner tried to finish the job and get it to the market, that portion does not work.

And so the success, the commercial success did not pan out in the end. So there are this in what we do, and with risks come the potential for lack of success. And we have to accept that.

Trevor: Yeah, for sure. It seems like within a company that that’s going to be the case. so what advice would you give to a new CEO about attracting investors? And then once you have your investors working with those investors to see know, give your company the best chance to succeed. 

Moise: I would say one of the most important things for young entrepreneurs, new entrepreneurs is not to be too ambitious and bite on something that sounds very attractive and earth shattering and game-changing and spending so many years, and so much energy trying to get that. I would counsel a young entrepreneur and new entrepreneurial to try to score an early win so that you can build a track record. And it’s may mean that, for example, you don’t go for the huge company that is going to cure cancer.

And so try to score it the only win, and I remember when we first started my team and out of the first company, no, it, it was very hard because we do not have a track record. And so people were very hesitant to invest in us. It was only after we scored the first win that things became much easier. 

Second thing is don’t surprise your investors. Don’t start down one road and then a year down the road say, oh, forget it, let’s do something else. Don’t surprise them. Don’t come up with, new things that you knew in the back of your mind won’t work, for example, and then put something up on them. Layout the plan from the beginning. Be certain of what you’re trying to do, as much as possible, again risks are there, but layout as certain of a plan as you can and execute on the plan.

And then last but not least keep your investors in the know, keep updating them. Don’t just disappear, and years go by without them hearing from you, and then you’re really unreachable. So lay out a plan, execute on it and keep them involved as to how you’re doing even the bad stuff. If things, for example, and this last company that I’m doing Emergo, we are developing a drug for influenza, and for our bad luck, we have this pandemic in the middle of the program.

For example, last year, we did not have any cases of flu here in the country. It was just unbelievable how the timing of us trying to develop a drug for the flu in the middle of a COVID pandemic. And so we did not get to enroll the number of patients, but I did not shy away from sharing that on a continuous basis with our investors and letting them know what the difficulty is that we are facing on that. So that’s another piece of advice is keep your investors in the know so that they keep trusting what you’re telling them. 

Trevor: Well, it provides a nice segue into Emergo, cause it sounds like, you know, some, somewhat of a different space from what you were in previously. Would you agree with that or is it still focusing on this neurology niche? 

Moise: It’s a different space. And I hesitated at first to take it on, but it’s found in the same playbook, namely, we are repositioning a drug from the asthma space into the influenza and influenza-like illness. And the project was brought to me by my co-founder and partner, who is a very savvy virologist who really thought through this idea that the problem with these viral infections is not the virus itself, it’s really the inflammation the virus induces in the body, and the subsequent response to the inflammation that the body mounts that causes all of the symptoms and all of the problems. 

So people don’t die from the virus for the flu, or even for COVID, as you probably have heard, people are not dying from the SARS-COV2 virus, they die from complications in the lungs that follow the immune system response to the virus. And so he thought through this idea of repositioning a drug that was very useful in toning down inflammation. Accompanying asthma, and then using it in here. So even though this was not a therapeutic area, that I was very familiar with I thought that the playbook was roughly the same, that within a short number of years, we would be able to prove that to a partner and then have them continue to work. And that’s formed the basis for, for this last company, Emergo therapeutics. 

Trevor: And it sounds like COVID has some interruptions to it, but I mean, did you see it changing the course of the company long-term or is it just going to delay kind of each step?

Moise: It made us, it delayed us by about a year, year and a half or so. We are now trying to finish one last study that we feel is necessary, and if the results from that study are positive, we are confident that this one that allows us to partner the asset with a capable partner. Unfortunately, we had, because we had so few cases of influenza like illness last this last season, we had to lengthen the duration of the program and raise some additional funds from our investors to be able to accomplish that.

And we are not done yet. We still need probably the start of the next flu season. We tried to supplement the number of patients by going to Australia and New Zealand. But unfortunately, as soon as we got there, they also had the resurgence of COVID, which led to the shutdown of both, Australia and New Zealand.

So unfortunately, we got hit again by this COVID dynamic. We are now hopeful that as soon as the next season starts in October, we’ll be able to finish enrolling in the first few months of the season. And then we will, unblind the study. And if it’s positive, then we will have potentially a good exit for our investors, but again, it’s risky.

Trevor: Right, and how do you go about identifying the commercial partners that you want to work with or, or at what point in time do you start trying to engage with those commercial partners? 

Moise: We start early, because we want to prepare, we first want to do our homework on who are the potential partners, and we actually start that even when we are looking at an asset. We start thinking when we were developing it, that our commercial know-how does not necessarily have to be the eventual sale of the drug on the market, but who would be an attractive partner to take it out to that level. And so we start very on thinking through that. And we typically for all of my companies and for Emergo as well, we hired an investment banker that helps us scout opportunities and network in these companies at the appropriate level.

So we already, for Emergo, even though we don’t have the final results, we already have an investment banker on our side, and we have expertise within the company that allow us to anticipate what needs to be done to engage a potential partner. 

Trevor: And kind of going back as you look over these different companies that you’ve worked on, is there, was there any point of time, either in the studies or in your commercialization efforts that something just really surprised you, that you didn’t expect kind of along the way, or, something that was unexpected that you had to overcome?

Moise: Well, there is always the scientific and the medical surprises that pop up along the way when you move from, sometimes we have to do animal studies before we get into human, human clinical trials that is always issues for translating the science. So there are always surprises that are sometimes not decidable 

Another issue that’s always dogged all of the programs that I’ve ever been involved with, even from the beginning is the actual, surprisingly, is the actual manufacturing of the drug. You would think that it’s very easy. If you, if you’re making a tablet, a simple tablet, let alone something as complicated as a biologic. You would think that sometimes things would go in a straightforward manner, but they never do. 

Trevor: From a CEO role, is there anything you can do to kind of manage around those risks or is it, is it really just going to be dependent on the science?

Moise: It’s going to be dependent on the science. I have to say, I mean, you try your best to anticipate things and surround yourself with experts. It’s very, very important to have that on your team people. So for example, all of the team that we’ve had for all of my companies, the core group itself has never been more than 10 or 12 people.

I’ve always tried to stay with any shorter, smaller group of people, but then around those, there is about 30 or 40 people who are consultants or contractors who provide specific expertise at various time points, and those are essential people as well, even though they may not be full-time employees in the company.

And so it’s very important to maintain that cadre of experts that can really come in and swing into action when you need them. And then hopefully deliver the results you’re after. 

Trevor: And kind of on the technology side or the manufacturing side, have you seen an increase in some of those challenges just with supply chain issues in the past couple of years, or is that just been a problem that’s always been there? 

Moise: It’s always been that problem, and now with the decrease and the biologics where you have to manufacturer things, not just tablet or a molecule, a small molecule, but you have to really make them, through other living cells that’s becoming more and more complex. And, so there has been an increase in that complexity and expertise that you need for that.

We’re starting to shy away from that. I would say that there was only one project that did not succeed, that we undertook that involved a biologic. And after that, really tried to be very careful in when we’re assessing a drug to make sure that it’s not going to be a problem from a manufacturing perspective, but they’re not always issues.

Trevor: For sure. And I think that’s an interesting question. So like, if you, if you were a brand-new CEO or even as you think about, you know, future projects, how do you go about assessing any given opportunity? How do you, how do you think through whether this has some success or, or potential? 

Moise: For me, it starts with me. It starts with this, I don’t want to call it a gut feel, but I want to call it an assessment, having seen project after project, program after program, across the years. Having the ability to decide if something smells right, if something has the potential to pan out. And so it’s really, for me, it starts with me looking at the potential, it’s never a hundred percent sure thing, but I rely a lot on my sense of judgment for, is this program likely to lead somewhere or are there obstacles along the way that would sabotage it? And even though you cannot get it T 100% success, you have a sense of whether something has a better odd of succeeding. 

So it starts with me. And that’s what happened with the Emergo project is that it took me about six months to really get, to be familiar enough with the science and with the possibility of what, what is the precursor drug like and what would it take to really make the same drug succeed in a new therapeutic area in this case, fight off an infection. 

And for young entrepreneurs or new entrepreneurs, it’s really this idea of getting into a field that you are fairly familiar and comfortable with so that you can have this instinct. And again, I keep calling it instinct cause I don’t have a better word for it. I don’t know if you read the book Blink it has this idea that you know something without really knowing why you know it. And so it starts with that. 

Trevor: And is there anything that would provide kind of an immediate red flag? I mean, you talk about that gut reaction. Is there something that automatically kind of triggers that no reaction for you? 

Moise: Yes, it depends on the state of what we’re trying to look at. So if it’s a drug that has no, for example, oncology is a major interesting therapeutic area. A lot of companies, young companies are interested in oncology because the implications are tremendous, but there are so many red flags that pop out when you hear about potential oncology programs as they are in the preclinical and the animal stage, and as they start building up, you can see red flags. 

There’s always spontaneous cure, and the odd report of a major improvement when there is not a real scientific reason why that should be. So these are always the red flags that in my mind, I look for when I’m assessing a project

Trevor: Now if somebody came to you and it was asking you kind of, if I want it to replicate kind of what you’ve done and set my career path similar to you would do, would you recommend that they start off working with startup companies? Do you find that your, your experience with the Burroughs Wellcome or other entities kind of helped such a way or should they jump right into kind of that startup company and work up?

Moise: Yeah, any of the young people that come talk to me about how to build a career, my advice to them is to really start working with a large organization for a couple of few years. Even if you think that you want to be an entrepreneur or you want to be in an entrepreneurial environment is to see what it is like to have immensely sources and the laws organization with established systems and a standard operating procedure that give you what can be accomplished and what cannot be accomplished.

So learn about the environment that you want to operate and learn what to do, but also learn what not to do. Learn the things that sabotage program and the politics that can get involved in things and scientific challenges, et cetera. So I think it is essential for every young entrepreneur to get started, not in an entrepreneurial environment, but get started in a large environment, either regulatory, like for example, a, the FDA or a large governmental program or a large corporate entity to kind of get the sense of what it is like to have this immense set up. 

But then if you are an entrepreneur at heart, if you feel like you have this entrepreneurial back, is to bolt out of there and not let yourself be sucked in for years and years and years, and then get stuck. And then when you do that, don’t immediately jump into your own company. Learn the ropes, learn what it takes to supplement the weaknesses that you have with skills that you can acquire or that you can supplement from other people on your team. And then at that time you’ll be ready. It takes quite a bit of, even if you have the guts to really do something and the courage, it’s not enough.

You really, no matter how good you are, no matter how skilled you think you are, no matter how many things you have done and you think you can do, you always need, you’re never good enough to succeed on your own. You always have to depend on other supplementing your weaknesses, and so that gets built over time and in multiple organizations where your network is built, and then you, at one time, you’ll be ready to really undertake your own entrepreneurial environment.

Trevor: And now a related question, how important do you think having mentors has been in your career or is it important in any career? I guess. And how do you, I don’t know, are those relationships that you developed this naturally over the course of your career, or did you seek out specific people to guide you and mentor you?

Moise: I’ve sought them out and I stayed connected with them and I still consult with them to this day. My bosses at Burroughs Wellcome are still available for me right now. If I wanted to run something by my immediate supervisor at Burroughs Wellcome Andy Johnson, I call Andy and I say, Andy, what do you think? How does this strike you? 

And I learned so much from him about what to pay attention to what not to. And I sought him out because I felt that he would be a great mentor to really help me navigate the early part of clinical research coming from academia and being a student and not having spent any time at the company.

He was essentially teaching me a lot of these essential skills. And so I sought them out and it’s majorly important for any entrepreneur to surround themselves with mentors and people who, can help them. And, and I have to include in this set of mentors, people who are not my supervisors, but my colleagues, like for example Steve Butts, I spoke about Steve earlier. He has been so invaluable to me in teaching me the aspect of the commercial side that I did not know about. He has an MBA; he went to business school and it wasn’t a commercial environment in a pharmaceutical company. 

So I learned a lot from him. I rely on him on a lot. So I count these people like Steve, like Bill as mentors, because they really taught me a lot, even now they are colleagues of mine and maybe they have reported to me, but I, I do consider them mentors. 

Trevor: So, let me transition just a little bit and ask you, what is it that kind of gets you up in the morning to continue to work on Emergo or any other company? I mean, listen, past success, you probably didn’t have to do a new company, but what is, what is your motivation for getting up each day and coming to work?

Moise: I just love what I do. For example, take the Emergo project. If we succeed, there’s going to be a drug on the market that people can use for years to come, patients can use for years to come to release a supplement, anti-viral. I mean, this is major. I just love that, being able to get up every day and think through creatively, how do I maneuver this program to lead to a useful product that can be out there?

There are products on the market that are there because of my having worked on that, this drug that we developed Edronax for ADHD, it is being used every day. One of my friends actually uses it for her son and it has helped him focus and be able to achieve quite a bit that he would not have otherwise, had this not been available. This is major for me.

Trevor: Yeah, and that’s great. And it’s a great motivation to have for doing anything, but just that idea that it’s helping other people. That’s fantastic. 

Moise: I have a friend quit smoking after 40 years of smoking by using the same methods we use when I developed Zyban at Burroughs Wellcome, at GlaxoWellcome, and this drug is still available on the market, and just being able to sit down with them and say, okay, here’s how we’re going to do this. A, B, C, D, and then have him successfully quit smoking been marvelous. And I know it has happened with other people as well. 

Trevor: That’s amazing. And so a related question, I understand that in addition to successful business ventures, you’re very involved on the philanthropic side of things. And are there any particular projects that you’ve worked on that have been especially important to you? 

Moise: Yes. I have a bias towards philanthropic projects that contribute to a diverse society here in North Carolina and in the US. I highly value the fact that I am a mix of two backgrounds, I was born in one country and was adopted by another country. And I’m, in me these two countries are brought together and this, this set of cultural and other characteristics of these two societies have come together in me. So I have tried my best to be the link between groups, between diverse societies, and make this place that I live in here in North Carolina and the US more diverse, more diverse because I’ve believe with diversity comes strength. 

My proudest achievement has been my endowed centered at North Carolina State University, and that is to study the Lebanese diaspora. So it’s a dedicated for that, and it’s an endowed center that will stay there forever, but even beyond studying the Lebanese diaspora, my hope for that center is that it would serve as a model for other cultures to really do the same and highlight what did it, what an important piece of our fabric of our society it is to have these different cultures intermixed and be part of the state and this country here. 

I’m very, very happy with the work that the center is doing at NC State, but I’m very hopeful as well, for it to provide a model and a blueprint for other cultures to do the same, because we are, we are strong because of that. We are strong because we have these multiple cultures and multiple societies that have come together to make this place great. 

Trevor: I couldn’t agree with you more, and I wonder if you could speak to, like, what do you see as some of the challenges, I guess that we face now with, I don’t know, almost pulling back and trying not to integrate culturally and, and how do we overcome those? 

Moise: I have been disheartened by that. I have lived here for close to 40 years. I came in 83 and I came as a poor student and then was adopted by this country and was able to produce a lot and pay back to this country, the Goodwill that has come my way, but I have to admit that in the last few years, I’d been a little bit discouraged and a little bit down, even though I’m still optimistic and I’m working hard to fix that.

It has been a challenge. I have to admit, I mean, this idea that our country and our state here are strong because of our diversity seem to fall a little bit by the wayside. And I want to make sure in everything I do to bring back that, and I’m optimistic that we will be able to, we’re just going through a rough patch.

Trevor: Yeah. I, I hope that is absolutely correct. But so we are the Founders Shares podcasts, and so I always like to ask our guests, you know, if there was one piece of advice that you would share with another founder or someone who wants to be a founder one day what would be that advice? 

Moise: So I’ll repeat something that I said earlier, maybe build a little bit about it. And this is the advice for an entrepreneur who is starting out is to identify your strengths and stick with them. What matters is not the beauty of an idea or how impotent it seems or how sexy it is. You have to have an important idea and you cannot just work on something that is irrelevant of course.

So you, so we, they teach us in entrepreneurship school to start with what is the problem that you’re trying to fix, and what is the idea that you bring to the table? That’s important. I admit to that, but it’s not the most important part because there are all sorts of great ideas that don’t get developed because of lack of execution and that comes from not positioning yourself in, in an area that you are not good at. 

And so rule number one and most important to for me, for a young entrepreneur is to identify the strengths that you have and then stick with them and trust that if you are in area of strength, some good things would happen. There will be ideas, people would bring you ideas that will then eventually succeed. Don’t just get enamored with something that’s so big and that seems so major that you put yourself in a disadvantage and then the lack of execution will doom you to failure. Start with something that you’re strong at and stay focused on that.

Trevor: And if somebody is interested in kind of helping to identify their strengths, I mean, do you have suggestions as to how people go about, you know, assessing what it is that I’m really good at? 

Moise: Yes. Dig up into your previous experience, that’s the best thing you have, and so for people who have just finished school is to go back to what were the courses that really, they seem to relate the best to.

One example is myself. I, when I first started, I wanted to become a doctor because I was very interested in psychiatry. I thought I’d become a good psychiatrist, but then when I got into the medical field, I hit the road block whereas in my psychology classes, I was really very good. I just got them. I was very good at that.

And so for young people who are just graduating and are starting to look for careers and opportunity is to dig into your coursework or experiences in life, things where you really seem to relate very well. And you seem to connect at the, at the very deep level. Later on in life, when you start, when you have started your career, say you’re out with a larger organization, is to fed it within the activities that you did with this last organization.

What are some of the things that you related to very well? What, what were your strengths? Did you do something that really led to somebody recognizing it versus spending a lot of time on something that didn’t get you anywhere it’s to really go back and reexamined. You have to examine your career. First to examine your education and then examine your career.

And then buried within that. What were your strengths? What did you do very well and what you did not do very well and focus on your Stripe and try to overcome your weaknesses by supplementing that with your team? 

Trevor: It’s just great advice, and then I really appreciate it. And if our listeners wanted to get in touch with you or to learn more about the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, how did they get in touch with you?

Moise: Google my name and you’ll learn a lot about my companies, and then one of my email addresses is mk@aerialbio.com. It is still working, and so I’m very happy to talk to people. I will, I’ll do it all the time. I’ve been part of multiple Groups that try to help entrepreneurs like the Blackstone Group here, like the UNC Entrepreneurship Center, et cetera. So I’m always happy to talk to people and try to help them if. 

Trevor: Well, Dr. Khayrallah thank you so much. And thank you for all you’ve done. Thank you for sharing your wisdom today and for your efforts and passing on that with some other people. So I appreciate it. 

Moise: It has been a pleasure, and I wish you the best on your continued Founder Shares Podcast

Full Episode Transcript

GIVEAWAY: Inspired by the Robbie Hardy episode where she shared the unbelievable story about how she used a magic 8-ball to help her decide whether or not to sell her company, we are giving away a Hutch 8-ball to anyone who writes a Founder Shares podcast review. All you need to do is write a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen – and let us know by sending an email to podcast@hutchlaw.com.

Hosted by Trevor Schmidt, Founder Shares is brought to you by Hutchison PLLC, and is edited and produced by Earfluence.

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