The Rare Air of Elevation Oncology: Raising Nearly $200M in 2 Years, with CEO Shawn Leland

Elevation Oncology has raised nearly $200M since its launch just two years ago. $200 million! That sounds like an enormous amount of investment capital, but when the company is potentially changing cancer treatment as we know it – you can see why investors are excited about Elevation’s potential. Today, founder and CEO Shawn Leland tells us all about the raises, challenges, and excitement of growing his company.

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: A few episodes back I had on my partner, Justyn Kasierski, and he and I talked about some of the biggest mistakes that we see startups make at different stages in their company. And if you haven’t already checked out that episode, I encourage you to do it because there’s just a lot of great content there in.

But today we’re going to zoom in a little bit and talk about one particular topic, something that is really one of the engines of a successful startup, and that’s money. How you make it, who you get it from and what you’re giving up to get it? And that’s why I’m so excited to have my law partner, Anna Tharrington here with me today, because not only is she just a great person, fun to hang out with, but she has just got extensive experience with all things related to angel and venture financing.

It just is a delightful person to talk with. And so, I’m so excited that you’re here with me today. So welcome Anna. 

Anna: Thanks Trevor. I really appreciate that. some pretty big shoes to fill after coming in. after Justyn. So really appreciate you having me. I’m excited to talk to you. 

Trevor: Okay, great. Well, so tell us a little bit about you and your practice and what people need to know about you.

Anna: Yeah, so, so hopefully folks familiar with our law firm. but we specialize in working with what we call growth companies. So typically, in technology or biotech, life sciences. And those companies, you know, they may vary with what they’re working on, but most of them have a common theme in terms of needing representation for forming the companies and setting it up, helping get funding, which we’re talking about today. And then also if our clients do well, for us, a lot of times that means helping our clients get sold. And so, my practice is one of the general corporate practices at Hutchison with a specialty sort of focus in on this financing and fundraising piece, which is again as sort of a common thread for most of our companies.

Trevor: Yeah. When would you say that when you represent companies for financing, what does, what does that look like? Kind of, what is your day to day. 

Anna: So, it all starts, you know, piggyback and again, on Justyn’s talk with you, it all starts with sort of our general business and corporate representation of clients.

Um, and as they grow, you know, fortunately, or unfortunately most of them have to take outside capital of some sort in order to grow and scale their business and to get to that ultimate sell, which is what most of them are going for. And so, for me, in a day-to-day way, there’s a lot of general corporate guidance and getting companies ready to raise money.

And so, you know, often we hear from founders that they spend a decent amount of time sort of getting ready for funding, a lot of time trying to get checks in the door, and then a little bit of time enjoying it and rinse and repeat, do it again. And so, we’re involved with that in a host of different ways, ranging from sort of getting the companies cleaned up as they started to thinking about financing and fundraising.

which you know, is, you know, not only toxic to your cancer cells, but toxic to your normal cells.

And you know what we’re looking to do, what the field of precision medicine or precision oncology is looking to do is we’re looking to understand what genomic alterations are leading in causing your cancer, because those are specific to your cancer cells and the idea concept and what we’re looking to do is, based upon, you know, an understanding of the genomic makeup associated with your cancer cells.

You know, we’re looking to deliver therapeutics that block those genomic alterations that are causing your cancer cells to grow and proliferate. So that’s really kind of the main premise of what we’re looking to do, and that should lead to drugs producing a higher likelihood of a positive clinical trial because it’s, we’re delivering a therapeutic that’s specific to what’s causing your cancer to grow and proliferate.

In addition to the fact that it should have a much more favorable safety profile because it’s distinct to your cancer cells, and for the most part, it’s not being delivered and causing side effects to normal, healthy cells as what you would see with, you know, standard of care chemotherapy or, cancer immunotherapy, which is not specific to your cancer cells.

Trevor: Yeah. So at least as I understand what you’re saying, it sounds like there’s a couple of different parts to it. So, you know, there’s going to be the genomic testing that people would need to have for whatever cancer that they have, and then kind of identify amongst, you know, that what it is that you need to target and then having drug development on top of that, to then specifically go after those targets. So is elevation pursuing kind of all of those independently? Or are you, I mean, how do you approach it? 

Shawn: Yeah. I mean, so we, we’ve really kind of taken this four-step process, you know, I think first of all, is, you know, doing what you exactly just highlighted it’s understanding that you know, that makeup.

So we’ve partnered with, you know, diagnostic companies that do diagnostic testing and specifically next generation sequencing. And then we’ve also partnered with patient advocacy groups to promote the awareness of genomic testing because you’re not getting your cancer tested, you’re not going to have an understanding of what genomic alterations are leading to your cancer cells growing and proliferating.

And if we don’t know the genomic makeup of your tumor, it’s pretty tough to deliver tailored therapeutics specific to your cancer, and you’re basically relegating yourself to, just standard of care chemo or cancer immunotherapy products. So we kind of start with the diagnostic testing component, you know, and then we look to further identify from a genomic perspective which genomic alterations are truly driving your cancer because not all genomic alterations are created equal. 

There are certain genetic alterations that lead to, you know, your tumor growing and proliferating, and they are the one and only thing driving that, um, that’s typically seen in situations where you have genomic alterations like fusions, um, and also to a certain extent uh, gene mutations that can exist. Um, there are other genetic alterations that are just bystander passenger events, so they’re there, but they’re not contributing to tumor growth and proliferation. There’s also, in activating genomic alterations, that also are not relevant to what’s causing your tumor to grow and proliferate.

So this is another area where we partnered closely with diagnostic companies, with major academic centers to understand which genomic alterations are truly driving your cancer, so we can make sure to target those with either, you know, a model therapy or with a combination approach. You know, and then I think the last piece, you know, kind of like what we do is really bringing that all together to, you know, marry those genomic testing results, to make sure that we are delivering a therapeutic that’s tailored to make those genomic testing results, therapeutically actionable.

Trevor: Got it, that’s helpful. And was there something, you know, before the foundation of the company that really kicked this off, or was there an idea or a product that you had in mind when you got started? 

Shawn: Yeah. No, it’s, it’s very specific. You know, it’s, it’s one of those moments that like, you never forget and you know, you play, you know, in your mind, like time and time again.

And for me, forming elevation like that whole idea of concept, you know, it came to me when I was sitting in a scientific presentation as ESMO 2018 and Munich. Um, I was sitting in a scientific presentation that was being given by Alex Drilon at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Uh, he was giving a presentation on targeted therapies in lung cancer.

And you had one slide in that presentation on, you know, a target called neuregulin 1 or NRG 1 gene fusion, which is, you know, the target that elevation is pursuing with its lead program and Sarah bans MAB. At the time I had never seen the target. I actually knew nothing about the target. Um, but listening to him, describe the target as being rare, present in 0.2 to 0.5% of solid tumors.

The fact that they had seen it in 13 different tumor types and, you know, probably most importantly, the fact that it carried that hallmark of being a true oncogenic driver and that it was predominantly mutually exclusive of other genomic alterations, suggesting that it should be the one and only thing driving tumor growth and proliferation.

On that same slide, he also presented a case study that he had published earlier in the year in cancer discovery of 2018, and this is a case study that came from the phase one clinical trial of the GSK, HER-3 monoclonal antibody. And you know, there was one and only one responder on that phase one clinical trial and coincidentally that one and only one responder was a patient with an invasive mucinous adenocarcinoma of the lung, and they had a CD 74 NRG 1 gene fusion, and that patient had a dramatic response, 90% reduction on PET/CT 19 months duration of response, which was more than their four prior lines combined. So. Yeah, my immediate thinking of, you know, seeing the target was this is very analogous to another target called end track.

You know, where Loxo oncology and Ignyta had developed targeted therapies to NTRK fusions, you know, that led to, you know, very successful outcomes and patients and eventual FDA approvals of their two lead programs, and a tumor agnostic fashion for solid tumors with, with NTRK fusion.

So, you know, there was an immediate parallel to, you know, end track target. And I immediately thought to myself, God and neuregulin 1 or NRG 1 is the next end track like target? And, you know, the fact that it was amenable to a targeted therapy approach with a HER-3 monoclonal antibody with, you know, using the, you know, GSK.

You know, HER-3 monoclonal antibody as your kind of initial proof of concept gave me confidence that it should also be druggable. And it just made me think to myself that, you know, there are a ton of companies with her three monoclonal antibodies that are out there. They had failed and you know, her three overexpressed amplified cancers.

So companies viewed them as a quote unquote failed product, but yeah, it made me think you could probably go out and license or acquire one for probably pretty cheap and then, you know, repurpose them for these patients with NRG 1 fusions across solid tumors and, you know, to take it one step further.

I also thought most of these programs had been in the clinic. So, I’m like you could probably find a phase two ready asset that’s got registration ready, GMP drug product that’s got a recommended phase two dose, that’s got a robust safety database, and you could probably go right into, you know, a phase two clinical trial and solid tumors with NRG 1 gene fusions, and use that for a potential accelerated approval pathway. So, that one slide is, you know, really what bore the vision to, you know, form elevation, you know, so I came back from that conference, I pulled every publication on NRG 1 fusion, I think at the time there was 65 of them, read through all 65 of them. Uh, that gave me even more confidence that, you know, there was a viable path forward.

And, you know, because of my background in business development, oncology search and evaluation, I have a lot of existing relationships that I was able to leverage with, you know, biotech, pharmaceutical companies that had these HER-3 monoclonal antibodies. So we kicked off a diligence project to, you know, look at her three monoclonal antibodies, you know, figure out which ones might be transactable.

And those discussions ran in parallel what the investor dialogues and you know, that put us, you know, in a situation after having run diligence on, north of, you know, 5 HER-3 monoclonal antibodies and a number of investor dialogues to close the series A financing on July 12th of 2019 of 32.5 million.

And then literally that afternoon, close the asset purchase agreement with Merrimack pharmaceuticals, um, where we acquired Seribantumab and MM 111, which is HER-2, her three, bio specific product. 

Trevor: And see if that’s the kind of story that I just love to hear as part of the reason for this podcast. Cause it, you know, it’s amazing to think, you know, one slide and one presentation. You know, years from now, I don’t know how many lives you’re talking about impacting, but you know, one of these things takes off and, you know, all because of that one slide. It’s pretty amazing story.

Yeah. So, I mean, tell me a little bit, you mentioned your background, kind of positioned yourself to really be able to take this idea and really create a company around it. So what was your background or what is your background?

Shawn: Yeah. And so my background, I’m a pharm D by training. Um, you know, after I finished pharmacy school, I ended up doing an industry fellowship program with Bristol-Myers Squibb in oncology medical affairs.

 So I’ve always had this strong passion for oncology and helping patients with cancer. I started my career after the fellowship with Eli Lilly, um, working in oncology medical affairs, placing preclinical and clinical research collaborations that, you know, allowed me to develop, you know, great relationships, you know, scientific as well as clinical relationships with, you know, leading key opinion leaders across the field of oncology.

So I did that for about a year and a half, and I feel like so much of my story is right time, right place. I was, again like at a scientific Congress, you know, meeting and I ended up speaking with someone who had no idea who the person was at the time, but he was the Chief Scientific Officer at Lilly.

And through that discussion, he’s like, you know, a lot about oncology. He’s like, I just had a spot open up in my group. You know, you can come on board and do oncology search and evaluation, scout assets from licensing companies for M&A, um, and lead the technical due diligence.

I’m like that sounds really cool. I’m not really sure what this entails, but you seem to have a lot of confidence in my ability to do this. So I ended up exploring it with my current manager. You know, she was open to the idea of what was supposed to be a six-month temporary assignment turned into a three-month temporary assignment.

Um, and I ended up coming on to the, that group full time and found myself working hand in hand with the oncology leadership team at Eli Lilly to perform due diligence. You know, where I gained a ton of, cross-functional experience. And this was really kind of the first time where, you know, I got this really all-encompassing view of what it takes to develop a product all the way from, you know, diligence is really associated with, you know, looking at every aspect of that drug discovery and drug development process all the way through to commercialization and understanding your kind of level of confidence and what you would be willing to pay to license or acquire an asset.

So I did that for four years at Eli Lilly, and then decided to make the move to Biotech. So I actually went back to medical affairs, um, and help start up the medical affairs team at Ariad pharmaceuticals, where I spent a year. I then went and served as head of business development at Argos Therapeutics for four years. I did a stint in strategic consulting after that. I was part of the team that ran diligence on a program that was acquired by Endocyte, which is the lutetium labeled PSMA program, um, that was then acquired by Novartis and recently approved, and then I was also a part of the diligence team that led to the product acquisition in license from Infinity pharmaceuticals, pulling Duvelisib into Verastem, um, as well, and then ended up joining Verastem full time as head of business development for two years, prior to forming Elevation in July of 2019. 

Trevor: Now, during that time, did you have in the back of your mind that you wanted to find a candidate of your own, that you were going to take out to a company? Or was that something that really hadn’t been thought of at that point?

Shawn: No, it’s something I had never thought of. To be very frank, I mean, I had never really envisioned going down this path of being an entrepreneur, you know, and now publicly traded company CEO. I mean, it’s not something that I would have foreseen in the cards.

You know, especially at my age, it’s something that I could have seen maybe doing it kind of like much later in my career, but you know, again, right time, right place. I mean coming across this, you know, idea concept, I just felt like it was too good to pass up and, you know, once I got the idea in front of investors and saw their enthusiasm for this, the execution piece on the product acquisition like that was, you know, very familiar to me with my business development search and evaluation background. So like that part was easy. 

The investor piece raising the financing was something I had not done before. Um, you know, it’s more so just, you know, taking that leap of faith and, you know, being confident in your decision. I mean, I think, you know, even to kind of take this and I think one step further, I mean to be very Frank, I didn’t know whether I was, or wasn’t going to be cut out for being an entrepreneur, um, being a CEO of a company to where, you know, when I initially formed Elevation, I was named the CEO cause I was the sole founder of the company.

However, you know, with discussions with my lead investor. I said, I’m not sure if I’m cut out for this. You know, I think you should be the CEO of this company. You know, Steve Elms and I agreed that, you know, he would serve as interim CEO. Um, you know, I think after operating the company, for a year, and then, you know, once we closed the series B financing, I felt very confident that I was the person to run this company and the CEO and obviously the board was fully supportive and, you know, supported that transition, you know, and to me being the full-time CEO of this company. 

Trevor: So was there one moment or, you know, you mentioned that the financing and the closing of that, but was there one moment when you’re like, no, I can do this. This is what I’m supposed to do.

Shawn: Yeah. I think it was more so just having been in the position and having operated the company, I mean, obviously, you know, there was the oversight in it from Steve, you know, as the interim CEO. But you know, I was managing, overseeing, running all of the day-to-day operations. So, you know, I think early on, I didn’t know whether I would be capable of doing that or not.

Um, And I think having done that for, you know, a year gave me a lot of confidence. We were able to. You know, kind of the key milestones that we were looking to accomplish. I mean, there’s not a lot of companies that you know, moved from company formation to, you know, initiation of a phase two study with registrational intent in 12 months’ time.

So I think doing some of these industry, precedent setting events provided further confidence in that kind of, you know, transition of being a first-time entrepreneur and the fears and anxiety that come with that. Um, but I think, once you’re in the role and operating and you see that you have the ability to do that, you know, it gives you the confidence, I think, to make that transition.

Trevor: So, you know, people talk about CEOs wearing a lot of different hats. Is there one that is particularly challenging for you or, and one that is more particularly rewarding or do you just like the kind of the package role? 

Shawn: Yeah, I mean, I do like the package role. I mean, there’s aspects of the CEO role that, you know, I had not done before and that are a learning experience, which is great. I mean, I feel like as an entrepreneur, you’re, you’re really setting yourself up to be a serial learner. I think if you get complacent, something’s not right, or you’ve lost your passion or something along those lines. 

Obviously, there are aspects of the CEO role in terms of building, growing the company that I’m very familiar with, and I feel like I did those in, you know, my business development roles in the past. You know, the things that are less familiar with me and, you know, the favorite question of, you know, what keeps you up at night, you know, is Really kind of being able to build at the same pace that we’ve been building at over the past years.

It’s like, how do you maintain that same trajectory, and can you maintain that, you know, over time? And, you know, so the things that I feel like keep me up at night that are the more challenging aspects of being a CEO, you know, in the industry at this time, um, I think has really focused around workforce planning and just being able to, you know, grow the company.

There are a ton of companies that have been formed over the past, you know, 12 to 18 months during the COVID period. Um, it’s allowed, you know, a lot more companies to go public in a much more expedient manner. So I mean the job market is extremely competitive and good talent is not easy to find. And, you know, at Elevation, we’re not just looking to put a warm body in a seat. We are looking to build a team of top tier talent. Um, so there’s no interest in settling just to fill a role or fill a position. Um, so. You know, I think when you’re looking for that top tier talent in a competitive environment, it takes time to do that.

So I mean, I think those are the things that, you know, I’ve found to kind of be the most challenging. I think the other thing is continuing to build the pipeline. How do we get to building an industry leading precision oncology pipeline? You know, again, with more companies out there, other companies are looking for additional assets. It just makes the process so much more competitive. So you need to be able to bring a competitive advantage to the table to make a pitch to why a company should license or sell their asset to you. I mean, like they want to make sure that it’s the right home and that you are going to be able to deliver on, you know, what you are telling them, you’re going to be able to deliver on.

I think that’s honestly one of the things that really differentiates Elevation from others because, you know, we’re not looking to just do the same things that other pharma biotech companies are doing. We are looking to, you know, really take the industry forward and take precision oncology to the next level.

I mean, I think some of the things we’ve done on the operational side, in particular with partnerships that we’ve put in place with diagnostic companies, you know, we’ve created an operational engine that has basically allowed us to operate and run a clinical trial in a very cost and time efficient manner, even in very, very rare genomically defined patient populations.

And that takes partnership, it takes collaboration with academic centers, community oncology practices, as well as arguably more importantly with, you know, diagnostic companies. So, you know, around the phase two Crestone study, you know, we put nine partnerships in place with diagnostic companies and the vast majority of clinical trials are run in a very simplistic manner.

They’re run typically in collaboration with a contract research organization or CRO, and the CRO selects your sites, and that’s it. That doesn’t work in a rare genomically defined patient population, you know, so for the phase two Crestone study, you know, we went and we’re able to leverage existing relationships with key opinion leaders to understand which clinical trial sites had patients with NRG 1 fusions, what sites were testing for these patients? How many patients they had identified over the past six to 12 months? So we were able to, rather just letting you know, the CRO go out and say, these are our top enrolling sites for oncology clinical trials.

We were able to actually go around to, you know, leading KOLs at major academic and community oncology practices and say, this is the patient population we’re looking for. Are you testing? Are you able to identify these patients? How many of them have you seen? To make an informed decision, which allows you to accelerate, things from an operational perspective.

And then we’ve layered on top of that these diagnostic partnerships, because these diagnostic partnerships, they’re the ones running the genomic testing. They know where these patients are and which doctors are identifying them. And they have mechanisms now that, you know, have, you know, move kind of the traditional clinical trial operations in a forward, and are taking that to the next level.

So we’ve been able to leverage these just-in-time clinical trial models, you know, where we carry no side overhead, unless they actually identify, you know, a patient with the genomic alteration in this case, you know, NRG 1. It’s only at that time when they identify a patient, um, that we can within 14 days activate that site, um, and once we activate the site, you start to carry site overhead. You know, one of the biggest limitations is that you tend to open a lot of clinical trial sites and they never identify a patient. So, you know, throughout the entire trial, whether it’s one, two years, three years enrollment period in a plus follow-up, you know, you’re paying that site, whether they identify a patient or not, um, that’s not capital efficient.

Um, you know, we only want to pay for a site ideally after you identify a patient. You know, so that just in time clinical trial strategy, the collaboration with the diagnostic companies, um, the ability to activate sites, you know, within 14 days or less, that gives us a big operational advantage.

And I think, you know, and we’re going through, you know, a competitive licensing process or a product acquisition process, or, you know, some other type of business development process, being able to speak to those types of advantage in terms of, you know, what makes Elevation different, why you should trust us, you know, with your baby, with your product, like those things differentiate and I think allow us to be more competitive in a very competitive environment. 

Trevor: It sounds like there’s a number of advantages that that Elevation can offer kind of for its existing pipeline and for future pipeline. What are some of the challenges, you know, other than the ones that you’ve already mentioned that not even just they’re facing elevation, but facing precision oncology or making that a realistic possibility?

Shawn: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a couple of things. I mean, first and foremost, you know, it’s just promoting awareness around genomic testing. I mean, I think, you know, when you look at cancer as a whole, we’ve done a great job in one tumor type, you know, and that one tumor type is non-small cell lung cancer, where somewhere between 50 up to 90% of patients that are diagnosed with end-stage advanced metastatic non-small cell lung cancer are getting, you know, next generation sequencing and diagnostic testing, which is great. And you know, the main driver for that is there’s you know, multiple targeted therapies that are available to where, you know, if you do genomic testing, there’s a decent likelihood that you will have a product that’s tailored specifically to your genomic alteration.

Um, the reality is, is that, you know, lung cancer only makes up, you know, 10% or less of all cancer cases across the world. So, you know, the limitation right now, is the additional 90 plus percent in where only you know, somewhere between 10 to 20% of those patients are getting into next-generation sequencing or genomic testing.

That obviously is the biggest crux and limitation associated with, you know, the field of precision oncology right now is getting to a world where not just non-small cell lung cancer, but you know, the broader oncology community is getting, you know, next generation sequencing and genetic testing where there’s this ability to deliver a tailored therapeutic.

Trevor: Is the lack of genomic testing? Is that a lack of awareness or is it a cost consideration that some people just can’t have their genome tested? Or is it a mixture of both? 

Shawn: It’s multifactorial for sure. I mean, I think cost is a definite limitation. We’re starting to see, you know, more and more genomic tests getting reimbursed or getting approved.

I mean, I think the limitation right now is there’s only, you know, a couple of, genetic tests that are approved at least as it relates to, you know, next generation sequencing. So I mean, I think access in terms of those that are FDA approved and in turn reimbursed, you know, it’s a limitation, you know, the cost limitation is a clear limitation as well.

And I do think a big part of this is education and awareness. If you pay close attention and you do a lot of research, you would realize that there’s ability to get your tumor sequence, but I would bet if you know, you’ve done a survey and perhaps there is a survey that’s out there where you’ve surveyed the general population, I would imagine that, you know, the vast majority of cancer patients, unfortunately don’t even know that this is an option. 

Um, you hope in that scenario that, you know, the oncologist that they go and see, you know, educates them and makes them aware that this is an option. Um, but I don’t think that that necessarily always happens.

I mean, I think unfortunately it’s even a struggle I think for most patients when they’re diagnosed with cancer, to even figure out which doctor to go see, because the natural reaction is, oh my God, I was just diagnosed with cancer. I’m just going to go to the doctor that is in closest proximity to me. Um, That’s not necessarily, the best choice. Um, I mean, these doctors know are tending to see every different type of cancer. Um, and it’s very challenging for, you know, kind of the generalist oncologist to be an expert in every single tumor type.

So it could be a scenario where the community oncologists that seeing every different type of cancer is five minutes away, but you have the major academic center, which is, you know, 30 minutes or an hour away. And you don’t know that there is, you know, a global expert in, you know, the tumor type that you were just diagnosed with, that, you know, has options to clinical trials, you know, and may be able to deliver a therapeutic tailored and specific to, you know, what’s causing your cancer as opposed to going to see the closest oncologist that, you know, might just treat you with standard of care chemo or chemo immunotherapy, because they don’t know that you have something that’s actionable that’s driving your tumor growth and proliferation.

So I think those, you know, to me are in a, some of the biggest limitations, right? I think in general, I mean, COVID is obviously a challenge. You know, hospitals are plagued right now with cases of COVID. I think that’s less of a limitation for precision oncology. I mean, I think cancer patients, you know, are not stopping the need for treatment, you know, just because there’s a surge of COVID. And I still think, you know, at treatment centers across the us and globally, you know, these patients are, you know, a high priority. Given the fact that they, you know, have pretty much exhausted their therapeutic options. Um, and there’s an urgent need to see them

Trevor: Yeah. So that raises an interesting question as well. I mean, how has COVID impacted Elevation, you know, aside from kind of the broad issues for healthcare in general, but I mean, has it impacted how you guys are operating? 

Shawn: Yeah, I mean, and honestly, really hasn’t had a significant impact on, on how we have operated. You know, Elevation, when I first formed the company was set up as a virtual company. You know, we’ve continued to operate as a virtual company and for the foreseeable future, we’ll continue to operate as a virtual company. So, with the virtual operations, you know, it really hasn’t provided any significant limitations.

And I think, you know, as I just shared, I mean this need, unmet need for end-stage cancer patients that have exhausted all therapeutic options, those patients are still getting treatment. They’re still going on trial. Like they’re still like, they’re a very high priority. it’s not like it’s um, a benign disease or disorder or something along those lines to where, you know, you’re going to be pushed out because you know, someone with COVID-19 is taking priority over you. Um, so we haven’t really had any challenges associated with, you know, patient enrollment associated with the phase two Crestone study.

I mean, I know you can talk to other companies and I’m sure they would tell you it’s hampered their enrollment. You know, but we haven’t had that impact, but that I think is really, you know, distinct and specific to, you know, the unmet need and patient population that we’re looking to cater to. And I think for us, operating in the virtual environment, it’s not like, you know, we’re carrying you know, extra G&A costs associated with the lease. You know, that we’re sitting on that, you know, people are not going into the office or something along those lines. So I think the virtual environment has actually really helped us from an operational perspective as well as from you know, an overhead cost and, and G&A perspective.

I think the other things that I’ve learned is, being a virtual company without you know, in-house manufacturing research capabilities. You know, you’re relying on your external contract research organizations and contract manufacturing organizations. And with the. You know, a surge of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as others try to develop therapies to go after COVID, the supply chain in particular, in the manufacturing side is quite saturated. So, you know, whereas it may have taken you six to 12 months to secure manufacturing campaign and the past, you should start counting on more like 12 to 24 months now, just because there’s so many other competitors that are looking for those slots to be able to manufacture their product.

So it just takes, you know, I think much more advanced planning, um, if you want to be able to continue to maintain your, your timeline. So those are the things that we learned and paid close attention to, and like, we’re really on top of, but you’re doing this for the first time and you know, we’re not seeing these changes in real time. It’s something that could really blindside you if you were, you know, working off, you know, kind of your original timeline assumptions, as opposed to COVID-19 timeline assumptions.

Trevor: Yeah, no, that, that all makes sense. And I understand, I think I read from your website that Elevations doubled its head count just in this past year. What’s that like going from kind of being a small founding team to, you know, just consistently growing, especially when you’re doing it in a remote environment, what are some of the challenges that you faced to kind of manage that?

Shawn: Yeah. I mean, the growth has been quite significant. I mean, so, you know, when, when I formed the company in July of 2019 all the way up until March of 2020, we were, we were two full-time employees. You know, we, you know, after getting all the way through, you know, 2020, we were a total of eight employees. And, you know, we are now currently a total of 14 employees with plans to grow to slightly north of 30 by the end of this year. 

To me, there’s probably two key challenges associated with the growth in the bill, that’s you know, we’ve put in place in a very, you know, kind of like family-oriented, work hard, play hard, balanced life environment at, you know, elevation and being able to continue to maintain that culture. Um, where everyone’s very passionate and driven by, you know, helping patients with unmet needs and rare genomically defined cancers. It’s like, how do you continue to maintain that as we grow at such a rapid pace. And you know, the additional aspect of that that makes it challenging is you’re doing this in a virtual environment. 

One of the ways that we have been mitigating that risk is by putting in place monthly, quarterly in-person meetings, which, you know, we’ve been able to conduct over the past couple of months, but, you know, with the surge in the Delta very, and I hope, and I’m optimistic that these will continue. You know, I mean, I think it’s, it’s clear even from a recent culture survey that we ran internally at Elevation that, you know, people are starting to get concerned around traveling again you know, so, I mean, there, there are people on the team at Elevation that I have yet to meet in person.

And I think, you know, one of the challenges is being able to build relationships with all of your employees and, you know, there’s a definite aspect of that that can be done, you know, virtually via teams, zoom or, your favorite video chat. But, it’s a challenging thing to, you know, completely replace, you know, the value that comes from those in-person interactions.

So, I’m optimistic that we hopefully will get into a future and hopefully a near term future, you know, that’s going to allow for more of that in-person interaction and relationship building that allows us to continue to maintain the culture that we built, you know, as we grow at a pretty expedient pace.

Trevor: Well, it makes me think back to one of your earlier comments about how Elevation is not really looking just to have warm bodies in the seats, but you really want to attract high quality candidates and kind of integrate those into the team. And to your point, that’s just as, can be really hard to do over a video screen.

Shawn: Yeah, but I think the flip side of that Trevor is that, being a virtual company has also catered to our ability and flexibility to recruit top tier talent. I think, prior to COVID, it was almost like, unless you were a company based in Boston or San Francisco, or, you know, the New Jersey, New York Metro area, you know, recruiting top tier talent was a challenge.

You know, I think the beauty of, you know, the virtual world is that, you know, you can work from anywhere. So our talent pool isn’t just focused on one of those three geographic areas. Our talent pool is really like all over the US and globally. Um, so that allows us to cater to you know, a much more diverse background and allows us to you know, make sure that we’re getting top tier talent because you know, we’re not focused on you being based in, you know, a certain location. It’s not, there’s not an expectation where you have to come into a specific corporate office or anything along those lines. 

Trevor: Well, let’s shift gears just a little bit and ask you if you want to, if you were giving advice to, you know, another founder, another CEO about identifying investors or working positively with investors and kind of doing that fundraising aspect, what kind of advice would you give them?

Shawn: Yeah, I mean, I think the advice I would give is, is do your diligence. You know, as a founder, you have a vision for the company that you are looking to build, and I mean, I would encourage founders to do their homework, to look at other companies, or companies that are following a similar model and figure out who those investors are in those companies, because those are probably going to be the individuals that you want around the table.

When I think about investors, you know, I don’t necessarily just think about them bringing finance cash to the table. Um, I think about strategic investors that are going to bring more than that. You know, those that, you know, may come with operational expertise. You know, you’re not just looking for someone that’s going to provide funding for the company you’re looking for someone that’s going to add value, whether that’s, you know, as a strategic advisor, whether that’s as, as a board member, like you’re not just looking for a name you’re looking for, you know, those that are also going to be able to help and contribute, you know, from an operational standpoint.

So I think those are the key aspects in, you know, our investors, our board members have also been extremely instrumental in terms of, you know, the success and the pace that we’ve been able to move that. And I think as a core foundation of what we do at elevation, and I would encourage any other founder to carry a similar mindset, because it allows you to build a very strong foundation. As you know, you start to build the team and build out the company. 

Trevor: So. You know, I’m thinking about, you know, how much of your time kind of early on was spent with fundraising, and maybe you could speak to that just a little bit, but also then does having the series A and B behind you and then the IPO behind you, does that allow you now to shift your focus a little bit more towards the operational side of things or is, is that side of it always in the forefront of mind? 

Shawn: Yeah. I mean, I think, um, you know, this, this is probably the first time over two years, where I felt like there’s been some breathing room to the operate. You know, I think any founder and CEO of a company, like their primary responsibility is to make sure the company is well-funded and well capitalized.

And that’s, you know, something we’ve done a fantastic job of doing, you know, over the past a two plus years, um, and it was securing the, you know, a hundred-million-dollar IPO, um, as well as the cash we had remaining from the series A and series B financing, you know, puts us in a situation where, you know, we have cash on hand, you know, all the way through, um, an into Q2 of 2023.

So, I mean, you know, we basically have cash on hand for two years, which allows us to now kind of like go into a period where like financing is not like in an immediate need, right. Obviously as a publicly traded company, you know, you have to have a very focused investor relations PR plan, um, you know, which we have in place that we’re executing on.

You know, it’s important to continue to maintain those relationships, continue to keep those people updated, because the company will clearly need more capital in the future, but you know, it’s not an immediate need, you know, given the recent public financing. You know, so it has allowed me to kind of go out of this, you know, mode where I felt like my primary responsibility for the past two plus years is that of more or less kind of streamlined and focused on financing to go back into some of the things that like I love and I’m most passionate about, which is being able to like operate and like figure out how we grow this company. 

Trevor: Well, that leads into kind of my next question. I mean, what is your why? What is your why for doing this? What is it that gets you up each morning to go to work? 

Shawn: There’s probably three things that, you know, I think get me up every day and that like excite me about, you know, coming to work every day at elevation. You know, I think first and foremost, um, you know, we are catering to a patient population has exhausted all therapeutic options.

I mean, these patients have nothing left. All it takes is changing one patient’s life, you know, allowing that, you know, high school senior who potentially would have passed away before graduation to graduate from high school and kind of move on to the next stage of her life and career.

I mean, those are the types of moments that we all live for and strive for and like work for, I mean, it’s all about being able to help people, provide hope and change lives. I mean, that is the one thing that is such a core value to everyone at Elevation that, you know, comes from the top down. You know, everyone that comes to work at elevation carries that same passion and, you know, we’ll do whatever is possible to get patients, you know, a drug that has the potential to change their life. 

I I’ve really enjoyed people that have like taken a vested interest in, in my career that have helped me get to where I am today. and I want to be able to provide that same type of advice, support, you know, to get people, to continue to elevate on and, and their career as well. So I mean, this, you know, passion of being able to mentor folks and help people continue to advance their career, as something that also like gets me up every morning and really motivates me, you know, every day. And then I think, you know, the, the last thing is in a really, to, you know, change the industry and move the industry and the the field forward.

I think too many of us honestly, like become complacent and you know, how things have been done in the past. And, you know, I founded Elevation too do things differently to try to move the field forward, to, make you know, a broader impact on the industry as well. As opposed to just kind of doing things the same way that things have been done in the past, and I think we’ve been able to do that early on, and I think we’ll be able to continue to do that going forward. 

Trevor: So we are the Founders Shares podcast, and so I always like to ask our guests, you know, if there was one piece of advice that you’d like to share with a new founder or someone who wants to be a founder, one day. You know, what, what would that advice be?

Shawn: To be Frank. I mean, I think it’s, it’s just have the courage to, to be an entrepreneur. If you come across a good idea, don’t be afraid like regardless of your age, or you know, what you’ve done or what you’ve accomplished, you know, have the courage to go out there and do it. You know, I mean, I think, you know, for me that was like one of the biggest limitations hesitancies of, you know, going down this path of being a founder and being an entrepreneur is just the anxiety, stress of, you know, doing something that’s completely unfamiliar. You know, so I think just having the courage and confidence, if you come across a good idea to do that, 

I think the other piece of advice I would give to any founder who’s thinking about going down this path is build as broad of a network as you possibly can and surround yourself with, you know, the right people, you know, having connections to, you know, industry leading experts’ key opinion leaders in the field of interest, those things allow you to surround yourself with experts that are going to give you the right advice and that are going to support you, that will back your idea. And, you know, having that type of support will give, you know, investors a whole lot more confidence when you go to pitch your idea and concept.

So those would be the two in a word of advice that I would provide to any kind of founder or a first-time entrepreneur. 

Trevor: And at least to me, they seem to be very closely related because I imagine as you surround yourself with advisors and people who can encourage you to that helps provide the courage that you need to say. Yeah, you know what? I can do this. This is the stuff I can take. 

Shawn: Yeah. Yeah. 

Trevor: Well, Shawn, this was, this was fantastic. I really appreciate you taking the time and I’m excited to see, you know, what the next two years of Elevation brings and, and excited to see where you lead your team. So thanks so much for coming on.

Shawn: Yeah. Sounds good, Trevor. Thanks for having me.

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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