Innovation, leadership, and purpose in the biotech industry: Insights from Martin Mackay, co-founder and CEO of Rallybio

Innovation, leadership, and purpose in the biotech industry: Insights from Martin Mackay, co-founder and CEO of Rallybio

Martin Mackay, the co-founder and CEO of Rallybio, discusses translating innovation into commercial value and the importance of an agile mindset.
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In this episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Andy MacLeod speaks to Martin Mackay, co-founder and CEO of Rallybio, a biotech company. Mackay discusses his passion for science, medicine, research, and innovation, his career in the biotech and pharmaceuticals industries, and how leaders can enable innovation to translate into commercial value. He also shares insights on the importance of having a purpose, an agile mindset, and dealing with setbacks.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Andy MacLeod: As globalization breaks down geographic boundaries and market barriers that once kept businesses from achieving their potential, a company’s ability to innovate has never been more critical. But, with a backdrop of a significantly challenging global economy, returns from R&D and high science and research-led organizations are increasingly in the spotlight. As many public and private companies rely heavily on innovation to drive enterprise value, we are aiming to explore through the eyes of experienced science, innovation, and research leaders what really differentiates success in terms of leadership, driving innovation, and how can leaders truly unlock the potential that new science brings to drive consistent returns for their industries. 

Hi, I'm Andy MacLeod, partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the global Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice and CEO & Board Practice. In today's podcast, I'm talking to Martin Mackay. Martin is cofounder and chief executive officer of Rallybio, and has worked in pharmaceutical and biotech R&D for more than 30 years, holding senior leadership roles in companies including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Alexion. He is currently a member of the board of directors of Charles River Laboratories and Novo Nordisk. He is also a senior adviser at New Leaf Ventures. Martin summarizes the three loves in his life as being family, work, and soccer, but not necessarily in that order. Martin obtained a first-class honors degree in microbiology from Heriot-Watt University and his PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Edinburgh. Martin, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Martin Mackay: Thank you, Andy. I'm looking forward to it. 

Andy MacLeod: So let's get started. Martin, as you look back, please tell us about what first triggered your passion for science, medicine, research, and innovation.

Martin Mackay: Oh, thank you, Andy, what a great question. You know, as a kind of typical working-class wee boy in Scotland, left school at 16, luckily with some qualifications, but, I mean, university, and that was not on the agenda. Nobody from where I came from went to uni, nor any of my friends. You know, we all at 16 stopped school and went out to work. But I was really lucky because I knew in my heart that I wanted to work in a laboratory. And I think why was really there were great programs on the BBC about science, and I was kind of intrigued by this notion of wearing a white coat. So, as a 16 -year- old, I worked in a bacteriology laboratory at the City Hospital Edinburgh. What I noticed during my couple of years there [was] that everybody that was making the decisions had this thing called a degree, and I thought yes, I need to get some of that. So went to university, got my degree, as you said, at Heriot-Watt in microbiology, and then went out to work again in the ’70s with Beecham Pharmaceuticals. By that time, I kind of knew I wanted to work in the industry, the pharmaceutical industry, but exactly the same thing happened. I looked around and found that everybody that was making decisions had this thing called a Ph.D. So, long story short, went back to university, got a PhD, postdoctoral work also in Edinburgh, but by that time, I was kind of devoted to the notion of working in the pharmaceutical industry. And so it all kind of came together, and my, you know, the first job was with, after the Beecham’s piece, was with Ciba-Geigy, the Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company. So it all kind of cemented, but I think it was just luck that I really wanted to work in a lab.

Andy MacLeod: And that passion that you were talking about, has that still been with you over the years?

Martin Mackay: It's just incredible, Andy, it has not diminished. In fact, since starting our own company in 2018, Rallybio, I'd say it's even heightened, because the work that we're doing there and the projects we're working on are just fascinating, in rare diseases. And so not only has not diminished, I'd say it's enhanced with time.

Andy MacLeod: Now let's talk a little bit about invention and innovation. Some commentators differentiate between invention and innovation. How do you see this as a leader?

Martin Mackay: Yes, I must confess I hadn't made that differentiation, but as recently as yesterday, there were two awards made, surprise—not surprisingly, but gladly to two of my former companies. So AstraZeneca and Pfizer won the innovation and invention awards this week. And how they categorized it as invention was how you brought a number of technologies together to form a product, and that was given to Pfizer. And innovation was this ability to create medicines, and this was AstraZeneca. And I hadn't really separated in that way. Because if you think about innovating, you patent something, right? It’s intellectual property, and what do you need to innovate? You need three things:  it needs to be novel, it needs to be not obvious, and it needs to be useful. And that's always been my thoughts on innovation and invention—you need to satisfy those criteria.

Andy MacLeod: And taking that forward in to how you look at progressing innovation. As you reflect on your time as a leader of organizations that have impacted and are impacting the world of science, what characteristics stand out for you that the great leaders possess?

Martin Mackay: I'm writing a book just now, and it's called The Fog of Leadership, but the title of the book is “31 Leaders, 29 Human Beings.” And what that signifies is I've had 31 leaders in my career since I left school at 16—I can name them all. I have, you know, named them all. And the 29 is [because] two of them had to suffer me twice. So, two of them were my boss twice, David Brennan and John LaMattina. And I'm doing this book, and what struck me was you can't just see a leader is great or bad; it’s way more nuanced than that. And what I did was I've created this kind of matrix of attributes of leadership, and then I'm going to score the leaders that I've had. I won't do all 31 because some of them go, you know, way back to the ’70s. But in that, I think about things like vision, right, humanity, intelligence, articulate, and all these things come into it. And, of course, there's very few people that tick every box. You just think about who can have everything. And often when people are thinking about great leaders, they name political leaders, and that's not what I'm about because I've worked in this industry. So fortunately, I've had some really great leaders, but I think the ones that have stuck out most are this ability to have a vision of the future and ask and get people to follow. And that last part is the human part. You know, are you an authentic, real person that cares about people, that treats people like adults, and you've set the vision? 

Andy MacLeod: Whilst appreciating scientific developments of both academic and commercial impact, with a focus on businesses that require innovation to sustain their growth and development, how do the best leaders enable innovation to be translated into commercial value?

Martin Mackay: Yes, you think about our business, you know, discovering and developing medicines. Not only is it long, but it's fraught with risk; you just think about the number of failures that you have. So for a leader to work in research, for example, they have to have the ability to identify real innovators. Often I found in industry, in particular, often we promote these innovators out of that position, and ask them to manage and lead people, and they're often not the best people to do that. And also they don't want to do it; they want to be inventors and innovators. So I think part of the job in our science is to identify those people that are true innovators, that are really thinking about, in our case, the disease, the target, and the modality, all of these pieces coming together, and then, you know, getting the people in that position to do what they do best.

Andy MacLeod: And how does that then align to commercial value?

Martin Mackay: So again it's really interesting that early on in the process in companies, you kind of need that input, right? You have to know that the thing that you're going to make is going to generate revenues. I think for us scientists, we're totally driven sometimes by the good of humanity, and again it's part of a leader’s job I think to align both of those things. I think that sometimes the mistake is made though that early on we try and decide what that's going to look like, it might be 15 years hence—that's jolly difficult. And when you do these analyses of, you know, column maximum peak revenues, the only thing you know about that figure is it's wrong. There's no chance of getting it right in those early days. So as part of that innovations thing, you have to think about how is science going, how's medicine going, how's clinical practice going, and if you can bring all of these together, you've got at least a fighting chance to come up with a product that's going to be successful in the market.

Andy MacLeod: You talked earlier about your passion and what great leaders have. How significant do you think is having a purpose in building momentum and progress and innovation? Are there examples you can draw upon?

Martin Mackay: Absolutely. I'll speak about Rallybio for a while, you know, the company that a couple of cofounders and I started at the beginning of 2018. Our purpose was very clear: transformative medicines for patients with rare and devastating diseases. I t’s like a great purpose. And what we mean by that is the patient is really ill and gets better, and leads a normal life. So there's nothing wrong with incremental benefits, but what we're after is that transformation, and we were able to work on some medicines in our former companies that did exactly that. So I think of one in particular, asfotase alfa, also known as Strensiq, it went on to the market in 2015 for a devastating bone disease called hypophosphatasia. And that disease in the worst cases, the perinatal, the infants that are born, if you do a radiograph of these infants, you can't see a skeleton. I mean they just don't make bone because they lack this enzyme called tissue nonspecific alkaline phosphatise, or there's a mutation in this enzyme. And with this medicine called asfotase alfa, which Alexion brought onto the market, you can see a skeleton after treatment. I've never been able to see anything that's quite as profound as seeing no skeleton and a skeleton, and then all the other benefits that accrue from that. 

Andy MacLeod: A great example and also reflects a passion behind all of that as well. You have a love of sport, particularly soccer, and in fact, we share a love of the great, or not-so-great, Heart of Midlothian Football Club in Edinburgh. While the Hearts are by no means the Real Madrid of football, do you see parallels in professional sport at the highest levels with leadership and business? 

Martin Mackay: And yes, the Hearts, who would have thought, Andy, that you and I, from Scotland, would be in Boston talking about the world-famous Heart of Midlothian? In terms of parallels, there are a couple of things that I think about leadership on the field, and you and I have both witnessed great players that had that leadership, that led by example, that people could follow and really get behind just by the example of how good they are. They were probably a little mouthy as well. You know, I've also seen that in my history. But the other one that intrigues me from a business perspective—I'm sure you know this, but Jean-Paul Sartre was a great soccer fan, a great soccer fan. And he has this quote, which I'll paraphrase, which is, “Soccer would be an easy game if it wasn't for the opposition.” And I've applied that in leadership practices quite often. And one that always sticks out is in business development when you're working with an external partner, and it would be really easy had it not been for the other company. But where it helps you is to put yourself in their position, how do they feel about what's happening now? So I think there's a leadership trait there about really putting yourself in the other person's position. ;

Andy MacLeod: Experimentation often leads to negative results and failure. How important is an agile mindset to deal with setbacks and restrategize new directions? Tell us a bit about how you encourage that in yourself and in your teams.

Martin Mackay: You know, this process, as I say, say it’s 15 years, you're going to hit hard times. So the lesson for me was: never get too high, never get too low. If it's a good result, never build it up to something that's greater than it is. And if it's a bad result, try and work out a way of how you can get through this. And I'll give you one example. In the mid-’90s, two terrific scientists at Sandwich in Kent, in the Pfizer laboratories, James Merson and Manos Perros, came to me to tell me about this idea they had for a new antiviral. And it was based on a finding that there were some people that should have caught AIDS, HIV/AIDS, but didn't. So they wondered, why was this? They were highly vulnerable. And some wonderful genetic analyses by academics showed that they had a mutation in their CCR5 gene. So James and Manos’s idea was to come up with a CCR5 antagonist to treat HIV/AIDS. And as they left the room, I thought, “They are nuts.” I mean, it's really hard to come up with chemokine receptor antagonists, and never in our history have we had an antiviral that's been directed against the host, not the virus. So you're double unprecedented, which is hard in our industry. Ten years later, we launched the medicine, right, and there were hard times along the way. But the tenacity that they showed to get it into development, and then the people in development took it all the way to the market. They were able to realize that it was going to be tough, so failures would happen—many of the compounds failed—but they had the tenacity. And I think that's the keyword, Andy, with failure, you just need sometimes to see your way through this. 

Andy MacLeod: And resilience, I guess, as well. 

Martin Mackay: Resilience, just oodles of it.

Andy MacLeod: Now you've been a CEO and a chief R&D officer as well as a board member. You have therefore a very special view on how various stakeholders look at creating value through science and innovation. What's your secret sauce that unites these parties around leading successful innovation?

Martin Mackay: I don't think I have a secret sauce, but I have some kind of principles in any of the jobs that I've been in, and fundamentally it's the one about people and treating people like adults, and being honest and authentic as a leader with folks. And I feel just really I'm deeply motivated by that notion. So when I was an R& D head in great companies, it was all to do with the people that were working in the labs or in the clinic or supporting these people, you know, the HR professionals, the finance professionals, and the medical affairs, that notion as a team motivated. As a CEO, it’s a wee bit different, but the biggest difference is in a start-up, rather than a massive pharmaceutical company that has everything. The American term, Andy, is we’re much scrappier. We have to kind of fight for every morsel that we get, but fundamentally it's the same. In Rallybio, there are around 45 people. They're all first and foremost excellent human beings. And the start-up gives you the ability to hire these wonderful people, and what sort of people do they hire? Wonderful people. So you kind of grow up in that, in that way. One of our values in the company is to be kind. You don't see that too often in lists of values, but it was really important to us. You can be driven by what you do; you can be highly motivated. You don't have to be a jerk to do it.

Andy MacLeod: Finally, we'd love to know which great inventors and innovators would you most like to invite to a dinner party and why?

Martin Mackay: Can you imagine having that ability to do that, put a few people together in our field? So, here's the type of people I would like, and for each one of them I’ll say why. So, Rosalind Franklin, you know, with the discovery of DNA with Watson and Crick. There have been many texts written about what role she played, and she played a much bigger role than she was ever given credit for by anybody. I'd love to be able to sit with her and ask her what it was like in that lab as you were working out the structure of DNA. What did it feel like and how did she feel about everything going on? So, she'd be number one on my list. Number two would be Marie Curie, a great heroine of mine, as I looked at our work and what she did and often against all odds, and just what a fantastic scientist. So again, the question would be: what was it like in that lab, right at that time when you were, you know, doing your radio chemistry and the likes? And then the others take me back to my roots as a microbiologist. So, Robert Koch of Koch’s postulates, you know, one of the early microbiologists. And, of course, the other people around in that era were Paul Ehrlich and Louis Pasteur. So, kind of, it’s a very European group of people. We'd have to speak some different languages in there, some German and French and the likes, but I cannot think of a better dinner than those five people around talking about science, discovery, innovation, what it was like in their day to be these great scientists. 

Andy MacLeod: Thank you, Martin, for taking the time to speak with us today. It was an absolute pleasure, really appreciate it.

Martin Mackay: My pleasure. Thank you, Andy.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Andy MacLeod ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the Healthcare & Life Sciences and the CEO & Board of Directors practices.

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