Innovation, leadership, and purpose in the biotech industry: A conversation with Mathai Mammen, CEO of FogPharma

Innovation, leadership, and purpose in the biotech industry: A conversation with Mathai Mammen, CEO of FogPharma

Mathai Mammen, the CEO of FogPharma, discusses balancing steady, incremental innovation with significant, transformational innovation, and how leaders should leaders think about that balance as they plot their strategic agenda and build their teams.
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Andy MacLeod speaks to Mathai Mammen, the CEO of FogPharma, a company spun out of Harvard University with a mission to drastically reduce the burden of disease on patients and their families by inventing new types of drugs. Previously, Mammen was a member of the executive committee at Johnson & Johnson, where he served as executive vice president of pharmaceutical R&D. In this conversation, Mammen discusses balancing steady, incremental innovation and significant, transformational innovation, and how leaders should leaders think about that balance as they plot their strategic agenda and build their teams. He also discusses the development of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, creating value as a purpose-driven company, and what he views as the consistent traits and skills business leaders need to possess that enable them to harness science and innovation impactfully.

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 in high science 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 and 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 Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice and the CEO & Board Practice. In today's podcast, I'm talking to Mathai Mammen. Mathai is a world-renowned innovator in drug discovery, development, and team and company building. He is CEO at FogPharma, a company spun out of Harvard University with a mission to drastically reduce the burden of disease on patients and their families by inventing new types of drugs. Most recently, Mathai was a member of the executive committee at Johnson & Johnson, where he served as executive vice president of pharmaceutical R&D, helping drive Janssen’s substantial growth to become one of the top pharmaceutical companies globally. 

Mathai, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Mathai Mammen: Thank you, Andy. It's my pleasure.

Andy MacLeod: So let's get started. Mathai, tell us what first triggered your passion for science, medicine, research, and innovation?

Mathai Mammen: Yes, it's a great question. It wasn't a direct shot, not a straight line at all. It kind of fascinated me that math even worked, like it is kind of a strange thing to say, but that it was even possible to simplify and understand very complicated things this way. And I was equally fascinated, but you'll think this is odd, but I was equally fascinated by the ability like for one brain sitting across a room to induce thoughts in another brain, and the structure and function of language and how that worked was very fascinating to me. I spoke several languages, and I sometimes compare and contrast structures. And it was later as things went on that I watched my mother—she was a scientist in the labs at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was raised. And I got familiar then slowly with what that meant and the trials and tribulations and great thoughts and all these challenges to execute against those thoughts. And I did research and then as time went on, I became more interested in the biological sciences and medicine and I applied myself there to immerse myself over the years. It was through a series of things that then happened toward the end of that period and then later as the years went on, that I became more and more motivated by innovation in the form of impact on human health. And right now I'd say that's how I define myself, and my mission right now is I'm 100% devoted to human health. And, you know, at a human level, I would say that what I'm trying to maximize is just feelings of connectivity among people, which I feel is like the most foundational thing among people. And my piece of that is health because you cannot connect with other people if you're ill or in pain or obviously if you're not alive. And so these are my contributions to what I think is the foundation, is really the connectivity among all of us.

Andy MacLeod: The company that you're about to lead, FogPharma, brings truly differentiated science to benefit targeted populations of patients with new drugs that were previously not able to be developed and manufactured because their targets were undruggable, a great example of potentially transformative innovation. There is clearly a place for both steady, incremental innovation and significant, transformational innovation, but how should leaders think about this as they plot their strategic agenda and build their teams?

Mathai Mammen: Yes, I think a very standard response to that would be that you need some of both, that you need to have lower-risk, medium-size opportunities and higher risk—I actually don't believe that, I don't. I think that innovation should always aim high. Now where those risks are taken, whether in the basic biology, in the translation to a specific modality as a medicine, in the various aspects of clinical development or regulatory science, or market adoption, or other forms of commercial risk, I think there is our choice, so that a portfolio of programs don't all take exactly the same risk. But I think one should always aim high. And then my experience over my career has been all the rakes one can step on along the way, getting that idea to an actual medicine, is decoupled in its difficulty or number from how far that initial idea reached in the first place, to a first approximation. And I think that's important to say because I think in those that practice in the very earliest stages, there is sometimes a feeling that the hard part is getting over a certain bar. I think that sometimes lowers the amount someone reaches, and you pay a price as you head into the marketplace, that no one really wants your medicine anymore. Like if it's not sufficiently important for a patient relative to other alternatives that patient has, what have you really done? And so my own belief in my career is aim high, but with a patient at the center of what that means. That does not mean always taking massive biology risk. This patient needs to be way better off, understanding the rest of the world is inventing for that patient too. That patient needs to be way better off with your invention, your innovation, than anything else that that patient can choose from.

Andy MacLeod: You talk about impact on the patient, you led J&J’s foray into the Covid pandemic and the activities around vaccine development. What can we learn in terms of innovation leadership from the Covid pandemic? 

Mathai Mammen: That's such a question that deserves, you know, a lot of thought in our industry, and I don't know that people have quite come out of the pandemic. It took so much out of everyone that was deeply immersed, including myself, that I think it takes time to come out and really reflect on what it all means, but let me try. I think it's one of the greatest happenings as an industry, with the opportunity to come together to do something amazing, which the industry did. And there, I remember those very early days where everyone recognized, or within a few weeks, what was happening, and many companies decided to jump in. Myself and others, we tried to convene a group of leaders on the vaccine side of things and saying that, you know, all sorts of things might keep us from thinking we'll be successful and some of this stuff, we can help one another—whether it be endpoint definition or site selection, or modeling the pandemic, or all sorts of decisions you make in a clinical, in a discovery and then clinical development program. Let's help one another. There was a certain degree of deliberate thinking that everyone shouldn't do the same exact thing because that's too much dependent risk, and that there is a diversity of efforts was celebrated in the positive. And so this felt to me every bit like an industry effort, versus multiple company efforts. And then within each company, the companies poured heart and soul into this, and I think in a way that's not broadly appreciated. But the Janssen vaccine team with all the supporting teams around them, the data science team, the operations team, the regulatory team, all the teams around them, I would say for 10, 12 months never stopped working. Like never really took a weekend day off, didn't have holidays, worked right through like American holidays, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, all the holidays, and it was an all-in thing. And then, you know, there was Europe and American teams, so there was a 20-hour-a-day kind of cycle on things in general. And with all our partners in the US government and insights, this felt so magnificent in what we were doing, which helped because otherwise like everyone was getting exhausted, but was fuelled by this feeling of “we're on a mission right now to help the world.” And some of the companies were successful, some of them not. So when we talk about innovation, I think one of the learnings for me is that when you do something really big, too much sophistication, too much experience, you have to watch out for that it doesn't so bias you that it makes you not try. Having no knowledge, that's too naive and you shouldn't do it, but there's some optimal amount of sophistication and naivete, some balance there, that helps motivate people to do really big things. And that was what sort of one of the interesting learnings—out of many—that the pandemic, I think, taught. 

Andy MacLeod: And as a leader, how were you catalyzing that clear passion for impacting the human environment?

Mathai Mammen: Yes, so I'm sure this is true of every company that made a big effort in therapeutics for vaccines, but the J&J team, we recognized that our normal processes and the normal team structures wouldn't work. So the senior team basically at Janssen were the project team in a sense, like myself and the grand group leaders that normally themselves would have sub-teams work within their own areas. The senior team came together as the team, and many people right now needed to motivate, but we were fuelled by this energy that's in the world around us. We understood that, you know, on the news 12 times a day was motivation. So in this particular case, I didn't have to do or say very much; the world was moving us along. 

Andy MacLeod: Taking that into the regular life of pharmaceutical R&D and driving innovation, what are the key things that a leader still needs to bring to the table in terms of inspiring the team? 

Mathai Mammen: In most programs that are yielding medicines, I think the most important thing is a constant reminder of the end goal. Discovering a drug or a vaccine is a decade-plus-long endeavor, and then once the commercialization begins and you do studies to drive adoption and you add indications, it's another 10 years or plus. So this is a 20-year journey. So this is not possible to do with just adrenaline alone. So I think that, and it's very possible, by the way, along the way that you get distracted by thinking some milestone is actually the grand objective, where it's not—it's just a milestone. It's a step along the way. So I think the trick is to always be reminded of a patient impact. And to me, and this is something in every company I've been part of was very well done, and I did my part to make sure it was well done, but always have patients that were visible to the teams, and patient interviews and understanding the journey of the patient. You know, the impact on that patient's family sometimes is incredibly profound. Understanding that, understanding that when you have this grand invention that turns out to be useful at the end of the day, that's a genuine innovation, the impact, you can see it on that person, and you can kind of imagine it and see it ripple out on to the family and community of that person. That is something that's very motivating, I think, for people all along the way for 10 years and 20 years.

Andy MacLeod: What are the consistent traits and skills business leaders need to possess that enable them to harness science and innovation impactfully?

Mathai Mammen: Yes, leaders, I think that this has not changed in my career at least, but leaders have always needed to remain balanced between openness and listening, and having great conviction. Leaders have always needed to be able to have an experimental phase where they're discerning—whether it's around people or projects or some other aspect of a company—and then transition to a phase where their heart and soul are into it, like whether it's a project or a person. And I think that those same traits are very important. I'm not a big fan of a leadership style and being able to develop it, but rather I think of most situations offering different or having different challenges. So situational leadership, to me, is the most important. So maybe in one kind of company, in one kind of group at one time, it's very important to be a lead-from-in-front, inspiring leader, and another time all you have to do is get in the back of the room and support your team and lift up the people that are actually doing the work. So these situations call for different styles, and I think great leaders recognize the situation and can move into the appropriate style.

Andy MacLeod: Driving real innovative value at scale is exceptionally difficult. You have led science and R&D efforts in major organizations such as Merck and J &J. How do you see this challenge for today's leaders?

Mathai Mammen: I think that I started my career founding a company called Theravance, and that was a company initially of a few people, right, and grew into dozens of people, into a few hundred people. And when I went to Merck it was, my team was a couple thousand people, and then a J&J was about 14,000 people. And so these are obviously very different scales and they require different skills, but I think, at the end of the day, you do depend on amazing people. So at some point it comes back to that, it comes back to talent, both how the person is as an individual, how excellent they are at whatever they're skilled in, combined with their ability to be a team and be part of a whole that moves a mission forward that no one person can do on their own. And that's true for leadership to me, it still comes back to being able to assemble teams and being able to recognize, maybe again give yourself some period where you can go through some discernment where you can make errors in bringing certain people in. But after you recognize them to be amazing, you should without any hesitation be all in, support that person. And I think that's how you operate whether at a Theravance level or a J&J level, you have to work through amazing people.

Andy MacLeod: You talked very eloquently about the people side of the business. There is a key impact that an R&D leader has to make in a public or a private company in terms of reflecting value and creating value, whether it’s share price or enterprise value. What's your view on that in terms of impact and how do you address that?

Mathai Mammen: Yes, I think there it's highly connected to the objective of patient impact. If you think of the total number of people and the depth of impact you can have per person and you think in terms of, you know, population or person impact, it’s almost always true, with maybe a couple exceptions, that aren't worth like over-indexing on, where the commercial success does follow. Obviously, there are 100 problems solved in order to get there, but if you don't have that, that profound impact, differentiated impact over anything else that that person can try to go do, if you don't have that, then there is no return because it's a problem. So really back me up again, I think that you need to, in order to have strong commercial returns, to have a business thrive, you need to have a highly differentiated product, and you need to believe also that that—because this is years ahead of that product being in existence—you need to believe through real deep thinking that others that are trying to do the same thing, you're apt to get there in a better way or more quickly than anyone else. You need to have some reason to believe that. Also, you need to believe that when you get there, you're not going to have a whole peloton of people right there with you, and right behind you, even if you're first. And so there has to be some reason for that. It might be that it's such a contrarian idea that you buy yourself years of advantage, or it's such a technically difficult problem that no one else can do it. But there's some reason you have to have inside that there aren't going to be 100 others there when you get there. And so, you know, to me that's like basically it, yes. 

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

Mathai Mammen: I think the place to focus on is learning. Like you, you can have a success, and you learn from that. You can have what is on paper a failure and learn from that. And sometimes you overtly win and sometimes you learn as an alternative, and it's the essence. What I don't like, and what shouldn't be an objective, is the lucky win or the unlucky failure.

Andy MacLeod: As you reflect on your career, what stands out as great examples of how leaders have shaped a true culture that acts as a catalyst for research?

Mathai Mammen: I think there is such thing to me as a culture of innovation, and I have tried to encourage these key attributes in teams all my career. And so you need to be creative, so creativity is a key element, and it's really hard to do and you have to force your mind to think in ways that others haven't thought of before. I think you need to be a rigorous person, and you need to be capable of self-critique and critique of the idea, so that you can adequately filter. So those features of being creative yet rigorous and thinking things through, those are two very important aspects that are uncommon in the general population. Then a feeling of accountability or responsibility, I think that that's always there too. And so you don't just look to the next person to lead a sub-goal, that you're willing to pick up the flag and go forward. I think an ability to be very transparent and speak your mind, so that there are conversations where you're real and where you're not closing a door and then saying what's real after the meetings done. That's very, very important. And finally, like this grand sense of humility, like knowing that what we're doing is awfully difficult and rarely works. 

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

Mathai Mammen: Yes, that's a tough one. You know, one of the features to me of like an interesting conversation is where not everyone is saying the same thing like, you know, there are opposing points of view. And there are people like through history I feel like, and even in our current time that, you know, are not, are incredible people but have opposing points of view. You know, and I borrow from history here, so this is not necessarily people that are alive today. And in this period that I'm in between Johnson & Johnson and FogPharma, I've been, one of the things I've been doing is just reflecting and reading again and, you know, things I used to be interested in, like I said mathematics and philosophy as well I've been immersed in. And so it strikes me, people that I used to study a lot, like a Baruch Spinoza, and, you know, the sort of the rethinking of the world in terms of a rational model is so sharply contrasted with an Immanuel Kant who wrote The Critique of Pure Reason, and the spiritual aspects of what it is to be alive and the inability to use pure reason. Having opposing people like that at a dinner, even if they lived in different times, you asked the question, magically if you can put these in a dinner conversation, that'd be great. And others too, you know, you have great physicists, like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, who actually wouldn't agree on the majority of things that they discussed. You know, a Steve Jobs versus a Richard Feynman, one starts from the very end at the customer and works backward. One starts at a very fundamental state without any customer or application in mind. They're both amazing but there, you know, there might be disagreement and interesting conversation when you have differences like that. You know, you have in this day that we're in with foundation models right now and ChatGPT and bringing to public attention conversations around artificial intelligence, you have great inventors and innovators that have radically different opinions on exactly how to proceed. So, you know, you put a Sam Altman and a Demis Hassabis and an Elon Musk in the room and it would be a fiery, great conversation. So maybe it'd be a series of dinners, and you'd have opposing points of view among people we all objectively think are amazing, but just happen to have very different approaches.

Andy MacLeod: Thank you, Mathai, for taking the time to speak with us today. It was a true pleasure.

Mathai Mammen: Thank you for having me.

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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