Carsten Brunn on moving from big pharma to biotech: Risk, rewards, and leadership styles

Carsten Brunn on moving from big pharma to biotech: Risk, rewards, and leadership styles

Carsten Brunn, the president and CEO of Selecta Biosciences, discusses the cultural differences between large pharmaceutical organizations and biotech start-ups and what it takes to be a successful leader in the space.
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Charlie Moore speaks to Carsten Brunn, the president and CEO of Selecta Biosciences, a clinical-stage biotech company with a commitment to solving the challenges associated with autoimmunity headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. Brunn, who moved into biotech from Bayer, discusses the differences—cultural, day-to-day, and leadership capabilities needed—between biotech and big pharma. He shares what surprised him, the challenges he faced when he first joined Selecta Biosciences, and managing his relationship with the board of directors. Finally, he offers advice to leaders considering a move into the biotech space.

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.

Charlie Moore: Hi, I'm Charlie Moore, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles and a member of our global Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice. In today's podcast, I'm very excited to speak to Carsten Brunn, who is the CEO and president of Selecta Biosciences. Founded in 2008 and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, Selecta is a clinical-stage biotech company with a commitment to solving the challenges associated with autoimmunity. Prior to Selecta, Carsten was president of pharmaceuticals for the Americas Region at Bayer and a member of their global pharmaceutical executive committee. Carsten has worked all over the world; he's lived in Japan, China, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, and currently the US. Carsten, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Carsten Brunn: Thanks for having me.

Charlie Moore: Perhaps you could start us off with a walk through your career path—where you've been, what you've done, and ultimately why you decided that being a biotech CEO was something that was appealing.

Carsten Brunn: Great question, Charlie. It clearly wasn't the plan when I started out. And if I look at my career, there are a couple of themes. So one is large companies and small companies. I've worked in big pharma but I've also worked in small, very small organizations, and I've been on both the science side and the business side. I started out as a scientist. I have a PhD in endocrine pharmacology. I started at Eli Lilly, but pretty quickly had a strong interest in the commercial side and switched over. I spent almost 10 years at Lilly and then I wanted to see big pharma from a European perspective, so I went to Novartis and kind of went through the value chain on the commercial side. And then I did something quite different: I went to a very small Swiss biotech and really enjoyed that, but also saw the risks there—the phase three failed, right. But I think that's part of the game. Then I went to a private equity–backed midsized organization in Asia Pacific. So there's another theme, I've worked around the globe, based out of Singapore first and then I was lured back in to big pharma, actually, into Bayer, out of China first. I spent a good eight years there, in larger commercial roles or regional president. I was heading up Japan. And that's kind of what brought me back to the science side. We actually opened the first Open Innovation Centre in Japan, partnering with academia, basically. And then my last role at Bayer was heading up the US, Canada, and Latin America, but also I had the Open Innovation Centre based in Boston. So I spend a lot of time in Boston with some of the start-ups that we were funding and realize I really enjoy that actually. And reflecting on what I wanted to do with my own career and realizing maybe I didn’t enjoy my day-to-day life in big pharma anymore. It's very process driven, very administrative, very political. I wanted something that's closer to innovation, something more agile, more entrepreneurial, a bit more informal, more externally focused, and that's how I ended up in the biotech world. So, it wasn't a straight path, but I think I got a lot of learnings along the way that come in very handy running a small, very small biotech. 

Charlie Moore: I want to talk about the risk piece because that's an important categorization of you, perhaps in terms of what you're willing to do, both in terms of job content, size of organization, and the fact that you moved around the world as well is interesting. But in terms of moving to this role and Selecta in particular, perhaps you could just talk us through what was there when you arrived, a little bit of the journey that you've been on over the last few years, and then we'll come back to some of those other points perhaps.

Carsten Brunn: Yes. I kind of walked into what I would say was a pretty difficult situation when I joined Selecta. There'd been quite a bit of turnover on the management side and some funding issues, so I had to learn very quickly how the capital markets work and that whole piece. You know, how to interact with investors, how to interact with the bankers, speak their language. So that's been a tremendous learning. And then the second piece that I think was the most urgent was the board and board management. I had to make the difficult decision to find a new chairperson actually, which is very tricky because that's the person that hired you. But I'd also realized that that person probably wasn't the best fit for the organization. We needed to have the skill set we needed. So I think these were the two key challenges I faced actually coming into the role, which were difficult and quite, you know … You talked about risk, I mean, real, existential risk, both running out of money—quite simply we had less than six months of runway basically—and no real clinical milestone. So that was very tricky and you really kind of run into the risk of, “do we actually have enough money to fund the operation?” And the second risk was to take a personal risk to kind of take on the chair, if you like, and make changes that I thought were right and turned out to be right for the organization and for the board.

Charlie Moore: So where are you getting your advice from? Who's helping you with these decisions?

Carsten Brunn: I tried to build a network of advisers fairly quickly, some more formal, where we actually had an agreement, you know, experienced biotech CEOs or ex-biotech CEOs that basically coach people like myself. So, I had one or two of those. But then also I built my board with experienced biotech operators that had been through this a couple of times. One of my first hires on the board was a very experienced CEO who has been through a couple of exits, turnarounds. And then, ultimately, my board chair actually. And, Charlie, you were involved in that search. Carrie Cox, she's become a real thought partner for me and somebody who I can talk to about strategic issues, personal issues, how to manage risk, personal risk and all those things. I think that's one of the key pieces of advice I have for people actually. Get this network in place early on because people have been through this challenge; you're not the first person going in. Even though it feels like this is the first time this happens, this has happened many times and there are definitely pretty common themes in biotech. So, having a network and almost a safety net has been really instrumental for me. And I think it also helps you not to trip, because you can trip pretty easily. I mean, you know, and coming from a large organization, money is never an issue in terms of fundamentally funding your business. And that was really one of the hardest and early learnings around investor relations and how to deal with capital markets.

Charlie Moore: So we always talk about folks that are moving from big pharma to the biotech space and whether they can manage the change culturally, going from their large organization, which you described, where there's money and there's process and there's other people around you. What were the surprises for you or the learnings for you perhaps in terms of moving into a much smaller, probably more entrepreneurial, faster-moving environment? 

Carsten Brunn: Definitely, I think it’s a very, very different skill set required. It might look the same from the outside; you're managing an R&D organization, but it is very different. And maybe I got too cynical working in big pharma, but everybody's talking about patient focus and all that stuff, which is nice and it's in all the vision and mission statements. But if you look at the realities, it's very internally focused. In my last role at a fairly sizable P&L and organization, you're really busy trying to align the troops in-house, trying to align the various countries, making sure they're aligned with global strategy. You have to feed the monster and the beast around internal processes and the administrative burden you have managing a large organization, and all the politics around that as well to make sure you get resources internally. So it's very internally focused, I found, and not very externally focused. Now, in biotech, you, by definition, have a much smaller organization, you know, we've got 60 to 70 folks, so you spent a lot less time aligning the organization. That's pretty easily done; everybody's very motivated. You spend a lot of time externally focused, with your investors, building a story that's credible with investors, make sure you're funding, you work with strategic partners, big pharma, or midsize for partnerships for funding. And it's a lot more hands on, I mean, you do strategy, but also you're the ones doing the board slides, you're the ones even sometimes in the beginning writing clinical protocols. I mean it's a very hands on piece and that’s the piece actually I do like, kind of helicoptering in and out from very strategic topics to very practical hands-on topics. But that's not an easy transition if you're used to large organizations and you just manage this organization. This is very hands-on, very real. You know everyone in your organization by name. It's a very different skill set, I would say. The one piece that's similar, I find is that it's all about people. I think that's common in both roles, but you obviously approach it differently, right. Also around talent management, it's a much smaller organization, it's a different population. Most folks have a PhD or a Master's degree, so it's a very different organization and a commercial organization in a large pharma.

Charlie Moore: And therefore, just following on from that, the advice to folks like you making the move, particularly in regard to people and leadership of people, what have you learned that's works for you and equally, perhaps, what hasn't worked that you shouldn't do again?

Carsten Brunn: Yes, I mean what doesn't work is bringing your toolset and thinking and apply it to biotech, right? That clearly doesn't work and I've definitely seen peers that failed because of that. They brought the mindset, the suits, the skill set and it doesn't gel well. At the same time, I think what you can bring is a certain sophistication managing more complex organizations, you know, and I think that's something that's been very helpful for me and we've done a number of business development deals. We have deals with Sobi, Takeda, and Astellas. So, you know, fairly large, sophisticated organizations. And having that background has been extremely helpful. I know what's important to them, how they tick. So I think there is value, but I always say you have to have a beginner's mindset and kind of walk in with like an empty cup, not a full cup and think hey, I know it all. And be humble, I mean that's the other piece, and I definitely had to eat the humble pie when I started out. Just, as I said, learning the capitals markets. This is definitely not an easy task when you come out of a large organization, but it’s also very enjoyable once you get into it. I think it's one of the things I excel at now and I really enjoy actually, but it's definitely one of the things that can really trip you up.

Charlie Moore: Can you expand on that a little bit? 

Carsten Brunn: I'll give you a very specific example. When I joined Selecta, we had a fairly sizable organization for a small organization, a pretty high burn rate, and a lot of cash. So, the first thing I should do my first month, I should downsize the organization by about 40%—that was a lot of fun—and then go out to investors and tell them a story about why they should invest in us actually. So this was not just like, “Hey, I worked in big pharma before, trust me, this is all good.” You have to be very, very specific. “So, what have you done?” “OK, so we've right-sized the organization.” “What's your vision of the next two years? What are the clinical endpoints that you have? What are the value-creating events?” So it becomes very concrete and not a lot of fluff. And I think if you don't get to that, it's pretty risky. And I think even more so now, where the funding has dried up even more, I think it's even more important to have a compelling story. But even then, when I joined in late 2018, it was, yes, it was definitely a pretty rough, I would say, the first three to six months until we were able to do a raise and kind of reset the organization. But it was definitely a little bit touch and go in the beginning.

Charlie Moore: OK. And the segue on that is therefore the external relationship with the investors, but what about the internal relationship with your board? How does that work and what skill sets have you, tricks have yu picked up in terms of how you work with them for the benefit of all?

Carsten Brunn: I've really begun to appreciate over time how important the board actually is, right. I mean they're your boss in a sense, right? They have a supervisory function, but they're really your thought partners and they really want to make you succeed. You want to be very strategic who you have on your board, people that are willing to actually participate and contribute, and during the board meetings I think that's extremely important. Diverse past relationships, so we have a very diverse board in terms of relationships. So I think that's important as well, the network you can tap into, and just the daily relationship with your board chair is so critical. It takes time to invest. You have to get to know each other, you have to learn to trust each other, open up, share some of your concerns maybe you wouldn't share with your own team or with investors. So I think it is critical and I'm somewhat blessed now but it was definitely not an easy journey. It was also a little bit bumpy in the beginning until I found a board chair and then made some changes on the board. And I think it's a very high-functioning board now. And it's a tough board, I mean those board meetings that happen every quarter are not a walk in the park, but they challenge you to run the business and make the right decisions, ask the right questions. So, it's been an extremely important piece of the whole piece, which I didn't probably appreciate as much walking in. So that yes, there's a board and that's it, but it probably takes up, I would say, a quarter of my time in a good way. It's just I have a lot of one-on-ones with board members. Obviously, I speak with my chair frequently but we text quite often. So kind of building that trusting relationship, I think, is very important. And it's important when tough things happen when a share price drops and you need to have your board aligned with your thinking. 

Charlie Moore: How much do you let your board interact with your executive team?

Carsten Brunn: They have full access and I know there's different philosophies about that. Some CEOs want to manage all the board communication. I have the philosophy that I have good alignment with my management team and so anyone can speak to my CSO, my CMO. Everybody has direct access to my executive team. I think it’s important because I don't want to be the one managing everything. And to get a much better perspective of what's really going on, hearing this from different perspectives and different functions. So I definitely have a very open philosophy when it comes to interaction with the executive team and the board.

Charlie Moore: And any advice for other CEOs or folks that are thinking of doing what you've done in terms of the move? What should they consider, what should they look out for from a due diligence perspective as they're considering opportunities that might be out there for them?

Carsten Brunn: You have to love the science. You have to get excited about the science, because that's what you ultimately are focused on, that's what you're selling to investors, that's what you really have to get excited about. I think that's step number one, that's critical. Look at your board, talk to everyone. Is there good chemistry? Can you see yourself working with them? Look at your investor base, I think that's also something I've learned along the way, having joined another board. Just kind of look at the investor base, that's a good indicator of what kind of company you're looking at. That’s some of the early advice. And then get a good network of advisers to also advise you on whether you should join this company. And it's oftentimes the informal networks where you get the real inside story. Yes, look at the website, but it doesn't tell you the story of the actual company and what's behind it, who's behind the thing. That's really important. But I think the fundamental piece is you have to love and believe in the science because that's really what drives it in the end.

Charlie Moore: So let’s change the tone of the conversation. I'm interested, just as we begin to get to the end of this, I'd love your views on what's going on and the impact of digital and AI within your sector. Is this real? Is something going to happen that's going to change the world, going to change the biotech spectrum?

Carsten Brunn: I think there is a lot of hype. We do have a partnership with one of the leading protein engineering companies, which is basically using AI to engineer proteins. And they are much smarter than I am. They're based out of Seattle. And there is a step change happening for sure, but I'm not sure we can revolutionize drug discovery overnight. So, I would say healthy skepticism is important here, but don't ignore it either. You can ignore it, but I don't think it's the panacea now to fix drug development. They play a key role in other parts of the value chain now; if you look at the supply chain, machine learning is already applied and useful. I think, in drug discovery, you have some people that tout that it's going to be highly disruptive, but we haven't really seen it yet. But I think it's going to be part of the business model moving forward. I mean what you can do now with modelling is amazing, you know, we can look at if a molecule is immunogenic or not, you know, and are they toxic or not, I mean it's all things you can do already. But it's still drug development, I don't think it's going to change overnight. And the same is true for commercial business as well. These are all tools that you have to use, but I haven't seen a company that has truly disrupted healthcare yet with digital tools, and maybe that needs to happen, but it hasn't happened yet.

Charlie Moore: It's interesting, as we talk to folks around and about, there is a difference of views out there. Some are perhaps more in your camp and others are more leaning toward “this is revolutionary and watch this space because in 10 years’ time it will be completely different.” But I think the jury is out at the moment in terms of how that's going to happen and when it's going to happen. 

Carsten Brunn: Yes, and look at Watson IBM. Ten or 15 years ago, it was going to change the healthcare side of business more or less. So, I think it'll take over eventually, it will take a role, but if I look now at the next one to three years, will it disrupt my business? I don't think so. It's a tool we're using already. Personally, it’s very exciting, but real business impact I haven't seen yet.

Charlie Moore: So, what does keep you awake?

Carsten Brunn: Right now funding is one of the key things and alternative ways to get funding as well. It’s the classic capital markets, partnerships, creative partnerships, that's really what really keeps everyone awake at the moment. And we've done, unfortunately, again a reduction in force about two months ago, just to extend the cash one way, so now we have cash till the end of 2025, because that's really kind of the bottleneck right now. It's what keeps me up at the moment, funding and how we turn this market around. 

Charlie Moore: Any other advice you'd give to somebody thinking about a career change and a move into the biotech space?

Carsten Brunn: Be aware of all the risks. The XBI [SPDR S&P Biotech ETF] has been up 750% in the last 10 years, so it's been a steady curve up. I think what this industry needs now is people that have managed crises and have managed through different business cycles. I actually find, now, having managed some difficult commercial businesses where you have down cycles, that it’s about the skills that you can actually transfer. Because for a lot of biotech CEOs, especially the last 10 years, it's all been growth, right? Blind growth, more or less, and just making smarter decisions where you allocate your money and make tougher decisions. And I think the market is self-correcting right now to certain extent, and there are companies that shouldn't be out there and maybe management teams that shouldn't be management teams. And so, I definitely encourage people. It was definitely a personal career change for me that has accelerated my personal growth and development. It's been a fantastic journey and painful at times, but nevertheless a journey of personal growth and hopefully I've delivered for our shareholders and our employees as well. But, you know, really from a career perspective, it's been a fantastic journey. 

Charlie Moore: What a nice way to finish. Thank you, really appreciate your time today. I think there's some very sage advice in there for lots of folks listening to this and yes, may it continue.

Carsten Brunn: Thanks, Charlie, appreciate it.

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 author

Charlie Moore ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office, the regional leader of strategic accounts in Europe, and a member of the Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice.

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