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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Dr. Marcus Kostka

​As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Dr Marcus Kostka, Chief Executive Officer at Abalos Therapeutics GmbH. He is a highly experienced biotech industry expert. Prior to joining Abalos as CEO, he held various roles at Boehringer Ingelheim, his latest position being Venture Fund Partner since 2014. In this role, Marcus Kostka was a board member in EtheRNA NV, Cardio Pharmaceutical, Aelin Therapeutics and Rewind Therapeutics. 

Alessandro Mantell: Thank you very much for joining me on Episode 8 of Mantell Associates Network, I am joined today by Marcus Kostka who is the CEO of Abalos Therapeutics GmbH which is based in Essen in Germany. Marcus, thank you so much for coming on today. A little bit of background about Abalos, they are a RND organisation which focus on RNA Viruses and Marcus is currently leading a business of 10 people. COVID-19 has affected all types of business however it does seem to have affected more smaller businesses especially in the pharmaceutical space. So Marcus I am really interested to get into that and find out about being a CEO in a start-up smaller organisation in the pharmaceutical space. How are you finding it, what is it like, talk us through your kind of average day at the moment.        

Dr. Marcus Kostka: Thank you Alessandro for inviting me, I think it is a really interesting topic that we have, as you can imagine we can’t cover as much as larger Pharma Companies who have a lot of people so we need to think about all the different aspects, especially for COVID-19. However, we still have a lot to do. We have a lot of safeguarding, a lot of different instructions to set up here and as we are a small company we are working very closely with a University. Also, with cross CDMO’s for manufacturing of the virus we have faced a lot of challenges due to the shutdown of all the work practices so work has been postponed. The second aspect is also very important with our investors. Obviously we are venture capital invested with different venture companies in our company so they are interested in where we spend our money, our next miles and the next milestones. So this is something you really have to consider as a small company. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, something that you mentioned there was actually the role of any CEO is juggling different types of personalities. You have not only got yourself and your family of course. But you then have investors, the university, your staff, how are you juggling all of that during this time period and maintaining positivity throughout?

Dr. Marcus Kostka: First of all, when we first started, last July we had already decided as a company to be more virtual, a lot of large pharma companies had already done this. So in the office we all have office 365, Teams and video conferences. We have teams in Essen, teams in Dusseldorf. Our CTO for instance, lives in Innsbruck so we already have a virtual way to connect with him, we use teams weekly and have weekly video conferences so this is normal for us. This is even more important now in the COVID-19 pandemic, so I was glad that we were set up in this way so that we could have these conversations through video conferences. We only started really doing this in February when we had to stay at home and work in our home offices. Using conferences via teams was really good because we were properly prepared. We also had a lot of strategy discussions that were also done over video conference as you can see I am also working from home so for the last couple of months it has been more virtual. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, a lot of the businesses that I have been talking to have had to do the same thing, of course in regards to people who are in the lab they still have to be there but keep a social distance. From a business point of view, how has everything been for you and for Abalos since COVID-19 struck. Talk us through the impact that it has had on business and how you have got around it?   

Dr. Marcus Kostka: That’s a good question so there have been many different impacts, one being an internal one. As I mentioned in the beginning, we are a small company so we really needed to get educated about this certain situation. In Germany we have for instance, BIA Deutchen who is a board organisation for other companies so we got in contact with them and asked if they had experience there and we organised a behavioural letter that we sent out to all of the employees. We also had to align this with the university because some of our employees work at the university so we had to arrange a lot of things.

The second aspect is the external part, as you can imagine we are really developing RNA viruses, we also had challenges there. For instance when we wanted to visit the CDMO or CDO we couldn’t so that was really tough with our work because we have a business plan that we would like to follow. We also had delays because some of the work procedures could not be performed. This was a big challenge. Currently we do not know exactly what this means, what will happen and how this pandemic will develop and affect us. We have now come out of the lockdown and gone back to work but not fully which is also a challenge for us but also our external partners which we have a lot of as we are a very small company. 

Alessandro Mantell: You mentioned a keyword there – ‘overcome’ and overcoming everything in this pandemic, this situation that we are in is really difficult for everyone but particularly being a leader of a company that is up and coming. Having to tell clients potentially that this isn’t going to be done on time is difficult, how have you adapted also mentally, as well as physically and the business to the current situation and managing everything?

Dr. Marcus Kostka: That’s not the biggest challenge I would have to say, you have to imagine we have set up the company in a way that we have a small leadership team so we have the CSO and the CTO and the CEO. So it is not just me on my own, we have a whole team so it is a team effort and we need to think about what we have to do every day and how to cope with that. This is not the biggest challenge we have had as I mentioned before, it is more about the challenges with all the lab work, the internal aspects and external ones. But I think from the centre of the company we have a leadership team which I think is absolutely great as it is. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, in line with challenges, a challenge for any leader, I find it now with my business is to try and be in control of as many areas and components as you possibly can. Running a business needs and requires someone to be in control. Of course during a time like COVID-19 there is really only so much you can be in control of because everything in the world in large is out of control. How have you coped with almost having to accept that this is how it is?

Dr. Marcus Kostka: One aspect in this is control as I mentioned before but also leadership. They all have their responsibilities, from research, manufacturing and taking care of all of their employees and also for the different topics. I think what is required from all of us and me as a CEO is to see the big picture and how we can get through this. We set up more calls, for example, we set up calls every week with the founders, together with the leadership team to really have an understanding and a better monitoring of the situation. This helped us to monitor what was going on, what the obstacles were, the problems or the challenges and how we overcame these. So there were many calls via video conference with a specific topic on how to overcome the challenges we faced.

Alessandro Mantell: That is brilliant because getting every single person involved in those conversations, not only staff but founders as well, leaves it in a position of pure transparency across the team which means everyone feels like they are in the same boat. Actually during a time like this there is a crucial thing that I have seen with companies that have struggled, they don’t know what is going on in terms of leadership, what direction they are going in so it can be hard for staff. What other support have you been able to provide staff or intend to provide staff during COVID-19?

Dr. Marcus Kostka: The key aspect here really is that we are a small team, so everyone has the tools and equipment to participate and I think that was one important thing that everyone needed. Every week we have a company call via teams, so everyone is sitting at home, so they need to have their laptops, recording systems, whatever they need so this was then bought by us and given to the employees. As I said at the beginning when we set up we were originally going to be like this anyway in a sense. So everyone has a small laptop that they can bring into the lab, go to the offices, we don’t have just one site we have different ones so it was easier for them to get to. 

Alessandro Mantell: It’s amazing that through technology you have been able to keep the team together and working together towards the goal. We have spoken with many many businesses that naturally have had to let a lot of the staff go. One pharmaceutical company let over 50% of their staff go during this time because they couldn’t cope. So to know that you are pushing through by using all means necessary is absolutely incredible. Obviously it is a little bit different for you, but one of the hardest parts of any job is sales and business development and also managing key accounts during this time period through business that you already have. How have you found the market in terms of sales and business development as a whole, have you adapted any business style to the situation. Is it the right time to do that? 

Dr. Marcus Kostka: This aspect probably isn’t of much importance or interest for us because we do not sell, we spend money because we are still very early on as a company. As a company developing therapeutics we are still very early on in research and deployment so marketing, business development will probably come later. We are still at the beginning of our journey and this isn’t a topic for us at the moment. 

Alessandro Mantell: Of course, what about in terms of partners? You mentioned earlier about different partners, CDMO, CDO partners, CRO partners as well, how does that work and how does that look in terms of outsourcing that?

Dr. Marcus Kostka: This is a very important question for us because as a small biotech company with 10 employees we do a lot of outsourcing. For example, research activities, pharmacology’s, testing of different viruses and working with the different models, we do this in-house together with the university. We also have a lot of external and then manufacturing. We set up manufacturing in-house at a small scale but we now need to identify potential partners and this is honestly the difficulty with this time.

As I mentioned we do video conferences and that’s ok, you can do it to a certain level, the first meetings, exchanging ideas, exchanging plans, where we want to go, is the partner really providing what we are expecting them to. Then if we like them, for instance, for a CDMO it comes to selection, obviously you need to visit the partner, you need to see the different people, how they behave, how they are set up, how they are doing audits. This is very difficult now and this is always where some of the delays are coming from or will come from. So this is really challenging. Obviously we hope that everything will get better so it will become possible to have these types of meetings that are so crucial for selection and really important for a small Biotech company. 

Alessandro Mantell: It is very difficult to make that decision without actually going to the site. I spoke with the CEO of CatSci recently and they deal with the chemistry part. He mentioned what they decided to bring into their facility to attract partners was videos that go around the site and I was thinking that is absolutely brilliant but regardless it still isn’t the same. It is brilliant but it is not the same and for Abalos and for you, that decision is a hugely important one and you want to get a feeling for it no doubt.
Another important decision and one that often requires meeting somebody face to face is recruitment and finding staff which is as important for your business as it is for any business. Being a smaller team, I have similar struggles to maybe what you have for your first people in it is even more important. What has your stance been on recruitment during this period as a whole? 

Dr. Marcus Kostka: This was really an interesting experience, that is why I am smiling, trying to form a leadership team. We posted the jobs on LinkedIn and a lot of companies supported us there. For all of the leadership members, it was really strange as we had never signed a contract over video conference before, it was unusual and a new experience for everyone! We had a lot of video conferences at the beginning, we had a few technical hurdles, as it was very different. I personally believe that we have a really great set of people on board but I think in the next few months we will see the difference by selecting people via video conference or in person. It was a very interesting experience. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing to hear that you guys have adapted to that way of working. I know a lot of businesses have but I fully expected at the start of all of this with COVID-19 that my business, Mantell Associates, would just shut down in terms of recruitment. But it has actually gone on a rise strangely and it has actually gone upwards and that is the honest truth in regards to everything. Companies have adapted and I find that the ones that haven’t adapted, potential candidates that would have considered that company and then have heard that they have stopped recruitment because they don’t want to do it over video call, does that reflect a business that is moving with the time, which is adapting which is entrepreneurial. It has sort of made it like a test for candidates. Brilliant to hear that you had that stance.
One final question that I need to ask, there are a lot of people that want to start businesses and a lot of people will take any advice that you can give them and you can really help people here. So, what advice in general would you give to other business leaders right now in particular start up small businesses?

Dr. Marcus Kostka: I think the key is communication because there are a lot of uncertainties, especially what you see in the newspapers with the shut down of a lot of businesses which is very bad at the moment and is getting worse. So I think communicating and also trusting your employees and leadership team is important and to talk about the situation – this is our plan to overcome it. I think this is a key aspect that you need to do because there are a lot of question marks and we have to try and help. In our staff meetings people can ask questions and we address the burning questions that we get in a one to one situation and then address them to the company. It is always important to do that but I think it is even more important now to have these sorts of conversations relating to COVID-19. 

Alessandro Mantell: Yes, keeping everything transparent in the company which is also the bit of information that you mentioned at the start which I absolutely loved. We have implemented that with our team as well. I was bad at the start, preferring to make telephone calls then I realised speaking with people like yourself that everyone else has adapted and it is time for me to do it too. It is amazing to hear that your guys are doing this. Marcus it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you, thank you so much for all of the information that you have provided and take care. 

If you missed Dr. Marcus Kostka original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!

Mantell Associates is a specialist Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Recruitment organisation founded by CEO Alessandro Mantell in January 2019. If you would like to find out more about how we support finding you the right talent or the right opportunity, reach out to Alessandro on alessandro@mantellassociates.com or give us a call on +44 (0)20 3778 0990.