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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Jan Lichtenberg

As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell welcomed Jan Lichtenberg.

Jan Lichtenberg is an experienced company Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Board Delegate with a 15 year track record in the Biotechnology industry. Jan has extensive experience in Preclinical testing both safety and discovery and with a proven track record of identifying promising technologies, matching them to customer pains and gains, and then rapidly maturing them into industry-grade solutions with a talented and motivated team. Jan’s vision is creating a world where new drugs can be developed accurately, efficiently and rapidly with a patient-centric focus using human 3D in-vitro cell models.

Alessandro Mantell: Thank you very much all for joining us for episode 14 of Mantell Associates Network. I am joined today excitingly by Jan Lichtenberg who is the CEO of InSphero AG and also the founder. Jan setup InSphero AG just over 12 years ago now and they are a very unique organization which focus on the preclinical and drug discovery side of technologies and testing. They are making huge waves in the pharmaceutical space, the business is located in Switzerland and is currently situated at around 65 employees and looking to grow and grow. Jan thank you so much for coming on, absolute pleasure having you here, I want to really kind of get into everything. We have spoken with many many leaders all of which have had different responses to how they found COVID-1 and how they've adjusted to everything. Talk me through to start off with your thoughts on COVID-19 as a whole and also how on earth have you managed a pre-clinical testing and drug discovery business through this pandemic?

Jan Lichtenberg: Thanks very much for the question and thanks very much for having me on this podcast Alessandro. It's really fantastic to share insights, different  points of views and also to listen to other podcasts in the series. Clearly COVID-19 has totally disrupted the way we work, I think to some extent it put us off balance which helped us to rebalance and to better focus on our strengths and also see the weaknesses in the organization. But it is clearly a very very different life than I had imagined pretty much a year ago right. Switzerland has kind of transitioned from a post-child of managing COVID-19 in the summer to one of the countries in Europe with the highest incidence numbers and that clearly  impacts our lives.To some extent life outside is much more normal than in many other countries in Europe but we have to deal with the high incidence numbers and then there are waves like we have right now with a lot stricter regulations. Since Monday we have a home office  requirement that has been imposed by the government. So only people who really need to be in the office or in the lab are allowed to work in the lab and of course we had the chance to just for this it was not  totally surprising. However,  I think it requires a lot more from the whole management team than what we had in the past years. 

Alessandro Mantell: Incredible and speaking of the management team and the changes that have come about. You mentioned the regulations,  I mean we in the uk are currently in complete lockdown so exactly the same situation that you guys are entering and it appears to be the same pretty much everywhere except for New Zealand so i know where I'd rather be right now. Talk to us about the kind of challenges and obstacles that you face. I'm sure there'll be many and how you as CEO have overcome them and been so successful during this period. 

Jan Lichtenberg: I think first of all,  I think one of the biggest concerns that we have always had was the safety of the team and this goes of course both ways. On the one hand as a CEO I feel responsible for providing a safe working environment, making sure that our team and their families stay safe. But of course also as a small company that we are in a huge office space, the risk of having to shut down operations for a certain time due to a spread of infection in the company was imminent and that's something that we had definitely to avoid. We reacted really early on to the threat of the pandemic and this is you know mostly kudos to my Head of Quality who had already put together a pandemic plan two years ago. I have to admit I played with it and I said you know probably we have to do this but what are the chances, this is science fiction book stuff. But in the end it was  really instrumental for us. 

At times where we were kind of still staring at China in awe and just feeling happy that this was not affecting us, we started to increase hygiene measures, we had invested quite a lot into digitalization in the past years, so no local servers everybody working on notebooks video conferencing conferencing software in place. I remember talking to one of my staff members who was on vacation for two weeks in February and when she came back she said well this looked all a little bit crazy, there were masks in the meeting rooms and there was hand sanitation stuff everywhere. I thought you guys were overreacting but I think it helped us to really stay ahead of the curve and make sure that we have all the measures in place and then when we started to virtualize and to work more from home this was I think not so so it was not a technical challenge for us. It was an emotional challenge, it was a management challenge to keep the teams coherently working together but it was not a technical challenge. I think that was a big advantage for us managing that situation.

Alessandro Mantell: That is absolutely brilliant and you reminded me then of when it first happened and seeing China, different countries having the masks and the hand sanitizers. You just thought that sounds awful, I'm really sorry about what's going on and at the same time you are thinking that is never going to happen. That would be absolutely crazy and then all of a sudden bam, it's affecting you and you as a founder, me as a founder. We've got that responsibility, your company is five/six/seven times the size of Mantell Associates, it's still that same fear of everything and you reacted by the sounds of it quicker than we did. But I guess being directly involved in science you have to be able to do that. You said something interesting about the start of the pandemic and how it has highlighted your strengths and weaknesses in the business. What are some of the key parts that have gotten stronger since all of this, what are the positives for InSphero AG and for you? 

Jan Lichtenberg: I think one of the biggest achievements that we made as a company, as a team during that time was growing together even more than what we've been before. At 65 we are maybe not a family anymore but we are still a tribe, where we are all kind of fighting for a common goal, side by side. I think this was always a really big strength. One of the fears that I had was with increasing home office and that people would drift away. Actually the opposite happened,  I think the team realized that we had to go the extra mile. We had to change some aspects of our business, I'd be happy to talk more about that. They also saw that as a management team, we had a plan and we had a strategy. We were very open in communication, we went the extra mile to make things good for everyone. We provided masks for everyone's families at home and it was not easy to get them and they were super expensive. We made all of the company cars available for employees that would prefer to drive home and back to work instead of taking public transport. It can really be just simple things but you need to have a certain thoughtfulness to implement this. 

We have a small task force that has been meeting and is still meeting every week to see where we need to adjust in terms of COVID-19 and what we can do. I think these signals were received by the team and they saw that you know as a company we need to go the extra mile, we need to rely on each other. We need to make sure that we keep ourselves safe so that we're not spreading an infection in the company. I think this created more coherence than we already had and that again then supported us and motivated us as a management team to continue this path and to make sure that this works well. This was an extremely positive aspect, the other area where we strengthened ourselves and where we grew was taking over more responsibility from our pharma and biotech customers. 

As a company we are a little bit unique in the sense that the platform technology that we've developed. Which allows us to recreate tissues or microorganisms that are reflecting the functions and structures of the human body in the lab so that we can test compounds more predictively then it could be done in an animal test or in conventional in vitro testing. We exploit this platform in different ways, we have customers who are receiving these micro tissues from us under a framework contract and then they're doing testing in their own labs. We have customers that we work with in a more co-style of business where we take over certain tasks and that's quite transactional. But then we also have customers that work with us on a very strategic level, where we are doing drug discovery projects together and we are also de-risking this for the customer. We are sharing the upside if the project is successful so what we saw was a clear shift to this more added value type of of business relationships which was our desire anyway, In that sense COVID-19 has helped us to achieve this goal because labs closed down everywhere and we had difficulty shipping our products to customers because suddenly there were no flights and we couldn't get on these flights. The FDA reduced their staff so there was more processing time at customs so there were a lot of obstacles on that end but it allowed us to have a conversation with these customers and say you know why don't you let us do this and we know what kind of drugs you're looking for. We can build the right in vitro models to allow us to understand whether library compounds are potent or not so let us do the work because we are operational, you are in the home office. We have the expertise to do that, we have the agility to adjust our processes to do exactly that and so we played that card and I think that that was really good for us. 

Alessandro Mantell: That is absolutely incredible. A lot of companies are trying to manage what they've got to try, get through everything and handle the task at hand. But to be able to add a new dynamic to your offering during this and improve the service that you're providing to your clients and your customers and new business is absolutely incredible. It has got to be said I'm not just saying this because you're on the podcast, I absolutely mean it. I have been working in the preclinical and drug discovery space for it not in it for over four years now and everything from toxicology, pharmacology, oncology, all these areas is what we cover and working with companies such as Invego, RTC and many other businesses. I have to say honestly, what InSphero AG offers is absolutely unique from a technology point of view and really is incredible. I love what you said about the togetherness. I had the same worries when the team first went remote. People aren't gonna be talking to each other as much, I don't know if I was the best leader at that point. It's my first ever time in people management, really Mantell Associates. I thought how on earth am I going to do this, I was seeing companies letting people go left right and centre in Pharma and in Life Sciences. As a head-hunter you're thinking if they're reducing, what are we gonna do. You did some amazing things as a leader, honestly in regards to just little things like going the extra mile as you said for the cars so things like that to make people feel safe. People forget that these things cost money and investing at a time when there's a global pandemic is a scary thing for any founder or any CEO to do. That leads me on nicely to what being a leader and being one that's grown a company from zero to 65 people, what do you think it's taken out of you physically and mentally to get through this time period.

Jan Lichtenberg: That’s a good question and there were ups and downs. For me personally especially 2020, March, April, May where I think we really had to react from day to day, government regulations were changing in an unpredictable fashion as everybody tried to struggle with the pandemic. We were very urgently trying to set up projects with customers who said you know we need to sign this paperwork so that we can ship compounds to you before our logistics department closes. I think we were  really in a frenzy in a way and I am a very hands-on leader, I love to work with my teams on specific topics. It really helps me to understand what's going on and how I can best contribute. I love spending time with my customers and so during that time it was all about going this extra mile but I also noticed the toll that it takes. There was a time where I got up at four in the morning to have calls with customers in Asia and then we kind of tried to get a plan for the day. Worked here in the office and then in the evening it was going back to US customers and I realized that this was not not healthy right, healthy physically, it was not healthy mentally. It was not healthy from a strategic perspective because operations take over and it's all transactional stuff that you're doing and you don't take that moment to step back and think about are we still doing the right thing.

Are we understanding what the pandemic is really doing, is this going to be over in summer or is this going to be over next year and summer or is this something that we need to live with for the next five years. So at that point I pulled the break and I said I personally for myself needed a bit more structure in the day especially with the additional home office presence, where it's very easy to let private life and professional life seep into each other in the wrong way. I  started to pick up exercising again because that for me is a great time to think about stuff and to reflect and to you know put my mind to something else than just the physical pain that I have during the exercise. This was really important,  it was important I think to to really shoot at full frequency when the pandemic started but then when it was clear that this was going to impact the way we do business and also how our private life works it was time to adjust again and make sure that this goes back into kind of a sustainable program. 

Alessandro Mantell: Love that! You mentioned about exercise and it being a time to think and something which you've gone through which I'm yet to go through but going through is going from a one-man business into a company of 65 plus, we're currently at 18. I'm kind of in between time and I speak to many leaders who are in the same thing, where you go from doing everything hands on every single area to all of a sudden, the business gets bigger and you need to learn more to let go. Let go of certain things and then when you've got a global pandemic everything goes into a frenzy like you said and you're back on it and you're drawn back into it. I've read a lot of different things, I've spoken to a lot of different people who have said that actually you should be spending most of your day thinking about strategy, thinking about the business, thinking about how different people can bring business, how your team are going to be feeling, how they're going to react. So I really really liked your comment. What type of leaders and businesses actually do you think that this is exposed in a bad way?

Jan Litchenberg: There is a lot of talk about this so-called zombie companies, that are are not  on a sustainable path but they have kind of made their way anyway. Then they suddenly get hit by the changes in boundary conditions that are imposed by the pandemic so that's clearly something that affects a lot of companies especially in the start-up space where we're clearly not looking at zombie companies but at emerging companies. Ones that are not yet profitable, that do not have a lot of liquidity to buffer the situation, that might not have the management structures and management experience to really run with this in a proper way. I have talked to a couple of start-up companies in the neighbourhood who said some of our folks never came back from the lockdown. The time that they had in the home office,  they started to rethink their situation, potential unhappiness with the roles or the organization that they were working for and they just quit. I think whenever you put a system under stress and this is a bit the engineer in me talking, when you put a system under stress then you see the cracks at the weak spots. That's how everything works and um there are too many weak spots or they are so substantial that you can fix it then the stress test makes the system break and you can never put it back together. I think in our case we saw the weak spots, we saw the cracks but they weren't many and they were small enough that we could go there and fix it and that will allow us to be even more resilient when something else comes. Something else could also be a big competitor that moves into our market and brings cost down beyond our capabilities to follow and so on. As a leader we want a positive situation, we want to grow, we want to have happy investors but sometimes it's necessary or let's say helpful to have this stress test and then to react accordingly. 

To your question, what type of leaders it needs. When we talk with our leadership team then it's always kind of about the three powers. There's the role power that you have as a supervisor, as a line manager, as a CEO. The role power to make a decision, to go in that direction, the role power to say I don't want to work with you anymore and I'm letting you go. It's in a way it's a strong power but it's not really helping you in a difficult situation again. It's not a power that  I think we should rely on too much as leaders and then there is the knowledge power which I think is something that's very important for a technology company like ours. Managers who know their stuff, who have the experience, who can educate their direct reports, who can challenge their direct reports, who are a role model on the scientific or technical level for the direct reports. They have a lot of respect and this creates a lot of power but the third power is the most power and that relationship. Being a leader who has empathy for the team, who knows what their situation is especially in lockdown, do they have kids, are their kids at home, what job has their life partner got, is their job in danger, are they on furlough, how do they come to work and how do they get back. This goes in both directions and so I think at the end of the day, highly talented, very well educated people, like we have on our staff, work primarily for us because they like the culture of the company and they like their supervisor and the leadership team of the company. I think that carries a lot,  as you know in a way it is still a start-up. We do not have the same benefits and perks as the big pharma companies like Novartis here, not far from what we can offer. To be able to recruit these talented people and to retain the talented people and even have them recruiting other folks because they say you know this is a great place to work, Ii think this is a big achievement for us. It is also a big necessity because there is a war for talents and that's something that you're clearly aware of as a head-hunter, as a recruiting company, it's not easy to get the right people. Especially if you work in a very competitive regional environment where people have choices. I think building these relationships, making sure that people like to go to work every day is a winning concept for us. At the same time, it's fun right it's not something that you need to spend a lot of money on, it's not something where you need to change the way you are,  either you like it and then it's a lot of fun or you don't like it but then you're not really a manager you know.

Alessandro Mantell: The stance that you've taken on being a CEO is really similar to other businesses that are doing well. I have spoken with their CEOs and they have called themselves Chief People Officer. During this time in particular or at least it put the spotlight on that aspect of leadership. So thank you very much for going into that and you mentioned it's exposed cracks in organizations and pressure builds diamonds and outside of these cracks can can grow great great things which is clearly going on for you and InSphero AG. What upcoming things do you see in the pharmaceutical biotech space as a whole which are particularly exciting that have come out of all of this?

Jan Litchenberg: We see two really important trends that are going to shape the way our customers will work and also how we want to work. The one thing is the convergence of biology engineering, especially tissue engineering and machine learning. I think today these are still very often kind of separate topics the right people work with biological cells in the lab as a test system for new drugs but this needs to be combined with the right tissue engineering microfluidics technologies and so on to really rebuild organ systems that reflect the human body in in a predictive way in the lab. This is kind of the first convergence that we have been doing for many years and now we really see that machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence makes a major impact in our industry but only if it's fully integrated. Sometimes we talk to companies to their AI departments and they say you know we're doing Ai, our algorithms adapt automatically. We do not need to understand the disease and disease biology, the system is going to do it. This is something that I don't believe, I think the interdisciplinary work, the interaction between experts from different fields within openness to learn and understand enough from what's going on the other side to be at the top of their game is the only strategy that's going to make this successful. If we think in Silos and we say you know we are the i.t guys and you are the wet lab pipetting guys and you do your thing, we do our thing this is not going to work. I think the most successful projects that we have run in this space come from this openness to interact and to learn from each other and to you know ask a question but it makes the other groups think you know it's not not so naïve at the end of the day.  So I think this convergence is really super important and we're putting a lot of effort into building partnerships and getting this technology into our company as well to be on top of the game here.

The other big aspect which is going to drive the industry is personalized medicine with a lot more targeted therapeutic approaches so this could be really personalized in the sense that it's a cell therapy that has been designed for a specific patient or  is going to be a bigger market share, very stratified treatments that are designed for a very specific patient population with a specific mutation for instance of a disease. The challenges for the pharmaceutical industry here are number one, how do you develop this really targeted approach, how do you understand the patient's biology. The second one is how can I do this in a really efficient and low-cost way because the more you personalize, the more you target the smaller the market that you are going to deliver this product to. The return on investment, to retain a high return on investment you have to make sure that the investment is less than the one or two or three billion that people invest into in new drugs today. The third aspect is how you can then match the right drug to the right patient and in vitro testing will play a major role here. It is super exciting as a human being that might need this treatment in the future, I'm so glad that we are living in a time where you know we're moving from let's say a fairly brutal chemotherapeutic approach to cancer treatment into a more immune oncology treatment. Our chances to survive if we are developing a tumor in our body is going to be substantially higher than it was 20 years ago and this is amazing but it will create new challenges for the industry and it will create new challenges for companies like us to have the right technologies in place to help out that is. 

Alessandro Mantell: That is an amazing answer and thank you for going into all of that detail. It really is exciting at the time and everyone that we're speaking with who has adapted or is in businesses which have adapted as well and being successful everyone is feeling optimistic. In March 2020 that was not the case, absolutely not and now we're coming to the end. We've got the drugs that are coming to market, vaccines rather than coming to market. Everything's exciting. Companies are diversifying people like InSphero AG and your business are adding more components to what they're able to offer clients companies have taken the hit and hurt but adapting moving quicker, more efficiently being able to provide higher service and better quality drugs for patients. So really exciting and everything that you and InSphero AG are doing is right at the forefront of that so thank you. I wanted to ask you from a leadership point of view, completely separate InSphero AG from everything, how do you personally define success? 

Jan Lichtenberg: For me success is, I think, primarily related to the vision that we develop and this could be the vision for our company, it could be a vision that I have for my family. It could be a vision that I have for some of the non-profit activities that I have. For me success is when the vision is reached. I use a passive voice here because it doesn't necessarily have to be me that reached that vision right that made this vision a reality. Our vision for Insphero AG is to predict the interaction of new drugs to human patients, to help the industry to develop treatments that let us all lead healthier and better lives. So of course as a CEO and as a shareholder of Insphero AG, my hope is that we will be the one that is instrumental in reaching that vision and making this vision a reality. But as a human being, as a leader in the field I have to say I don't really care right. The vision in itself is relevant, we need a technology that allows us very quickly, very efficiently to say this is a good drug and this is not a good drug. If one of our competitors finds the way to this holy grail then in a way this is still a success and it's still a success that I and my team help to accomplish because we've built bits and pieces and maybe just the competition that it was that was needed to make this happen. For me success is to have a vision and then to have a plan and to see this vision becoming a reality at the end of the day.

Alessandro Mantell: Love that! You said that it's not actually necessarily a vision which is solely about me, I'm sure everyone in December getting to christmas time wants to lose x amount of weight. It’s not about me me me but it’s about other people, maybe it is about loved ones helping to achieve what they want to achieve and that can bring you happiness and success. Amazing, thank you! Final question for you Jan, I’m sure you've answered this many times throughout this podcast but one bit of advice that you would give to other leaders right now, looking to kind of optimize their business and their response during this if it's still a crisis crisis? 

Jan Lichtenberg: So this is a two-part answer. One is the company and as leaders we need to make sure that we retain the personal contact to our team even more and even more proactively then we've been able to do this a year ago. I like to talk to everybody in my company and there are a lot of opportunities to do this at the water cooler, at the coffee machine, on the way to lunch and back. It's these interactions that helped me to stay in touch, that helped me to understand what's going on and that make me not just a CEO but also a human being throughout everybody in the company. Now we need to pick up the phone and call somebody or we need to arrange a video call or we need to build other ways of having this connection. I think this is really something that we must not forget especially with all the extra pressure that we get on making our top line revenue and making sure that our shareholders are up to date on what's going on. At the end of the day it's about every single employee and making sure that we are present right and with 65 people I have a chance to talk to everybody. At least every second week and if it's just for five minutes it doesn't matter but it's happening. 

If you have a larger organization you need to be more in ascending mode and make sure that you take people along and that there is transparency that they know what you're thinking about through newsletters or through video or meetings and stuff like that. This is something that we cannot cut down right now if rather we need to do more around that. The second aspect is related to the customer contact. I really love to spend time with customers, I traveled a lot, I spent a lot of time also on the private level with customers to go for drinks or to visit a museum in the town where they live. I saw this as so enriching for myself but at the same time also building such good relationships that even you know if something doesn't work exactly how it should be in a scientific project and in biology this can always happen. There is a much deeper understanding of how a person works than just through video calls and so compensating for that is not really an easy thing. I started to write letters by hand with a pen that I had to dig out, very deep, out of the drawer, a fountain pen. But this kind of personal touch that I really like to get and that I'm also very happy to pass out to others. I think it's these qualities that sometimes get lost a little bit in the hectic days that we have and the super optimized workflows that we can now dig out again and we should use.

Alessandro Mantell: It really is those human touches and both of what you mentioned. Actually, before we started recording, one of the first things you said to me was God, I really miss traveling, going abroad, seeing clients and me too. I think a lot of people are feeling it. But what you said about even spending 5 minutes with 65 people that you can give to your team once every two weeks, make it count and still do it. Because people right now a lot of them are at home locked away with their families which is a good thing for most but for some people it can be really hard especially not all living together. I mean I live in London and the majority of London is probably studio flats, one bedroom rooms, people living in these conditions obviously not in the pharmaceutical space a lot of them, it's hard and there's going to be a lot of people in that same boat. I really love your outlook towards them and to customers as well so yeah it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on and for sharing your journey at InSphero AG, being the CEO, founder and board member of the business and everything that you've achieved and really just an insight into leadership in the business but it's a pleasure thank you. 

Jan Lichtenberg: Thanks a lot for having me on the podcast, take care.

If you missed Jan Lichtenberg's 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.