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Staying the Course

Where does your passion for work stem from?

I’ve always loved being involved in the advancement of science and medicine; there is an immense sense of gratification in knowing that the hours spent in the lab, or running around a hospital, can result in life-changing results for patients.

Everything we do at Ionis is with the intention of bettering the lives of the hundreds of thousands of patients who use our products. It’s impossible to put into words the thrill of receiving pictures and videos from patients, showing how well they have responded to one of our drugs.

From the inception of the company, I have always tried to foster a positive work culture. I’ve always believed in taking appropriate risks in an industry where saying “no” to innovative ideas is commonplace. Indeed, I believe in saying “yes” to ideas, to people, and to the notion that there may be a patient who could benefit from us taking an alternative approach. Nothing of value can ever be achieved without taking a step into the unknown.

How have your previous roles shaped who you are today?

A profound moment in my early career happened while I was still a resident at Baylor College of Medicine; a patient with disseminated testicular cancer was referred to the service I was on. He was 25, not much younger than myself, but he had a six-month death sentence… It was a harrowing experience, but it triggered my interest in the industry. Incredibly, the first company I worked for in the industry was Bristol-Myers, where I had the opportunity to build a cancer program.

I’ve been fortunate to have many formative moments in my career. In 1980, I was recruited by SmithKline to head up their R&D department. I was 35 at the time and the experience afforded me the opportunity to rebuild the organization. My successes and failures defined my experience at SmithKline and left me with lots to learn from, particularly in regard to the technology being used in the industry.

Why did you found Ionis?

In the late 1980s, we were beginning to see a change in the industry. Gene therapies had captured the interest of many a company, and there were ideas being thrown around about the development of new platforms. But concurrently, we were also experiencing a decline in productivity. The space for new technologies was wide open and needed to be capitalized upon. It prompted me to found Ionis to pursue the technologies that I thought could bring great value to the industry.

When it comes to our technology, we’re finally seeing the promise of these treatments being manifested. As the technology used continues to evolve, we’re seeing vast improvements in the kinds of drugs in the pipeline. We currently have 45 drugs in the pipeline – which is one drug for every twelve employees at Ionis! We’re all extremely excited to see how far we’ve come.

How did you rise to the challenge of being CEO?

I’ve actually run small businesses throughout my career. In many ways, managing a small drug store isn’t dissimilar to running a large organization; you have to apply the same basic principles. But it’s important to remember that in business you’re competing against other human beings but when developing a new drug you are competing against evolution which, in my opinion, is a much harder task.

I’ve had to overcome the negativity of naysayers in the industry and explain why our products are important to the Wall Street-types who are evaluating the progress of the company. Scepticism is part and parcel of this industry, as most of the things you try end up failing – and perseverance in the face of criticism is not always easy. Embarking on this journey has been surprisingly emotional, but we have learnt to roll with the punches.

What frustrations do you have with the industry?

The industry stands for a noble cause and there are many people who I admire in this space, but we could all do better. The days of “me too” drugs within a given category making money are over. I want to see innovative approaches and ideas embraced more. There is a limit to what can be achieved from the traditional approach to drug discovery and we need to improve the efficiency of the industry.

What advice would you give to others wanting to make a mark on the industry?

When the company was in its infancy, there were many others around with similar ideas but they changed directions and moved into other areas. I’m glad to say that we persevered and we have managed to create something beyond our own expectations. We don’t have any lingering thoughts in the back of minds about what could have been, because we stuck to our guns through the difficult times. It is a massive challenge to get a drug approved, get shareholders on your side, and stay afloat when inevitable disappointments crop up. But my advice to anyone wanting to really make an impact in this industry, or any other, would be: stay the course. Maintain your discipline and remember that it is impossible to create something of value without hitting a few stumbling blocks.

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About the Author
James Strachan

Over the course of my Biomedical Sciences degree it dawned on me that my goal of becoming a scientist didn’t quite mesh with my lack of affinity for lab work. Thinking on my decision to pursue biology rather than English at age 15 – despite an aptitude for the latter – I realized that science writing was a way to combine what I loved with what I was good at.


From there I set out to gather as much freelancing experience as I could, spending 2 years developing scientific content for International Innovation, before completing an MSc in Science Communication. After gaining invaluable experience in supporting the communications efforts of CERN and IN-PART, I joined Texere – where I am focused on producing consistently engaging, cutting-edge and innovative content for our specialist audiences around the world.

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