Dr. Joan Fallon of Curemark: “You MUST tune out the noise”

There is a ton of “noise” in the world you inhabit. People are making demands, telling you what to do, giving advice and asking for things. You MUST tune out the noise. As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Joan Fallon, Founder and […]

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There is a ton of “noise” in the world you inhabit. People are making demands, telling you what to do, giving advice and asking for things. You MUST tune out the noise.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Joan Fallon, Founder and CEO of Curemark.

Dr. Joan Fallon is a scientist who has dedicated her life’s work to championing the health and wellbeing of children worldwide. Curemark is a biopharmaceutical company focused on the development of novel therapies to treat serious diseases for which there are limited treatment options. The company’s pipeline includes a phase III clinical-stage research program for Autism, as well as programs focused on Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia, and addiction.

Curemark will commence the filing of a Biological Drug Application for the first novel drug for Autism under the FDA Fast Track Program. Fast Track status is a designation given only to investigational new drugs that are intended to treat serious or life-threatening conditions and that have demonstrated the potential to address unmet medical needs.

Joan holds over 300 patents worldwide, has written numerous scholarly articles, and lectured extensively across the globe on pediatric developmental problems. A former Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. She holds appointments as a Senior Advisor to the Henry Crown Fellows at The Aspen Institute, as well as a Distinguished Fellow at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Franklin & Marshall College and The Pratt Institute. She currently serves as a board member at the DREAM Charter School in Harlem, the PitCCh In Foundation started by CC and Amber Sabathia, Springboard Enterprises an internationally known venture catalyst that supports women–led growth companies and Vote Run Lead a bipartisan not-for-profit that encourages women on both sides of the aisle to run for elected office.

She served on the ADA Board of Advisors for the building of the new Yankee Stadium and has testified before Congress on the matters of business and patents.

Joan is the recipient of numerous awards including being named one of the top 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2020 by Goldman Sachs, 2017 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year NY in Healthcare and received the Creative Entrepreneurship Award from The New York Hall of Science in 2018.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was in clinical practice for 25 years, during which I paid close attention to the rise in autism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. No one had a treatment or really understood the condition. Even today, we neither understand autism’s causative roots nor have effective treatments for its core symptoms. The diversity of symptoms from one child to the next was striking, since the common thinking at the time was “once you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen every child with autism.”

I do some of my best thinking on planes. On one trip, I was thinking about why all the kids with autism all look slightly different. Most conditions, syndromes and diseases have very similar presentations and trajectories. Autism does not. I decided not to dwell on why there are differences, but focus on commonalities and patterns.

I found that the majority of the kids I saw ate the same basic diet. Parents call it the “white” or “tan” diet. It’s filled with neutral colored foods, many of which are carbohydrates. This line of thinking led me to look for a physiological reason for this finding, which formed the basis of starting Curemark.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Startups are always worried about raising money and the early days Curemark was no exception. After the “Friends and Family” round, the first real “term sheet” I received was far too onerous for me to accept. The funding was contingent upon milestones that were basically unachievable and indeed would lead to the investor getting dramatically increased ownership in Curemark.

When the company making the offer called, expecting me to accept, I told them no. A conversation ensued which was quite memorable. Sensing we were young and vulnerable, the CEO finally yelled at me when he realized I was not going to take the money. He asked, “WHO are you going to get money from?” My response: “I don’t know but NOT YOU.”

I never looked back, I raised money from others and the rest is history.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The company was founded on the idea of developing something important for children with autism. Developing a drug and taking it through clinical trials is hard and takes a long time. It requires the melding of multiple skills sets from clinical design and manufacture to supply chain. It requires a team.

When things get hard, I immediately return to the reason why I founded Curemark: #ItsAllAboutTheKids

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

It’s all about grit, determination and patience with others and oneself. Sometimes your mind as the founder, and in my case scientist, means the mind and thoughts are generally ahead of everyone else’s. I am constantly thinking ahead, trying to innovate and figure out new ways to execute that are novel and effective.

Not every idea, not every thought can or should be acted upon. Knowing which ones are important and which ones need action is a big part of being the CEO.

The trick is not to become absorbed in crisis or crescendo, but to even out the road. The entrepreneur’s journey is neither straight nor smooth. I often liken it to playing baseball. Some days you can go 3 for 4, but the next day you can go 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. If you dwell on the bad days and the strikeouts they will carry over into the next day and the next game. Learn and move on.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that.

One of the funniest stories comes from Curemark’s very early days. Remember, I did not come out of the pharma world. Because the drug is biological and animal-derived, when a lawyer asked me if I wanted an intro to Perdue, I assumed it was the chicken company. It actually was Purdue pharma that she was speaking about, but I did not know the pharma group.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are a small company with a bold and ambitious goal, reaching goals that we’ve dreamt about. We raised large amounts of money without venture capital and developed a patient centric drug based approach on a very different medical paradigm.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Get involved in things that are tangential to your work. It has been shown that being on a not for profit board, for example, will teach the entrepreneur things they would not have directly learned through their own work. Having perspective is really important. Using peripheral vision and being able to see what is around you will enhance the effectiveness of your work and your company.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I had a host of mentors who understood what it took to start and maintain the company. From very experienced early investors to corporate attorneys, everyone helped and participated in our success while simultaneously being my biggest cheerleaders and largest critics. That balance is keenly important. Without the candor the entrepreneur can begin to believe his/her own press and can falter.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our company and our drug for autism has the potential to be a game changer. There is a great need for autism treatments and we’re hoping that once ours is approved it will spur additional research.

We also support autism in the field. We sponsored an autism suite in the minor league stadium of the Brooklyn Cyclones, where families with members who have autism can bring the whole family to a baseball game. If indeed there is a fan based minor league season this summer, we plan to open up another suite at a minor league affiliate of the Yankees as well as (hopefully) some major league parks.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Things always take longer than you expect, even under the best of circumstances.

You always need more money than you anticipate.

There is a ton of “noise” in the world you inhabit. People are making demands, telling you what to do, giving advice and asking for things. You MUST tune out the noise.

Entrepreneurship is a personal journey. You must grow and be willing to change as your journey takes you.

Never ever let anyone mistake your kindness for weakness.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

There is a whole world of untapped talent out there. People who are talented, but because of where they live, their gender, their race, their age or disability will never get an opportunity to contribute where they are most needed. The whole idea that “talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not” really resonated with me.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is not about checking off a box. It is about finding the most talented people for a position. We must search for the talent, because it does not necessarily come walking into our orbit. The talent lives in our greater world, but we must go out and find it and bring it into our orbit.

I would educate everyone about talent, and frame DEI in that way, because checking off boxes will never create an equitable world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@CuremarkCEO Twitter

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