Dr. Lan Huang: “Be a perpetual learner”

I have several pieces of advice for other women leaders to help their team thrive: first, work harder than everyone else, as there are no shortcuts in life. Second, for any job that is given, no matter how small, do your best. People will judge you by your application, and if you think that a […]

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I have several pieces of advice for other women leaders to help their team thrive: first, work harder than everyone else, as there are no shortcuts in life. Second, for any job that is given, no matter how small, do your best. People will judge you by your application, and if you think that a job is too small, and if you don’t do the small things well, then you won’t be given the chance to do the big things later in life. Third, be a quick learner — industries change at lightning speed, so you have to be able to catch up in the knowledge base.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lan Huang.

Dr. Lan Huang is the Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of BeyondSpring (NASDAQ: BYSI). Headquartered in New York, BeyondSpring is a global, clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on developing innovative immuno-oncology cancer therapies to improve clinical outcomes for patients with high unmet medical needs. Dr. Huang solidified her stature as a scientist-turned-entrepreneur and scientific pioneer throughout her 25 years working and studying in the U.S. She has more than a decade of entrepreneurial experience in the U.S. and Chinese biotechnology industries and invented / holds patents for a number of biotech products for oncology and dermatology indications. BeyondSpring is her fourth startup.

Prior to founding BeyondSpring, Dr. Huang co-founded Wuxi MTLH Biotechnology Co. Ltd., whose self-designed cancer peptide drug’s China rights were acquired in 2010 by Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group, one of the top three pharmaceutical companies in China. She also co-founded Paramax International, a clinical CRO company in China, which was sold to RPS (a global CRO), then to Warburg Pincus in 2011. In addition, Dr. Huang worked with Forward Ventures, where she led partnering initiatives between Forward’s portfolio companies and Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Huang was trained at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where her groundbreaking research in cancer signaling pathways involving P53 degradation was published in Science (the importance of this field is illustrated by the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded to the founders of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation). She successfully solved the first E2-E3 ligase structure in the world. Additionally, her research in cancer signaling pathways involving RAS was published in two Nature papers. She holds a B.A. from Lawrence University and received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, where she won the international Women’s Opportunity Award, in four-and-a-half years.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My grandfather’s death from cancer had a profound effect on me and became a driving force behind my future quest to find a cure for cancer. I came to the U.S. when I was very young — just 20 years old — and received my PhD in biophysical chemistry in four-and-a-half years from the University of California, Berkeley.

I consider myself to be a scientist-turned-entrepreneur. I completed my training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and, before founding BeyondSpring 10 years ago, I co-founded other companies, including R&D company Wuxi MTLH Biotechnology Co. Ltd, with its lead asset acquired by Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group (one of the top three pharmaceutical companies in China), and clinical research organization Paramax International, which was later sold to the global CRO RPS, and then to Warburg Pincus. Additionally, I worked with Forward Ventures, where I led partnering initiatives between portfolio companies and Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

With nearly two decades of entrepreneurial experience working in both the U.S. and China biotechnology industries, I have successfully created and hold patents for a number of biotech products for oncology and dermatology indications.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There have been several “a-ha” moments where I had to act as a “scientific detective” to uncover and understand why BeyondSpring’s lead product candidate, Plinabulin, a first-in-class agent, performs the way that it does. Initially, we could not explain the clinical benefit that Plinabulin displayed. After 10 years of working with leading scientists all over the world, we found that Plinabulin is a differentiated tubulin binder and generates an immune benefit. We’ve had data published on this in four peer-reviewed journals in 2019 alone.

With its unique mechanism discovered, we selected a targeted patient population to develop the drug clinically in Phase 3 studies, which have a higher chance of success. Now, Plinabulin is being studied to increase overall survival in cancer patients, as well as to alleviate a condition called chemotherapy-induced neutropenia, a common, often severe side effect that can cause cancer patients to decrease, delay, downgrade and even discontinue treatment altogether.

I am constantly on the lookout for how Plinabulin can significantly improve the current standard of care for cancer patients. Through our ongoing studies — and in assessing the results of those studies — we are continuing to work on “cracking the case” in hopes of allowing patients with cancer to have a better quality of life, bringing relief to the millions of patients who are suffering all over the world.

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?

When I started my PhD work at UC Berkeley, I was assigned to purify a protein for my first rotation project. I was so focused on making every little detail perfect. However, every time that I attempted to complete the project, I realized that I had made different mistakes along the way. I vividly remember my advisor, Randy Schekman (who is now a Nobel Prize winner), saying to me, “If you focus on using more of your common sense and look only at the most important steps, it will work.” He was right. I laugh to myself about it now, but it was exactly the advice that I needed at the time. It was such a simple thought, but I had to remind myself of this every day.

Even though I am now a CEO of a global biopharmaceutical company, I am still a student at heart who is constantly learning. In the academic world, we are always looking for complex answers to questions and often tend to overthink the solution that is right in front of our eyes. Sometimes, all we need is to see the big picture.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful for that helped get you to where you are today? Can you share a story about that?

When I pivoted to entrepreneurship, I looked up to Dr. Ivor Royston, co-founder of Forward Ventures in San Diego and co-founder of IDEC and Hybritech. Like me, Dr. Royston is also a scientist-turned-entrepreneur. He is a trailblazer in the biotech industry and mentored me to start BeyondSpring. Our lead asset, Plinabulin, came from Nereus, in which Forward Ventures is the second largest shareholder. Dr. Royston always encouraged me to realize my full potential.

As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Running helps me to both relieve stress and thoroughly think through my problems. I also read a lot; when I start to think that something is impossible, I just have to stop and read biographies of successful CEOs and leaders to find motivation again. These kinds of stories often give me the confidence and reassurance that anything is truly possible. My family is also incredibly supportive — my husband, parents and children all provide me with the courage that I need to be the best leader possible in any given situation.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Having a diverse executive team ultimately benefits the company as a whole, because people who have thoughts, backgrounds and experiences that differ considerably from our own can help to bring new, creative ways of thinking and problem-solving to the table that you may not have thought about otherwise.

The bottom line is that we live in a diverse world, and different perspectives and contributions help a company to grow and thrive. You have to understand the needs of people from around the globe, especially when it comes to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Drugs are not created just to help people in one particular country or location. You need to make sure that treatments help all people, in all places.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps that we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative and equitable society?

Companies must be multifaceted and treat everyone in the same respectful manner.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think that they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But, in just a few words, can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As the CEO of a company, it is my responsibility to catch everything. I always say to my team that, when it comes to developing innovative drugs that serve to help people all over the world, 99.9 percent equates to 0 percent. Recently, we announced that we have initiated the rolling submission of our New Drug Application (NDA) with our lead asset, Plinabulin. That said, 100 percent is needed in order for this drug to be approved. This will bring Plinabulin one step closer to commercialization and into the hands of cancer patients in need.

My job is to catch the 0.1 percent. As a CEO, you also have to be both a visionary and a detail-oriented person, as well as the face of the company both externally and internally.

What are the myths that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive?

Most people believe that employees work for CEOs, but in reality, CEOs work for everyone, including their employees and shareholders.

A leader should share his or her vision with their team. My vision is focused on improving the standard of care for cancer patients. As CEO, you must ensure that your team is aligned with your Company mission in order to achieve success, especially for a goal as meaningful as this one. That said, a leader’s job is to enable his or her team to achieve this vision together!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The biggest issue for women in the workplace is that they often inhibit their own professional development by having self-doubt and not “leaning in” enough. Women should believe in themselves, work hard, focus on their professional development and not be afraid to fail. They alone have the ability to realize their own potential.

As a woman, often times, your life is a balancing act. You are constantly managing and multitasking many different things, especially if you are a mother. Having a solid support system that enables you to be a professional woman and a mother is key. My son, for example, supports my work and understands that I will have to work late nights or travel on long business trips sometimes, because it’s for a greater good — he knows that I am trying to help save cancer patients. He has been donating to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, so he knows the meaning of my work in developing cancer medicine. When I am away, I usually write to my son thanking him for his ongoing support, as this means a lot to me as a parent, and it’s, of course, difficult to be away. In this way, my son can feel as though he is a part of the team that’s helping patients — and he is very proud of that.

In the end, women can have it all by wearing different hats at different times, rather than trying to wear them all at once. There are priorities in different phases of life as a professional woman, and I plan each day based on these priorities.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Everyone always says that being an entrepreneur is a lifestyle that you choose. You never fully understand the reality of that statement until you live it firsthand. To me, work and life are my combined reality; they are not separate. I work nights, weekends and holidays, because I’ve chosen a job that I love and means something special to me. If I do my job well, cancer patients benefit.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. Which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Being a CEO is like being a “long-term planner” and a “firefighter” at the same time — you are always on call at every hour of the day, but that is something that you knowingly sign up for. You have to be willing to put in the long hours and make sacrifices if you want to be a successful CEO. You must be self-motivated and ready to roll up your sleeves at any given moment to get your hands dirty.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

The life science industry is booming because of the scientific breakthroughs that could lead to permanent cures for diseases, as well as a better quality of life for people with cancer. Thus, I highly encourage women to seek a career in our industry.

I have several pieces of advice for other women leaders to help their team thrive: first, work harder than everyone else, as there are no shortcuts in life. Second, for any job that is given, no matter how small, do your best. People will judge you by your application, and if you think that a job is too small, and if you don’t do the small things well, then you won’t be given the chance to do the big things later in life. Third, be a quick learner — industries change at lightning speed, so you have to be able to catch up in the knowledge base.

Finally, always honor and respect your team’s suggestions and efforts. Give credit where credit is due. When people feel as though they’ve done something great and are rewarded for it, they will continue to work hard and generate meaningful results that will benefit the entire company.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At any point in my work where I have succeeded — for example, when my company achieved a major breakthrough, either as part of our research or during a clinical trial — this signifies that we are moving one step closer toward improving the lives of cancer patients around the world. What could be better or more personally rewarding than saving people’s lives?

What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started,” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1- Learn by doing.

2- Surround yourself with experts in your field or discipline.

3- Be a perpetual learner.

4- Be resourceful — you’ll never have everything at your fingertips.

5- Hard work is the key to success.

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

Improving the standard of care for cancer patients is the main goal that I continue to aggressively work toward every day of my life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how it’s relevant to you in your life?

There is a quote from Oprah Winfrey that I love: “‘I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint — and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.

This definitely resonates with me. Throughout my 25 years of working and studying in the biotechnology space, I have found my personal calling in science, through which I’m able to create innovative medicine that will hopefully help cancer patients who are suffering around the world today.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to sit down with Ginni Rometty, IBM executive chairman, to discuss her story and learn more about how she drove IBM’s growth. She is a prime example of a businesswoman who shattered the glass ceiling and dispelled misconceptions of women working in the C-suite, especially in the tech industry.

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