As part of my series “The Future of Healthcare”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Jones — Founder, President and CEO of Rebiotix Inc. Lee has over 30 years of experience in the medical technology industry in large and small companies and academia. She cofounded Rebiotix in 2011. Rebiotix is a clinical stage biotechnology company developing a new class of biologic drugs based on live human-derived microbes. The company was acquired by Ferring Pharmaceuticals in Apr 2018. Previously, she was Chief Administrative Officer of the Schulze Diabetes Institute at the University of Minnesota and is the former president and chief executive officer of Inlet Medical. Inlet Medical, a privately held medical device company, was sold to CooperSurgical in 2006. Prior to Inlet, she spent 14 years at Medtronic where she developed and commercialized several innovative products that opened up new markets for the company. Lee has served on several public and private boards and is currently on the board of Electromed Inc., on the University of Minnesota’s Office of Technology Commercialization advisory board, and on the board of MedicalAlley, an industry association. She is a member of the Sofia Angel Investment Fund and is an advisor to several small companies. Ms. Jones has a BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota and an Executive Management degree from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I became a business builder somewhat by accident. I am very curious by nature and have followed my interests which led me to be a CEO. If you had asked me when I graduated from college if I would be interested in running a business, I would have wondered what was wrong with you. I love the medical products arena because I can see direct effects of my work on others. I was recruited to become the CEO of a company that had failed and run out of money. I saw this as my big break. Through my career I had run various parts of a business but didn’t know how to ask strangers for money and saw this as an opportunity to try. I decided that there was very little risk — if the company would fail, it had already failed and it wouldn’t be my fault. If it was successful, it would be because of me. I had a great mentor who was one of the investors and board members who helped raise the money and the business was a success. We sold it to a larger company for a nice return.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Probably the most memorable event that happened to me was a meeting I had with the vice chairman of a large medical device company that I had worked at for years and where I had been successful. I made the mistake of challenging a statement he made during our discussion regarding my next step at the company. He was trying to convince me to take a lesser position because it was more convenient for the company. I didn’t want the position as I felt I was better qualified than the person I would be reporting to. This led him to say that I was a difficult employee and that all the managers I had had during my time at the company had felt that way. Prior to my conversation, I had gone over my 14 years of employment records and there was no indication that anyone had felt that I was a difficult employee. When I mentioned that, he went on to tell me that not only was I a difficult employee, but I was THE MOST difficult of all the difficult employees at the company. Quite a feat for a young woman to be the most difficult employee of 13000! I didn’t know whether to be proud or disturbed. Needless to say, I wasn’t intimidated and moved on.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change the World”?
I was a CEO in residence at the University of Minnesota Office of Technology Commercialization when I learned about what was later to become my Big Idea to Change the World. One of the doctors had brought an idea to the OTC for evaluation that involved fecal transplants. This is where fecal material is taken from a healthy person and put into a sick person to treat their disease. I thought that this was the most ridiculous idea I had ever heard of so I volunteered to be their assigned CEO to develop the business model. As I was helping them, the concept of taking microbes from a healthy person and using them to cure disease caught my imagination. I could imagine all the ways that this might be helpful, and the more I learned the more convinced I became that this could really change the way medicine is practiced. The doctor decided to take money from an outside group to develop his product so I was no longer associated with the University, but I was still hooked. I found some business partners, hired the scientists and developed my own technology.
How do you think this will change the world?
The premise behind the concept is that the microbiome, which consists of trillions of micro-organisms that inhabit our surfaces, works as a community to keep us healthy. When that community is disrupted, we become susceptible to disease. The gut microbiome, in particular, plays a big role in our immune system, and there is evidence that it may even affect our brain function. I thought about the what ifs — what if we can fix the microbiome, can we restore people back to health? Does this affect the way that we understand the disease process? What if we can treat the gut and restore brain function? What if what we think of brain diseases are really diseases of the gut? What if we can eliminate the need for antibiotics for certain diseases? And the list goes on.
Research has shown that many of these “what ifs” are actually true and I wholeheartedly believe that by using the microbiome as a therapeutic agent or by restoring the microbiome to a healthy state, we can change the world and how medicine is practiced.
One main drawback today is that there is so much hype that surrounds the microbiome, people believe it will be the solution to everything. This is actually holding research back and we do not know what the consequences may be. Time and data will tell.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
The idea needs to be turned into a product that gets FDA approval and reimbursement so that it can be made widely available to those people who could benefit. We are the first company to conduct clinical studies that could lead to licensure. In addition, we partnered (through an acquisition by a larger company) with a group that has the size and resources to commercialize the product globally.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- No one knows how to characterize what is in poop. This proved to be a lot more complicated and to take more time than I estimated.
- Being the first to create an FDA pathway for a new product is not necessarily a good thing. Without a precedent, it is hard to predict what kind of data is going to be needed and how much time it will take to collect it.
- Products made from human stool will be classified as biologic drugs. I thought it was going to be more like a tissue transplant than a drug product. This change cost big dollars and a lot of time that we did not plan on.
- Raising money to develop an entirely new class of drugs is too risky for most funders. It was hard to convince people that this was a good bet when it hadn’t been done before.
- That it would be more difficult to raise money as a woman given the small percentage of funding women entrepreneurs get from VCs. Fortunately, there are angel investors like Sofia Fund, which invested in my company, who exclusively invest in women-led businesses.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Building the next generation of microbiome scientists
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
- Be relentless in pursuit of your interests
- Do the right thing
- There are a million ways to get things done — if one way doesn’t work, try something else
- Surround yourself with people that are smarter and more skilled that you are
- Be a good person and care about others
- Ask questions, be curious
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
- Do the work, don’t just talk about what could be
- Don’t rely on someone else to tell you did a good job — satisfy yourself that you have
- Have confidence in your abilities, but know that you can’t do everything by yourself
- Paint the picture for others so they can see what you see — best way to find people who will also be passionate about what you want to accomplish
- Thank your investors — they are the reason you can do the work that you do
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Investments in companies like Rebiotix would be a great way to diversify your portfolio and increase your odds of a return for your investors. Rebiotix has developed a first in class, new generation of biologic drugs and expects to be first to market. The lead candidate is in Phase 3 trials for a significant unmet medical need, and has Fast Track, Breakthrough Therapy, and Orphan drug designation. The company is based in the Midwest where fewer dollars are needed to accomplish major milestones and it is run by a seasoned serial female entrepreneur. Data has shown that women run and women led companies perform much better, on average, than similar companies run by their male counterparts, for a larger return on investment. Here is your chance to win big!
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