As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janice Kranz, PhD.
Dr. Kranz is the co-founder and CEO of Eikonizo Therapeutics, which is focusing on a completely new approach for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Throughout her 25-year career, Dr. Kranz has led research teams in startup biotech companies, working with many early-stage therapeutic candidates. Her breadth and depth of experience spans from being one of the first scientists at Cubist Pharmaceuticals in the early ’90s, to managing the research pipeline of the ALS Therapy Development Institute, to building a community of more than 100 scientists as Assistant Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, a division of The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure. I spent seven years in grad school at Harvard; after defending my thesis on yeast genetics and biochemistry, I was feeling burned out and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with research. Not long before finishing, the lab phone rang and I picked up. It was someone calling to ask if anyone wanted to join a start-up, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, to set up a yeast-based assay system. At the time, it wasn’t common for new PhDs to go directly into industry, but it sounded interesting. I met with Mandana Sassanfar, the first scientist hired at Cubist, and Susan Martinis, a post-doc from the MIT lab of Cubist’s founder, Paul Schimmel, who was going to join also. That interview made me feel I could enjoy science again. Schimmel himself was passionate, experienced, inspiring and smart. I was the company’s fifth biology hire (and the eleventh overall), and the only one hired straight from grad school. We all wore many hats and loved working together to explore new territory, both in setting up a company and in antibiotic development.
While working at Cubist jump-started my career, I later moved on to a bioinformatics company, where I was in charge of model organisms. I subsequently left to take a job as a veterinary technician, which allowed me to spend time with my mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Following her passing, I worked for two years as a pipeline manager at the ALS Therapy Development Institute, creating and managing a database of potential therapeutic ideas for ALS. It was an eye-opening experience and satisfied my desire to be directly involved with patients.
My career continued to evolve thanks to Edward Scolnick, the long-time president of Merck’s research lab and the founding director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. I served as assistant director of the Stanley Center for five years. It was inspiring to work for Ed as his “right-hand” person; our work styles complemented each other. He conveyed to me the excitement of mechanism-based drug discovery and the rigorous science leading to it. He showed me the importance of picking an important problem to spend your life on. In part, this is what led to my interest in Eikonizo and its work in neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s. What better mission than to stop or slow that disease?
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’d love to. This story involves myself and two close associates: Kevin Kinsella, who helped fund Eikonizo last year; and Tonya Gilbert, PhD, one of our research scientists.
This past May, we visited Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL), a research university in Belgium and one of our trial sites, to coincide with the first-in-human scan that validated the use of Eikonizo’s companion neuroimaging agent. The research site installed a new MRI scanner and they needed volunteers to work out some new methods and programs. The three of us wanted to experience a portion of what people go through during their MRI scans, so we all got brain scans and left with detailed structural images of our brains! We were only scanned for about 25 or 30 minutes each, which made me appreciate the study volunteers whose scans can last up to three hours. (We are not using our personal scans in our research, however!) This was really cool, since imaging is so central to Eikonizo’s strategy!
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?
Hmm, there are so many to choose from… I suppose it was the two weeks I spent at grad school at MIT before dropping out. I had enrolled in a program on toxicology in a department called at the time “Food & Nutrition Science.” We grad students had to choose a professor to work with at the start of our studies. The day after I arrived, I met with a professor whose lab I intended to join. Unfortunately, we very quickly had a falling-out over the best way to implement a certain lab technique. I could tell it wasn’t a good fit so I quit soon afterward and started working as a lab tech at Beth Israel Hospital. A couple of years later, I felt I was ready to try again and this time applied and got into Harvard instead. During the interview process, I was afraid to admit to anyone that my MIT misadventure ever happened, but it turned out to be a “plus.” In fact, I am happy to discuss the experience now, because it really showed me the importance of going with your gut and not taking any steps in your professional path that you don’t agree with.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am proud of the fact that we are pioneering a novel approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease — not only by being the first to target an enzyme (HDAC6) that is believed to be responsible for neurodegeneration, but by advancing a neuroimaging agent that can de-risk and hasten clinical development by supporting direct visualization and quantitation of target engagement in the brains of living patients. Complementary to this innovative science, I believe the working culture of our company distinguishes us from many others. All of us at Eikonizo share a sense of urgency and a sense of humor, and strongly encourage a spirit of openness to ask questions. Furthermore, all of us have had distinguished careers before arriving at the company, and we are all passionate about what we are doing. It’s also inspiring to me that we have been able to start at such an early stage of development and move so rapidly.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are studying the potential of a small-molecule therapeutic — in the form of a simple pill — to minimize the process that destabilizes the microtubules and forms tau tangles. This is an entirely different approach to AD treatment. Rather than trying to clear amyloid plaque, which is what many companies have tried to do with very limited success, this approach targets a specific enzyme (HDAC6) responsible both for microtubule destabilization and tau tangle formation, which means it may be able to modify the disease early.
Also, current Alzheimer’s treatment approaches using antibodies are hampered by the significant challenge of demonstrating and achieving adequate brain penetration, and currently there is no way to use them with companion small-molecule PET imaging probes. However, molecules targeting the enzyme HDAC6 could be a solution for not only modifying Alzheimer’s disease as a treatment, but also for allowing researchers to “see” that the treatment is reaching the intended target. This de-risks and accelerates clinical development.
As such, we are currently engaged in lead optimization, a term that refers to a classic stage in the pathway of small-molecule drug development. It is this intermediate stage at which Eikonizo basically started. We are fortunate in not having to start from square one, due to the small-molecule research previously conducted by our co-founder, Jacob Hooker, PhD, and the HDAC experience of Florence (Flo) Wagner, who’s leading our medicinal chemistry program (and whom I worked with at the Broad’s Stanley Center). It is truly exciting to witness how different molecules get better at their tasks by making little tweaks in molecular structure — which can result in big changes, e.g., getting into the brain, or lasting longer in the body.
We are also in the process of raising $20–25M of series A funding. I’m proud of all that we have accomplished in the past 18 months with less than $3M of funding.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would give this advice to all leaders: share your mistakes, and what you learned from them, with others. This attitude helps foster a spirit of openness in whatever work environment you happen to be in, and it can also help your colleagues overcome any sense of vulnerability they might be feeling. Learning from each other and supporting each other are crucial in scientific research as in all other areas. When everyone individually knows that their colleagues are accepting of mistakes and learning from them, the entire organization can progress in its mission much faster than otherwise.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
This applies to everyone: never be afraid to ask for help! No one person can do it all.
But the process of asking for help involves more than merely delegating the tasks we don’t feel confident about. The true goal of asking for help involves initiating a productive dialogue — one that can help people to work together more efficiently. It goes way beyond merely saying to another person, “You do this.” Conversely, it is crucial to encourage all members of your team to speak up when they need more help. If the leader sets the tone, then all the members of the team will know that it is safe to ask for help.
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 about that?
Yes: Paul Schimmel, the founder of Cubist Pharmaceuticals who is now a professor at the Scripps Research Institute. He didn’t just hire me to work for him at Cubist and subsequently help me obtain my position at the Broad Institute; he also inspired me with his brilliance, enthusiasm and wisdom, and has been invaluable as a sounding board for my ideas over many years. One of my most memorable Paul stories involves a discussion I had with him at Cubist about a project that I felt just wasn’t working out and ought to be cancelled. To make my case, I had compiled a substantial amount of data that I was prepared to share with him. To my relief, rather than firing me for recommending we kill a project that I was hired to do, he showed confidence in my judgment and gave me a valuable piece of advice: Never be afraid to make the decision to kill a project. Or as he put it in his colorful way of speaking, “It’s either in your bones or it’s not!” And if a project isn’t “in your bones,” spending time on it is likely a waste of time and money. Trust your own judgment and speak up if you know something is going wrong.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have been very fortunate to have had a role in medical discovery and the search for new treatments, which hold the potential to alleviate the suffering experienced by a large number of people across the globe. It is inspiring to be involved with a start-up that has a well-defined plan of execution for designing a promising drug candidate and developing it. Taking a good idea and refining it into a real-world solution that can potentially help people is what the scientific endeavor in the life sciences is all about.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Join groups and/or clubs outside of grad school. This “tip” is getting more press in grad school and post-doc groups lately, but it’s worth reiterating. Often the grad school environment and culture can make it hard to “detach” yourself and you can feel isolated from the external world. By mingling with others beyond your department or school, you can explore your diverse interests and develop a good “buffer” to your research. Importantly, you are also setting the foundations for connections that can help you much later on in your professional and personal life.
- Don’t eat lunch at your desk more than once a week. I find it easy to get consumed with my work and not take breaks. But as above — getting out helps your perspective, and is beneficial for yourself and for others who might learn from you.
- Ask anyone — a peer, boss or professor, a neighbor, someone in a different department or company, really, just anyone you’re interested in — to have lunch or coffee with you. I believe that ninety percent of the time, they will say yes. You will have fun and it is almost guaranteed that you will learn a great deal.
- Don’t wait to be “recognized” by the powers that be. You have to ask for what you want.
- Your career path might not always be linear. There will always be some unexpected twists and turns, but this is par for the course. You never know what you’ll wind up learning along the way that might send you in a different direction.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
The most pressing need for a movement would be one that encourages more people from various walks of life to consider enrolling in clinical trials, and also helping biopharmaceutical companies implement steps that would make it less problematic for them to attract and enroll patients in their trials. This would include enrolling equal numbers of men and women, and also expanding the diversity of candidates. The potential payoff for the good of humanity would be immeasurable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t ever give up” is a personal favorite of mine, but I also love two others allegedly first uttered by hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take” and “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Those represent philosophies that have helped guide me in my research career (as well as in playing hockey, which I do enjoy!). And I also recall what Ed Scolnick, my former boss at the Stanley Center, used to say about science: “Be sure to pick an important problem.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
It’s so hard to just choose one! Different people for different reasons. One is Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate — she seems so genuine, courageous, and her book shows she also has a sense of humor. Another is Michelle Obama, for holding her tongue, her ability to take the high road and being strong. I also admire Samantha Bee, the host of Full Frontal for her humor, perspective and persistence; Doris Kearns Goodwin, the distinguished historian and writer — I just love how she researches not only the simple facts but also pieces together the complex pieces underlying leaders’ motivations; and Jane Goodall, who really committed her life to understanding chimpanzees, and hasn’t slowed down, now advocating for the environment and for kids’ science education as well. I guess a common theme is that they’re all inspiring but also don’t take themselves too seriously and clearly like to laugh.