13 Oct 2016

Adding Muscle to the Fight Against Disease

To build a company aimed at finding new treatments for deadly diseases, pioneering science is just the beginning.
by Deborah Blagg


If you are one of the 17 million people who participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge a couple of summers ago, the money you helped raise to support ALS research may be at work today in a late-stage biopharmaceutical company headed by Robert Blum (MBA 1991).

Blum is president and CEO of Cytokinetics, Inc., a South San Francisco–based company that focuses on treatments for debilitating diseases that compromise muscle function, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), heart failure, and spinal muscular atrophy. Compounds in the pipeline at Cytokinetics are designed to increase muscle strength and performance, with the goal of preserving and extending patients’ independence and functionality.

Blum, who has served Cytokinetics in various roles since its launch in 1998, is quick to point out that the company’s business model sets it apart from most conventional biotech firms. “In general, biotech companies—as a function of cost, time, and failure modes—tend to risk pivot on one program, one clinical trial, one outcome,” he observes. “Our company is the leader in mining muscle biology for drug discoveries that translate across multiple diseases and allow us to advance a synergistic portfolio of programs in parallel.”

In an industry where serial entrepreneurship is the norm, Cytokinetics’s approach instead requires “a strategy based on sustainability and durability” that includes forging significant partnerships with global companies working on the same problems.

“It’s taken us 20 years to get where we are,” shares Blum, “but the tradeoff is that today we have several very promising therapies that are in late-stage trials.”

One of those therapies is tirasemtiv, the drug in the Phase 3 trial that is being funded, in part, by a grant from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

“ALS is a devastating disease that leaves cognitive abilities intact, but robs people of their ability to move, essentially making them prisoners in their own bodies,” Blum says. “The therapeutic hypothesis with tirasemtiv relates to slowing the impact of the disease on respiratory function, in order to afford these patients a better quality of life for a longer period of time. It could be the first new treatment for ALS in nearly 25 years and the first one to potentially affect muscle function and strength as well as hopefully preserve patient independence.”

While clinical trials cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, the ALS grant to Cytokinetics is significant because it facilitates the collection of plasma samples from test subjects over an extended period of time. The samples will be shared with academic researchers, a collaboration “that marks the first time a large company has included in a late-stage trial a component that is publicly available,” explains Blum. He notes that studies of the samples by independent researchers could help identify biomarkers for the disease’s causes and progression.

Not Just Science and Business

With degrees in human biology and economics from Stanford, in addition to his Harvard MBA, Blum’s credentials make him well suited to a career in biotech. Prior to joining Cytokinetics, he had experience in sales, marketing, and business development in large and small pharmaceutical companies, including COR Therapeutics, which he joined upon graduation from Harvard Business School and which successfully developed and commercialized a market-leading drug to treat cardiovascular disease.

But in addition to drawing on technical degrees and experience, as the leader of a company searching for solutions to devastating diseases that have no known cure, Blum devotes significant effort to cultivating an “authentic” company culture.

“What we do internally at the company and what we do in the community is consistent with our values,” he stresses. “We spend a considerable amount of time with patients and caregivers who inspire us every day. We volunteer regularly at patient advocacy and community awareness events. Patients visit our labs and sit in on business meetings. We see the impact of the disease on their lives. The problems we tackle aren’t just science problems or business problems to us; they’re human problems.”

Blum says the company’s scientists and management team have shown “extraordinary commitment” to Cytokinetics. “Attrition is a constant challenge in biotech,” he observes. “The bar for continuity in management is pretty low—usually a few years. But the majority of our senior managers have been together for over 15 years.”

Similarly, he says, the company has developed scientific leadership from within: “We invested substantially to develop the careers of brilliant scientists who joined us early in their professional lives, helping them to address both their personal and professional objectives. That investment has more than paid off, in terms of their pioneering work in muscle biology and professional development.”

Family and Lifelong HBS Friends

The winner of the 2014 Lou Gehrig Iron Horse Award from the ALS Therapy Development Institute, a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, and a member of the faculty at the Center for Bioentrepreneurship at UC San Francisco, Blum has achieved significant recognition for his leadership in biotech and business. When asked about the internal compass that has guided his career in an industry famous for low success rates, high-stakes gambles, and exceptionally long lead times from discovery to market, he talks about the influence of family, friends, and faith.

“My wife, Dana, and I got married a week before I started at HBS,” he says. “She gave up a promising career on Wall Street in large part to serve our shared interests.” In time, those interests included raising the couple’s two daughters, who are now college graduates. “There’s nothing more motivating to me than doing right by my wife and daughters,” he affirms.

At HBS, Blum says he met classmates who became lifelong friends and “a personal board of directors in terms of what should be most important in my life and career. The positive impact they are having across a variety of industries and in their own communities helps guide my personal and professional ambitions.”

Repairing the World

The son of an Auschwitz survivor, Blum also talks about the perseverance his father showed in restarting life in the US as “the source of my resolve to do something meaningfully good, not only professionally but also personally.” The concept of tikkun olam—Hebrew for “repair the world”—motivated his involvement with the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he endowed the Blum Family Venture Philanthropy Fund to promote discoveries with potential to benefit the Israeli life-sciences economy.

Closer to home, Blum established the Tikkun Olam Youth Science Prizes for middle and high schoolers in the San Francisco Bay area. “I was fortunate to have academic and life teachers who opened my eyes to what could be accomplished through science and innovation,” Blum says. “This was a way I could pay that back.”

Having spent his childhood in the mountains of North Carolina, Blum is a long-time fan of bluegrass music. When he finds the time, he unwinds by playing the harmonica, often with an audience of just one: Baron, his Bernese Mountain Dog. “My wife and kids have stopped listening, but that’s OK,” he laughs. “The music takes me to a simpler place and keeps me grounded.

“There’s a lot of complexity in what we do at Cytokinetics,” adds Blum, who says the urgency to “make a dent in the suffering of our patient community” is intense. “The patients we see are heroic in their courage and perseverance, and their stories propel our convictions and the commitments we display in the work we do every day.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1991, Section E

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