Meet Viraj Mane. He spends most waking hours building out Lactiga: a venture-backed, NIH-funded biotech startup to advance novel biologics with multiple anti-infective applications, including COVID-19 treatment, to protect patients with immunodeficiencies.
This work was inspired by becoming a parent, and he’s executing on a vision that resonates with mothers and midwives just as much as investors and business partners. He is a 5x patent holder.
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Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Viraj Mane: The origin story for Lactiga, the company I co-founded, was my becoming a parent. I noticed these pouches of human milk (breastmilk) start to accumulate in the freezer because mom was pumping late at night, at work, etc., and needed to store them. I began thinking about how many other families must have extra milk, which prompted me to research milk banks. These are a network of over 700 nonprofit organizations that collect milk generously donated by moms, so the milk can be pooled, pasteurized, and provided as nutrition for medically fragile babies.
As a Ph.D. researcher who studied immunology, virology, and genetics, I felt there had to be a scientific and clinical way to deliver the immunological benefits of human milk antibodies to immunodeficient patients who don’t produce enough of their own. I serendipitously met a conference of midwives who work exclusively with lactating mothers, so I asked their opinion about this concept. They were so enthusiastic that I knew I was on to something big.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Viraj Mane: Just to start with: unless you have a high-risk tolerance for mental/emotional stress, financial insecurity, etc., then entrepreneurship may not be a good choice for you.
I had been building small pieces of Lactiga since 2017, but only on a nights and weekends basis. It definitely complicated my personal life but I was motivated to keep at it. In 2019 I experienced a layoff from a good job with great benefits, and I had to make a big decision: find a similar job, or switch full time to Lactiga with no pay. It was a really complicated time in my life to take that kind of gamble, but I knew I had to show my own commitment to Lactiga before we could ever expect outsiders to invest in us. Around this time my personal circumstances got even more challenging and I really questioned whether I could manage my family obligations and still advance Lactiga. Thankfully I recognized that I could be really time-efficient and do both, and do them well.
That brings us to early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down and the idea of raising private investment, from teams we could not even meet in person, seemed impossible. So we refocused on how we could create value and show traction in the leanest possible way. We were fortunate to have the type of partners that understood our early-stage and our lack of capital but still contributed their time, resources, and expertise to help us build out key datasets and relationships. And our willingness to consistently create value, without venture capital, is what ultimately brought investors to make financial commitments toward our vision.
Although it may sound obvious, having a truly transformative vision doesn’t count for much unless you have the resilience to keep executing on that vision.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. What’s the worst advice you received?
Viraj Mane: Our technology is designed to bring a novel anti-infective into clinical practice to protect vulnerable patients. Obviously, the drug development pathway is long, arduous, and expensive because there are no shortcuts when it comes to ensuring safety and efficacy for patients. For that reason, many investors have stated that we should instead be pursuing a premium health supplement market strategy because they claim it’s much easier and faster to generate revenue.
While that’s true as a general statement, it doesn’t account for our unique supply relationship with milk banks, which are a tight-knit community of mission-driven nonprofit organizations that serve medically fragile babies. For this audience of potential suppliers, we knew that our proposal needed to clarify the benefit to immunodeficient patients with an urgent medical need. Selling a vision of getting rich by selling to vitamin enthusiasts was not going to work with this nonprofit community. Thankfully, we stuck to our clinical development roadmap and this is what earned buy-in from milk banks, researchers, and rare disease patient foundations.
The lesson from this is that outsiders may have much deeper industry knowledge than you, and you should probably take time to listen to their advice. But when it comes to your own company, think about what principles you cannot or should not compromise on, because your principles may become your key differentiator.
Is there a particular podcast you listened to, or business thought leader that you find helpful while maneuvering this pandemic?
Viraj Mane: Well, I’m probably not like the typical interviewee in Valiant CEO Magazine because I have zero formal business training — most of my education was in the sciences. The business fundamentals I understand at this point are because of great incubators, online courses, even candid blog entries, and social media posts.
And so I don’t necessarily draw my inspiration from business leaders but I can point to organizations like Trader Joe’s, Patagonia, and Costco that demonstrate fair pay for employees, environmentally and socially responsible practices, and genuine benefit to their customers without cutting corners on quality. I appreciate them taking a stand against some core assumptions of the business ecosystem like the supposed need for low pay, reduced worker benefits, and exploitative tax practices.
Similarly, I hope that the business and pharmaceutical communities come to recognize Lactiga as a top-quality organization that builds transparency and clinical value through research engagements, highly credentialed partners, and genuine support from key stakeholders such as patients and patient advocacy groups. If we achieve this then we will have made our own case for ethical and genuine leadership.
When you think of your company, 5 years from now, what do you see?
Viraj Mane: I expect Lactiga to be advancing several preclinical and clinical programs in 5 years. In the beginning, we recognized we didn’t have much value or leverage within the company, and so our short-term goal was to develop an asset to a stage where it could be sold to a much bigger company — and that path might have restricted us to being a small, preclinical-stage firm. But as we’ve grown the company and understood our own potential, we’ve become motivated to build out our own biotechnology product platform to support patients around the world that suffer from recurrent mucosal infections. While our preliminary clinical indications are tied to rare diseases with smaller patient numbers, expansion of our platform will ultimately deliver benefits to tens of millions of patients worldwide.
In a sense, I actually hope that patients don’t pay much attention to Lactiga in 5 years, because if we are successful then patients will be focusing on their own aspirations and won’t need to stress about medications, hospitals, and pharma companies.
30 years ago, antiretrovirals transformed outcomes for HIV patients. 70 years ago, intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) transformed outcomes for patients with primary immunodeficiencies. I believe we can be the next source of medical transformation.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?
Viraj Mane: My answer would be:
- Humility – In the beginning, we were not experts in any of the domains related to Lactiga. And that meant we had to learn from the people that had the kinds of experiences we did not have. This included mothers, midwives, physicians, researchers, investors, manufacturers, and many more. Approaching all of them with humility and a desire to listen has created immeasurable value to us. And now I think people can see that we’ve taken the time to do the homework and ask the right questions of the right people, which has made our institutional knowledge a tremendous competitive advantage.
- Curiosity – We recognized that we had to be knowledgeable in domains as diverse as nonprofit milk bank operations to pharma sector market incentives for rare diseases and novel biologics. My top advice to young leaders is to leverage the virtually unlimited knowledge base available online for free to educate yourself on every topic you can think of. Taking the time to read and absorb the knowledge yourself means that you don’t have to depend on someone else to provide the answer during a critical discussion.
- Reliability – One key element we try to focus on is delivering for our partners on time. That’s true for quick confidentiality agreements that we can turn around in a day, as well as complex transactions with major financial implications involving our legal team. Interpreting a requirement and knowing how long it will take to respond, is its own skillset. But it’s a skill worth developing because I’ve seen that understanding and respecting our partners’ schedules makes them that much more responsive to us.
Being a CEO of the company, do you think that your personal brand reflects your company’s values?
Viraj Mane: Because Lactiga is an early-stage company with a small founding team, the company’s values are absolutely a reflection of our personal brand. In fact, our investors have told us they understand the company is still in a period of high risk but they were willing to take a chance on our personal track record, credentials, and work ethic.
In addition, I’ve been fortunate to secure interviews from 3 top-tier news organizations so I am definitely becoming the “face” of the company, for better or worse. While the positive attention is certainly nice, it also means that my personal behaviors and successes reflect directly on the company, which is a lot of responsibility to take on. Nevertheless, I take this as an opportunity to show Lactiga’s future employees and partners that the company is driven by science, medicine, and the values of its founders. That is the example we can set to make sure that success for Lactiga and success for patients are tied closely together.
How would you define “leadership”?
Viraj Mane: Because we’re still a small company, I’m extremely hands-on with daily operations. So when the time comes to delegate, I like my colleagues to know that I’m trusting them with something important but I’m ready to roll up my own sleeves to work alongside them, if needed.
Mark Cuban expressed an interesting philosophy on building a championship basketball team: he said it was his responsibility to ‘set the players up for success. So if they didn’t succeed, that was as much a reflection on him as it was on them. That makes sense to me: if you’re providing the resources and support your team needs, then they have every reason to succeed. Some industries train their new employees with more of a ‘sink or swim’ method because they want you to figure it out yourself. Maybe sometimes that’s the right play but if it’s not done well it could lead to burn-out or resentment, and I don’t ever want to be the cause of that.
Do you think entrepreneurship is something that you’re born with or something that you can learn along the way?
Viraj Mane: Entrepreneurship is absolutely something that can be learned, I’m proof of that. At its simplest, I think entrepreneurship is simply a fancy word for self-education and self-discovery. The self-education part is straightforward: can you learn about a technology, an industry, or a problem in sufficient detail to develop your own solution? It can be boiled down to a simple Yes or No.
The self-discovery part is much trickier: Do you define your career by your title? Do you need to earn more than your neighbors? Do you need the yearly luxury vacation, the nice car, the second house? Because what I’ve seen is that if you’re chasing those traditional markers of success, you probably need a traditional job. I often hear professionals with a long corporate track record talk about a venture they’ve been kicking around, but they’ve never taken the plunge to truly build it out because they can’t or won’t leave their comfortable life. That’s a perfectly sensible decision, I get it. But that’s not the type of risk profile that lets you succeed in the world of entrepreneurship, where you chase success but you own all the failures along the way.
My firefighter friends told me about the mentality you need to lead a team into a fire. Lives are on the line, every time, and you are depending on each other to make it out alive. That means you need to be all-in, not half-in. If you truly want this, you better be All In.
What’s your favorite “business” quote and how has it affected your business decisions?
Viraj Mane: Well, it’s definitely not my favorite quote, but I think a really impactful phrase (unfortunately) has been “Move fast and break things”, which has come to embody the whole Silicon Valley culture. I think its original intent was a good one: to encourage agility and disruption to outcompete those corporations that had fallen into stagnation and arrogance. But the phrase has been applied carelessly and has become an excuse for shortsighted and unethical decision-making. We celebrate the formation of unicorn and decacorn companies but then we act surprised when their growth-at-any-cost strategies impact people that didn’t understand the consequences (and may never have consented to them).
We’re due for a reset of this mentality, a return to the expectation for business leaders to proactively deliberate the ethical considerations of their work, rather than depending on lawmakers or the public to chastise them into good behavior after the damage is already done.
Let’s call it “Move Slow and Fix Things”.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Viraj Mane for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Viraj Mane or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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