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Trial by Fire

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

When Rahul Singhvi, ScD, MBA, successfully steered a public company through serious financial straits, he learned some invaluable lessons about starting and running new business ventures.

UMB advisor Rahul Singhvi’s journey as a biotech entrepreneur began in middle management at a big pharmaceutical company. It wasn’t because he got a high-profile project that catapulted his career: in fact, it was something quite the opposite. As a newly-minted ScD from MIT, he landed a job in 1994 with Merck overseeing vaccine process development. He took over project leadership of Merck’s varicella zoster vaccine development program.  Because the project was strewn with problems, most didn’t want to associate themselves with it. Growing up in India where resources are often scarce, Dr. Singhvi was undeterred. “It was a messy problem that needed a creative person to come in and solve, and that played to my strengths.”

Years later, Dr. Singhvi came up against a different beast altogether. He joined Novavax, Inc. as a VP of Manufacturing and after 17 months, found himself in the corner office. Landing a CEO spot with a public company before the age of 40 should have been a happy occasion, except for the fact that Novavax was in a precarious financial position. The company had $5 million in cash, a burn rate of $2 million a month, and 90 people on payroll. “It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was going to go down very fast,” Dr. Singhvi says.

 He dug his heels in and did the thankless job of executing a plan for survival. It required cutting the workforce from 90 to 38 in his first week as CEO, and imploring the company’s creditors and vendors to give Novavax time to pay off bills. Dr. Singhvi and his team analyzed the product portfolio and decided to out license the company’s one marketed product for $10 million. “The world didn’t really need one more estrogen drug,” he says of the product. They set their sights instead on the company’s pre-clinical vaccine technology for pandemic influenza. There was no time to obsess about the merits of each step along the way: “We had to do what we had to do,” Dr. Singhvi recalls.

 He also had to, humbly, undertake a crash course in finance: “I was a rookie CEO, and I knew nothing about raising money.” A board member took him by the hand and taught him how the markets worked. Less than a year into the turnaround scheme, Novavax had raised $78 million, the company’s stock price had gone up from 70 cents to $6 a share and Dr. Singhvi was appearing as a guest on CNBC’s Squawk Box. The first-time CEO had definitely earned his stripes.

 If there’s one thing that Dr. Singhvi can teach others about entrepreneurship, it’s this: how to be scrappy. An entrepreneur never has all the answers or resources needed, he says, but it’s important to get started anyway. “Take the approach that you will sort it out as you go and have the courage to do that.”

 This is the kind of straight-shooting advice that he brings to his role as an advisor at UM Ventures. Upon taking on an Entrepreneur-in-Residence role at UMB in 2012, he was excited about his exposure to cutting-edge medical science outside of vaccines. Today, the work also informs his day job as Chief Operating Officer at Takeda Vaccines Inc., a startup operation within Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

When the scientists he advises are able to bring an idea into a bona fide startup, it’s icing on the cake. He helped conceive Serenta Biotech in 2013, which involved licensing vaccine technology from UMB to apply against deadly infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. The company launched in 2017 under a strong management team. 

 “I get to see where the science is going and if I can help the scientists at the same time, it’s a win-win,” he explains. He emphasizes relationship building when advising faculty inventors at UMB. “Inventors should be aware of their limitations and the need to bring others into the fray to create the balance needed to commercialize a technology,” he says.

 Dr. Singhvi is thoughtful about what entrepreneurship means to him; it is bigger than creating something new and exciting. “It’s easy to fall in love with your technology, but we should think from the outside. What does the world need, and how can I use my technology to help?”  This rubric was useful at Novavax, when he decided to pivot the company toward vaccines.

Dr. Singhvi became a vaccine expert by happenstance. Now, he says he’s grateful that he’s had the opportunity to work on products with such wide-reaching impact on human health.

“Being an entrepreneur is not a job, but a certain mindset,” he says. “It’s someone who is keenly interested in being a problem solver for a purpose.”