Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Alcide Barberis

Dr. Alcide Barberis is a biotech entrepreneur, Board member and executive with over 20 years of management experience in the biotechnology industry and scientific experience in the private and public research sectors. He is currently CEO & Director of Mabylon AG and was previously CEO & President of Humabs BioMed, now a subsidiary of VIR Biotechnology.

His career includes entrepreneurial startups (co-founder of ESBATech AG and Oncalis AG), executive management, R&D management and business development. Dr. Barberis has been member of the Board of Directors of ESBATech and is currently member of the Board of Directors of EffRx Pharmaceuticals, in addition to being the owner of LCID Consulting LLC. At the USI Startup Centre, a service provided by the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI), he manages the incubator for startups. Dr. Barberis holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from the University of Zürich.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with Alcide Barberis

Tell us more about Mabylon.

Mabylon was spun out from ImmunoQure AG in 2015 to focus on projects spawned from the research of Prof. Adriano Aguzzi and his colleagues at the University of Zurich (UZH) and the University Hospital of Zurich (USZ). 

We are a preclinical-stage company exploiting the therapeutic potential of naturally occurring human antibodies to treat allergies and neurodegenerative diseases. Human antibodies that are selected and matured within the human immune system are unique and have superior therapeutic potential compared to antibodies generated by other methods such as animal models or artificial libraries.

To identify extremely rare human antibodies, we screen up to 100’000 human serum samples a year for the presence of antibodies directed against any target that we choose. Through the collaboration with UZH, we have access to the “leftovers” of diagnostics blood samples of patients that went through the University Hospital (upon signing an informed consent) to detect the potential presence of antibodies against the preselected targets. 

Tell us more about your role.

I’ve been hired as a CEO in 2017, bringing some experience that I have gathered in antibody and business development from my previous companies. Now we are a team of 17 people. Mabylon was essentially a research-stage company in 2017, and I think that I’ve helped it become more focused and driven by development goals to have products that can be taken into clinical development. The strategy is to develop products up to a stage that will trigger the interest of pharma or biotech companies for partnership deals. In line with this strategy, we have just signed a licence and collaboration agreement a few months ago for one of our programs.

Can you share some highlights in your career? 

I didn’t have much planning in my career development. Perhaps because I grew up in a humble family in a small village in the heart of the mountains in southern Switzerland. Like other kids in the village, I enjoyed hiking and climbing but not necessarily as a professional climber with a plan to get to the top of Everest – I just wanted to see what’s on the other side of a hilltop. And then you see another hill and you go a little further, you go a little higher. This is how I’ve done it for my career as well. 

Originally, I went to a teachers’ training school to become a teacher. Finding biology to be very interesting, I then decided to study biology at the university with the idea of becoming a high school biology teacher. I later developed a passion for research and was early gratified by the fact that the results of my diploma work were published in a high-ranking journal. So, I decided to continue my research activity as a PhD student at the Institute of Molecular Biology of the University of Zurich, with a focus on gene regulation.

After my PhD and subsequent postdoc at Harvard, I came back to Zurich as lecturer and research group leader. A number of occasional meetings with people from pharma and investment funds helped me to realise that in my research group we had developed a cell-based technology that could also be applied to drug discovery, which had become a very hot topic at that time. Together with two colleagues, we decided to look at this opportunity and we got very much encouraged by experienced people in the field that we met at the first business plan competition organised by the ETH and McKinsey in 1998 (“Venture ‘98”). We had the opportunity to meet advisors, pharma experts, venture fund investors and industrial guys. 

After Venture ’98, we decided to found a company called ESBATech. We managed to get started with revenues generated by a collaboration with Roche, thus without a classical venture fund investment. And then we moved on to become, after several investments and years of R&D and business development activities, a clinical-stage company, which was later sold in 2009. It was a successful story. 

I’ve also experienced a so-called failure. It was a spin-off that we created in 2006 from ESBATech, which was called Oncalis. The spin-off did not succeed in reaching its goals in due time and the company had to be eventually liquidated. There might be several reasons for this failure, but I consider the most relevant to be the classical “good idea at the wrong time”. The powerful technology that had been established for drug discovery at ESBAtech and further developed at Oncalis was in 2007-2008 no longer sufficiently attractive to justify an acquisition by pharma companies. Indeed, drug discovery in general had quickly lost momentum and attractiveness after 2006 and the financial crisis of 2008 gave the “coup de grace” to the already negative situation. It was a failure, but a very important one as a learning lesson. 

What is your view on failure? 

Failure is what you need to learn to seriously go ahead, to move forward and to find your way; we shouldn’t be afraid of failures, and this basic message is what I try to pass on to young entrepreneurs. Indeed, another part of my workweek is spent in Lugano at Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI), where I support the USI Startup Centre. Here we essentially help and coach startups of all kinds to set up their companies and get started as soon as possible. One of the important messages that we try to convey is really “don’t be afraid of failure and don’t be afraid of taking risks”. Just do it and try it with hard work, commitment, and flexibility. 

What other advice do you normally give to these startups?

There are some key points that are very common to all types of startups in all kinds of technology areas and business models. One of it is the quality of the team – if you are alone with the idea at the beginning, try to get partners and colleagues of great quality with a good network and complementarity. And then, of course, the commitment and dedication that you have to put in without counting hours and salaries right up front. And as I said, be willing to take risks and don’t be afraid of failure – be ready to discard ideas or projects that are going nowhere and move on; you must be able to abandon some pet projects that you might be in love with if they become a burden to the company development. Always try to be consistent, coherent, and realistic when moving on to the next step or avenue. 

Can you share a highlight?

An important highlight in my career was certainly the very beginning of the ESBATech story, thus deciding to move from academic research to applied research, and actually deciding to found the company. My attitude of moving forward step by step and following the interest and intuition of the moment surely facilitated that decision.

I’ve been constantly working with good people, and I have also been responsible for hiring good people. That was already happening before becoming an entrepreneur, when I was a lecturer and group leader at the university building a lively research team by attracting and selecting motivated students. That’s what I’ve been doing since.

How do you find good people?

You must keep your eyes and ears open. You need good connections and know the track record of these people. And if possible, with more experience that comes with age and the growth of a network, you might also know their references or referees. You can call them up and check with them the person that you’re planning to hire. I usually have the sense for a good person and if it is confirmed by a reference the check-up is complete. Network and trusted connections are essential. 

What drives you? 

Well, for the company, it’s the development of better therapeutic drugs, thus making a difference in addressing medical needs. And then, of course, being in a very interesting and vibrant environment together with excellent people, both professionally and personally. 

In the case of the USI Startup Centre, it’s meeting very interesting, mostly young “startuppers” with perhaps crazy ideas, but with great enthusiasm and good potential. We never judge the idea and never make our selection based on what we think might work or not. The selection occurs “naturally” and is based on their commitment and hard work. Companies that sustain all the requirements that we ask for are usually those that will be successful at the end. Then, failure can always come from external reasons that are independent of education or commitment.

Best and worst part of being a CEO. 

Best part is when you see that you can help or give something to the team and to the company based on experience or on intuitions that you have learned to appreciate after years of work in this business. You’re probably not going to be a great CEO at the age of 20 just coming out of college, right? You need some experience and track record to become a CEO. 

And, of course, you have your responsibilities. But I wouldn’t call it “worst part”. You must take them very seriously and sometimes they might give you sleepless nights. After many years of experience, when you face some difficult situations it’s almost never a truly bad situation – it’s just difficult, and you simply have to solve it. 

Can you share some of the biggest challenges you face in your career? 

Deciding to drop a project and move on to the next by fully focusing on the next project and totally abandoning the other one. It’s a challenge, because you know what you are leaving but you don’t know what you’re really getting into. It’s pretty much like what I was saying at the beginning – while climbing a mountain, at some point you might need to quit the planned path and take a new one; in that moment you don’t know whether this is a good decision. You will only know it later, perhaps even much later.

Do you hire for attitude more than skill? 

Both, of course. I mean, it really depends on the role performed or the job description. But attitude and personality are something that I really carefully evaluate in any case, even if we are talking about a technician or a research associate. The ability to be a team player, to really fit into the team is absolutely important. 

How do you judge this? What kinds of questions do you ask in an interview? 

It varies a lot depending on who is there, their experience and the job description. Certainly, the common questions are regarding the future within the context of our company, such as “how do you think you can make a difference and contribute?”, “how do you work together with people?”, “what is your experience in case of difficulties in terms of relationships?”, etc. 

What are your hopes for Mabylon?

We have just closed an important financing round. As already mentioned, we’ve signed a licence and collaboration deal a few months ago for one of our programs with a company that has great experience in drug development. The perspective is to advance additional Mabylon’s programs and to close a second and perhaps a third partnering deal. As with many other biotech companies, so-called exit strategies (return on investment) depend on the opportunities that will come up along with R&D results. 

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