Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Thomas Mehrling

Thomas Mehrling, MD, PhD is the Founder and CEO of Laevoroc Oncology AG. He was the previous CEO of Mundipharma EDO and has over 20 years of experience in oncology drug development.

A board certified physician who holds a medical doctor degree of the University of Frankfurt, having worked in cardiology, haematology/oncology and paediatric oncology. He is also a board certified pharmacologist and earlier obtained his PhD in pharmacological science from the same university. 

Today, Thomas continues to impact the lives of cancer patients via innovation in cancer therapeutics and oncology drug development. 

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with Thomas Mehrling

Tell us more about Laevoroc and why did you decide to found the firm.

When I left MundiPharma in 2019, I started to think about what to do next. My last endeavour at MundiPharma was to set up an early-stage development company for oncology in Basel. We did this from 2012 till 2019 quite successfully and had four assets under development.

Upon leaving MundiPharma I decided to start Laevoroc here in Zug thanks to some previous research that I could draw on and some good friends who transferred new development projects to me. We very quickly had a portfolio of three new assets that we could develop.

In the first two years, we had to sort ourselves out, generate more data, make sure that the assets belonged to us and get our story right. We started to collaborate with a few academic institutions who were willing to help us to profile agents better.

Since March 2021, we are now fundraising. We were able to raise seed funding of roughly $1.1 million that helped us to get everything in place and present ourselves to investors.

Where does the name Laevoroc come from?

Laevoroc stems from the words ‘Leverage’ and ‘Rock’. We leverage the newest technologies in our compounds and our development. We also leverage our experience and our know-how. ‘Rock’ is from the term ‘rock solid’, where we believe in doing things in a solid way.

Where does this entrepreneurial drive come from?

It is all about the mindset. I had done some consulting work for Roche at the start of founding Laevoroc. Roche is a big company here in Basel with 12,000 employees and more than 90,000 worldwide. There’s a difference in the way they work.

Roche is a fantastic company with an amazing pipeline. The compounds that they have launched to market and the way they are helping patients are nothing short of amazing.

One of the major drivers behind that is curiosity and an ongoing process of learning. With every project, you see something else, you’re getting into a different area, setting and requirement related to the indications that you’re working on.

However, while they still try to be lean, active and fast, this cannot be compared to how small companies work.

Tell us more about your different target indications.

We have three programmes, and they are in areas of very high unmet medical needs. Our centrally active ATR inhibitor is for brain cancer. Brain cancer did not enjoy innovations in the past 20 years –the standard of care is still the same.

That also means that patient outcomes are the same, where the overall median survival is still 15 months because very few therapies can be used to treat brain cancer. However, we have one that looks extremely promising.

We have a very good collaboration with US institutions, like MD Anderson Cancer Center and there is a substantial level of excitement about the data that we were able to generate. We will publish our first data set at the forthcoming Society of Neuro-Oncology meeting in the United States.

The other area we’re working in is acute leukaemia. For most types of acute leukaemia, patients need to have a stem cell transplantation (also known as bone marrow transplantation) for a curative option. Chemotherapy and other therapies just don’t cure most types of acute leukaemia. However, more than 50% of the patients still experienced a relapse after transplantation, and their options become very limited afterwards.

Our agent is a very particular one. It is like a metabolic immune checkpoint inhibitor, and it drives the immune system from the graft and bone marrow that the patient received to eradicate leukaemia. We see long-term remissions in a small set of patients who were treated and even cured.

This is a very drastic improvement and a game changer, which could potentially be the new standard of care. It is also extremely tolerable.

What are the key lessons that you’ve learnt over the years?

The 19 years I spent at MundiPharma was fantastic particularly because I could move from one position to the next and there was no stagnation. I started in business development, and then launched the first oncology product and set up the entire oncology business for Europe which was very exciting.

One of the major problems in big companies is people working in silos. Sometimes, you find yourself more engaged with trying to make the work organisation and work style better rather than looking after your own people in the programme.

There was a time at MundiPharma where I spent most of my time in meetings, trying to bring people together – to motivate people to contribute, to talk to other people and to also ask for assistance.

When I moved from Cambridge to Basel for MundiPharma and set up this new development company where we developed these four assets, things became very different. We were basically around 10 or 15 people. You sit together, talk about a problem, figure out the best solution and you could execute the next day. There isn’t really a lot of politics and need for tedious team building.

We still did team building but they were very easy to do. Sometimes you can just meet for coffee and have a nice chat or so. There is this closeness and intimacy when you work with a fairly well-selected group of people that fit in. For me, it’s the best way of working, having fun and producing results. The other thing is this way, you get to keep moving as you don’t get stuck if other people are not moving.

As a leader, how have you managed to tackle that? How do you get people to be more motivated and get things done?

In my experience, you need to get involved and really take your time to listen to what they are doing. They need to feel that you’re passionate about it and that you’re interested. People sense these things.

I was once asked “what do you think is the best way to lead people?” and the answer I gave was to lead the way that I want to be led. I want to be heard by my bosses so that they can listen to my thinking and reasoning.

And also, to ask questions like “how can I help you to move on?” or “what can I do to make you more successful?”. It is also important to provide recognition and rewards so that they can enjoy success and understand that we are pulling on the same end of the rope as a team.

Can you share more about your current fundraising efforts?

This takes more than 90% of my time at the moment. Since March 2021 we have now been at two conferences, and another one is forthcoming where investors meet entrepreneurs. This is a bit of a new world for me.

During my time at MundiPharma, we had only one investor and that was the family that owned the company. We had board meetings across the year and if there was a change in the project or you wanted to add something, we would just speak to the family. Usually, if it was reasonable, you would get the funding.

Right now, the investors’ world is a lot tougher. I’ve been learning that there is money and plenty of it flowing into biotech companies in Switzerland. 2020 was the best year ever, with the highest number of newly created companies and record funding. This was probably also driven by the success of the Covid companies in vaccines.

Many investors mentioned that they have very clear views about investing, and there are things that they do and things that they will never do. I’m still learning about what investors are after by finding out what criteria are the most important for them. We’re now getting closer with a few investors and hope that in the next two months or so we will have our first financing transaction closed.

We aim to raise $32 million across three projects in an asset-centric way, similar to a company called Centessa which has recently done an IPO very successfully. We have placed each asset into a separate company under a holding company. Investors can pick and choose specific programmes that they prefer or invest into the holding company if they see great value in the entire portfolio.

Best and worst part of being a CEO?

The best part is the exciting bit, where you are the master of your own fate. You are leading these projects and making decisions daily. There are of course, the other part of having a lot of responsibilities, to those people who have been funding us such as private friends and family who believed in us, and also to investors in the free market.

We have to obviously achieve our goals, and this takes effort and working hours. However, the reward is there.

What is your hope for the company?

We need financing to get into the clinic next year so that’s really where my eye is on right now. I’m focused on bringing at least 2 projects into the clinic. We really want to start the phase one trials and see all our work pay off.

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