Cyriac Roeding is the CEO and cofounder of Earli. Cyriac was a pioneer in mobile technologies who cofounded two companies in the sector and helped CBS establish its mobile division. Cyriac brings decades of experience as a consumer tech entrepreneur, leader, and investor to his role at Earli. He has invested in or advised companies working on technologies ranging from CRISPR to brain-machine interfaces, but Earli is the first biotech startup he has helmed as CEO. During this executive interview, Cyriac offered his thoughts on how he’s applying lessons from software development to building a biotech company, his approach to leadership, and much more.
YOU FREQUENTLY POINT OUT THAT YOU’RE ONE OF THE FEW NON-SCIENTISTS AT EARLI. HOW DID YOU END UP FOUNDING A BIOTECH COMPANY WORKING ON ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN MEDICINE?
I'm keenly aware of the fact that I’m not bringing experience in biology to the party. I don’t have lab experience or experience bringing a clinical product to market. What I do bring is a love for science and a love of creating. I love building companies and I love building teams. I love building products that are truly important to a lot of people.
That's perhaps the biggest differentiator between what I did before and what I do now. Before, I made products that were important to some people, but not truly important to many people. Now I’m working on products that could be life changing to many people if they work. Who doesn't know someone who has been affected by cancer?
This may sound contrived but it’s true: I’m not a morning person, so sometimes when I’m lying in my bed in the morning I say to myself, “Great, already time to get out of bed.” But then I remind myself, “Ok, let’s work on finding cancer early.” And that is motivating to me at a very deep level.
YOU’VE COFOUNDED AND LED SEVERAL SUCCESSFUL CONSUMER TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES IN THE PAST. HOW ARE YOU APPLYING THAT EXPERIENCE FROM THE TECH WORLD AT EARLI?
It’s about speed: iterating faster and parallelizing as much as we can. The idea is to build a product by modularizing it and working on multiple things at the same time. This massive parallelization is a well-known approach in the tech world. I use an image in my head of us sailing really hard on the wind in a team regatta, with multiple boats. The trick is that in this regatta, all the sailboats need to converge at the finish line at the exact same time and in the same place to make this work. So we’re taking higher risks. But by taking these risks we also are potentially speeding up the process dramatically. Earli is broken up into four main technology elements, and we are constantly iterating on all four elements at the same time. We’re not looking for the next small molecule to cure cancer and finding out after spending $1B whether it works or not. I have a lot of respect for the big companies that do that, but that’s not my type of thing. At Earli, we rather iterate like engineers do, which is why we call ourselves a bioengineering firm instead of a biotech firm. We bring together people that don’t traditionally interact at other companies like biologists, chemists, engineers, and computer scientists. Earli is where the wet lab meets the dry lab.
WHY DO BIOTECH COMPANIES GET STUCK IN PRECLINICAL DEVELOPMENT?
As an outsider looking at biology and healthcare, one of the things that has always struck me is whenever I’d read an article about a scientific breakthrough in medicine, the last sentence inevitably ends with, “...and it will take at least 9 or 10 years until it will be tested in humans,” let alone be available to humans. And you look at it and ask yourself, “What in the world are they going to do for the next 9 years if they’ve already shown it works?” Of course there are really good reasons. You don’t want human patients to die along the way. But at the same time, it is not only because of that risk that biotech startups often have a hard time moving beyond mice. You can always do better by doing another mouse experiment. You might learn something new, but you're also delaying your clinical trial again. The joke is if you ask a biotech startup when their technology will be in humans the answer will be, “in two years.” Two years later, you come back and ask when they’ll be in humans, the answer will be, “in two years.” It's a moving target. We call that “the mousetrap.”
When Earli started, we presented our technology to investors and said we don’t want to get stuck in the mouse trap, we want to be in humans within three years from founding the company. And the investors just looked at us kindly, perhaps with a bit of pity, and chuckled knowingly. They’d heard that before.
HOW DID EARLI MANAGE TO AVOID THE MOUSETRAP WHEN SO MANY OTHER COMPANIES GET STUCK?
The first thing David Suhy, Sam Gambhir, and I did when we started the company was that we looked at the timeline and gave ourselves three years to get to a human trial. We started reverse engineering what we would need to do to actually make that happen and identified the key factors that would cause us to not make this timeline and made plans for them.
There were two main elements that required a deeper look for the clinical timeline: One was the regulatory approval and clinical partner timelines. It can take 9-18 months in the U.S. to get regulatory and clinical approval to start a Phase 1 trial. That can mean half of the entire three years already. What if you could do it in 3-6 months, and not just once, but for every future Phase 1 trial again? Think of the acceleration and lower costs. So we traveled to China and the Netherlands. Then we looked at Australia. Australia has extremely skilled facilities, 15 million people in a few metropolitan hubs, and a regulatory approval system that happens at the local level instead of the federal level. That would shave 9-12 months off the timeline. We created a wholly owned subsidiary of Earli in Australia and partnered with two of the three largest cancer centers in the country for our first clinical trial. Covid did cause some delays in Australia, to be fair, but that would have happened here on top of the usual timelines too.
SO HAVE YOU ACTUALLY LAUNCHED THE CLINICAL TRIAL?
We received full clinical trial approval on April 27, 2021, and dosed our first patient on June 27, 2021. Earli was founded on June 13, 2018. It took 3 years and 2 weeks, including five months of Covid delays. It’s exciting and rewarding for the whole team to defy the odds.
EARLI WASN’T JUST TESTING ITS TECHNOLOGY IN MICE. BEFORE PURSUING A CLINICAL TRIAL YOU ALSO TESTED SYNTHETIC BIOPSIES IN DOGS. WHY ARE CANINE TRIALS IMPORTANT?
Most companies go from mice to humans. The question of course is how to do it quickly and safely. We thought that it’s a huge jump and a big risk. Mice weigh 30 grams, they’re often immunocompromised, and they’re injected with immortal cancer cell lines. Lab mice don’t have spontaneous cancers like humans. It’s a very artificial model.
Dogs, by contrast, have a body mass between 15 and 60 kilograms. That is 500 to 2000 times the body mass of mice. But dogs and humans only differ in weight by a factor of 2 to 9 and six millions of dogs develop cancer spontaneously in the US each year. So we started working with UC Davis, one of the best veterinarian clinics in the country treating canine cancer patients. We dosed our first canine cancer patient last year in September.
The night before last Thanksgiving, we received the first data for seven dogs. The cancer signal was clear, nicely transient, and rose with the dose as expected. The control group had no significant signal. Data from seven dogs is worth more to investors than data from the previous 2,000 mice. It was such a massive step. And by de-risking our compound by going into dogs, we accelerated the entire process of going beyond mice into large bodies and towards the clinic.
EARLI IS BACKED BY A VERY IMPRESSIVE TEAM OF INVESTORS - A16Z, KHOSLA, PERCEPTIVE, CASDIN, MARC BENIOFF, SANDS CAPITAL, MENLO VENTURES, ZHENFUND - WHO HAVE SUPPORTED THE COMPANY WITH MORE THAN $60 MILLION BETWEEN YOUR SEED AND SERIES A. HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THESE INVESTORS?
Their experience, network, and signal strength to future investors are critical. But when you pick investors, you’re also implicitly picking at least some board members. And what makes a great board member is a rather counterintuitive combination of a cheerleader and a challenger. Most often, you get one of the two. Somebody who is only a cheerleader is nice and entertaining, but not useful. Someone who is only a challenger is basically a curmudgeon sitting in the corner disputing everything with no passion for the company.
So a great board member is in some ways like a good parent. As a parent, you're always challenging your kids, but that’s because you love them. You're invested in their success. I like to pick investors who are deeply committed to our cause, enthralled by the potential, and rooting for our success, but who are very challenging as well. They need to push us at the right moments, with good questions, good ideas, or good suggestions.
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO TEAM BUILDING AT EARLI?
The key element is recruiting individually brilliant people. When I say individually brilliant, I don't mean very good. I mean 10x very good. The outliers. You can find outliers in any job. It’s true for baristas, artists, accountants, entrepreneurs, or scientists. There are always a few rare people who are outliers. Now, the problem is that it is usually tough to get individually brilliant people to work together. When put together in a room, they tend to kill each other. That’s where the company’s values come in.
WHAT ARE EARLI’S VALUES?
There are a set of core values that we're quite inflexible about. At the highest level, that is integrity combined with honesty. Integrity means you do what you say and you say what you do. Your words and your actions are congruent. Of course, a liar could have integrity if they act on the lies they tell, but if you combine integrity with honesty that is a really powerful combination. It’s hard to execute consistently in practice, every day. It takes conviction.
Another core value is transparency. We share as much as we possibly can with the team because “information participation” is empowering. We also want our team to have high aspirations and a change-the-world attitude. Since we are spending 100% of our available energy on what we do anyway, we might as well spend it on something that truly matters. That needs to be paired with a can-do attitude. We do whatever it takes to make Earli successful, as long as it's within our other values. The final core value is that we work hard and play hard. That does not mean we're party people. It means that our “journey of work” should be enjoyable. What we do is not easy. In fact, it's hard. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be joyful. In fact, hard problems are exciting. So working on a solution to a hard problem that truly matters to a lot of people, with an amazing team of colleagues who share the mission, is incredibly fulfilling.
HOW DOES WORKING ON CANCER AT A COMPANY DIFFER FROM WORKING ON IT IN AN ACADEMIC LAB?
We have a natural urgency driving us toward commercialization. Commercialization doesn’t only mean “making money.” What it really means is “helping patients.” That is our fundamental driver. Our need for financing forces us to think in shorter timeframes and to produce substantial milestones consistently to get to this first patient and extend their life. For some people joining us from academia, the fast-paced and very goal-oriented environment can be somewhat shocking—and also very refreshing. Their ideas will actually see the light of day in the clinic. The whole private sector is built around the concept of getting to the clinic. I believe that’s inspiring. Our scientists are some of the best people around at what they do and they could have worked in either the private sector or in academia. If you ask them why they chose to work here, it’s because of this: We want to actually help thousands of patients, and soon. Financing is a necessary tool to get there, but it is just that: a tool. My first really big milestone will happen when the first patient has detected cancer much earlier than is currently possible and spared their life.
WHERE DO YOU SEE EARLI 5 YEARS FROM NOW?
In five years, Earli should be in the market with our first product. That's the number one overarching goal that will really help people in the world. There are many other subgoals. For example, we want to have a second product far advanced in the pipeline for a second cancer indication. We want to have made progress potentially on the therapeutic side in addition to diagnostics and localization. Detection, localization, and therapy are the three steps at Earli. We are currently working mostly on detection and localization, to make sure we stay highly focused. But we have a small “skunk works” team working on therapeutics already. Conceptually, there should be a very significant opportunity to use our cancer-activated platform for therapeutic purposes too. In parallel, we want to have built a world class team and have collaborations with large, leading-edge pharma players, clinics or others that want to be the first to introduce these new detection and localization technologies into practice.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
One of the things that attracted me to biology is that I can no longer lead by making statements. I can only lead by asking questions because I have few statements to make in biology. That forces me to reach a level of leadership that I believe is harder but also much more empowering. In my previous jobs, I tended to be among the people in the room who knew the most about the subject matter at hand such as retail and mobile technology. But when it comes to biology, everyone else in the room knows so much more than I do. That is great. It forces me to be thoughtful about how to involve people in the right way, respect what they know, and yet challenge them to go further than they thought they ever could— that we ever could— to achieve our mission. I believe that many people can do 10 times more than they currently do. The astonishing thing is that once they’ve actually reached that, they can sometimes do another 10x. They just don’t know it yet. That potential for growth is what I try to find out in the recruiting process, that’s why I am pretty demanding in that process.
The question is: what keeps someone from doing 10x more? In most cases, it’s a lack of belief in themselves and a fear of failure. I’ve struggled with these exact same issues. But here’s one of the most important things I’ve been taught in my life: Acknowledge your fear—and then act anyway. When we are afraid of something, whatever it is, the first question is whether it is of risk to our physical bodies - can we be seriously harmed? We’re wired to have that fear, and for good reason. When you walk up to a cliff, being afraid of taking the next step is quite useful. It saves your life. But most of the time in our everyday lives, we’re afraid of amorphous, abstract problems that are not threatening our bodies. It’s “built into” our DNA. So rather than trying to get rid of the fear, which will likely not happen, acknowledge it and then act anyway. If you use that principle, you can go really, really far. Do you think I’m not afraid that I might have no clue what I’m doing? Of course I am. But I act anyway. Trust in your ability to grow 10x.