Having a Cross-Functional Bird’s Eye View of Operations
Episode

Jay Stella, Senior VP at Akouos

Having a Cross-Functional Bird’s Eye View of Operations

When you work in operations, having a cross-functional team and a bird’s eye view is critical for success. 

In this episode of the LabOps Leadership Podcast, Jay Stella, the Senior VP at Akouos, shares his story in the industry, from how he ended up working in a lab to explaining what he does in corporate strategy and business development. He then dives into how Akouos is working on developing precision genetic medicine for sensorineural hearing loss and the involvement of the operations team in this matter. Jay also shares how every individual brings a specific skill set to the team and how cross-functionality is key to achieving the goals they have set. Operations are always in the background making sure that everybody else can do their work. 

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Having a Cross-Functional Bird’s Eye View of Operations

About Jay Stella:

Jay has worked in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry for 28 years in positions of increasing responsibility across preclinical and CMC strategy & operations, finance, business development, post-M&A integrations, and corporate strategy.  In the early stage of his career, Jay worked in a GMP manufacturing environment, as a laboratory technician, and as a procurement professional in the medical diagnostics field.  He is currently Senior Vice President at Akouos, Inc., a precision genetic medicines company, where he is responsible for Corporate Strategy and Business Development.

 

Jay previously worked for Sai Life Sciences, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Biogen, Genetics Institute, and as an independent consultant.  He received a Baccalaureate degree from the University of Vermont and an MBA from Boston University.  Jay lives with his wife and two daughters and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Reforest the Tropics and Tower School.  When he is not working, Jay loves to ski, paddle, cook, and read. 

 

OR_LabOps_JayStella: Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

OR_LabOps_JayStella: this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

Samantha Black:
By building a platform to share challenges, network, and thoughts from leaders, the LabOps Leadership Podcast is elevating LabOps professionals as well as the industry as a whole. With the intent of unlocking the power of LabOps, we deliver unique insights to execute the mission at hand, standardize the practice of LabOps, their development, and training. Welcome to the LabOps Leadership Podcast.

Krisha Panchalingam:
Hi. Good morning. I’m Krisha, I am part of the LabOps Unite leadership team, and I’m excited to have this podcast done with Jay and Samantha.

Samantha Black:
Great, Krisha, thanks so much. We’re excited to have Jay Stella, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Akouos, great. Jay, thanks for joining us today.

Jay Stella:
My pleasure. It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Samantha Black:
Awesome! Yeah, no problem. So just to start off, can you just tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today?

Jay Stella:
Sure. Yes. I’m not a scientist by training. And so it’s kind of unusual for me to be in a scientific biotech environment, I guess. But I’ve been drawn to it since I was very young, in my very earliest part of my careers have always been associated with the biotech industry, even starting off in medical diagnostics and then going into protein therapeutics and small molecules and then back to protein therapeutics in the area of and a gene therapy company. But I really am interested in healthcare fields and I want to help contribute to a healthier society. And I really believe that, personally, I believe that I want us to be able to develop therapeutics that have pure potential, and that’s why I’m interested in the space that I’m in today. But like I said, I’m not a scientist by training, I did start out with quite a bit of science earlier in my undergrad career, but I decided I didn’t want to work in laboratory for the rest of my life. So I took a slightly different path and studied Spanish and continued following biology and chemistry. And then ironically, the very first position I had when I graduated my undergraduate degree was working in a laboratory, so go figure. But several years later, my career path has been a very kind of winding path marked by opportunity. And of course, I’ve tried to work as hard as I can and I’ve been very fortunate along the way, that’s really fantastic, really mentors and supporters and advocates, and I’m happy to talk a little bit more about that later too.

Samantha Black:
Awesome, no, that sounds great. And I think this is a really important conversation because I think we’re here advocating for LabOps professionals, but I think it really shines a light that it doesn’t always have to be just science or just business. I think the crossover in both sides bring a lot of valuable insights and mentality. So I think it’s just really important to, to shine a light on that. So can you just dive a little bit more into the specific work that you’re doing on a corporate strategy and what that really actually means? I feel like it’s one of those titles that is very broad, so can you just tell us what you actually do?

Jay Stella:
That’s right, yeah. And thanks, you’re not the only person to ask that. It can be a little bit nebulous because every company is all different. So I lead up corporate strategy and business development at Akouos, and from the corporate strategy side, it’s really about helping us make the right decisions. And a lot about what strategy really is is not so much what to do, it’s also what not to. And it’s about how to frame up those trade-offs so you can make informed decisions about where we should really focus, where we can add value, where we can have a sustainable competitive advantage versus following these maybe in easier or more well-marked track. So I’ve done a number of different things since I came in the company to sort of help set up some of that decision-making infrastructure. And on the business development side, and this is where the two are related, it’s really all about value creation at the end of the day. So with business development, it’s really about sort of telling our story to potential collaborators and strategic partners to see if there’s a good fit with the technology’s capabilities they have with our vision, what we’re trying to accomplish in this space. And so business development, just the same as any other company, is really about having those conversations with companies on the outside with whom they might be a good strategic fit and a way for us to accelerate what we’re doing and find synergies. It’s not just about money and financing because you can find money in other ways, right? But this is really about finding the right kind of strategic fit. So it’s knowing how to drive those discussions with the company internally as well as the companies that we’re talking to externally to explore those avenues.

Samantha Black:
Yeah. And I mean, that’s so important for any pharmaceutical company these days. You know, I feel like there’s a lot of companies out there, and so making sure that you have the right fit is, is so important for the success of the organization. On the scientific side, can you talk a little bit more about what the company is doing to accelerate drug discovery and development and then maybe …., you know, how are the ops teams impacting that and, and really helping that acceleration?

Jay Stella:
Sure. So we are a precision genetic medicines company focused on sensorineural hearing loss, and this is different than, for example, conductive hearing loss, which is, you know, failing to sort of transfer the vibrations in the soundwaves over into the inner ear. What we’re really focusing on is how those, those waves are transmitted through the fluid compartment of the inside the inner ear and actually converted into an electrical signal that the brain can interpret as sound or speech or music or whatever that is. So there are a number of different monogenic causes where people who have sensorineural hearing loss, and we’re looking to pursue those and essentially use a gene transfer. So it’s an ABB mediated gene transfer for our initial, our first lead candidate to be able to restore a functioning copy of that gene. So people will be able to translate what their ear is, sort of trying to get through to the brain because it’s fallen apart at that last step. So scientifically, that’s what we’re doing, but we’re also building out a platform that can be used across multiple different types of inner ear conditions. So in terms of how we deliver that, what Capsids are using, how are we getting into the right cells and rewarding cells, we don’t want to get into that sort of thing. And I’ll be honest, the ear’s a fascinating space, I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues that really kind of like it. It’s almost a perfect place to study gene therapy because it’s separate, it’s very compartmentalized from the rest of the body. And then from the laboratory side of it, gene therapy, as well as a lot of other areas, it’s very complex and requires very specific skill sets, as you probably know, and these skill sets, you know, range from the actual work with the vectors, you know in-house, being able to dose animals, being able to take those cells out, do histopathology, see what’s going on, do the gene expression as well as manufacture it. So we also have a pilot lab and some people have to be able to be doing their own GMP manufacturing internally as well, that’s another really key piece. And so we try to focus on what are those really key skill sets that are difficult to find, so critical to have internally and have at least a critical mass of those, those various skill sets. We do use outside partners, of course, you can’t scale everything, it’s a small company, right? Can’t always have everything we want, but we try to focus on what are the, those really key critical core skills that help us do what we do best. We want to have a leadership position in space.

Krisha Panchalingam:
So one question that I have for you, Jay, is what other common struggles that you have seen in drug development and how you or your team, your organization tackled those issues? You know, when a biotech industry has, you know, so many divisions, but just, if you want to just mention a few of those.

Jay Stella:
Sure. Well, I think one of the common areas that companies struggle with, and I think everyone does, is portfolio and strategy is what are the right assets, what are the right programs to pursue. And sometimes that means you have to put something down or slow something else down or hold off on that until maybe the biology is more clear. So of understanding what to do there is being able to get a cross functional team together, get a bird’s eye view, a cross functional bird’s eye view of the program, what we know, what we don’t know, and understanding it all the way through to what is the unmet medical need here that we’re trying to address? Do we have a clear view of the biology? Do we know how we’re going to tackle this problem? And if we don’t know all of those things yet, and sometimes those programs need to spend some more time on basic biology, right? Discovery, biology, research versus I think this one is ready to move into let’s put a candidate together and let’s run it through some animal studies, higher species studies. So it’s just trying to understand sometimes those, what are the criteria, what are the stage gates that you use to know this one is going to make it, this one is not going to make it, and in some cases, you can even have slightly different criteria because you might have a higher bar for something, if it’s a more competitive space, for example, right, if you know that someone is in the same space or two people, three people are in the same space, maybe someone that’s technically ahead of you today, you have to make sure that you’re going to be able to come to market with a better product. It’s very important to gene therapy, especially in the rare disease space, to have a better product that you’ve got to be one of the first, if not the first to market. So having those kinds of criteria and stage gate set up is really, really important, having an understanding of how we can move quickly, I talked a little bit about some of the things that we do internally, so making those decisions about what studies we’re going to run internally versus what we’ll use an outside partner for, that’s really important too. So the teams have to make those decisions right, and try to think about what else might be sort of important to mention. I think the other thing, the companies, especially smaller ones and …. in that bucket, even though we’re a public company, we’re still small, over 100 people, we don’t have unlimited resources. And we have to decide how to grow in a sustainable way that’s going to allow us to focus on our key priorities first foremost, right? But not at the expense of the future pipeline to the company, so there’s always these trade off decisions we have to make about what to fund and at what levels, where to add account or not to get that sort of thing.

Krisha Panchalingam:
So a follow up of that as lab operations is key part of the biotech pharma industry, they are in the background, they’re helping scientists do their work so that scientists don’t have to worry about where their supplies are coming in. Why do you think that you have seen or heard that can make a difference in LabOps because they are somewhat in the background, I’m coming from that background. Sometimes they know managers, they also are figuring out how LabOps can get me involved, so I just want to get to your thoughts on that.

Jay Stella:
Sure. Yeah. And I think these days are especially interesting, too, right? We have a lot of supply chain issues. So I think our group has had to be extremely creative. We’ve even had to move things around between zeros and CEMO’s that we’ve used to say, we need this to come back to us, we need this one to go over there. So we’ve had to really manage very, very tight inventories, we’ve had to look really far ahead, so not only being creative with sort of those how to move things around and get them into the right place at the right time. But being really proactive and thinking about do we have enough of an inventory or considering the lead times and how those may be changing and what are the critical things? So for example, a post has its own proprietary delivery device that we use to deliver the vector to the patients into the inner ear, and that’s all custom made. And so some of these we started seeing really increasing lead times for some of these things, we had to get ahead of that and say, we don’t need, we need not only what we need to make for, let’s say, the next batch it’s going to be used for this phase one study or this non-human primate study. But let’s think about if the lead time is 6 months or 12 months for some of these things, we need to be putting together a forecast that goes out further. So being proactive and seeing where those problems might occur so you don’t end up in a situation later where you don’t have a key reagent or a key component or something that’s going to hold up things. And I’ll be honest, years ago, many, many years ago, when I was in the lab myself, this is one of the things that I started to do as a lab technician, was to communicate with the planning group. The planning group was the one that sort of took the forecast from marketing, say, here’s the sales forecast, here’s somebody we need to make each product. And I was always telling them, look, we’re making product A, we’re using three units of this raw material and we’re buying them in units of ten. So there’s no way to make that work without wasting at least one … So it started to get into thinking those things through ahead of time and then communicating to the part of your organization had to understand that. And in my case, that was, I had to talk to the Materials Requirements Planning Group, who had the buyers, the planners. After doing that for a while, they just said, Jay, maybe you should come work for us in the planning group because it seems like you know how all of our products are made and what goes into them and the right quantities to buy things so that we’re more efficient. And that was an opportunity that just came up and I went into it and that sort of started my career path outside the lab, to be honest.

Krisha Panchalingam:
What would you say the biggest lesson that you learned in your career path and what advice would you give to listeners? And I’m going to come back to the earlier point that you mentioned about having good mentors, but this is sort of the first part of that is just do you know what the biggest lesson that you have learned?

Jay Stella:
There’s been a lot of I’ll be honest, it’s hard to pick just one, but maybe I could pick a couple from different points in my career. One time, relatively early in my career, I was managing a group of folks, I was the youngest and I was their boss. I had to get over that, that was a little tricky for me because I was worried that it was a little bit of an imposter syndrome, right? Are they going to understand that this is just going to work and are they going to respect me? That sort of a thing and learning how to build a team like that when we’re each contributing at how we do in our own special ways and getting the team to work really well together. And then even in that early team, there was one member who was really struggling, really, really struggling a lot. And together the team and I were working to improve the situation and eventually the most senior member of the team came to me and said, it’s just not working out or you’re fixing this person’s work constantly, is there something we can do here? And I remember talking to my boss, who was a fantastic mentor at the time and had a conversation about this and decided the best thing to do was to help manage this person out of the organization, it’s a really difficult thing. I hadn’t even hired someone yet in my career now, I was already working to let someone go and I struggle with that a lot. But at the end of the day, after we got through it, that person went on to have a good career in the area that really matched that person’s skill sets, and the team was so thrilled we became more efficient and stronger together as a team. We didn’t even need to replace the headcount, right? So we found more efficient ways to work together as a as a unit and we actually ended up saving money and being happier about that. So that was a really, really tough lesson for me to learn at the beginning was that how to look at that through a business lens, what’s right for the company, talk about it with the right people, with people that you trust, make the right decision. And I remember when I came through the other side of that, my boss told me at the time you really had a word to use was mitzvah. You really had a mitzvah there, that was that was really a key point in your career. And this was this was Avi Zelnick, who was very influential in that early part of my career and one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Later in my career, I was working with my boss and it was career development season, so people were writing career development plans and I put together my plan. So I thought about this for, I don’t know, an hour or two, and I wrote together, here’s what I want to do this year and next year and the year after. You know, we sat across the table and I gave it to him and said, you know, Jay, this is a, the guy, I hate to tell you this, but this is a nice set of goals for two or three years, this is not a career development plan. It sort of tells me what you hope to achieve the next couple of years. But when you think about your career, what you really should be thinking about is to think all the way through to your retirement day. And when you’re, you’re there, you’re looking around the room. People are throwing this party for you, who’s there? Who’s at your party? How did you get to that point? How did those people that are there in that room help you along the way? How did you help them? And then what were those sort of key steps that got you? I guarantee it’s not the job you’re doing today, you’re not going to be retiring from this job. So essentially, we tore up what I had written because it was basically junk, it was just basically a set of goals for the next couple of years. And I had to think about it from the end all the way back here. And it’s nebulous in the middle, it’s not like it set a perfect straight line, earlier my career took a very kind of winding path, but it was, it was a really good exercise for me to think about it in that way, and I think I got a lot out of that. And that was a really key lesson about how I can drive my own career and not just wait, hope that something’s going to happen and I can just keep doing what I’m doing and get to where I want to get.

Krisha Panchalingam:
So this may apply to LabOps and this could be applied to anybody, right? If someone is looking for a mentor or coach, they can come in in unlikely places. What would you see some of the key points to look out for, because people tend to focus on the department that you’re in or the group that you are in. But what advice would you give to someone who is looking for a mentor or a coach that they never had that opportunity so that they can sort of ask around, have a conversation to see if that’s a good fit?

Jay Stella:
Yeah, you know, there are all kinds of coaches and mentors out there, and the really good ones are hard to find. They really are people who, personally, I feel it’s, people have a skill for this. They have a natural tendency to want to help people, to coach people, and there’s usually a reason for that, it makes them happy, it makes them fulfilled. Someone did that for them is another thing that I’ve noticed, too, is that people who feel fortunate to have arrived where they are in their career or the stage they are in life, are very often willing to give back. And you make a really good point about not just looking inside your division, your department, because sometimes, to be honest, it’s nice to have a neutral zone in the buffer. Someone who you can talk to isn’t trying to manage you in addition to other people, and they don’t want to sometimes give an unfair advantage to one person in their group. But I would tell people to look for, look for folks who have that, gee, it’s hard to describe it, but it’s almost like a parenting set kind of skill set of someone who’s nurturing, someone who really cares about your development, someone is going to be a really good listener, but someone who’s going to push you outside your comfort zone, too. So you’re going to have to trust this person to be able to understand who you are, what you’re doing, and what you need to succeed, and how that fits with your skill sets. And they’re not going to just tell you that you’re doing great all the time, right? So I would tend to look for folks who have a team that seems very satisfied, happy, working together, really good camaraderie, drives a good culture from the top, and someone who aligns with your values. That’s going to be another key thing. It’s to have that respect together, you might have totally different backgrounds, different viewpoints, but if your values are similar, that’s going to help a lot. Yeah, and I think making it known also, just to be open about it and tell your your boss, your manager, your supervisor or whatever, you know, I, I’m looking to develop these certain skill sets or I’m looking to get to this point, you know, and I’m looking to speak to people who might be able to help me with that as a coach or mentor. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation because they may know someone who has exactly what you need, and would be happy to do that for you, make that connection.

Samantha Black:
I love that. I love the focus on, on people, right? Because we get insights, a lot of times they’re all about outcomes and technology, but I think at the end of the day, right, it’s all about people. I love the way you said it, you know, at the end of your career, who’s going to show up at your party? You know, it’s all about people. And I think that’s a great place to leave it. You know, great advice. I think that could apply to LabOps, but also just anybody. I think that’s just wonderful advice. So so thank you so much for sharing that.

Jay Stella:
Oh, my pleasure.

Samantha Black:
I did want to just follow up one, one last time and give people an opportunity to follow your work and get to know you a little bit more after this podcast. Where can people connect with you? Where can they find out more about what you’re doing? How can they, how can they track you down if they want to know Jay better?

Jay Stella:
Yeah! Well, obviously the two easiest places are probably LinkedIn and the company website Akouos.com. I’m out there on LinkedIn, I’m happy to connect with people who have similar interests and similar values or want to chat about different things, doesn’t have to be a business, you know? We all work together in this in this industry, and it’s a good thing to help each other out when we can, and online as well. So at Akouos.com, I really look forward to when we make press releases, make public announcements, what we’re doing. So we just released our most recent quarterly earnings, and there’s some good information in there. As a public company, there are certain times, places where we’ve released key information, and I think we’ve done a pretty good. At being pretty open about what it is that we’re doing. And so folks can come and follow the company or see what I’m up to. I don’t post a lot on LinkedIn, to be honest, but I do connect with folks and take conversations offline, things like that. So don’t look for me to be a prolific post or anything. But like I said, I’m happy to connect with folks, have offline conversations.

Samantha Black:
Awesome. So I’m just going to spell out that website because it’s a challenging word. So it’s A K O U O S.com, for anybody who’s looking for it. And we’ll also post that in the show notes for everybody. Jay, thank you so much. We’ve really enjoyed the conversation. Krisa, thank you for joining us as well, and we look forward to following you and all of your success.

Jay Stella:
Oh, thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Krisha Panchalingam:
Thank you, Jay. Thank you, Samantha.

Samantha Black:
Thanks.

Samantha Black:
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the LabOps Leadership Podcast. We hope you enjoyed today’s guest. For show notes, resources, and more information about LabOps Unite, please visit us at LabOps.Community/Podcast. This show is powered by Elemental Machines.

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Things You’ll Learn:

  • The corporate strategy team creates the roadmap with dos and don’ts for the company. 
  • Business development is all about creating value for and with future partners and collaborators. 
  • The laboratory side of the business requires many skill sets. 
  • Outsourcing is a good way to bring in skill sets that the company doesn’t have internally. 
  • Being the first-to-market product is critical for companies that develop solutions for rare diseases or gene therapy. 
  • Communication between the different departments within the company is key. 
  • Look for mentors outside of your department, they may bring another perspective and be a neutral set of eyes. 

Resources:

  • Connect and follow Jay Stella on LinkedIn.
  • Want to know more about the LabOps Leadership Conference? Visit their website.
  • Check out the Akouos website.