Ten Pillars of Success for Building a Biotech Company (or any Innovative Organization)

First year reflections: Ten Pillars of Success for Building a Biotech Company

A year has passed since I joined Candel Therapeutics as its CEO!

What did I find when I joined?

A late clinical stage biopharmaceutical company focused on tipping the balance in favor of the immune system, using oncolytic viral immunotherapies.  A hidden gem that was ready to be transformed for the next stage, delivering on the promise of our investigational drugs.

Previously, I’ve had the privilege to lead small and large organizations – in academia, big pharma, and biotech. The principles of management and leadership are not necessarily different, whether you lead an organization of 10 or 1000. You must focus on the best science, keep the patient in the center, bring in top talent, create a culture that fosters collaboration and creativity, leverage collective intelligence, make rigorous decision based on data…, these are all critical ingredients for success in both biotech and big pharma.

At Candel Therapeutics, we are developing immunotherapies that induce immunogenic cell death in cancer cells at the site of injection, unmasking tumor neo-antigens within an activated microenvironment. This process leads to a systemic, durable immune response against the tumor and the uninjected distant metastases, with the potential to change disease outcomes across a variety of indications. In just 12 months, we brought in a strong executive team, defined the strategy for the next stage of the company, delivered on our clinical milestones, created a new discovery platform, and completed the Initial Public Offering – we are now listed on Nasdaq ($CADL).

How did we do this?

Think of a biotech, or any innovative organization, as a building with a critical foundation, which is trust (Figure). Leaders need to take their trust-building skills to a completely new level to be successful, based on ability, integrity and generosity (1). Collective intelligence is the rooftop of this building. Cognitive diversity, social sensitivity of team members, and respectful, candid debate all contribute to intellectual team performance (2).

The 10 Pillars of Success

Think of an innovative organization as a building with 10 critical pillars of success

Below I describe 10 pillars of success. There are more of course, but in my experience, these are most critical. It’s impossible to describe each in detail here, and therefore I provide references for background reading throughout.

  1. Build a great, diverse and multidisciplinary leadership team that can create the organization of the future (3). Build strong leadership first, then set strategy, articulate the mission and prepare for the future organization.
  2. Create a strong culture based on freedom and accountability. The fine balance is to achieve alignment without excessive control (4). I want my teams to be inspired, to display creativity, to challenge each other, to act with greater efficiency and purpose, and to genuinely collaborate.
  3. Manage energy of the team (5); make sure people have time to step back, relax, see the big picture, and broaden the horizon. From my European roots, I know the benefits of stepping back, relaxing and taking time with family, friends and self-reflection – to be able to get new ideas and be productive in the long run.
  4. Innovation often starts by looking beyond the edge rather than being guided to stay on a defined path (6). We need to engage with potentially disruptive possibilities and foster lateral thinking and creativity.
  5. Implement a solution-oriented management approach. Focus on what you’re good at, and ask questions like: ‘what’s going well?’, and ‘what would it take to further improve on this?’ (7). Identify areas that are weak and unnecessary, not a priority, or difficult to fix. Accept these and factor into your planning and move on.
  6. Leaders need to be decisive (8) and persistent (9). There is nothing more painful and paralyzing to an organization than not making decisions. Make the best decision possible (see pillars 7 and 8), get everyone behind it until you have new data to change direction, and be persistent.
  7. Decisions need to be pushed down to the lowest appropriate level, and it needs to be clear who owns the decision (10). At the same time, some big decisions require the integration of multiple functional areas to leverage collective intelligence and weigh perspectives and priorities.
  8. Effective decision-making requires three essential ingredients – listening, judgement and explaining (11). Intuitive judgement is often an important starting point in decision-making (12). Trust your intuition but then make sure you listen to a diverse range of thinking and expertise from external advisers as well as internal insightful colleagues, and listen to the data before a decision is finalized.
  9. Get access to the best academic minds in the context of peer review and collaboration (13). Most scientists do not work for your organization, so make sure to get access to them. Expand from insular company ideas and thinking to broaden the knowledge base with external thought-leaders.
  10. Focus and prioritization: place resources, time and energy behind those projects you believe will enable you to achieve optimal outcomes (14). The law of scarcity is a basic law of economics, which notes that resources — talent and capital — are limited, not infinite. Look at time and resources with a laser-sharp focus on value for patients, society and shareholders.

It’s August 2021. Candel Therapeutics is not an early start-up anymore. The foundation, pillars and rooftop came together, but construction and building will continue. As a team we have created an environment where talented scientists and business leaders can thrive, and where we develop medicines for diseases we could not treat before.

For me, I am enjoying this new adventure. There’s an ecosystem here unlike anything I have experienced before. Bringing my background as physician, academic and big pharma leader into an entrepreneurial area where I can shape and drive an organization with so much potential is rewarding beyond compare.


1.     Blakey J. The trusted executive: Nine leadership habits that inspire results, relationships and reputation. Kogan Page. 2016  

2.     Woolley AW et al. Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 2010;330:686-688

3.     McCord P. Powerful: building a culture of freedom and responsibility. Silicon Guild. 2018

4.     Mankins M and Garton E. How Spotify balances employee autonomy and accountability. Harvard Business Review. 2017

5.     Schwartz T and McCarthy C. Manage your energy, not your time. Harvard Business Review. 2007


7.     Cauffman and Dierolf. The solution tango. Marshall Cavendish Books. 2006

8.     Botelho EL and Powell KR. The CEO next door: The 4 behaviours that transform ordinary people into world-class leaders . The Crown Publishing Group. 2018

9.     Collins J. Good to great. Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t. HarperCollins Publishers. 2001

10.  Blenko MW, Mankins M and Rogers P. The decision-driven organization. Harvard Business Reviews. 2010


12.  Gladwell M. Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Little, Brown and Company. 2005

13.  Tkach Tuzman K. Doctors in the house. Biocentury Innovations. 2017

14.  Thorndike WN. The outsiders. Eight unconventional CEOs and their radically rational blueprint for success. Harvard Business Review Press. 2012

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Paul Peter Tak

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