Dr. Cedric Francois has blazed a unique path to the corner office, from a successful career as a surgeon to shifting gears to become an entrepreneurial biotech CEO. Dr. Francois co-founded Apellis Pharmaceuticals in 2009 and has managed the company through an impressive period of growth, taking the company public last year.
Prior to co-founding Apellis, Dr. Francois co-founded biotech company Potentia Pharmaceuticals, Inc. in 2001, and was a member of the research team that performed the first successful hand transplantation procedure, as well as a member of the Louisville Face Transplant Team, whose work supported hand transplantation in Lyon, France in 2005.
Chief Executive spoke with Dr. Francois about how he’s managed growth at his company, growing his business in its home base of Kentucky, how his leadership style has evolved since he started the business, and what he’s most excited about as CEO in the year ahead.
On the transition from the medical world to the biotech business world
As far as I’m concerned, I’m still doing the same thing. Business is something that I had to learn. But I very much like to think of myself as a physician first, scientist second, and CEO third. Everything we do as a business is second to our primary objective to help patients with geographic atrophy and rare blood diseases like paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH.) And once in a while, I try to visit the clinic, too. Obviously, I cannot see patients anymore, but I do it to remind myself what it’s all about.
Managing growth at Apellis Pharmaceuticals in Louisville, Kentucky
We’re always driven by the science, and science is very tricky. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t go the way you want it to go. But in our case, it did. And while it was complicated, the most successful thing we did was create a business framework in Louisville, Kentucky, which is not your typical biotech hub. We created a framework where the business was ready to grow should the science work out. And I think, at the end of the day, the good fortune that we had was that the science materialized, especially in ophthalmology as evidenced by our Phase 2 trial for patients with geographic atrophy- a leading cause of vision loss in older adults. The results of that trial were really the catalyst for our IPO.
“I love people who care about people, who care about medicine. Who are discoverers, who want to change the status quo.”
But beyond that, the largest challenge that we had was to grow organically from a non-traditional location. The city of Louisville has been really helpful to us in providing logistical support and creating a framework. I remember inviting a couple of bankers to come and visit us in Louisville, and our office is literally in a strip mall in the middle of Crestwood, Kentucky. The bankers were highly confused as to where they were and what they were doing here. Up until we had a big hiring push, we were able to maintain that core in Louisville. Right now our clinical work is primarily run from our Massachusetts office. But our headquarters are still in the strip mall, and it works for us.
I think the main challenge was the location, which goes hand in hand with finding funding for drug development programs, which as you know, become exponentially more expensive over time. As anybody who is in our business and runs a biotech company will tell you, it’s critical to avoid falling into a funding bowl before you have a value section point that you can take advantage of in financing. And with Apellis, we often came close to potentially being in that situation but, fortunately, did not.
How his leadership style has evolved over the years
I would say that that the core of Apellis as it grew over the years wasn’t just me. Our success is also a result of having my right and left-hand, Pascal Deschatelets, as our Chief Operating Officer. He’s an unbelievable operator. I think my role is much more on the creative medical side, but without someone who’s so capable of bringing dreams into reality, our business would not be where it is today.
The partnership has worked very well over the years and has involved a constant interplay in which I bring ideas to Pascal (unconventional and sometime outrageous ideas) and he implements them. The people that work for us have seen that great and good things do happen, and that has created a very loyal base within Apellis, one that’s stuck with us with almost no attrition throughout the years. This base has also always seen the power of exception. In other words, every time we said we were going to do something, we pulled it off and did it well.
I am not at all a micromanager. I love to make people dream about certain things. I think people within the organization, especially now that we’re a little bit larger, sometimes view me in a hierarchal way, but I love to be very accessible to everyone. And I want the organization to be very horizontal. I prefer a culture of leaders over bosses.
Our senior management team, which has grown a lot over the past year, is absolutely phenomenal. It’s an extraordinary team of people, not just because of their expertise and qualifications but also because of how they view the core and the creed of what we do. What I mean by that is I like to drive the company with values and with strategical objectives rather than with technical details. And if you have a good senior management team that makes sure that the technical pieces are where they need to be, my hope is that in two to three years, we’ll end up with a company that will hopefully be unique and special from a value perspective, beyond what it is now.
The common traits that the best leaders within his organization share
My number one rule is no assholes—you can quote me on that one. I love people who are driven by that same value system. I love people who care about people, who care about medicine, who are discoverers, and who want to change the status quo. So number one: no assholes. Number two: people have to have a value system that is ethically and morally impeccable. And number three: people should have the perfect combination of thinking creatively and critically in order to overcome silly industry dogmas, so we can do things differently and come out ahead of our competition.