In the dynamic world where medicine and entrepreneurship converge, Dr. Rahul Kakkar stands as a beacon of inspiration. His journey, seamlessly blending the realms of healing and business, reflects a commitment to leaving a lasting impact on both individuals and the biopharmaceutical landscape.
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A Cultural Tapestry: Striving for Excellence
Rahul’s journey begins with the backdrop of his father’s immigration from India, driven by a pursuit of a better life. Growing up between two cultures, he navigated the challenges, drawing inspiration from his father’s sacrifices.
The core values of striving for excellence and leaving a positive legacy were instilled early on.
The Crossroads: Medicine, Entrepreneurship, and Academia
As a high school student in Belmont, Massachusetts, Dr. Rahul faced the challenge of conservative career paths. While medicine beckoned as a family-approved choice, his heart resonated with the idea of not just helping people with treatment, but also furthering the tools they use.
Rahul recalls reading one of Ayn Rand’s books that talked about knowing how to use tools to become a better toolmaker. This inspiration sparked during a medical rotation in Tanzania, set the stage for bridging medicine and entrepreneurship over the next two decades.
He calls himself a physician scientist at heart. He has always been impressed by protagonists with profound technical knowledge, even though they operate at a higher strategic level. Even before medical school, Dr. Rahul spent time doing research during college at Tufts University.
He spent three years in Chicago doing a postdoctoral fellowship between medical school and residency. During his cardiology fellowship, he did a second postdoctoral fellowship at the bench.
The academic path initially seemed promising, but clashes with the rigid structures of academia led Rahul to venture into the research and business side of medicine. He remembers how the program director for cardiovascular training at Mass General Hospital recognized him as a “black sheep.”
He started connecting Rahul with venture capitalists in the Boston area even during his first year of fellowship and then later in his fellowship when he entered research. That’s when Dr. Rahul started exploring pathways and compounds to create new medicines.
Working at AstraZeneca
Rahul’s foray into drug development with AstraZeneca marked a pivotal shift from the academic realm to the business landscape. He started working with Don Frail, a veritable “drug hunter” from whom he learned how to develop drugs and make new medicines.
It was a real draw since that was all he wanted to do in his fellowship. That’s how he entered the world of biotech, having individuals place their trust in him and instilling confidence. His mentors were incredibly generous and patient with him, imparting their teaching and time.
Rahul credits the culture of enthusiasm and exuberance at AstraZeneca as the inspiration for what they fostered at Tome Biosciences.
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Corvidia Therapeutics: A Journey into Drug Development
The inception of Corvidia Therapeutics, Rahul’s first venture as a founder, emerged from a resilient spirit. He describes the concept as an extension of the science he had been doing at Mass General.
During his time at AstraZeneca, he pitched the hypothesis to another scientist as targeting an unmet need for addressing the inflammation and the risk inflammation poses to heart disease. However, AstraZeneca had its own strategies, and they considered his ideas to be too high risk.
Rahul approached Pascal Soriot, the CEO of AstraZeneca, for support. They ended up out-licensing the compound to Corvidia Therapeutics, which he started with the support of another mentor, Michael Davidson.
The company’s focus on addressing inflammation in cardiovascular diseases proved successful.
As Dr. Kakkar explains, Corvidia is essentially a single-asset company formed around this compound out of AstraZeneca. Later, they named it Ziltivekimab, which had the potential to be a new asset class for cardiovascular disease.
Sometime in June 2020, the company culminated in an acquisition by Novo Nordisk for a remarkable $2.1 billion. Looking back, Rahul credits two core factors for the successful exit. The first is compelling and phenomenal clinical data compiled from trials.
The compound performed excellently in its first and second clinical trial phases. At the time of their acquisition, Novo Nordisk was looking to build their cardiovascular franchise, which was their first major deal in quite a while, particularly in the cardiovascular space.
It was the right time for them to put real money to work, and Novo Nordisk has continued to use the drug in a large phase three clinical trial cardiovascular phase. This is estimated to be a multi-hundred million dollar prospect. However, as Dr. Rahul opines, luck also plays a crucial role.
Pandion: Navigating the Intersection of Data and Strategy
Dr. Rahul’s next venture, Pandion, delved into the world of genetic engineering and drug development. The acquisition by Merck for $1.8 billion underscored the importance of compelling clinical data and strategic alignment.
The journey with Pandion exemplified the intersection of honesty, transparency, and strategic timing in the biopharmaceutical landscape.
As Rahul explains, when instituting Pandion, he was the Chief Medical Officer, but the second CEO of Corvidia and head of business development led the deal.
He talks about building the company on the basis of data that tells a story about the commercial potential of the pharmaceutical and where it fits in the competitive landscape.
And not just today’s competitive landscape but the future competitive landscape. A good drug is built by scientists with true passion, with data validating that passion.
Dr. Rahul reveals how he never made a conscious effort to sell the company, but Merck had followed their progress for two years before it made the offer. He remembers the whirlwind 18 months in which Pandion made the transition from series A funding to an IPO, which was almost unheard of.
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Tome Biosciences: Revolutionizing Genomic Medicines
Post-Pandion, Dr. Rahul took a sabbatical to hike, go to the gym, and spend quality time out in the mountains of New England with his wife and daughters.
Then, he was handed a paper from Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gutenberg from MIT, who are the current co-founders of Tome Biosciences.
Dr. Rahul realized that he had fundamentally always been the developer of drugs for common cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases but had not worked in the world of rare diseases.
Here was a technology that had the potential to create a company that would span both rare and common diseases. Dr. Rahul could see how they could build a pharma startup off the research paper. This company had the potential to leave a lasting legacy on biopharma.
Dr. Rahul’s current endeavor, Tome Biosciences, represents a paradigm shift in genetic engineering. He foresees that 50 years from now, the 21st century will be the age of genomic medicines, just as the 20th century was the age of antimicrobial and antiviral therapies.
Tome will be a company with an objective of bringing cures to rare genetic diseases through its gene therapies and cures to more common diseases through the broad application and the democratization of cell therapies.
Polaris Partners: Nurturing Entrepreneurial Spirit
While steering Tome Biosciences, Rahul also collaborated as an entrepreneur partner with Polaris Partners. The venture firm’s ethos aligns with Dr. Rahul’s pure passion and no-ego approach, fostering an environment conducive to starting new companies and aiding their growth.
Rahul shares his story about joining Polaris Partners. He recalls getting to know Alan Crane during his time at Pandion. Alan is the chair of the board at Pandion, on the board at Tome, and a Polaris entrepreneur partner who started over 10 companies.
Alan is a great inspiration and mentor to Rahul, and on his bidding, Rahul joined the board of Polaris. He now spends a portion of his time in the hospital and at Polaris, starting and helping new companies get off the ground.
Balancing Acts: Practicing Medicine Amidst Entrepreneurship
Remarkably, Rahul maintains his role as a practicing physician, bridging the worlds of medicine and biotech. The one week per quarter dedicated to clinical service serves as a mental switch, offering fresh perspectives and reminding him of biotech’s profound impact on patients’ lives.
Words of Wisdom: Seeing the Forest for the Trees
Reflecting on his journey, Rahul acknowledges the fervor of his youth. His advice to his younger self would be to take a breath, stay cool under fire, and recognize the importance of emotional acuity.
The lessons learned from raising teenagers and managing teams resonate in the entrepreneurial journey – patience, strategic thinking, and the ability to see the bigger picture.
In conclusion, Dr. Rahul Kakkar’s narrative embodies the harmonious convergence of medicine and entrepreneurship. From the corridors of academia to the boardrooms of successful ventures, his journey is a testament to the power of passion, innovation, and a relentless pursuit of positive impact in the world of healthcare and biopharmaceuticals.
Listen to the full podcast episode to know more, including:
- Rahul Kakkar seamlessly combines his medical practice with building and scaling companies, driven by a desire to make a positive impact inspired by his father’s sacrifice as an immigrant.
- Rahul’s interest in entrepreneurship sparked during a medical rotation in Tanzania, where he delved into Ayn Rand’s books, leading him to envision using tools to advance medical solutions, bridging his passion for medicine and entrepreneurship.
- Rahul’s shift from academic research to business was influenced by mentors who recognized his strategic thinking, leading him to AstraZeneca, where he learned drug development from Don Frail, a drug hunter with a passion for creating new medicines.
- Overcoming challenges and rejection from Astrazeneca, Rahul co-founded Corvidia Therapeutics, focusing on an anti-inflammatory compound for cardiovascular diseases, ultimately achieving a successful exit with a $2.1 billion acquisition by Novo Nordisk.
- Rahul emphasizes the importance of compelling clinical data and timing in successful acquisitions, stressing the need for transparent storytelling and avoiding spin to ensure the deal aligns with the true potential of the pharmaceutical asset.
- Rahul highlights the role of strong data and strategic timing in Pandeon’s $1.8 billion acquisition by Merck, emphasizing the importance of honesty in evaluating the readiness of a drug for a deal.
- Joining Tome Biosciences, Rahul sees the potential to define the age of genomic medicines, emphasizing the company’s focus on curing diseases through genetic engineering and cell therapies, with the aim to create a lasting legacy in biopharma.