The physician-scientist and serial biotech entrepreneur uses team sports experience to lead his innovative biotech.
On the soccer field, you will find David Kirn, MD, co-founder, co-chairman and CEO of 4D Molecular Therapeutics (4DMT), playing central midfield, the position that pulls everyone together to set up goals.
Centerfielders are offensive team leaders who must constantly pass the ball to teammates from all over the field. According to the sports coaching site, planet.training, scientific data shows that central midfielders are adept at passing the ball, with the ability to use either foot equally well, and provide efficiency, creativity, strategy and strength to the game.
"My charge on the soccer field is to pull all the different parts together and make everybody else look good. That's what the center midfielder does," Kirn says. "I'm not a forward, scoring all the goals and getting all the attention. I'm doing the hard work."
As CEO of 4DMT, a biotechnology company working on adeno-associated virus gene therapy vectors, Kirn functions the same way—setting others up for success by creating a culture of teamwork, the flexibility to learn from mistakes, and big wins.
Kirn started his off-field career as a physician nearly 20 years ago, and considered a profession in academics, but his innate entrepreneurial drive led him to launch six startups over the past couple of decades, including Jennerex and 4DMT.
That drive and his love of team sports honed his leadership skills to include remaining calm during moments of crisis, he says.
"I've always loved team sports and once I started working in biotech, I realized the process is just like a team sport. Everybody's pulling in the same direction," he says. "Everybody's focused on the same goal, it's all about preparation and execution."
For example, Kirn relates an experience at 4DMT that happened around four years ago, when a well-running development process for a new candidate hit a snag. Instead of panicking, Kirn kept a cool head, and redirected his team under pressure. The company had just closed on a $90 million Series B financing round and had entered into partnerships with Roche and Pfizer. The company was preparing for its AAV gene therapy asset for choroideremia, a rare chorioretinal dystrophy causing progressive vision loss mostly in males, to enter into its phase 1 clinical trial. At that point, the company had been working at least four years already with physicians, patients, and investors to prepare the candidate for development. "Everyone was excited about the prospect of this therapy," Kirn says. "Patients were waiting."
Then, there was a glitch. "I got a phone call at four o'clock on a Friday from my head of manufacturing," Kirn says. "An assay that had always tested normal had come back abnormal."
Kirn's first reaction was to assume the test was faulty, as the results had never come back wrong before for the assay.
"I said to everyone, 'stay calm. There's no way that's true,' " he says.
However, after further testing, he and his team discovered the abnormal result was very real.
Kirn had to inform the investors, partners, physicians, patients, and the patient advocacy organization the company had been working with, that not only was the gene therapy not going to clinic in four months, but the trial could be delayed up to six to 12 months longer.
Jump heading the problem, Kirn immediately gathered his team together to scrutinize what had gone wrong, with the assurance that no one would be blamed for having made a mistake.
"To get to the bottom of that problem, we had to convince people that no one would be pointing fingers, nobody would be blamed for what had gone wrong," Kirn says. "We called emergency meetings; we hunkered down. We went through line by line by line of a 100-step process. And then we got to this one step, and we discovered a design flaw in one out of 100 reagents involved."
This was the point when the team really could have gotten frustrated and discouraged and started playing the blame game.
"It could have been a horrible outcome, but in the end, it made us much stronger as a company," Kirn says. "It made our development engine much stronger. We've never had a delay like that again, and we're now running the most efficient engine in the business. That means every single time we do anything in this company, we look at every single step very rigorously. One of our guiding principles is 'relentless preparation and execution'. And that's all the result of how we resolved this one crisis moment."
It took 10 months instead of four, but the product candidate 4D-110 entered the clinic and today that program --an ongoing Phase 1 dose-escalation clinical trial -- is running effectively and benefiting patients.
Having played team sports all his life, Kirn says soccer in particular taught him about the important balance between offense and defense, about never giving up, and executing well under pressure.
Kirn's leadership style translates across industries
At 4DMT, the transformative precision genetic medicines being developed create excitement and momentum among employees, Kirn says. Having a clear strategy on how the company is going fulfill its vision is also key to its culture.
Kirn says building this type of excitement has to start at the top, and if it does, any organization can benefit from it.
"You have to create a culture that embraces innovation, doing things smarter and better," he says.
"I would say that is directly applicable to other businesses."
Raising the engagement and interest of stakeholders is possible by using approaches that are superior to the competition.
"If I ran a hospital, for example, I would put together a compelling vision of how the hospital is going to change the world of care by doing big things, along with setting clear objectives and a clear strategy to get there," Kirn continues. "That's a vision that gets employees excited. It gets physicians excited; it gets patients excited, and then they all want to go on that journey with you."
This way, more patients will want to come to my hospital because I've got innovative products, and people are going to want to work for me and stay with me in a competitive work environment for the same reason. And frankly, donations to the hospital are going to go up significantly because you're doing something exciting. And you say hey, we need money to build a new facility to do this exciting new research. it's really applicable to any organization including a hospital," he says.
Success requires employees to go above and beyond to bring a goal to fruition.
4MDT has four guiding principles it plays by: one of them is breaking boundaries, and questioning the status quo; looking beyond yourself and keep a larger picture of
patients, their families, the 4MDT team, their families; and as already mentioned,
prepare and execute relentlessly.
"The fourth is 'dare to cure' " says Kirn. "That means doing more than striving for just incremental benefits but stretching for breakthroughs and taking calculated risks to achieve them. We create novel treatments that are going to radically change patients' outcomes."
It is with these principles that Kirn has helped his team score many important goals-- in the field of genetic therapy, as well as on the soccer field.
“I've always loved team sports and once I started working in biotech, I realized the process is just like a team sport. Everybody's pulling in the same direction.”
David Kirn, CEO, 4D Molecular Therapeutics
Robin Robinson is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders.
4DMT CEO David Kirn, MD, sets others up for success by creating a culture of teamwork, the flexibility to learn from mistakes, and big wins.
The biotech company develops targeted and evolved vectors for application in genetic medicine through its proprietary platform, Therapeutic Vector Evolution
4DMT has five clinical-stage product candidates on track for multiple clinical data updates in 2023, including therapy for cystic fibrosis, choroideremia, wet AMD, and Fabry disease.