5 Questions with Doug Ward: Leadership lessons from the CEO of Personal Genome Diagnostics

With a vision for the future of personalized medicine and decades worth of global corporate leadership experience, Doug Ward is leading the Canton-based Personal Genome Diagnostics team of 200 towards their next major milestones.

When Doug Ward joined Personal Genome Diagnostics in 2016 as the company’s first CEO, he brought a small team of scientists with global experience from international medical technology companies.

But leading teams and transformations at big names like Bayer, General Electric, Roche, and Siemens didn’t just make him a competitive driver with the know-how to scale the business, it made him an executive hyper-focused on building the team and scaling a culture that will take a startup company from the Canton waterfront to global distribution.

Currently raising a Series C financing with all eyes set on being the first-ever, FDA approved, pan cancer, comprehensive genomic profiling product for diagnosing patients with cancer, Ward leads a team of 200 towards the target of an initial public offering in 2020.

“We’ve been very fortunate but also I think given our backing out of [Johns] Hopkins, the founders, and the talent that we have here, we’re going to do something that no one else has ever done and we’re going to do it out of Baltimore” said Ward. “It’s very exciting.”

As his team of biotechnologists, bioinformaticians, manufacturing engineers, and other lovers of cool science prepare to take their products global, we sat down with Ward to learn about the pivotal moments of his career and how they shape where PGDx goes next. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about a few of the major pivot points of your career. What did you learn from them?

I like to pride myself that I love to ask questions and understand and learn as you go throughout your career. My personality is such that I enjoy the aspect of understanding and talking to people and getting to know them.

So after college I decided to go into sales in Pittsburgh at a company called Ciba Corning Diagnostics, a joint venture between Corning and Ciba-Geigy which is now Novartis.

I did that for six years, and then I took a traditional route in the business world — I stayed with the same company for 18 years and it changed names four times on me. Diagnostics is a consolidator of businesses, you have some very large companies that are very good at commercializing products and taking products out to the market — but innovation happens at small creative companies that ultimately get acquired. Ciba Corning was acquired as a payment to a company called Chiron that was a West Coast company at the time. Working there really launched my belief and understanding of personalized medicine. They had drugs and they had diagnostics, and that’s what personalized medicine was all about so I worked for them in marketing for a few years in Boston. Then I went into what’s called corporate accounts, selling to the biggest customers, and I did that from a marketing standpoint.

At that time we were acquired by Bayer, a German healthcare company, and I would say then that one of the biggest inflection points in my career occurred. Our largest customer at Chiron at that time said “in 90 days we’re out of here.” The president of our company calls me and says “Doug, you did the contract with these guys, they really liked you you understand the science behind this stuff. You gotta go take over this account.” I was like, “Well what about the guy who was doing it?” and he said “Well, unfortunately that didn’t work out. We need you to go do this.” I was like “No.” At that time I was the regional sales manager for New England.

It was the classic: The first year you’re trying to learn and understand the job, the second year you’re really starting to have an impact, and then the third year you should be thinking, “How do you take that job to the next level? How do you now make things and implement things that can help others?” I told him, “Listen, I’ve only been in it a year and a half, I’m just still learning. It’s fun, I don’t want to do this.” He said “Go home, tell me what it’s going to take for you to do this job, because you’re going do this job.” Okay, I went home, talked to Suzie, my wife, and I believe I put together a crazy offer. I put it in an envelope, walked into the guy’s office, put it on his desk, and he just flips it over to the side of the table and says “Okay great. I need you to call them and find out what’s going on. Never looked at what I wrote down — just said, we’ll take care of it.”

Two things happened there — it demonstrates that certain decisions are so important that you just make them. It was a learning for me of “Okay this guy, he’s saying that this is that important, we’re going to make a decision and make it happen.” The other thing was that I realized how pathetic my offer was. I should have written down a whole bunch more things. I was in my 20s, I put down, oh, I’ll take a 30% raise and give me a bigger bonus and that kind of stuff, I could have written down the world. So the other thing I learned is don’t be afraid to ask. I always try to teach my kids that. Never be afraid, the answer can always be no, but don’t be afraid. With a ton of help from other people, we saved that customer, and that changed the trajectory of my career.

After we saved that account, the president said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” At that time we had been acquired by Bayer, and they were doing a full on integration and transformation of structure and I said I want to go to Europe and they’re like okay. So they built a brand new Eurpean marketing organization over there and I was lucky enough to get that role as European Director of European Marketing for Point of Care Testing. I learned a lot about working with different cultures and different approaches as Europe is extremely fragmented.

After three years at that, if you track a little bit with me there’s a whole bunch of different modalities in the diagnostic field and I was getting the experience of going from one to another to another to another so it gave me this view also of technology and the application of technology. In my next role I was the VP of Global Marketing for Molecular Testing, I went there and worked on the HIV and Hepatitis group. I did that for another three years. We launched and got our first FDA approval of an HIV test and at that time in the country that was a big, significant issue.

Then I went over again to Europe and ran the UK and Ireland as the country manager. We were then bought by Siemens, and while I loved that job as well, my wife’s father was ill at that time, and we decided it was time to go back to the US. We had three kids and it was time to get closer to family. So I left the company for the first time after 18 years and took over North America Commercial for General Electric’s Life Science group.

I did that for a couple of years, that was also 2009, and the whole market tanked at that point, and the gentleman who never looked at my ask at Chiron, he was now CEO of a company called Ventana in Tucson, Arizona, which was acquired by Roche in 2008. I called him and said “Hey, listen I’m unfortunately leaving GE. What’s going on down there?” And he said “I need you, we’re building a business, I want you to come in and run it for us.” I went down there and met with the team, and several of those executives down there I had worked with in my prior lives so I knew a bunch of the team, trusted them, knew it would be a great environment and they had done very well in the prior decade, and so my family and I joined them in Tucson.

I spent seven years building a business from scratch inside of a mega company, within the Ventana business, within Roche Diagnostics, focusing on cancer. We worked to take the diagnosis of the cancer with what’s called an H&E (hematoxylin and eosin stain) test where you look at the proteins on a glass slide to better characterize the cancer. What they wanted to do was build a business that said by looking at the test of what’s going on within those cancer cells we can say what drug you should go on. It was a wonderful thing. It was my first experience in really an entrepreneurial type opportunity and the beauty was we were in this large company that was well funded, very stable, and you had access to the resources you needed and they wanted you to build the business.

That was great because it was a build opportunity, versus the GE opportunity that was a fix-it opportunity. The key learning out of that I can say is that typically people who have to come in to fix things, if its a significant enough rebuild, you have to make such tough decisions and do things that are so unpopular that it’s tough to rise out of that within that same organization. It’s great to get the experience, it’s great to put it on a resume and say I transformed that, but it’s really hard. But then when I became part of this build thing and I was like wow this is great, I love to build.

You’re building a company that is going global, but are continuing to build teams locally in Baltimore. How did you make this decision?

From the beginning there was the question should we do it here or not. When I was hired we had about 50 people and it was predominantly what was called a clinical testing laboratory and we wanted to transform it into an IVD (in vitro diagnostic device) molecular diagnostic company. So we had a choice. Do we want to do that here? Or do we want to pick it up and take it to San Francisco, take it to Boston, take it to San Diego, one of those hotbeds in this field. And we said no. Let’s commit to Baltimore.

We knew this was a risk, but saw it as a reward as well. We have to recruit people in, but the reward is that they don’t get pulled and sucked into other companies. If you’re in Cambridge you could hop around wherever you want but here people will stay. This location in Canton is our second site. We have another in Tindeco Wharf which is where our clinical testing lab and back office is, and this is the IVD development and manufacturing building. Our vision here is ultimately to have a ground up, purpose-built facility in one building or in a campus setting and to be much bigger than we are today here in Baltimore. It’s going to take about two years to build that so we are talking to people right now to get that started. So in a couple years when we’re full on into manufacturing and shipping globally, we’re going to be able to stay here.

Our Series B was in 2017. We’re 200 people now, and we’re initiating our Series C, so we’re in the middle of another funding round right now. Our ambition is that we complete that within this year and then hopefully, if the market holds, we would IPO towards the end of 2020, that we’d be able to be a public company. In this space there’s only two products that have ever been FDA approved as a kitted IVD product. One is from Illumina, which is a small test for RAS (a genetic mutation that is a resistance marker used to exclude treatment), the other is by Thermo Fisher, which is a 22 gene assay used only in lung cancer.

What we’re trying to do is build our tissue based test, which is a 500+ gene test, as a fully comprehensive test that has everything you need to know from a DNA standpoint. We believe that we will be the first FDA approved test in the world that is going to do that and little PGDx out of Baltimore is going to get there.

What is it about PGDx that keeps you and your team so motivated?

I think there’s multiple drivers of why people want to be here, that helps us to bring talent in, and then what keeps them here. I have some quick buckets, but it’s different for different people.

One is we are trying to empower the fight against cancer. At the end of the day this is about a patient. This is about all of the people who are impacted by cancer, we all experience it. That is what we are really trying to impact.

The second is it’s cool science. There are so many people here who are so smart — a lot smarter than I am — who just love science, and they love to innovate. Originally the founders’ question was how do we provide the testing out of our lab in Baltimore? Then they realized that no, we want to help people all over the world so how do you take that science, instead of sending a sample to Baltimore, how do we send our lab all over the world? Like right now we do testing in China. We send our kits there and they test so it’s just cool and it’s a wonderful experience.

So you have the mission of patients, you have the science, and then you have this whole thing of what we’re doing has never been done. It’s innovation, it’s fun, it’s energizing. People can get up in the morning and say that no one has ever made the FDA submission that we’re making. Those three things are huge talent pulls for us, we can sit there and talk to people and if they are the right kind of people that we want, that’s gonna be their driver. And for me, it’s those three things. This is important to me from a patient standpoint. My wife’s father died of lung cancer, unfortunately, and we’ve seen so many people impacted by it and I’ve seen the positive results that personalized medicine has.

And that means something to me. Life is too short, you really need to enjoy what you do and I think so many times we get caught up in either the career ladder or the shiny penny or whatever and what I’m really trying to say is that it needs to be more about happiness. I become extraordinary happy in this role doing what we do and having success versus another job at say a large company where it’s a great title or a big position, but those companies are not as rewarding to me doing what I do now. I think people in general need to say ‘Do it because it makes you happy,’ not for other motivations.

And I wasn’t that way, I was tracking and tracking and it was titles and responsibilities and this and that and I think maybe when you get to a place where’re you are actually really happy you reflect on that and say ‘Wow now I’m lucky.’ I loved some of my jobs and the people and so forth and now I just love it. It’s hard when you’re going through it, I didn’t realize it, it’s kind of like how do you tell people that, how do you transfer that? That’s hard. But that is just the one thing that I think, I would say I am lucky that I am happy and that I’m where I am but if I thought through it I would have made some different decisions. I made it. I got lucky, that it all worked out, but I made some decisions where it wasn’t for the right reasons along the path. I’m not sure how we transfer that knowledge to other people and get it so that they believe it.

What’s your advice for people at other points in their careers that can help them find their happiness?

Well, we didn’t really talk about this, but it’s important to fail. If you’re fortunate enough to be around the right kind of people — your mentors and your managers and friends — they’re there to support you and let you fail safely. You learn from that and it makes you better. Across everything I’ve ever done I’ve failed, you use that and what I tend to find right now in the organization, especially with less experienced people, is they are averse to fail. They don’t want to fail and I think that can be a mistake. You learn more by failing than you do actually by succeeding.

We all have to succeed eventually, you have to succeed more than you fail and the wins need to be more profound than the epic failures, but you need to do both. I tend to find right now, in part of our workforce anyways, is that people who have less experience seem to be very nervous and fearful of failure. I think that holds you back. It’s better to fail quickly, it can’t be epic, but most people here can’t bring this company down. Even if they fail — say that a study failed — well did we write it correctly? Should we redo it? Did you find something that now we can address and turn that into an opportunity? It’s okay! Instead they get all nervous and everything and I think it slows you down. It all goes back to the yin and yang, the balance of work and life, but also in failure and success there are balances as well.

What is something that you do that keeps you charged up and ready to go?

With my family living at our home in New Jersey, when I’m home, I’m home. I love being with my family and it makes it even more rewarding and positive because, you know, absence makes the heart grow fonder. You’re away for the week and you get home and it’s great. You pet the dog, you get to be with the wife and the kids, and enjoy your time together.

That really is important to me, you need to have great friend and family balance and I don’t mean — and I stress this — I think people sometimes misunderstand work-life balance. That’s never a 50/50 proposition. I find that what you need to do is be 100% dedicated in family and in the personal side of your life and then be 100% dedicated into your work. You gotta be here now, in the moment, and that gives more than if I’m down here and I’m working and I’m thinking about home too much or I’m trying to engage in everything going on there. You can’t do everything halfway. It’s not as rewarding, for everything.

I tend to find work-life balance to me is that you have to be committed to what you’re doing at the moment and that gives you balance versus if you’re trying to be a 50/50 then you don’t do either well. And if you’ve done a good job things can continue. That’s your measure. When I leave the family does the family break down? No, it doesn’t. When I leave work does it breakdown? No! That’s a good sign that you’re doing it properly.

Connect with Ward on LinkedIn.

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