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17 June 2021

D, E & I: VIEWS FROM LEADERSHIP SERIES - Dr Jason Mellad, CEO and Co-Founder of Start Codon

Coulter Partners recently talked about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in Life Sciences with Dr. Jason Mellad, CEO and Co-Founder of Start Codon, a Cambridge based accelerator. Dr. Mellad was previously CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix, a company pioneering the development and application of novel epigenetics-based diagnostics and therapeutics.

The business proof is in the outcome and the metrics should convince any doubters that diversity always wins
Dr. Jason Mellad
CEO and Co-Founder, Start Codon

Coulter Partners: Over your career, what has motivated you to champion the agenda for D, E & I and how is it key to business success?

Jason Mellad: A little about my background will help explain why I am so passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion. Growing up as a child of immigrants in the Deep South of the US in the 80s and 90s, was even more challenging than you might imagine. As a sensitive black boy in southern Louisiana, who realised later in life I was gay, I learned early on what it means to have to stand up for yourself. It also taught me the importance of opening the door for the next generation to ensure all can have a seat at the table. Multiple mentors – my parents, teachers and colleagues – have helped me get where I am today and their support has driven my passion for D, E & I. My father was a professor and teacher, my mother a social worker and entrepreneur. These key figures are the source of my interest in science and all that is entrepreneurial. Having spent my early years trying to emulate what they achieved in helping others, I feel it is essential to pay it forward.

The importance of D, E & I for all industries has been demonstrated by countless studies and they have shown that more inclusive boards, investors and companies make better decisions. The business proof is in the outcome and the metrics should convince any doubters that diversity always wins. It is not just morally right to be inclusive but also strategically, commercially and financially advantageous. Among all the revolutions the world has initiated to date – industrial, biotech, CRISPR genome editing, antibody therapeutics etc. – the most innovative and most disruptive we will ever achieve in our lives will be to drive the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. There is such a talent pool of individuals, thought processes and markets that have been excluded historically because a segment of the population has deemed them unworthy of being in the room. D, E & I are all about good business sense as well as what is morally right.

CP: As a CEO of a young company how did you foster this thinking? What were some of the challenges when making the key decisions?

Jason: The challenges were many. Considered “young and inexperienced”, I was offered a great deal of “sage advice”. I once hired a predominantly female team of business development experts and was told that this had never been done before and wouldn’t work. Explaining that I didn’t base my hiring decisions on gender but on performance and capabilities, I went ahead and let the results do the talking. We knocked our sales figures out of the park and proved our point. Even when I was in the process of co-founding Start Codon, one of my peers told me to bring in someone older, white, male and preferably straight as a mentor because nobody would otherwise take me seriously. Sadly, some of these conversations continue today behind the scenes for far too many aspiring entrepreneurs.

The world is, however, moving forward gradually. With more women and more candidates from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds, we are now challenging many socio-economic disparities. We are benefitting from more diversity of thought and professional experience. The D, E & I movement is beginning to bear fruit.

CP: How do we reach those segments and create an even playing field for those who couldn’t access opportunities early in their careers and may have stalled in their progress?

Jason: The solutions are multi-faceted. Those with decision making power have to bring the next generation along. They need to hold the door open, offer training and support, as well as ensure they have a seat at the table. Secondly, we can’t be solely focused on our own socio-economic and cultural segments. That is how to drive true innovation. We need to promote different perspectives and diverse talents. Industry must continue to support educational programmes, apprenticeship schemes and private and public partnerships. Representation and voice matter at every level and on every panel.

At grass roots level we need to start with broader access to education. High quality education opens the door for so many, regardless of background. As the funnel quickly narrows to further progress, we need strong programmes to train the next level. I am involved in a programme called Get In Cambridge to support BAME enrolment at the University of Cambridge, for instance. Following on from access to education, we need programmes to train for jobs and professions, to counter the claim “there just aren’t enough talented individuals out there to enable me to increase diversity”.

Companies should consider a first time CEO or first-time board member and then give them the training, mentorship and support so that they can grow into their roles. All too often we hear the excuse that there aren’t any female or ethnic candidates with experience. There are plenty of talented people who are just not being given the opportunity. Mentor them. At Start Codon we recruit very experienced Chairs who have successfully run multiple companies and pair them with entrepreneurial, first time CEOs from diverse backgrounds – problem solved!

CP: In the last 5-10 years we have seen large-cap Life Science organisations raise their D, E & I profiles significantly. Are smaller/ less mature biotechs thinking just as strategically around diverse leadership and external messaging?

Jason: Large cap pharmaceutical companies are very good at selling the concept of diversity. Just as the Pride movement has largely become a corporate machine and to some degree about appearing “woke”, Big Pharma firms often hire a diversity officer and shout it from the rooftops. How does this translate, however, into policies, practices and true transformation? In biotech it’s more about individuals championing D, E & I and not about hiring an official representative. There are people behind the scenes who are passionate and there is much less public display.

CP: Are there any specific challenges for biotech founders when it comes to D, E & I?

Jason: Most definitely. If you are founder from a traditionally under-represented background the hurdles are already much higher for you. When you enter a room, no-one looks like you, they don’t understand where you are coming from and they might judge you. You have to pitch your idea against more unconscious bias and work harder to get your business off the ground.

We need more diversity among investors particularly for early-stage players and we need a wider pool of Board Directors and Chairs to choose from. Founders will then be in a stronger position to open those doors. As a next step, founders need then to hire their teams. They need a framework to make the right, considered choices and avoid tokenism to recruit the operational talent they need. To effect real change, this must not be a box ticking exercise or merely to meet KPIs. They need to fully understand how their decisions will help drive their success.

CP: Beyond diversity, how do we ensure inclusivity in sometimes traditionally hierarchical organisations?

Jason: A patriarchal view of how best to run a company still prevails and this needs to change. It’s no good all looking different but still acting the same way! A certain kind of empathy and compassion is needed in business that has been lacking for too long. This is why poor decisions have been made around environmental impact, cases of discrimination in the workplace or the introduction of policies that are unfavourable to family life. We need to expand opportunities and ensure inclusion for all. In the board room when making decisions on promotion or flexible working, the quality of life, health and well-being of staff is now being prioritised and this is hopefully how we will go forward. COVID-19 has helped change the emphasis and many myths and gender stereotypes have been dispelled. While we were all working from home and home schooling, we discovered that productivity efficiencies remained high.

CP: Specifically within the Life Sciences, how can we address D, E & I for senior positions which already present very niche talent pools, certain R&D roles for example?

Jason: Coulter Partners and other executive search firms are mostly hiring people in this industry who have been in post somewhere before. We need to upskill this workforce until they are ripe to be headhunted but treat them so well that they stay in post! This does not necessarily mean formalised management training but rather personal development programmes so that they can grow in the organisation. We must look for the potential and map it in those who may not have achieved the formal title of Head of R&D, for instance, but are already doing the work and can grow into the role. Executive recruiters need to convince clients of this potential. It’s not all about metrics – but about the potential to excel. They need to take a chance on them, not allowing them to sink or swim but supporting and measuring their success.

CP: We are often asked in the US to bring in specific diversity candidates to fulfil quotas. What is your view on this sort of approach?

Jason: To be asked to fulfil quotas can be challenging and uncomfortable for a good reason. No-one wants to be singled out or chosen merely because they tick a box, rather than based on their suitability for the role. My aversion to quotas goes back to my formative years. Despite the hard work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the schools in my home town weren’t effectively desegregated until 1996 by a Consent Decree. I faced a lot of antagonism and the accusation then that I gained entry to an elite school just because I was black and not on my own merit. I remember how that affected me psychologically.

My advice would be to tackle this by working with community leaders and networks. For example, OUTbio is an LGBTQ biotech professional network that has just started a chapter in the UK. Such organisations can help phrase questions appropriately and as a partner help identify interested candidates. They can help craft the message to connect in a positive way and avoid the “just out to find a token” trap. Clients must also take responsibility and show the right intentions. When you find diverse candidates for them, they need to explain their stance on diversity and their rationale for making these fundamental changes throughout their organisation. Importantly, they also need to reassure candidates that it’s not simply an exercise in getting smiling, diverse faces on their website!

Dr. Jason Mellad
Dr. Jason Mellad is a scientist entrepreneur passionate about translating innovative technologies into more effective therapies and better patient outcomes. He founded Start Codon to identify and recruit high-potential and disruptive healthcare startups worldwide, seed fund them, and leverage the exceptional resources of the Cambridge (UK) Cluster with an aim to minimise risk and drive their success. Previously, Jason was CEO of Cambridge Epigenetix which has developed a proprietary epigenetic biomarker discovery platform for the development of new diagnostic assays and the identification of novel drug targets. While at Cambridge Epigenetix, he transformed the research tools company into a leading liquid biopsy player and led two successful fundraises (Series B and C) for a total of $49.8m. He has also served as an associate at Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer office of the University of Cambridge. Jason was awarded a Marshall Scholarship to obtain his PhD in Medicine from the University of Cambridge with a focus on the molecular mechanisms regulating vascular remodelling within coronary artery bypass grafts. He has a BSc (Summa Cum Laude) in Molecular Biology and Chemistry from Tulane University.


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