Alexandra “Sandra” Glucksmann, Ph.D.
Company: Cedilla Therapeutics
Sandra Glucksmann never does the same thing twice.
“Every company I have been a part of is in a different area than what I’ve done before. It keeps me fresh, keeps me challenged and keeps me thinking strategically,” she said. “I’ve always felt like if I’ve done it before, maybe I won’t be thinking as sharply.”
She has been pursuing this “continuous education” for as long as she can remember, from her childhood through to various positions at Millennium Pharmaceuticals and starting her own company, Cedilla Therapeutics.
Glucksmann knew early on that she wanted to get into biology and help people—but she didn’t want to be a doctor because she hated hospitals. Eventually, she would complete a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago and head to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a postdoctoral position at MIT.
She went from MIT to Millennium quite by chance: A close friend was heading to Kendall Square for an interview and asked her to bring her CV over.
“At the time, Millennium was not many people, it was mostly still an idea. I met [CEO] Mark Levin, who totally captivated me with the idea of genomics. The idea of being able to define genetic mutations that affect disease was something that was very exciting to me,” she said.
She joined as a bench scientist in 1993, working her way up the ranks to become a vice president in its science unit. Then, at Levin’s suggestion, she took a role on the corporate side of the business. After 13 years at Millennium, she left to follow her passion and be part of starting companies.
“I did that with Cerulean and I did the same thing at Editas. I was the first employee of both Cerulean and Editas,” she said. She was the senior vice president of R&D at Cerulean, the nanoparticle biotech which eventually sold off its anti-cancer assets and became Daré Bioscience’s route to the public markets via reverse merger. She then served as the chief operating officer at Editas, the first company, along with partner Allergan, to test a CRISPR drug in humans that edits DNA within the body.
When she figured she’d accumulated enough fundraising, operations and strategy know-how, Glucksmann knew it was time to start her own company. She headed to Third Rock Ventures to get underway.
A few months later, Cedilla was born.
“What drove me to launch Cedilla was the ability to bring new drugs to patients in a space where we knew they were needed with an approach that I thought would help us to crack the nut of protein stability,” she said.
It’s not always possible to inhibit oncogenes, the mutations responsible for the overexpression of cancer-driving proteins, Glucksmann said. Instead of blocking the cancer-driving genes, Cedilla is looking to degrade the proteins they encode by targeting the proteins’ stability.
Her job as a CEO differs from her previous experience as a COO and head of science, as it involves a lot of delegating and thinking rather than a lot of doing, she said.
“And not only is it important to delegate, but it is also important to bring people along if you have to make decisions. How do you engage people in the discussion? And when a decision is made, how do you get people to come along for the ride, how do you provide the broadest context to get people excited about the journey you have to embark on?" she said.
Though her job—and Cedilla’s work—is not always easy, Glucksmann turns challenges into opportunities or responsibilities. She spends a lot of time with potential investors and thinking about fundraising in an efficient way.
“As the CEO, it is my primary job to capitalize the company, to raise enough funds to get us to the next value inflection point. That’s not always fun,” she said. And even though fundraising is important, developing the team is equally important.
“The people are the value of the company—they're what makes things possible.”
The only thing Glucksmann would change is to make money grow on trees, but short of that, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love what I do and if it were easy, it would be boring,” she said.
She keeps up her “continuous education” through board memberships at companies in different countries and with people she hasn’t worked with before. And she serves on the board of Women in the Enterprise of Science and Technology, an organization that supports women in the field.
“I don’t feel like I, myself, have suffered from discrimination. … But I have been conscious as I get older and more advanced in my career that there is—I don’t want to call it a boy’s club—but there’s a way to behave in order to be successful as you get more senior,” she said. “As a woman, I'm conscious that I need, potentially, to be more forceful in order to be heard.”
It’s a balancing act, of staying true to herself and connecting with people within the company but being able to “display the authority and drive that people expect from a CEO.”
She’s not sure if it’s gender-based, but everyone needs to be aware of the different roles they need to fill on a daily basis.
“I think that because men have been in the workforce longer than women, there’s an unconscious bias that exists. We need to be aware of those unconscious biases and deal with them,” she said.
Her advice for men and women is the same: If you want a promotion, more responsibility, or to take on a new role, ask for it.
“Define what you want to accomplish in a company and provide a business context. Why does this make sense, why is it if I take on a role, it is going to be better for the company?”
She urges people earlier in their careers to be their own champion and not to assume that superiors are going to automatically recognize and reward hard work. And if someone says no? Ask why.
“‘No’ is the first step of a negotiation. If somebody says no, ask what you need to accomplish or demonstrate to take on that role. You don’t have to be aggressive—you should create a dialogue—but do ask."