Carlos Paya, M.D., Ph.D. – President & CEO, Immune Design

Carlos Paya joined Immune Design in May 2011 as president, chief executive officer and director. Beginning March 2017, he also serves on the board of Fluidigm Corporation, a public life sciences technology and tools company. Dr. Paya was previously the president of Elan Corporation, a pharmaceutical corporation, which was acquired by Perrigo Company, from November 2008 to April 2011. Before joining Elan Corporation, Dr. Paya was at Eli Lilly & Company, a pharmaceutical corporation, from September 2001 to November 2008, as vice president, Lilly Research Laboratories. From January 1991 to August 2001, Dr. Paya was professor of medicine, immunology, and pathology, and vice dean of the Clinical Investigation Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Madrid and underwent postdoctoral training at the Institute Pasteur, Paris, France.

Tell me about your early career.
I trained as a physician scientist and devoted my academic career at the Mayo Clinic, where I served as a professor of medicine, immunology and pathology and vice dean of the Clinical Investigation Program. My research focused on the role the immune system plays in causing chronic diseases. I took my learnings from academia and translated them first into drug discovery targeting the immune system and then, ultimately, into late-stage drug development and business at Eli Lilly & Company, where I served as vice president, Lilly Research Laboratories. My later role as president of Elan Corporation increased my knowledge of market dynamics and the running of a complex, commercial biotechnology company.

How did the concept for Immune Design come about?
Immune Design was founded in late-2008 and was guided by key visionaries in the field of immunology, including Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Ralph Steinman. Its focus was on redesigning the immune system within a patient’s body to rebalance it and cure chronic diseases such as cancer. Two technologies were licensed by the company that together provide a novel, innovative approach to prime and boost a patient’s immune system.

How was the first year in business?
I joined Immune Design in 2011 and redirected its focus toward cancer immunotherapy. Additionally, I reprioritized resources and projects, brought in additional leaders, and raised capital to build the company to where we are today.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our company does not yet have commercial products/therapeutics on the market for patients. However, our long-term strategy is to be a fully-integrated pharmaceutical company leader in immunotherapy for rare cancer first.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
During the first years, the company streamlined as we directed our focus on cancer immunotherapy and stopped non-core projects. Today, we have grown to more than 60 employees and are poised to start pivotal trials this year.

How do you define success?
Success for us now is to successfully translate very novel, innovative concepts on immune system design into product candidates and show that they are active and safe. Success tomorrow will be seeing these products in the marketplace prolonging cancer patients’ lives significantly and, ideally, curing them.

What is the key to success?
Three things in this order: 1) a top talent team as our workforce – intelligent, passionate, hardworking and willing to do things no one has tried before, 2) novel technologies that can address diseases that were untreatable, and 3) capital. All three, coupled with perseverance in the face of adversity, and some luck.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Drug development is an art that incorporates science. Therefore, it’s unpredictable and complicated so one must be humble and open-minded as to how to approach it.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Adversity brings opportunity.”

What are some of your favorite books?
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Top talent leaving an organization due to miscommunication.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Knowing that adversity is a learning opportunity, and that I will be able to apply that knowledge in my next steps forward.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Keep your eyes wide open – building a company is not a walk in the park. We all remember the early successes, but the large majority of successful companies go through multiple rounds of adversity and discouragement.

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Interviews are conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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