Building a mission-driven company: A fireside chat with Forty Seven, Inc.’s Dr. Mark Chao and Mark McCamish

A race is underway to develop the next major checkpoint inhibitor that harnesses the innate immune system.

At the forefront is Forty Seven, Inc., a clinical stage immuno-oncology company founded in 2015 that developed out of a lab at Stanford University. The company focuses on targeting the CD47 pathway as a way to engage macrophages — the body’s first responders — in fighting tumors.

Last month, CEO Mark McCamish and Co-founder Mark Chao joined us at MATTER to share how they took an idea from the lab to an IPO and the inspiration behind Forty Seven, Inc.

Here are some key takeaways from the conversation.

Dr. Mark Chao: The inspiration for Forty Seven Inc.

“There was a patient that I had the opportunity to take care of that really impacted me at an early phase of my career. She was a patient who had newly diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia. She was a woman in her 30’s who had two beautiful little girls…You could tell that she was somebody with a mission to really do everything she could to be there for her kids…However, her leukemia cells were resistant to everything we were giving her. I vividly remember when I got the latest report results showing the leukemia was still there.

“Patients give tremendous trust to us to navigate times like these, but at that point I felt extremely helpless because I knew there weren’t many options…We tried to work with her to find other centers and universities that might have trials open, but unfortunately, she ended up passing away several weeks later.

“To me that was the moment I realized that we have to do better — we have to do better with therapies that are less toxic. The crazy thing is, when you think about it, we’re using the same drugs today for acute myeloid leukemia that we used 40 years ago. That’s four decades of the same drugs.

We’re using the same drugs today for acute myeloid leukemia that we used 40 years ago. That’s four decades of the same drugs.

“It really dawned on a lot of us, and me, that we have to try to find better drugs. The question we asked was: How do we discover therapies that cure cancer cells but spare normal cells —get rid of the toxicity but keep the efficacy? That’s a pretty simple question, but it’s how Forty Seven actually started.”

Dr. Mark Chao: Innovations in immunotherapy.

“The last decade has been really revolutionary, and [particularly in] the field of immunotherapy, which is essentially using the body’s own immune system and mobilizing it to attack the cancer. A good example is the discovery and advancement of T cell checkpoint inhibitors — drugs that mobilize T cells. This [discovery] has changed the way we think about cancer. There were cancer types we didn’t even think we could find a cure for before, but now we can start to think about that with these therapies.

There were cancer types we didn’t even think we could find a cure for before, but now we can start to think about that with these therapies.

“With all that success, there’s still a lot of unmet need. Now 25 percent of patients generally respond to T cell checkpoint inhibitors, which means that 75 percent don’t. We really have a lot of work here to do. There are thousands of studies with T cell checkpoint inhibitor combinations, and we haven’t seen a lot of advances since these have come out. Our view at Forty Seven is that we have to mobilize the entire immune system to really get a full response.”

Mark McCamish: Build your company around your values.

“You have to be consistent with your core values, and you will then attract the investors that are aligned with your approach. The investors we have, they obviously want to make money, but they also really care about what we’re doing. The science is key, but it’s the people that will make that science happen.

“Investors are interested in the science, but they’re also interested in the team, They want to see that you can operationalize and know how to move [your product] forward. They want to see that your business is aligned with your core vision in a way that makes sense to them. We’ve had a lot of investors that really know the science, and then never invested because it’s not just the science that matters, but also the people and the purpose and how they’re aligned.”

Mark McCamish: Overcoming obstacles.

“You have to focus on helping patients beat their cancer. That means you work through the barriers that you have and do the best you can. Right now, we’re in a great place: We have a molecule that is functional that has shown benefits to patients, and we’ve had increasing interactions with regulatory authorities about potential pathways forward. We also have a second and third molecule that we’re excited to move forward and expand our capabilities. Now we need to balance that, so we have to acquire funding to move that forward to really do our best. In cases like that, you need multiple options because you don’t know what the funding is going to be, and you have to either scale down or up based on the options you have and the resources you can apply to those options.”

Mark Chao: It’s the people that make the company successful.

“The science has been really intriguing and it’s definitely an asset for us, but I would argue that our biggest asset is the people — the company. Our mission is to help patients defeat their cancer, and every single person in our company really believes that. It’s the reason why I love coming to work every day. Regardless of what your role is, you’re tied into this mission and it starts from the top. Our CEO Mark McCamish really espouses this mission and sets deliberate goals to make sure we put patients first. That trickles down and is what motivates us in good times and bad.”