Tales from the Trenches with Sean Nolan

As CEO of gene therapy pioneer AveXis, Sean Nolan helped shatter the record for Chicago-area biotech acquisitions — three times over — when he facilitated the 2018 sale of the company to Novartis for almost $9 billion. In his time at AveXis, Sean grew the team to more than 400 people, took the company public and quintupled its stock value. Sean’s journey in healthcare, however, began all the way back in 1991, a long way from the CEO seat: Starting an entry level sales job at Abbott, Sean excelled, rose to be the senior director of sales operations in just under 13 years. Since then, he has helped facilitate massive growth at each company he’s been a part of over his relatively short career in healthcare.

Last month, Sean joined us at Tales from the Trenches™ to discuss his perspective on life sciences in Chicago, reflect on his successes and failures and share where he believes the industry is going next.

Read some of our key takeaways from the event:

On being a great executive

“I never wanted to let anyone down, including myself. You may not be the smartest or the best person on the team, but you can always work hard, prepare and work to become a good teammate and leader of people. And I think that’s something that’s fundamental.”

What to look for in employees at a startup

“Hiring for a small startup, I wanted people that were successful at big companies. Big companies are great at teaching you how to do things the right way: There’s a lot of process, there’s a lot of really smart people and you know what good looks like. I wanted to marry that with people that have worked at successful startups, because that is a very different environment. I wanted to make sure that I had people who could bring those two sets of experiences together, because the mindset that you have to have as an entrepreneur starting a company is so different than what [behaviors are] normally rewarded at a big company.”

Good versus great investors

“I always like the investors that are in it for the long term. You need folks that…are not here to flip the company at IPO. You want the ones that have a track record of picking successful companies and working with management. I always wanted to get investors that were generally supportive of management versus trying to control everything. You want the ones that say ‘Listen, we’re going to be right sometimes and we’re going to be wrong sometimes, but ultimately we’re going to trust the management team to do what they say and as long as they’re being transparent, we’ll work with them.’ The sooner you can build trust, the more rope you get.”

“The sooner you can build trust, the more rope you get.”

Advice to others building a career

“Always believe in yourself. You have to believe in what you’re doing — particularly if you’re the person starting [the company] or you’re early on [stage]. You have to believe that what you’re doing is going to be beneficial, that it’s going to be successful and that you can help make that happen. You have to have that belief that you can get it done, because if you don’t, no one else will believe you.

“I also feel strongly that you have to be very self-aware. You have to know what you don’t know. The most dangerous thing in my opinion is the person who thinks they know everything.

“The most dangerous thing in my opinion is the person who thinks they know everything.”

So, you need to be confident but you need to be self-aware. And the last one is that you really have to trust the people you hire. At a certain point, if things continue to progress, the company’s too big for you to do and oversee everything so you have to adjust your management styles.”

On work-life balance

“Listen, I don’t know if anyone can really balance it. I mean, everyone talks about work-life balance but it’s super hard…You have to be real around: ‘Hey it looks like I’d be gone four nights a week effectively. Can we do this? Is this going to work?’ Because that puts a lot of pressure on your spouse to deal with the kids, and the homework, and the sports and maybe they’re working too…I love spending a Saturday at the soccer field or the ballpark more than anything but telling the kids what’s going on, and at least [being] up front and getting everyone to recognize what it’s going to be [like] — and then, to the best of your ability, when you’re home, be home… It’s like chasing windmills, you’re just never going to get it. But what you can do is take a day off here and there, and leave the phone at home if you’re going to go to the soccer field. It’ll be little things but there’s no great answer.”

Want to hear from more healthcare innovators like Frank? Join us for our next Tales from the Trenches™ with Debra Geihsler, on July 30.