May 3, 2023
Sandra Fenwick: Welcome to her story. I’m Sandi Fenwick, CEO, emeritus at Boston Children’s Hospital. I’m here today with Sherri Oberg, who is the CEO and Co-founder of Particles for Humanity. Welcome, Sherri.
Sherri Oberg: Thanks for having me, Sandi.
Sandra Fenwick: You are going to hear from Sherri, who is truly a multi-talented, interesting woman leader. And so Sherri, I’m gonna jump right in and and say that frankly, I knew you when. Boy, you were a graduate student getting your MBA at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and boy, have you been on an interesting journey and path since then with so many accomplishments? You are, have been an, a venture capitalist. You’ve been a startup, CEO, of a number of life science public and private companies sent for the last 30 years, and you are currently a board member of a number of organizations. You’re a wife and a mother and a world traveler. So Sherri, I’m sure everyone would love to hear your leadership journey.
Sherri Oberg: Sure. So my career path has always been interesting. When I reflect on it I always have a plan, but these opportunities come along and I tend to, stumble along opportunities that I end up pursuing. But, after, as I mentioned, I was really interested in medicine and I went back to business school to dive in. Fully, not only to get some skills, but to really learn more about the healthcare industry and figure out where you go through the corporate recruiting process and find a job in the healthcare industry. So that was my game plan. And and what, what happened was my second year in business school, I was living off campus with four, with five, four other people, two guys and two girls. And I was chairing this event called Career Expo. And this was, I think that’s actually where I met you, you were one of the panelists at Career Ex Vote and This was in the days before the internet, and if you wanted to learn about different careers, you had to talk to people about them. And so we tuck was where I went to business school. It was in Hanover, New Hampshire. Out of the mainstream of of corporate life. So we invited executives from all different industries to come up and speak to us, and I was the chair of this whole event and it organized everything. And on Saturday morning was when the event was, and I, it was, I had to get in there early to get everything set up. And I’m not a morning person and I was late. And so I borrowed my male housemate’s car to drive in. And get things going. And as I was driving in, I saw one of the panelists walking to campus, so I pulled over to offer him a ride. And as I pulled over, I looked inside this car that I had borrowed from my male housemate and realized he had taken it to a poker party the night before, and there were so many beer cans and peanuts on a seat that I literally had to get out of the car. And load these beer cans and throw ’em in the back of the car so that the panelist could get in. So of course I am mortified and the panelist thinks that this is hysterical. And he starts asking me what I was interested in doing after business school. And I told him I was interested in healthcare. And he said, have you ever thought about venture capital? And I said, I don’t even know what venture capital is. And he said we’re a venture capital firm that’s invited in investing in the biotechnology industry. That was just getting started. And he said, why don’t you come to New York and and we’ll talk about, venture capital and see if this is something that you might be interested in. So I went down to New York. I got a job offer, and then I thought I better figure out if this is a, a job I want, I should probably go and talk to some other venture capital firms that are to compare and contrast this offer with other things. And. When I sent out my resume and could not even get one interview, I realized this must be a pretty good job. So I jumped at it. And so again, it was a plan. I had a plan, but the opportunity came along and it turned out to be an incredibly interesting job. And I was in, venture capital in the ear. This was the mid eighties. Venture capital was an early industry and biotech was really early. There was. I was there at the time that Biogen and Genentech were just going public. Our firm was the largest shareholder in Biogen, held two seats on the board, and they had invested in 13 other companies in the biotech space, all of which were going public. And my job was to run around and talk to the scientists and figure out what they were gonna do next and position our firm to invest in these new companies if as they got started. So it was just a really. A time when anything was possible and a lot of really interesting technology was getting started. And I was a history major with an M B A investing in really early stage highly technical things. So I was on a very steep learning curve. Which made it very fun and interesting to me. And and I invested in this company that called Metamorphics which was a fascinating company that was started actually by the head of organ transplantation at Children’s Hospital who was perplexed by the problem that nine times outta 10. Children he couldn’t get children the organ that they needed and they would die. But if he could get them the donor organ that they need needed, nine times out of 10, they would go on to live a normal, healthy life. So his solution to this problem was to work with Bob Langer at m i t to invent a limitless supply of donor organs outside the body that could be implanted so that no child would ever die. On the waiting list. And this was, a really kind of Buck Rogers way, innovative technology. And those were the kinds of things that were getting funded in those days. And so we invested in this company and I was very excited about it. But I, and my plan of being a venture capitalist and continuing to invest in these exciting technologies was going just great. And I came back from maternity leave with my first child, my daughter, and this company that I was so excited about had fired. Its CEO was behind on all of its milestones, had three months of cash, and it looked like the whole thing was gonna be a write off. And I decided that I had gotten my partners into this mess and I better do something to get them out of this mess. So I jumped, I started thinking about jumping in as to run the company as CEO and as I was evaluating, and I remember talking to one of the partners at the venture firm that I was working at, a guy named Ted Dinner Smith, who’s just been a wonderful, another wonderful long-term mentor for me. And he said, Sherri, You know this firm, you see everybody’s seeing lemons and lemonade and he goes, I think you’re onto something. And and, but I went to the scientist and again, cuz I’m not a scientist, I wanna make sure the science was sound. And I said, I’m thinking about jumping in as CEO, but before I do, I wanna make sure the science is sound. And he goes, Sherri, the science is sound, but you are jumping on the Titanic. As it is heading to the bottom of the ocean and trying to turn it around. And I said, really? I said, if, are you sure the science works? And he says, yes, it’s the problem is you’re never gonna convince these investors to, to change their mind. They’re so negative. And I said, I think the problem is you, we need business leadership and a business plan that can make progress quickly. And if we can achieve that, I think the investors will be okay. And what we did was we had the head of organ transplantations expertise was in liver, and he was focused on growing livers, which on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the hardest thing that you could imagine growing a liver was a 12. And from a business perspective in those days, the market was primarily alcoholics and people that weren’t covered by reimbursement. And so there wasn’t really big business opportunity. But there was this skunkworks project that was going on in the back of the lab where they were growing cartilage in the forms of noses and ears, and they put. They grew an ear on the back of a mouse and it ended up on the cover of Time Magazine and Jay Leno picked up on it and was made a joke about putting a Q-tip in the ear on the back of this mouse. And so I, the lemonade that I saw in this was, I said to the scientist, if you could make ears and noses, could you make knee replacements? Cartilage Ortiz, cuz that’s like a billion dollar market. And they said, yeah, I think we could do that. So I jumped into the company as CEO and we had three months to see if we could get some data in cartilage. And we found some retired greyhounds who had blown out their cartilage in their knees and and they were lame. And we put cartilage implants in their knees and put them on a treadmill and showed that they went from being lame to being able to run again. And we were able to get that done in three months. So that breathed new hope into the venture. Capitalists, they put in more money which gave me about a year to go talk to, the bigger companies in the space. And by the end of that year, we had a buyer. And an acquirer of the company who bought the company at a price that everybody made a lot of money on. And I discovered that as much as I loved being, as I liked being a venture capitalist, I loved being an entrepreneur. So anyways, so that’s how I transitioned from venture capital to my first CEO role.
Sandra Fenwick: And Sherri, you then went on to form an another company, actually I believe it was in your basement or your garage. And and really ran that for really a number of years. And it was such an exciting opportunity. Another exciting opportunity. And and yet, The trials and tribulations of life science are what they are. And you were just having known you through that phase you were just truly one of the most determined inspiring wonderful leader of that company. Maybe you can talk just a little bit about that and then get us to where you are today.
Sherri Oberg: Sure. So that was another one where, I had a plan and then there was an opportunity that came along. So after we sold Metamorphics, I found out I was pregnant again. And I had learned that as an entrepreneur you can’t take even a three week vacation, let alone a three month maternity leave. So I really knew how important that maternity leave was gonna be. So I decided instead of. Doing something right away. I would consult for a year, have the baby interview with the, for CEO jobs in a venture backed company, and then start something after maternity leave. So the game plan was to, to go to a venture backed company as CEO, and I got. Two offers with venture backed companies that had a lot of money already in the bank. And then Bob Langer, who I had worked with at Amorphic came to me and he goes, Sherri, why don’t we start a company together? And and I remember going on vacation with my husband and, saying, I, to try to decide what I was gonna do. And I said, I think I wanna do this thing with Bob Langer and my husband said, Are you crazy? These other companies have, millions of dollars that they’ve raised in the bank. They’ve already started and Bob Langer, you, he, you don’t even have a company yet. And I said if I can’t raise millions of dollars, I have no business being a CEO. And I know Bob Langer really well. I worked with them in a situation, when we jumped into Metamorphics with three months of cash. That was a very stressful situation and that. You really get to know people when things aren’t going well, and he and I got along great. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and and worked shoulder to shoulder with me to turn things around, which a lot of big names scientists, when things don’t go well they start trying to separate themselves. Do you know Bob dove right in. So I just decided this is somebody that I really enjoyed working with and that he had a lot of big ideas and. So our game plan, again, our plan was to look at a, he’s a prolific inventor with thousands of patents. And so we were gonna go through his patent portfolio and figure out which opportunity was the one that we were gonna work on to, to to start a company around. And we looked and looked and we couldn’t find anything that really had the right mix of, of what would be required to raise venture capital. And was, you were starting to get a little frustrated actually, and. All of a sudden Bob comes into, okay, calls me up on the phone and he goes, Sherri, and this is, I’m working in the basement of my house as you, as you referenced, this is all still in the basement. And he said, Sherri, I just was hired as a consultant or not as a consultant where people have asked me to be a consultant to solve this problem where ultrasound is, The only imaging procedure that doesn’t have a drug or contrast agent that makes it work better. And they’ve they have a way of approaching it that they’re struggling to, to find technical success and they want me to help them with it. Should I help them or is this something that. We might do together. And I’m like, Bob, do not help them with this. This is a billion dollar idea and this is our idea. So again, from a stranger out of nowhere comes this opportunity. That was the beginning of an idea that turned out to be a big enough idea that we were able to Over a 20 year period accomplished amazing things. The, they, we hired an amazing management team, many of whom that went on to become CEOs themselves or members of the National Academies. An amazing board where you were a member. Of people that gave me wonderful advice. We invented three drugs that went into human clinical trials, one of which then went through all phases of the, of the regulatory process in both the United States and Europe. We built a commercial manufacturing facility that in passed a F D A inspection. We closed partnerships all over the world and raised a hundred million in venture capital. We did an I P O. And it was just an incredible learning journey. Every six months, my job completely changed because everything that I had learned became irrelevant because we were onto the next thing. And that made it really fun and exciting for me. And I make it sound like it was a straight line of success because we accomplished all this, but you were on the board. And every success was like 10 failures along the way to get there. And so I, I get a lot of joy out of reading. Reading these inspirational quotes about, about, a big part of moving things forward is being willing to take risks. And one of my favorites is from Winston Churchill who says, success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. So I think you, you saw that, we. We had a lot of setbacks, but we kept at it, and as a result, we kept making progress. And I, when I interview people for these early stage jobs, they mean all these companies go through this. I saw that in my venture capital life, which was one of the things that kept me energized through the the many issues that we came through is because what I saw as a venture capitalist was what separated the good companies from the bad were the. People that would stick with it and not give up. And so when I interview people, I always ask them, do you like rollercoaster rides? Because some people really hate that. That feeling of the ups and downs that you have in a roller coaster rides for me, I get this, adrenal adrenaline rush from roller coaster rides where you think you’re gonna die and then you don’t. It’s like that in these venture capital backed companies where you hit. A bump along the road and you think that’s gonna be the end of the company. But you pull the team together and you figure out what’s a way to get over it, and then you live to see another day. So it’s not for everybody, but for me, it’s been really fun.
Sandra Fenwick: Sherri, I was gonna ask you what do you think were the skills, competencies or personal attributes, and I think you just went through them. It started with determination in the back. It is clearly about enthusiasm and it is clearly around tenacity and resilience and, if those weren’t the things you were going to say, it’s certainly what I heard and I know of you and I think those are absolutely what. What has made you the incredible, not only leader, but one who people really want to follow and to be around. And I think that’s what’s so important about a leader is that, that determination that keeps pulling people along the path when it’s, when the rough really starts getting. Even rougher. So Sherri, as a woman leader, you you clearly are a pioneering adventurer I would call you. What have been some of the, either the challenges or, in some respects, I would say sometimes difficulties, but sometimes benefits of being a woman. Have there been any instances that you could talk about.
Sherri Oberg: I get asked that question all the time and I wish I had something really insightful to say, but I really don’t. Think of myself. I don’t think of my, I tend to not look at the differences that I have as being a woman. I tend to try to find the areas of commonality and so people always ask me, is it, what’s it like to be a woman leader? I don’t think that way. I think more in terms of what do I have in common with the people that I’m working with and whether it’s, women versus men or whether it’s. Myself as a business person working with scientists, I try to find, the areas that, we’re all really excited about the technology and so I, I try to find that shared interest. Right now I’m working in the global health space and I’m an American and I’m deal, and I’m working a lot with Africans and. I try to focus on what, where, whether our sheer interests, there’s so many interests that, we’re so different in many ways, but there’s so much in humanity that brings us together. So it, as a woman leader, I tend to just think about what do I have in common with these with these other people that I’m working with.
Sandra Fenwick: Thank you, sir. We’ve heard so many so many different stories and that truly is a theme where people don’t tend to really focus on that. You’re aware of it. You take advantage of where you can, but you also look for those commonalities. And so Sherri, you mentioned global health. Could you talk a little bit about this most truly unbelievably impactful company that you are now, again with Dr. Robert Langer. Bob Langer working with again. So could you talk a little bit about this most recent role that you’re playing?
Sherri Oberg: This is another one where I had a plan and then an opportunity came along. After 20 years at atse, I decided 20 years was a nice round number and it was time to do something different. And so I transitioned the CEO role and then I went on a. Sabbatical where I did all kinds of interesting things that I never had time to do when I was running a public company. I went to Nepal and I trekked to Mount Space Camp and I worked on a film to about the need to change education that was. In that ended up premiering at Sundance Film Festival. And during that time I was unwinding and separating myself from the company because if you run a c if you’re a founder of a company, y your whole life is completely intertwined with that company that you can’t thank clearly for a while. And so the sabbatical was a good time to clear my head space and think about what I wanted to do. And so my. Plan was, I loved running companies. I felt like I had the energy, I wanted to do it again. And so I figured I’ll go find a CEO role in a venture back company. And so I started interviewing around at a number of companies and what I realized was, part of what I had thought re reflected on during my sabbatical was, and what I was seeing was, during my sabbatical, I was thinking about how I really. I wanted to do this again, but to me, impact is really important. And I wanted to impact, I wanted to do something that was gonna impact a lot of people. And I also was thinking about how our healthcare system is so focused on the end of life and keeping and trying to save people from dying at the end of life rather than keeping them healthy. And from the beginning. So I was Interested in doing something big and keeping people healthy. And I was going through these venture capital backed interviews and everybody was talking about either end of life, chronic diseases that they were funding or They were focused on orphan drug orphan drugs that are Desi, super important drugs for a narrow set of people. So for those people, hugely impactful. But since I had been through this before at Ecosphere, I knew how hard it was gonna be. I wanted to do something that was gonna have an impact on millions of people. So I was not really finding something that was the right fit. And then who comes along? But Bob Leer and he calls me up and he said, Sherri, A few years ago, bill Gates gave me a gazillion dollars to invent a technology to eradicate malnutrition in the developing world. We’ve invented something really interesting and it works, and now we need somebody to figure out how to get it out of the labs and into the villages that need it most. Do you have any time, and I’m like, Time to work with you and Bill Gates on World Hunger. Yes, I have time for that. And it just hit exactly what I was thinking about and that malnutrition, if you can keep nutrition, is something that keeps people healthy from, from day one in utero. It’s nutrition is important. The first thousand days of a child’s life is super important for setting their whole life history their whole life. Future. And so it was hitting what I was interested in keeping people healthy. And malnutrition is something that affects billions of people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. So it started out as a consulting project and we now, we started a company on about four years ago, and our lead product is for vitamin A deficiency. Which is a huge problem across that 250 million children under five years old have, it causes 10 million women to go that are pregnant, to go blind every year. It suppresses your immune system. It makes, its a big cause of death in those parts of the world. And what we’ve done is encapsulated vitamin A. Which is very unstable in light and heat and all the climate conditions that you see in in Africa. And by encapsulating it, we protect it from all the things that cause it to degrade and put it in food that people eat widely, wheat flour and sugar and bion, which almost everybody in West Africa eats. And then those foods act like a Trojan horse, that when the people eat it, they get the vitamin A. And then that is a strategy for addressing vitamin a’s efficiency at scale. And we’re about a year from commercialization. So it’s been a very interesting journey.
Sandra Fenwick: Sherri, this is the company that you’re talking about, the impact on children and women really, not just in Africa, but I’m sure that this is a challenge. In many other parts of the world is just so incredible. There’s as I said, I think of you as a pioneering adventurer and some people might be cautious or afraid of taking on some of the ventures, whether it’s the companies professionally that you’ve led some of the trips that you’ve been on the sabbatical that you took, where people are sometimes afraid of taking a break. And doing something that really makes you rethink what you wanna do for the next time period. Could you talk a little bit about, how important that was for you to take a break and to go back and reassess because you’re as excited, enthusiastic, committed as you’ve ever been. It didn’t, you didn’t miss a beat for that time period, but it was a really important thing for you to do.
Sherri Oberg: It, it is very important and there’s no way that I could have jumped right out of Aere into. Another role like that in a thoughtful way. I would’ve just been, continuing to move without really taking the time to reflect. When you’re running a public company that is in, high tech area, you’re spending all your time thinking ahead for the company rather than reflecting back on what you’re trying to get out of your life. And so that time to reflect really gave me. Grounded me in a way that H helped me choose my spot rather than just jumping from one thing to the next.
Sandra Fenwick: Yeah. And Sherri, as you think, as you’ve talked about path, either as versus opportunity or plus opportunity because that really has been so much of what we’ve heard over and over again is that, everybody has this idea of what they. What they think they’re going to do. But it’s those incredible opportunities and the people. So it’s opportunity and people that if you combine them, they make an incredible difference in where you go and where you end up. Isn’t that true?
Sherri Oberg: I think that’s definitely true and the people part of it. There’s some, there are some people in my life that just keep that, that have, I’ve maintained friendships with and I keep doing interesting things with Bob Langer is one. I’ve now I’ve started three companies with him. I’ve pretty much done, ever since I was 31 years old, I’ve done something with him professionally. You’re an example. I started, working with you when I was in my twenties, Ted Dinner. Smith was somebody that I recognized, that I mentioned. He was the person who told me that I was seeing lemonade when others were seeing lemons. That was, I was in my thirties. He was the one who got me involved with the film. About the need to change education when I was on my sabbatical and took me along a journey of, thinking deeply about the education space and tying the threads together. Everything that I’d learned, having gone through the education system myself, being a chair, being on the board of trustees at Dartmouth, raising kids through our existing. Education system, but also being a CEO in an entrepreneurial world and seeing what the need, the skillsets and needs were in an economy that’s gonna be driven a lot by technology and innovation. The mismatch of what those needs are and what our educational system we’re producing. If it wasn’t for Ted, I wouldn’t have done that. So yes, it’s a big combination of kind of, of people and plans and opportunities. So I’ve had a full life. I’m lucky.
Sandra Fenwick: So Sherri what’s the best piece of advice you could give to To aspiring women or to men. A lot of men watched this wonderful story and this wonderful show. So what’s the best piece of advice you could give to people?
Sherri Oberg: I, for me it’s dream big and don’t give up, so to me that’s been a a mantra of everything that I’ve done, is it? And when you’re dreaming big, when, and you’re working on really big problems that have an important at impact. When you hit the stumbles along the road, it gives you the motivation to keep going because what you’re working on is important enough to tolerate that and to persevere. So that’s been a big motivator for me. But, and I guess, and a big thing I’ve also learned in my life is to always have a plan, but be, keep your eyes open for opportunities, so those have helped me anyway.
Sandra Fenwick: We just wanna say thank you for a truly wonderful conversation. And Sarah, good luck on Particles Per Humanity. The impact that you will have on so many lives is just incredible. So thank you so much for today.
Sherri Oberg: Thanks for having me. It was great to be with you again, Sandi, so thanks a lot.
Sandra Fenwick: Thank you, Sherri.