Science will only get you so far in biotech. No matter how ingenious your products are, you will never succeed as a company if you don’t have all the pieces if business development in place. And there is no greater piece than the people piece. As the Chief People Officer of Biomea Fusion, Naomi Cretcher knows that company culture is what is going to make or break her company’s success. Despite everything that went on with COVID and with a recession looming, Naomi is confident that investing on their talent pool with pay off in terms of company success. She joins Ammon Rivera in this episode to tell us what it takes exactly to build an excellent company culture in a biotech company and why the act of building one will give any business its biggest ROI. Tune in!
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Biotech Chief People Officer Discusses How To Build Company Culture
Naomi Cretcher, Biomea Fusion
This episode is with Naomi Cretcher, the Chief People Officer at Biomea Fusion. The interesting thing is that I actually interviewed the CEO of Biomea Fusion, episode 35 with Thomas Butler. Go back and read that. What actually happened was that Naomi was one of the very early listeners of the show. She reached out to me and said, “I’ve been listening to your show. I really like it. I think you need to have our CEO on the show.” Throughout that process, I realized that I wanted to not only interview the CEO, but I also wanted to interview the person that’s bringing the people-aspect of the company, the Chief People Officer, and that happens to be Naomi.
I’m grateful that she decided to come on to the show. I’m glad to have an episode with her, and for you to get a chance to hear her perspective and how she approaches building culture and building a company, and her background on how she got to where she is at. To be fair, I did record this episode a few months before with Naomi. I just haven’t been able to get things out. I’ve got more full episodes coming. Some of those episodes have been recorded and are waiting to get into production. Without further ado, I will let you read about Naomi and learn more about her, and what she’s doing there at Biomea Fusion. I will encourage you to like, subscribe, share. Please reach out to me on LinkedIn. Let’s connect, let’s have a conversation, and let’s keep this going.
Welcome to the show, Naomi Cretcher.
Thank you. It is nice to be here.
It is nice to have you on the show. You and I have been collaborating or going back and forth for quite a while to get this done. I’m glad that we are finally going to have you on and be able to tell your story.
A lot of things have happened since we were talking to you and our company. I’m glad that we are able to do this.
We will talk a little bit about that and get an update on what is going on with Biomea Fusion. It has been a little while since we have had Tom, your CEO, on the show. That was a great episode. In between that time, I had the opportunity to go out and meet your company face to face as you were moving into your new building. I’m sure there has been a lot that has changed since then.
I hope you don’t mind if I tell the readers on the show here how I got connected with you, which is that you were a reader of the show, especially in the early days when I first launched the show. You thought, “It would be cool to have our CEO come on your show.” You reached out and I’m glad you did. I found it intriguing to try and find out more about your background as the Chief People Officer at Biomea Fusion and how you ended up where you are at. Let’s jump into that. What led you into the industry?
When I entered the industry, it was about 2005 and I started at Genentech. That was my first introduction to biotech. Previous to that, my background was in film and video. I was a producer of documentaries, commercials and corporate training videos. That was mainly my career. I got married and I had four kids. I did take some time to be at home with the kids and to help them develop. I feel like that was probably one of the things that taught me the most, how to multitask, how to be patient and how to be empathetic. I didn’t realize that was training me for what I’m doing now. It did because having four kids is interesting, great and challenging at the same time.
When I was ready to go back to work, I was offered a job at Genentech. Part of the role there was to do the organization of the conference booths. That was similar to what I did as a producer because I had to work with unions. I had to deal with creativity and building the booth so it would attract people to our booth. There were some similarities there.
After Genentech, I went to a company called Pharmacyclics. I was employee number 64. I was also working on boots at that company but I also did a little bit of HR and people work where you create environments for the employees. You create a safe place for them and an environment where they feel comfortable and want to be there. Was it incredibly fast and incredibly busy? Yes. What comes with that are challenges for employees because not every employee is the same. You have to look at each employee as an individual and see what their needs and wants are.
I did get approval while I was there and it was acquired by AbbVie for $21 billion. I stayed there for a little bit and took some time off to reflect and figure out what my next steps were. I was able to go to another startup company. That was my wheelhouse. I love the environment of a startup. I love the ability to, as a critical thinker, how to adapt to changes and be empathetic to employees. I decided that was going to be the area that I wanted to focus on. It is going to startups and helping them to get started.
Tom and I have known each other for years and we worked together at Pharmacyclics. I was honored that he even asked me to be on this journey with him to help start this company. I was his second employee. We were in a small building in Palo Alto and then we are in this 30,000-square-foot building in Redwood City. We are up to 70 employees. That is within the last several years. That has been it for me. I do owe this to Tom because he trusted me to be his thought partner and help him grow this company.
I have the opportunity to be there at your offices. It is a nice space. You could see the train tracks on one side. Redwood City is a historic site. It is cool. I hesitate to use the word gentrified but it got this old-school retro look to the architecture of the buildings and the way everything is set up but that is cool for Tom to recognize something and pull you in on this journey, employee number two and to say, “You are going to lead people.” Chief People Officer is a fitting title because, in HR, you got your regulation, your compliance and things like that but you are also tasked with helping the company create a culture. A culture, in many ways, surpasses the science that you are working on. As good as the science is, as good it is going to get. I’m saying the ability to bring a team together can multiply the efforts.
I want to go back because you mentioned you were working in film, which is interesting because I didn’t even know that. I feel super self-conscious trying to create a YouTube channel and my horrible filming mistakes. If you go look at my videos, you are probably thinking, “What is he doing?” Do you study film? What was that journey in that era of your life?
My degree is in radio and television. That was what I originally wanted to go into. After I graduated, it was either moved to New York or LA. I knew that there were people in the San Francisco area that needed video production. I decided to stay up here because I liked the energy up here in the Bay Area. I did that for about five years and that is when I started having kids after.
I would stay in it and work on projects but I couldn’t do it full-time because there was a lot of traveling involved and late hours. A lot of times, I would go on productions and they were 22-hour days. You don’t notice those things because when you love what you are doing, you don’t count the hours. That was not a problem and it was my training. I feel that every step and career I have had was a step to be where I am.When you love what you're doing, you don't count the hours. Click To Tweet
Congrats to you on having a family. Four children is not an easy thing. We talked briefly before this, my wife and I have four children and it has worked but you are helping the next generation of our society anyways. You go to Genentech. You were doing these trade booths and things like that. When is it that you start to transition into the HR aspect of things? How did that work internally?
At Genentech, I did not do any HR work. It was when I left Genentech Pharmac. When I started at Pharmacyclics and went to the startup companies, that is when I was involved in HR, hiring, retention, culture and values. Most importantly is that I have to give credit to the people that I hire because they are a part of this whole ecosystem. I have hired people that are stellar at what they do. I have learned from them and they have learned from me. I want to make sure that everybody knows it is not just me doing this. It is people like Caitlin and Sheila who work in HR and all the team that I have.
I want to make sure that it takes a village to handle a company and make sure that you provide a safe environment. People enjoy being here and coming to work every day. Honestly, we are altogether more than you are with your family during waking hours because we are here 8 to 10 hours. You go home and get home at 6:00 or 5:00. You have dinner. You do what you do. You go to bed. We are our day family. This is our work family and you want to treat them that way too.It takes a village to provide an environment that's safe and where people enjoy coming to work every day. Click To Tweet
For those reading, if you have read the episode with Tom, I mentioned Caitlin Meert if she doesn’t mind me giving her a shout-out here on the show. She has been fantastic to work with. I don’t know all the employees there but when I showed up to get an onsite look at your office and everything, she was fantastic. You hit a home run with hiring her. That is awesome.
I feel the same way. She has been amazing. What I’m saying is that you surround yourself with talented, friendly and smart people. That is the recipe.
What were some of the pivotal experiences that you had during your times with companies like Pharmacyclics to some of these startup companies? What was an experience or two that you felt pushed you and helped you grow?
Taking the role of Chief People Officer was a stretch. It was a growing opportunity and I was 100% behind it. I’m excited about taking this role. This was pivotal. The companies that I worked for before where the CEOs ask me to help them with their startup were from ground zero. We had been talking about WeWork and Regus. The first startup was in a house but it was converted into a business. It was like, “Here is the space. Let’s build a company.” That was where I learned to wear many hats, from operations, facilities, HR and IT.
After that company, the next company was in the Regus building in one of their offices. I was this CEO’s first hire. He asked me to help build this company. They are maybe up to 100 employees and they are in phase 3. That was where I learned a lot. I came to this company after that. All the different companies have taught me how to do HR, IT and facilities, how to find the right location, create the environment for employees and interact with executive teams to make sure that everybody is in synergy with helping the company or push this boulder. You have this boulder that you are trying to push uphill but we have to do it together.
That leads me to the next question, which you were touching on that. It is probably different depending on the size of the company. In a small company startup, you are wearing a lot of hats. There are a lot of different things that you do. In your words, how would you explain what is it that a Chief People Officer does?
The responsibilities vary from the size of the companies because if you go to a large company like Genentech, you are doing HR. There are different levels of HR. There are benefits, hiring, retention and recruiting. At a startup, you are handling a lot of different areas. Overall, I feel like CPOs are responsible for providing a great experience for employees from their first day to their last day.
Working closely with the CEO to develop programs, systems and benefits and create a culture and values for it. At Biomea, I wear many hats but that is the beauty of working at a startup. I oversee these three areas. From an HR perspective, my role is to attract top talent and build a culture of excellence to help our company reach our goals and create an environment where employees will enjoy the journey.
How do you do that? You mentioned culture. That is such an interesting topic because, at least in my mind, it sometimes is hard. I don’t know that there is a formula that you can say, “If you do this and this, you will have a great culture.” You were talking about this earlier, “Surrounding yourself with the right people.” If you hire the wrong person, it could damage the company’s culture. What is your approach to that? What advice would you give companies in developing that culture?
What is an important point is when you interview people, you have to do an assessment of their skillsets but also, what culture are they looking for? What do they look for in joining a company? We are looking for friendly people, to begin with. People who are innovative and willing to take calculated risks. Are we always right? Not necessarily but if you go there with that intention, your chances are higher of finding people that are like-minded and want to be a part of this startup environment.
A startup environment is not going to a big company or big pharma, where you are siloed into what you do because here, everybody wears a lot of hats and that is part of the startup environment. If we know that they are excited about doing many things, being a part of this growth and building the culture, that is the right person for us.
The culture is dynamic. It is going to be changing because life changes. When COVID came in, we had to change our environment then. We are also in an environment where working from home is more the norm than not. We like to have face-to-face interaction with people here. We have to create an environment for that. Part of our interview is, how do you feel about face-to-face? How do you feel about coming to work? That is part of what we look for in an employee.
I feel like starting from the beginning is the first interaction that you have with them. It is that you learn about what they are looking for. From there, you get to know all the employees and get a sense of what it is that people like. What is important to them? You try to build a company that can address some of those wants and needs. At the same time, makes sure that we are reaching our company goals.
You were talking about this. I want to zero in on the whole COVID changing people’s habits and what they are used to. I have noticed that there are people that adapted, is a way to put it. At least, it brought out that introvert in them where they were like, “I’m a stay-at-home all the time. I’m not going out without a mask.” Even when things change, they feel comfortable in that world. What is Biomea Fusion’s approach to the whole work-from-home thing? You like face-to-face. I look at some of the jobs that you have and it seems like you need local people to be on-site but do you allow for hybrid work? Do you have any fully remote employees? What is your approach to all of that?
We have a variety of people that work from home and people who are coming in every day. We have to be creative with that. It has been difficult to find people. It is a tough time to hire people. We have been flexible with that. We don’t have a policy for work-from-home. We also have to be flexible with that as well. We prefer people to be here because we feel like we have that face-to-face, which makes a big difference with collaboration, team bonding, getting to know each other and being there as a backup for each other. We are developing the work from home as a program that we feel is fair to everybody and that has been a challenge. Our philosophy is we like you to be in the office but if you are not in the area, they can’t come into the office but come to the office on occasion.
I’m reading between the lines a little bit. You do have some remote employees. They do come into the office from time to time but it is rare than the norm. It was like, “If we have a specific need and we have the right person, this person needs to be remote and can’t be in the area.” The general approach is to let’s go locally first and find as many people that can come in and have that face-to-face collaboration more often than not.
The good thing is that we are in an area where biotech is big. It hasn’t been as challenging as some people who have a company where there is not a local talent pool. We do have a local talent pool. We start here and we go beyond that.
That touches on the next question I was going to ask, which is about your approach to hiring because there are a lot of companies that are feeling uncertain. While there is no official declaration of recession or contraction, as a professional recruiter, I have noticed there are companies still hiring. They got their funding. They are saying, “We need these certain positions.” I have noticed multiple companies starting to tighten up a little bit, being prepared in case things are worse than they expect. How does Biomea deal with this whole situation like the market conditions, inflation and access to capital challenges in a bear market? We still need to hire for these roles because this is critical to move the clinical trial forward.
We have always been mindful of the money that we had to be careful because it is important anyway, whether or not you are on the verge of a recession that you are mindful of how you spend your money. That is something we have always kept in mind as we grow. Our philosophy is that we stick to the plan, focus on what we have and do our best to keep moving forward with the clinical trials.
Fortunately, we have hired. All of our key hires are in place. We are not struggling to get employees at this point because we are all set and we have been like, “Keep your nose to the grindstone and keep moving on.” I have been around for a while. I have been through recessions here in the Bay Area and survived them. I know that it will come out of this but my focus is more on getting things done and staying on our goal. Our North Star is always there. You focus on the North Star and things will happen. I’m not too worried so much about the recession because if we spend our time worrying about the recession, that becomes our focus. We are staying mindful of our spending but I feel we are on a good path.
You are not letting the negativity or the fear overtake your resilience but you are focused and committed to staying the course and you are not going to allow the fear to rally from them. Most people or companies that I know, when I look at them, their success and how they got to where they are at, a lot of times, it is a similar approach, which is the market is going to do what it is going to do but we are going to stay the course because we will emerge out of this. If we do it right, we will be stronger when we come out of this versus if we make bad decisions based on fear.
Fear is an emotion that can block and stop people from being creative and innovative and going on their path forward because that is not who they are. It is easy to fall into that and worry about it. Look at the stock market and it is all red. That emotionally is a challenge if you keep looking at things that way. I’m not trying to be naive about it. I know that if we focus on that, that is going to hinder us from reaching our goal of finding friendly cures for patients.
What is new with Biomea Fusion since the last time I was out there and chatted with you?
We were invited to ADA to do a video. We had a video and abstracts that we presented at ADA, which was exciting. That is the diabetes space. We also presented at ASCO. That was well received. We are plugging along here. We are on target and on goal with what our plans are for getting our clinical trials moving forward.
I have seen some buzz out there because I see Tom’s updates. When I originally interviewed Tom, the sole focus was oncology. Not long after that but since then, you have opened up attacking the diabetes therapeutic area. Are there any new therapeutic areas or indications that have been added to the pipeline since then?
No. It is oncology and diabetes. Those are the main ones.
I love to ask you a few more questions to help understand people, especially given your background in how your unconventional way of moving into the role that you are into. If you could go back to the beginning of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
One of your questions was would I do anything differently? I’m going to answer that one. I don’t think that I would do anything differently because What I did several years ago is probably why where I am now or what brought me to where I am. I’m at peace with where I am. If there is any advice I would give to myself back then, I would say to be empathetic with people and try to understand where they are coming from because it is always easy to judge people. I learned a lot to be in HR by being empathetic toward people and trying to understand where they are coming from. I don’t know if I like that answer.Be empathetic with people and try to understand where they're coming from, because it's always easy to judge people. Click To Tweet
It is the answer.
I’m not sure if I’m saying what I meant because if there is any advice I would have for myself, I would say to work hard. I’m at a loss for that one. I know that doesn’t make sense because we all think about our past and what we would have done differently. I don’t think that I would do anything differently.
I often look at my past and regret a lot of the decisions I made. That is a story for another day. I had a checkered past but I don’t think it will be an episode for this format. What I’m trying to get to is for me, I look at my past and say, “I wish I would have never done that.” I’m sure there are times in everybody’s life when they have done things that they have regretted.
If I’m trying to understand or put into words what I understand from what you are saying is that you wouldn’t change the path that you took. You would tell yourself to stay the course. Look where you are going to end up by going through what you are going through and doing what you are doing. You are going to experience these things. Maybe there are hard times where at least for me at that time, you wish, “Maybe I was on a different path.” If you don’t change that path, knowing what you know now, it is like, “Look where I am. This is where I ended up and I’m happy with that. I’m at peace with all of that.” Maybe I understand you a little bit there.
There are things in the past that weren’t the best thing that happened but I learned from them. Everything that I have done, I feel like, good or bad, was a lesson. It helped you develop as a person and understand how you are as a person because you have to learn from everything that happens. There is no bad thing necessarily. It is more, “What was that opportunity?” When we have challenges here at work, Tom and I, always look at our challenges as opportunities. If we look at it that way, you are going to be successful on a personal level because you have to take all of those challenges as something that you are supposed to get something from.
That is the mindset of a successful person. Everyone out there reading, write that down. I’m serious. A common thread with a lot of successful people is how they view the situations in their life and what they go through. One person could look in and say, “This is how my life is. Therefore, the only way it would get better is if somebody or something outside of my control changed it for me.” That is not the case. People and situations are external factors that are going to affect you but it is how you choose to respond to those external factors that determine the success of your life.
It is a mindset. You could always look at things 2 ways and 1 way is, “That is a bad thing. Let’s look at that and see how we could use that as an opportunity to better the situation.”
This is the new question I added. I added this question because I had another guest that I interviewed. She recommended this question. It was more personal for her because she had been in the industry for so long. I was like, “I like that question. I’m going to add that to my list of questions here.” This question is, you have been in the industry for many years. What is it that keeps you in it? Why are you still here doing this versus trying to sit on a beach and sip a mojito or something?
That sounds good too. I’m not going to lie. What keeps me here and going is there are many factors. One is the people that work here. I enjoy coming to work and the comradery. I love the science that we are doing. It is fulfilling. In life, you have to continue to develop and grow. I feel like I’m growing here and working with Tom and Rames. I have known them for a while and they are out-of-the-box thinkers. They are innovative. There is always, “If we can’t get into the door, how do we figure this out?” It is a puzzle.
I feel the same way. They allow me to express the way I like to work. They are nice people to work for. That is what keeps me here. Most importantly, we are trying to find treatments for diabetes, which affects 30 million people in the US. Don’t quote me unless I make sure that number is right. It is somewhere around 30 million people with diabetes. I have people in my family that have it. I have relatives who have it. I know everybody knows someone that has some form of diabetes, either pre-diabetes.
To be able to say that you are part of that development of finding a treatment for diabetes that is friendly and safe is an achievement of a lifetime and also, for oncology, to say that you are treating people in the space of hematology is rewarding. I had a great experience at Pharmacyclics. We were able to get approval for ibrutinib for patients with CLL and mantle cells. They keep going. At Pharmacyclics, I was tasked with bringing in patients. To hear their story and hear one guy was able to walk his daughter down the aisle when he was told that he couldn’t, he went on the drug and he was able to do that, there is nothing more rewarding. You are giving back in that way.
That is what keeps me here. There are many other reasons. We have great food here. Our snacks are at the top. The list can go on and on. For me, it does because it is a great place. I’m not saying that it is not tiring because we are working on a startup and that is exhausting at times. What we do is what keeps me going and excited to come in every day.
I second the notion of your snacks. When I was there, there were some pastries there from a local bakery and I was like, “No, I’m trying to slim down.” Caitlin was like, “It is okay. No judgment here.” I ate one and I was like, “That was good.”
That French pastry place is over the top.
Do you read much? Are you much of a reader?
Honestly, I listen more. I have audiobooks and I listen to podcasts.
I’m the same way. I have a couple of books, one in particular, that I’m physically reading and I try to read a couple of pages every night right before I go to bed. I usually listen to a lot of audiobooks because it is easy while you are driving or doing something. I listen to a lot of podcasts as well. What I was getting to is, are there any audio or physical reads that you felt made an impact on your life or that you would recommend for the readers?
This probably is going to date me a little bit but I don’t know if you know the book, What Color Is Your Parachute? That was one of the first books that had anything to do with finding your North Star or skillset and where you will achieve or develop your professionalism. It was a book that I read in college. Our professors gave it to us. I love that book because it was the part of me that, “I’m going up to be an adult now.” This is my first book that was professional and I was trying to develop myself. That book had such an impact on me. I know there are many versions of that but that was the one that everybody was going to. I’m not going to say the year because it was a long time ago.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. That book was inspiring. It was a book to change the way women think about their capabilities and potential. Instead of acting defensively, you lean into the situation. I enjoyed that book. The third was Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. That one was helpful for me for what I do. It is understanding people from an emotional IQ as well as from the standard IQ but more where are you emotionally? That book made me look at people differently and also helped me look at my kids differently.
I have heard of Lean In. I was trying to check my Audible list here because I got a ton of books that I have listened to. Lean In sounded familiar. I have heard of the book. I was trying to see if I had listened to it. Emotional Intelligence was another one that was recommended or came up in a conversation I had with an individual that I interviewed. I found that interesting that you would also mention it.
Daniel Goleman was the author of that book and he wrote the book back in the ‘90s. That is what introduced people to understanding more about emotional intelligence and that people are different. You look for what they are good at. You don’t go, “What is your IQ?” You don’t want to dismiss them if their IQ is not at the top. You look at it more as how you interact with people. It is interpersonal skills.
Given the current state, where do you think things are headed in the world of biotech? What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that because I don’t think anybody knows where it is headed. They have some fears out there. It is going to get back to where it needs to be because people will always need treatments for cancer, diabetes and other areas and indications. That is not going to change. We have to stay patient until we get back to an even playing field because it is important that is what we focus on. What do we do as a company as we are trying to survive? We stay focused on what our goal is. That is to keep moving forward. Focus on getting patients. Focus on helping patients and taking care of our employees.
No one has a crystal ball and I tend to agree that people will still need treatments for the ailments that they face. We will keep going forward. Naomi, it was great to have you on the show. It is an honor. I appreciate it and it is cool, at least for me, sitting in my seat. Biotech IQ is by no means a Joe Rogan’s super popular show but it is cool for me to be able to interview one of the early readers of the show that also has a story in the industry. Thank you again for coming on.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. It is funny how it has come full circle. I’m reading your blogs and then you are interviewing me. It is funny how life is.
I hope you get a chance to read your episode. Some people are like, “I don’t want to read my episode.” I’m like, “No, you need to hear the conversation. It is cool.” Thanks again for coming on.
Thank you so much.
- Biomea Fusion
- Thomas Butler – Past Episode
- What Color Is Your Parachute?
- Lean In
- Emotional Intelligence
About Naomi Cretcher
Naomi brings over 15 years of operational experience to Biomea Fusion. Prior to joining the company, Naomi was one of the first hires at Kartos Therapeutics where she served as Executive Director overseeing operations in the early stages of the company. At Kartos she helped grow operations and established systems and processes. She also was one of the early employees of Pharmacyclics Inc, where she headed the meetings, events and media department which led to 4 FDA labels, with three Breakthrough Therapy Designations within 14 months. She worked closely with CEO and COO on AbbVie’s $21B acquisition of Pharmacyclics; one of the largest biopharma sales ever. Pharmacyclics also received the prestigious Prix Galien for Best Pharmaceutical Agent, which Naomi helped coordinate. Before joining Pharmacyclics, Naomi spent 5 years at Genentech in Medical Communications.