In 2016, Roivant Sciences established their global headquarters in Basel. Roivant founder and CEO Vivek Ramaswamy talked to us about his fast growing company, his priorities for the company and about the role that Roivant aims to play in the Basel life sciences ecosystem.
BaselArea.swiss: You built a company from scratch. What are the crucial ingredients?
Vivek Ramaswamy: In biotech you need three main ingredients to build a great company: good drugs, good people, and sufficient capital. Of course, it is difficult to know which drugs will succeed or fail in advance of conducting clinical research so I started Roivant with the vision of having a broad portfolio—a company whose success would be measured by the number and the quality of the medicines that we deliver to market, but at the same time a company that would not be defined by the success or failure of any given drug. It is my belief that the long term success of the company will be driven by the quality of our people and our cultural principles which include a singular focus on value creation and a commitment to innovation throughout all aspects of our business. This is an expensive and risky industry where you have to invest heavily before you know the eventual result and I am very grateful for the backing of our investors. But at the end of the day, the money we’ve raised is not an accomplishment, it is just an ingredient.
Roivant has grown rapidly. How do you maintain an entrepreneurial spirit within the company?
Maintaining an entrepreneurial mindset is core to our model. Our company is based on the principle that smaller tends to be better which is why we did not organize Roivant as a single, centralized, command-and-control operation. Instead we scale our business through the creation of wholly- or majority-owned subsidiary companies, which we call “Vants.” We now have over 600 employees across our family of companies, and it is fair to say that preserving that initial entrepreneurial mindset is one of my main priorities going forward.
How free are the Vants in finding their own version of entrepreneurial spirit?
Think of Roivant as a parent that contributes DNA to each of our Vants. We also carefully select leaders who contribute their own DNA. Each Vant resembles Roivant heavily but also has its own unique genotype. There are common cultural principles, but there are also important distinctive features and we see that heterogeneity as a comparative advantage.
How do you cope with failure?
We are fortunate that relatively early in our history we have experienced both success and failure. We would not be doing our job if we had only a string of successes insomuch as that would indicate we are not taking sufficient risk to benefit patients. We cope with failure in three ways. First, we acknowledge it as a necessary consequence of our broader strategy. Second, we build a diverse portfolio rather than predicate the success of our business on any single drug. Finally, we own our failures openly and use them as an opportunity to learn. When our drug for Alzheimer’s disease intepirdine failed in phase III, we did not obfuscate or sugarcoat the news. But we also did not overreact and we will not shy away in the future from taking risks in similar areas of significant unmet need. Instead we will embrace the risk of failure as we make calculated decisions across all therapeutic areas.
You chose Basel for setting up your global headquarters. Which aspects did you find most convincing about the location?
It starts with the talent. We believe in diversity of talent and we recruit from both within and beyond pharma. Basel is emblematic in that sense because it brings together a very diverse talent pool from multiple countries and cultures, speaking different languages with varied experiences and educational backgrounds. That mixture makes for a warm, welcoming, and innovative environment which mirrors the culture we seek to build internally at Roivant. At the same time, the legacy of successful pharmaceutical products being developed here makes Basel a place where we wanted to plant a seed early in the life of our company. In addition to the large multinational companies for which Basel is best known there is also a strong scene of young and vibrant companies building on that tradition, and we hope to be at the center of that.
How did Roivant accommodate in Basel for the time being – were your expectations met?
Yes, except in one aspect: Basel does not seem to believe in air conditioning! Joking aside, our expectations were in many ways exceeded. I have found the community to be very welcoming, and we immediately felt at home here. We have been able to recruit talent very effectively, and we have engaged in positive dialogue with several companies in the area. We continue to source new asset opportunities in the region, and we are delighted with how this ecosystem has embraced us and allowed us to thrive. The partnerships we have forged in the region are crucial for us, not least with partners like BaselArea.swiss and its BaseLaunch accelerator program.
We are happy to have you. How do you contribute to the accelerator?
Our business model is to accelerate the launch of new companies in our family so it’s only logical that we would be part of BaseLaunch. We can use our expertise to help other companies accelerate their own launches and scale their businesses. We support BaseLaunch in the process of selecting new projects and we offer advice and mentorship. For us, it is a great way to signal our support for the local startup scene and develop our relationships with other companies in Basel. We are happy to be a part of that.
What are the prospects for the headquarters in Basel?
The short answer is we will grow further. All of the Vants will use Basel as a business hub to develop and maintain partnerships within Europe. We started out as a company focusing on shelved drugs. But we are also keen to accelerate drug development in other companies’ pipelines. Basel is a great place to do that with companies in Europe and its vicinity.
Interview: Annett Altvater