STAT+: John Maraganore on what comes next for Alnylam and his career

This interview is an excerpt from a recent segment on “The Readout LOUD.” Listen to the full episode here.

John Maraganore, the longtime CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, is stepping down after almost 20 years at the company. Maraganore spoke with “The Readout LOUD” this week about his decision.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So tell us about your decision to leave. Why now?

Well, you know, after 19 amazing years of building Alnylam and bringing RNAi Therapeutics to patients around the world, I decided that this is the right time to start a new chapter. I’m excited about doing things in the industry and in a different way. And that’s why I made the change. Of course, I’m doing it at a time when Alnylam is in an incredibly strong position. It’s sort of like having your kid finish college and get ready to go off into the real world. It’s really that type of feeling and obviously a big part of that is having a great successor with the Yvonne Greenstreet, who’s going to be taking over the CEO role at the beginning of next year.

So when you made your announcement last week, Alnylam stock price fell. And I don’t know, maybe that’s like an ego boost – people can’t imagine Alnylam without you. The news seemed to take people by surprise. Were you surprised by the market’s reaction?

You know, I was. I didn’t find it an ego boost at all because I do have significant interest in Alnylam stock performance as an employee as well. I think it was a bit of a surprise and maybe we could have done a better job to help people understand the timing of of what I was thinking about. But look, I think obviously we’ve seen the stock recover. I have no doubt on where the stock is going to go longer term. It’s a great company. It’s got such great prospects and you know, the science will continue to to deliver and help patients. And if we do that, the value will continue to grow as a company.

And tell us a little bit about Yvonne Greenstreet, your successor, how you decided on Dr. Greenstreet and whether she’ll have a different approach?

Well, Yvonne is amazing. She’s somebody I had to try really, really hard to recruit about five years ago. At the time she had left Pfizer, she was independent, and I’ve always been always been a big admirer of her when I met her both at Pfizer and also at GSK.  I was able to get her to join the team and we brought her in as our chief operating officer. And then in 2020, when Barry Greene left as our president, I made Yvonne our president and chief operating officer and obviously she was my appointed successor-to-be and a terrific leader. She is going to really continue on the path that we have set for Alnylam. What she will bring to the table is actually a lot of experience growing and scaling global, complex biopharma companies.

The story of Alnylam and RNA interference has been pretty well told under your watch. You guys managed to take this fledgling technology and it won a Nobel Prize and you transformed it into actual medicines that are helping patients. There’s been so many ups and downs in all these years. Looking back, was there like a single pivotal moment when you realized that this idea was going to work?

Probably my favorite moment in that regard is October of 2011, when a small group of us looked at the first set of data from a patient, patient 50-03 in a clinical study where we, for the first time, conclusively showed RNA interference happening in a human being. And it’s a remarkable event because it was really the landmark occasion when RNAi was shown to happen in a human. And that clearly opened the door for what happened thereafter, which was really amazing sets of data that came out from both that program, but also other programs as well.

And on the flip side, of course, biotech is known for its sort of roller coaster nature. Do you ever have like a really dark day where you were just like, what have I gotten myself into?

I mean, look, there’s been many dark days and several near-death moments. I think the toughest one was in 2016, when we had a Phase 3 trial blow up and we had to stop the Phase 3 study for a program called revusiran. That was due to a safety imbalance and mortality, specifically a balance in a Phase 3 trial, and that was very, very difficult. But it’s interesting what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That experience, which was very, very difficult, only strengthened Alnylam for the future to obviously weather the storm. When the inevitable adversities happen, which did at Alynlam and do at almost every biotech company.

So John, you’re still a young guy, and I imagine that your wife will kill you if you just hang around the house. So, so what? What are you going to do?

I’m not going to retire, and my wife would kill me if I stayed around the house, for sure. But I’m going to do things a little bit differently. I’m planning on helping mentor leaders for the future. The industry has got so much science, it’s got so much money. And the number one barrier between all that science, all that money and cures and treatments for patients is people. And I believe I can be a multiplier on mentoring people and helping people as new emerging leaders in the industry. And that’s going to be a passionate area that I focus on for sure. I’ll probably also help on some boards, and I’ll also help a little bit on new company formation with some venture groups out there. But at the at the end of the day, my passion is really helping the next generation of leaders emerge from this industry so that we can bring this great science forward and help patients for the future.

I’m wondering what you see in terms of the characteristics of those next great leaders. It’s been difficult in this space, this combination of science and business. It’s been a white guy led industry. You guys are changing that with your selection of Dr. Greenstreet, but not a lot of companies have been doing that. Do you see more diversity in the up and coming crop of future leaders of this industry?

I do, but we have to do a lot to make that happen. You know, obviously, it’s exciting that Yvonne is going to take on the leadership of Alnylam, but we need to see more of that. We need to be very explicit about going to HBCU and other places where we can find diverse talent to bring them into the industry. I think that’s critical for the future, and certainly my mentoring activities will also focus on bringing mentors, bringing diverse talent forward, and helping them for the future as well.