“5 Questions With…” Al Robichaud, CSO
You’ve been at Sage since the beginning — as employee #3 and Chief Scientific Officer. What have you learned about growing a leading brain health company during that time?
I came to Sage after doing big pharma research the “tried and true” way for 21 years. Over time, I could see that changes made in that approach to research were potentially causing innovation to lag. So, I was intrigued when one of Sage’s early investors called and asked if I could come talk to him. The opportunity they presented me was, "Come to Sage and do research and drug discovery the way you aspire for it to be done." And the way I believe it needs to be done is by pushing boundaries and recognizing that there is some chance associated with drug discovery. To innovate, you have to take chances and be willing to fail. Our goal is for Sage to be the best biopharmaceutical company focused on brain health disorders in the world. And that requires us to think differently and be willing to consider ideas that other companies might not even try. We don’t want to be just another "me too" company; we want to do something very different. That’s why we pursue quick results with small studies of volunteers, and why we ask questions that have yes/no answers. We’re taking an approach that allows us quick entry into the development process to know that the treatment can work and then continue research to help even more patients as we generate more data/information in studies and work with FDA.
One of the things you’re known for at Sage is your ability to attract and recruit really smart people to the research team. What’s your secret, and what’s the best professional inspiration/advice you’ve received?
I’m really proud of how we’ve built a world-class drug discovery team from the ground up. We’ve done this by bringing in people who strive to be innovators, people who want to pursue revolutionary medicines, not evolutionary ones. The best professional advice I’ve received – advice that I share with my team - is: Never settle, and never let anyone tell you that something can’t be done, if you really believe in it. The great thing about a career in science is that science can be anything you want it to be. There are so many opportunities for people to improve the environment, health, society, and people’s lives. It’s different from almost any other career in the world, because anyone who wants to pursue a career in science has the chance to make a huge impact on the world.
One of Sage’s scientific standards is “lead with data.” What does that mean in neuroscience research, and why is it an important differentiator in Sage’s approach to brain health drug development?
This is a very important approach to medical research in neuroscience, because what matters in neuroscience more than anything is the data that we get from volunteers in our studies. It’s been difficult to connect animal studies data to the data in small studies in humans, as you would in most other areas. For example, it's easy to measure blood levels of cholesterol or tumor size in animals. In a laboratory mouse, you can actually measure how your drug induces a tumor or stops a tumor from growing or eliminates tumors. But it's very, very difficult to create and measure schizophrenia or depression in rats. Instead, we focus on conditions where we can run short, small clinical studies with people that volunteer to participate. That way we can gather information about the biology of the disease as well as the activity of how our investigational medicine works in a human subject.
You’ve been involved in brain health research for most of your career. If you weren’t Sage’s CSO, what would be your other dream job?
My father was a dive instructor and an oceanographer, so I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. Originally I wanted to be a marine biologist, but realized early on that there weren’t a lot of career opportunities there. Today, I do whatever I can to support organizations that protect the ocean and the reefs. I’m a Master Scuba Diver, which means I’ve achieved a number of certifications and have experience in various underwater environments. I’ve done more than 600 dives and love exploring the oceans with my family.
As a leader, how do you keep a team motivated and inspired through the ups and downs in the natural course of drug development?
Neuroscience has faced a lot of challenges in the previous decades, ranging from pharmaceutical companies pulling out of central nervous system research entirely to lack of treatment innovation in the form of medicines that work in new ways. I think what keeps everyone motivated is that people at Sage understand that Sage is a rather unique place. It's a different pace and a different attitude. The people we hire are ones who mesh with that culture, attitude and approach to science – a league of people who are driven by the opportunity to discover something new in an area of need. We never lose sight of the impact of brain health disorders on not only patients, but families, communities and society. People are suffering, and we need to help them as soon as we possibly can.