For pharma CEO, a smaller pond, bigger waves

Trevena, a 30-person drug company in King of Prussia, is led by CEO Maxine Gowen, formerly with GlaxoSmithKline. Cofounder Jonathan Violin is head of biology. Gowen says finding financing takes up about 50 percent of her time. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Trevena, a 30-person drug company in King of Prussia, is led by CEO Maxine Gowen, formerly with GlaxoSmithKline. Cofounder Jonathan Violin is head of biology. Gowen says finding financing takes up about 50 percent of her time. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 30, 2013

Before Maxine Gowen left the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in 2007, she was one of 103,000 employees in the company, and one of her jobs was to scout for small companies doing interesting research that might lead to new drugs and, perhaps, a corporate takeover.

"That really opened my eyes to the activity, drug discovery, and development that was going on outside big companies," Gowen said. "At the time, big companies felt they were doing the most important work."

Gowen left because she had a chance to not just lead, but also to help create, one of those tiny companies doing interesting research that she hoped would lead to new drugs. She is chief executive officer of privately held Trevena Inc., which has 30 employees in its rented office and laboratory in the King of Prussia Business Park.

Trevena's most advanced compound is intended to treat acute heart failure, and it spun out of work done by 2012 Nobel Prize winner Robert Lefkowitz and his Duke University colleague Howard Rockman. With the support of Lefkowitz and Rockman, three postdoctoral scientists from Lefkowitz's lab - Jonathan Violin, Scott DeWire, and Erin Whalen - started the company around the science. Violin still guides the scientific unit.

Because of the time required for clinical testing of drugs, Trevena is years away from any revenue. Gowen said that keeping the cash flowing by finding financing has required about 50 percent of her time, more than she expected.

"I thought it would be where every couple of years, it would take a substantial portion of time in one year," Gowen said. "But it is much more of an ongoing activity. So much of it is building relationships and reputation, so that you can go back to people when you are raising the money. I'm not constantly raising money, but I'm doing things that will enable us to be successful."

Those efforts seemed fruitful in May when Trevena and Forest Laboratories announced an agreement in which Forest would pay $30 million for an equity stake in Trevena. The cash will help Trevena pay for a second-phase trial of 500 patients. (The normal process has three phases.)

If the drug and the company reach development and sales milestones, Forest will pay up to $430 million to Trevena, plus royalties on sales. This month, the U.S. Patent Office granted Trevena a patent for the compound through 2031.

Trevena's office has an open floor, and Gowen's desk is near the middle. That allows for a bit less e-mail, because one can turn and speak to a colleague.

Even the biggest drug companies outsource some functions, and Trevena does some of that, too. Being small, it also outsources other functions, such as all legal and public-relations activities.

Debate about the Affordable Care Act often focuses on small businesses, meaning those with fewer than 50 employees. Gowen scoffs at the idea that her company would ever consider not providing health insurance, because it has become the norm in the United States, though she thinks the decades-old idea of employer-sponsored care was a bad one. She uses a local insurance agent to find the best health plan for her employees.

To underline the need for personal accountability, Trevena has a somewhat unusual policy regarding vacation and sick leave for employees: There is none.

"It means that we don't tell people how much vacation they can take," Gowen said. "We basically say: 'When you take vacation, make sure your work is covered or your manager is not taken by surprise that you're not there. And make sure the vacation you take doesn't impact your productivity. After that, do what you need to do.' "

The flexibility works for the person who needs extra time in one year for the once-in-a-lifetime safari vacation in Africa or has an extended illness or death in a family. This flexibility is, in Gowen's view, a free benefit to employees that might help attract people to the company for less salary than they might find elsewhere. From an accounting standpoint, the policy would also eliminate vacation and sick-leave accruals that show up on the books of other companies.

The company has kept track of vacation and sick days used, Gowen said, and all employees have access to the scoreboard, so they can keep track of what one another is doing. Likewise, managers have to be willing to deal with a problem if it arises.

"This is the third year we've done this, and it has been remarkable," Gowen said. "I've had to ask people to take more vacation because I think taking only three weeks' vacation in a year when you've got a family is simply not enough."

Contact David Sell at 215-854-4506 or, or follow on Twitter @phillypharma. Read his blog at phillypharma.

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