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Relay CEO and former Allergan executive Sanjiv Patel on blending tech and biotech



Relay Therapeutics CEO Sanjiv Patel
Relay Therapeutics CEO
Sanjiv Patel


  • Before coming on board as the CEO of Relay
    Therapeutics, Sanjiv Patel was the chief strategy officer at
    Botox-maker Allergan where he oversaw deals like

    company’s merger with Actavis and the
    sale of its generics unit to Teva. 
  • These deals taught Patel the importance
    of melding together different corporate
  • So when Patel heard about Relay — which is combining
    computational power and drug discovery to find new cancer
    treatments — he saw another situation where he could bring
    together two different work cultures: tech and
  • “You put those two phenotypes in the same company and
    you get amazing things to happen, but you have to manage two
    very disparate cultures,” Patel said. 

Sanjiv Patel is no stranger to blending different work cultures

Patel had spent more than a decade working at Allergan, setting
up the Botox-makers’ presence in Russia, South Africa, Poland,
and Turkey. At that point, Allergan was a small Southern
California company and lacked a global footprint. 

Later, while serving as the company’s chief strategy officer,

he oversaw its takeover by Actavis
, a sale of the company’s

generic business to Teva
, and a potential merger
with pharmaceutical
giant Pfizer
that ultimately didn’t go through.

At the time when Allergan — known for its aesthetics and eye-care
businesses — merged with Actavis — known for its generics
business — Patel had a big question on his mind. “How do you
put together two different work cultures?”

So ultimately, when he first considered in 2017 taking a job
leading Relay
, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup, he
noticed some of the same trends. Relay is using computation
tools to get a better sense of how proteins look while they’re
moving. Proteins, especially those that are mutated, play a
critical role in conditions like cancer. The hope is that by
evaluating how the proteins move in their “natural state” — as
opposed to the way the protein is structured in a static moment —
the company will be able to find cancer treatments that have
otherwise been elusive.

That requires a lot of computational power, alongside biotech
skills like testing experimental treatments out in the lab. 

“This company sounded like it was sitting on two disparate but
unstoppable trends,” Patel said. Those trends are computational
power that’s getting better all the time, and technology that’s
helping researchers get even more information out of the drug
discovery process. But the tech and biotech employees who possess
these skills have very different backgrounds.

“You have this West Coast, Silicon Valley, high-tech culture, and
you’re blending it with this Kendall Square, biotech culture,”
Patel said, referring to the area in Cambridge that’s home to a
number of biotech companies. One group has deep roots in
experimentation and tradition, while the other wants to disrupt
the ecosystem and do it quickly.

“You put those two phenotypes in the same company and you get
amazing things to happen, but you have to manage two very
disparate cultures,” Patel said. 

That can create some growing pains in the office. For example,
with computational power, the tech folks can uncover new
potential drugs much quicker than they might have in the past.
But the biotech experts who then have to test out those new drugs
can only move so fast. 

“It’s linking something that almost has unlimited power and
combining that with a traditional pathway that still takes time.
So those two together can create some frustration,” Patel

But rather than leading to two very different sides of the
company that are annoyed at the other over the pace at which it’s
moving, Patel said it’s actually been a motivating

“The excitement that’s created by ‘OK, we’ve tested all these
ideas,’ it then leads to the experimental team getting more
excited, to say ‘OK, we need to test all these ideas,'” Patel
said. “So it’s almost like the acceleration is infectious.”

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