As unexpected as it may be coming from the chief executive officer of a pharmaceutical company, Gregory Flesher is a builder at heart. Building is a love that has guided his career; most recently in his decision to move from his long-time role at Avanir Pharmaceuticals to Otic Pharma. At Otic, Flesher knows he has the opportunity to create something big out of something that is currently quite small.
“I really like building things,” Flesher says. “I had that experience at Avanir. I was able to take a company that had seventeen employees and one single clinical program and build it into a 500-plus employee company with multiple clinical programs and a market cap in the billions.” It was a fun experience that made him want to do it again, he adds.
Originally founded in Israel, Otic is an innovator in the emerging ear, nose, and throat (ENT) space. The company has been working since 2008 to develop products designed to improve the treatment of outer and middle ear infections, sinusitis, and other indications where the company’s proprietary, foam-based delivery platform would be beneficial.
Until now, Otic has never had a chief executive officer—but Flesher likes to start from the beginning. “The ability to build something meaningful, in a therapeutic area that’s underserved, and having the financial backers that will help you become successful just puts the right recipe together for something truly exciting,” Flesher says.
Otic has a platform technology to deliver drugs into the ear, sinus, and other parts of the ENT system that Flesher calls “fairly unique.” Plus, without any major advances in products or services in quite some time, ENT patients are in tremendous need for products that can help, Flesher says.
Under his leadership, Flesher hopes Otic can fill that void. “If everything goes as planned, years down the road, we’ll have a company that is developing a new product or a new indication for patients with ear, nose, and throat disorders every three or four years,” he says. “That’s my ultimate goal in the long-term, and it’s a long way to get there. But that’s the exciting part about coming into a company that’s in its early stages of development.”
Based on Flesher’s past career experiences, it wouldn’t be abnormal for him to succeed at his goal.
Graduating from Purdue University and attending Indiana University School of Medicine with a focus on molecular biology and biochemistry, Flesher thought the only two possible paths for him were to become a physician or a scientist. Instead, a mentor pushed him to apply his academic expertise to drug development, setting him up with a job at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.
That’s where he quickly latched on to the electrifying nature of drug development. “It took my basic academic research background and transitioned it one step away into clinical development,” Flesher says. “Seeing how you collect and generate the data, write the analyses, put together a new drug application, interact with regulatory authorities, and ultimately get a drug approved is a phenomenal experience. In many careers you may only see this a couple of times—if you’re lucky. And I saw it right out of the gate, right out of graduate school.”
“What I need to do as CEO of the company is lay out the vision clearly—where we want to be not tomorrow, not next week, not next year—but in the longer term as a company.”
But it wasn’t the research and development side of pharma that ended up suiting Flesher best, he says. It was the business side of the industry that drove his interest and helped guide his career. “I got the bug,” he says.
After working in clinical development, Flesher moved to sales and marketing. Working with advertising agencies, market research firms, pharmaceutical vendors, public relations firms, and so forth showed Flesher how research and development and sales and marketing were two sides of the same coin.
The full spectrum intrigued him, so he started to look for new jobs at companies where he could be involved with a product through all stages from start to finish. “At that point, it became addictive,” Flesher says. “I really, really liked the idea of being involved with drug development programs that I can see go from the clinic to approval to launch, and ultimately on the shelf at a pharmacy somewhere.”
Flesher also had stints at Amgen and InterMune before moving to Avanir Pharmaceuticals, where he stayed for nine years. When he first started, Avanir was a small pharmaceutical company that focused on central nervous system disorders and had big aspirations. He was able to take part in one of the company’s success stories with Alzheimer’s patients, a success that ultimately led to the acquisition of the company.
“In Alzheimer’s patients, one of the biggest burdens to the family—and quite often why they get moved from the home setting to long-term care—is behavioral issues,” Flesher says. That behavior tends to take the form of anger, agitation, irritability, frustration, and other behavioral disturbances, he adds, which tend to become more burdensome as the patients’ diseases progress.
Nothing in the marketplace had ever been able to curb such problematic behaviors, according to Flesher, but Avanir was working on it. Its sizable Phase Two study looked at the ability to affect agitation in Alzheimer’s disease—and the resulting data the company found was astounding. “It was a dramatic effect,” Flesher says. “And it was probably the greatest result that has been released in Alzheimer’s agitation patients in more than a decade.”
But Flesher also knows well that in this industry, you’re bound to have massive set-backs—less-than-optimal data, trouble with the US Food and Drug Administration, more difficult or slower drug launches than expected. But for Flesher, that’s not a bad thing. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” he says, laughing. “I think when you make mistakes, to learn from them and not to repeat them is one of the most important learning experiences.”
With his career full of learning experiences in tow, Flesher plans to bring similar success to Otic. His priority is to get the best team in place to do the job, he says.
Flesher knows, as any good builder does, that the leader’s role is to be the visionary, to give the organization a common set of goals. “What I need to do as CEO of the company is lay out the vision clearly—where we want to be not tomorrow, not next week, not next year—but in the longer term as a company.”