One On One With John Crowley

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

John: My life and career trajectory changed on March 13, 1998 when my daughter Megan was diagnosed with Pompe disease, a severe neuromuscular disorder. I had received my JD from Notre Dame and my MBA from Harvard Business School and was working as a marketing executive at Bristol Myers Squibb when the news came that my young daughter would likely not live past childhood. Soon after, my wife and I learned our infant son Patrick also had Pompe. In an effort to save and extend their lives, I quit my job and founded a biotech start-up called Novazyme that was eventually acquired by Genzyme. Through strength, hope and determination, we found a treatment to save Megan and Patrick’s lives and help countless others around the world. 

In 2005, I launched Amicus Therapeutics as a continuation of the journey and mission my family and I had embarked on years earlier to find new treatments, and hopefully one day a cure for Pompe disease. There was a great deal of excitement around the vision of establishing and building what we hoped then would one day be one of the leading biotechnology companies in the world focused on developing treatments for many rare diseases. 

Over the past 16 years, Amicus has grown from a small start-up with just a handful of employees to a now more than 450 member team, working throughout 25+ countries. We started Amicus by being science-driven and utilizing cutting-edge technologies with the intent to improve the health and lives of people with rare diseases. 

As a founder of multiple companies and the Chair and CEO of Amicus Therapeutics, I am driven by a determination to advance biotechnologies to all in need, doing so with empathy, with a wholly patient-centered focus, and the mindset of an entrepreneur.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? 

John: I still believe the greatest trait that a leader can have is empathy. To feel the hope or the fear of another, to stand in their shoes, that to me is the greatest capability one can have. I often tell our team to try to think in any situation if you had this rare disease that you are working on or if you were the parent of a child with that disease, what decisions would you make? Where would you invest your time, your expertise, your capital? Whom would you hire? It makes for better science. It makes for better drug development. It makes for better spirit and mission. And it’ll make you a better person. 

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

John: Leaders should have a passionate, entrepreneurial mindset. At Amicus, our mission is centered around a patient-driven sense of purpose. And I want to set the tone and the expectation that every employee at Amicus is a passionate entrepreneur. Our business is constantly innovating, advancing, growing, and shifting to meet the needs of our patients in light of the latest technological and biotechnological advancements. Our team has to be nimble. We have to roll up our sleeves. We must resist being constrained by prior thinking. We must adapt to uncertainty in order to triumph.

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

John: When we started Amicus Therapeutics in 2005, I wanted a belief statement that set us apart. Every company has them and I wanted something different. So, I put a team of a dozen non-executives together, I wrote the first two words, “we believe,” and I gave them the charge to fill in the rest. After six months, we had two dozen bullet points that became our belief statement. It’s the same one today. One of those bullet points states that our medicines must be fairly priced and broadly accessible. It was an important tenet of who we wanted to become. That to make medicines and to not have them broadly available is meaningless. It’s an incomplete mission. We have stayed true to that value and it was woven throughout our efforts from day one, even before we had a medicine in hand. That’s one example of a core belief that we have stood by. We have honored our values since our inception and we live them in everything we do. Empowering my teams to develop these values and allowing those values to radiate from within makes the building, leading, and managing of my teams a group effort and an exercise in compassionate leadership. 

Adam: What are the key steps you have taken to grow your business? What advice do you have for others on how to take their businesses to the next level?

John: Determination. When my children were diagnosed with Pompe disease and I learned there was no treatment available to them, I knew I had to find a solution. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to have any regrets that we didn’t try. Despite all the challenges we faced. And in biotech, as in any business setting, failure rates are high. You must learn from your failures. Identify what could be done better and continue moving forward. Without determination, we wouldn’t have found potential treatments for the wide range of diseases we are fighting against. So, I encourage all leaders to look ahead and think about the problem that your enterprise is going to solve for. What does it look like in 5, 10, or 20 years? How will you get there? What type of team will have the determination to deliver on your vision? 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

John: I’ve learned about leadership from several great entrepreneurs – some of which I worked with, some I’ve read about, and some I’ve had the pleasure of learning from throughout their childhood and now adulthood, my children. Here are the elements of being a strong leader:

  1. One is hope. You have to offer hope to people – hope that is tempered with reality. To have a sense that there’s something out there on the horizon to make a difference. While it may not benefit you today, it will benefit someone in the future.
  2. Second is optimism. You have to believe you can make your goal work despite the setbacks you will have, and you will absolutely have setbacks.
  3. Third is persistence. What we do is really tough. In medicine, we can raise millions of dollars, have the best technology, and build the best facilities, but our failure rates are still high. You have to figure out why it didn’t work. This is not the business for the faint of the heart.
  4. Lastly, you have to dream. You have to dream big and articulate that vision. I go offsite with my team and spend a day or two to think and dream with my team. The more vivid the dream, the more possible the reality.  

Adam: What is the best single advice you have ever received? 

John: In the life sciences, there are many people who have made dramatic advancements in improving lives that serve as inspiration to me. One of those people is Dr. Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine. Despite Dr. Salk’s enormous success and what he did to change the world, one must consider how many times he failed in what he was doing. His first experiments were abject failures. After one of those many failures, Dr. Salk sat on a park bench and thought about how he would share that failure with his family, with colleagues, with his academic superiors. And then he looked out at the playground and saw children playing and it dawned on him. In that moment, he realized that without a polio vaccine, some of those children would contract polio. Some of them may even die or be confined to an iron lung in their life. He realized at that point, the enormity of the importance of his work and returned to it with a renewed vigor. The lesson of Dr. Salk is that “it’s bigger than you.” It’s an important lesson in any undertaking in life, but certainly in business and entrepreneurship and particularly in biotech. There is purpose to what we do. Understanding that “it’s bigger than you” carries me through my work to continue pursuing treatments for rare genetic disease, despite the challenges.

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