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The Interview

On a long-haul mission to have meaningful impact 

11 June 2024 • by Misiek Piskorski in The Interview

Ralph Herbst, Chief Strategy Officer at gene therapy company AskBio (an independently operated subsidiary of Bayer), tells Misiek Piskorski how he has stayed focused on a long-term quest to push the boundaries...

Exploring new opportunities and building up relevant product pipelines are crucial parts of any organization that wants to be future-ready. Yet marked by the metronome of the quarterly reporting cycle, many companies falter, with executives’ time consumed by addressing immediate concerns at the expense of transforming for the future.

Ralph Herbst’s eight-year quest to advance the field of gene therapy capabilities stands out for his stamina and ability to harvest knowledge, ideas, and enthusiasm across an organization toward his long-term goal.

In late 2016, Herbst, who headed strategy development and implementation at Bayer’s Pharmaceutical Technical Operations division at the time, sat down and wrote a one-page mission statement. Intrigued by exciting developments in the world of biotechnology, he reflected on how he could make a sustainable contribution over the long haul.

“My personal mission statement was around pushing the organization’s boundaries, really getting into new areas, seeking innovation, and making it more sustainable,” he recalls.

That opportunity arose in 2018 when Bayer’s pharma leadership team asked him to explore the areas of cell and gene therapies, an emerging form of medicine that works by replacing faulty or missing code in cells or by replacing whole cells to treat everything from deafness to muscular dystrophies, and potentially heart failure and Parkinson’s disease.

Recognizing he couldn’t do this alone, Herbst built up an internal network of knowledgeable colleagues across the organization and established a Cell and Gene Therapy Activator (CGTA) to instill a sense of excitement, curiosity, and momentum around this emerging field of medicine.

Enthused by the topic, many colleagues worked voluntarily in their spare time after work, recalls Herbst, helping build up a knowledge base on everything from science to manufacturing and regulatory requirements. Unlike traditional medicines prescribed monthly or regularly, cell and gene therapies are one-time treatments, necessitating a new type of business model.

“Bayer acquired AskBio in 2020, which was founded in 2001 and focuses on using adeno-associated viruses (AAV) for gene therapy.”

With around 100 and 200 people contributing their expertise, Herbst established a core team of five to ten people to evaluate the opportunity. One colleague proposed organizing a pitch event for consulting companies. Despite having no funds to offer, they invited the companies to collaborate by sharing insights in exchange for exposure and learning opportunities. Over three months in late 2018 and early 2019, they received professional support to refine and communicate their ideas effectively, helping them pique the interest of more executive team members.

After a year of exploring the field, the CGTA team concluded that Bayer would need to partner with external firms to jumpstart its development pipeline in this promising medical area rather than trying to build everything in-house.

The company’s first significant investment in cell therapies took place in 2019 when it paid $600m for full control of US cell therapy developer BlueRock Therapeutics. Keen to preserve BlueRock’s entrepreneurial spirit, Bayer operated the firm at “arm’s length,” creating a blueprint for future partnering relationships.

In 2020, Herbst and the team felt there was more potential in the gene therapy space where the first therapeutics were receiving regulatory approval, so they started exploring opportunities.

“We were diving deep into two or three opportunities, but in the end, we learned they were not the right ones. But that put us in a perfect situation to explore the right opportunity because we knew what we were searching for,” he recalls.

This turned out to be North-Carolina-based AskBio, which Bayer acquired in 2020. Founded in 2001 by Dr. Jude Samulski, the company has spent the past 20+ years exploring how adeno-associated viruses (AAV) can deliver genetic repair kits against a range of diseases into tissues and organs of the body. According to Herbst, the company takes a “holistic” approach to gene therapy. Its advanced projects include prospective treatments for Parkinson’s disease and congestive heart failure.

Balancing cutting-edge science and commercialization add to complexities of leading a biotech startup, says AgomAb CEO
“Unlike traditional medicines prescribed monthly or regularly, cell and gene therapies are one-time treatments, necessitating a new type of business model.”

Over the subsequent two years, Herbst worked closely with AskBio on strategy development, defining the firm’s strengths and scientific and technical credibility so that they could advance where they could have the most significant impact. Excited by the technology, the market opportunity, and — most importantly — the team, Herbst decided to move in-house as AskBio’s Chief Strategy Officer in July 2023.

“I really wanted to join the team and collaborate with them to pursue our mission, which is to lead innovative science and drive clinical outcomes to transform people’s lives. While bringing genetic medicine to rare diseases or so-called monogenic diseases, we also strive to open that space for a broader application of the gene therapy technology in larger pathway diseases that impact tens of millions of people worldwide,” he says. Herbst stresses that although this won’t happen overnight, plans are in place and vigorously optimized to advance the mission and make it a reality.

It’s fair to say Herbst has achieved his personal mission to help advance a promising new field of medicine. Did he make any mistakes along the way? Herbst concedes that he may have ruffled a few feathers. “When you come with the notion of pushing the boundaries, you also need to be careful that you don’t overdo it,” he says, adding that as a German, he has learned how to interact with many different cultures and styles of working and has adjusted to be effective.

For those wanting to follow a similar career path in novel therapeutics, he advises reflecting on whether you want to devote yourself to one area for the long haul. “I compare this to my growth as a leader. Becoming a successful leader, like gene therapy, takes commitment, time, and patience. For me, it’s really appealing to be in a field that continues to develop over a long time frame. And yes, of course, we need to make progress this year, next year, in the next three months. And we do plan for that. But in the end, the big result that we want to deliver may take decades. This may not be the path for everyone; however, it is for me, and I am excited to help shape the future.”


Ralph Herbst

Chief Strategy Officer, AskBio

Ralph Herbst formally joined AskBio in June 2023 and serves as Chief Strategy Officer. He began contributing to various strategic initiatives in 2022 as a trusted colleague of the executive team. Coming from Bayer, AskBio’s parent company, Ralph is integral in setting the direction for the company’s technology platform, establishing clinical priorities, and executing the strategy.


Misiek Piskorski

Misiek Piskorski

Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Asia and Oceania

Mikołaj Jan Piskorski, who often goes by the name Misiek, is a Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Asia and Oceania. Professor Piskorski is an expert on digital strategy, platform strategy, and the process of digital business transformation. He is Co-Director of the AI Strategy and Implementation program.

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