Beyond the Lab: Jeremy Richman, From Pharma to Foundation

Kate Stuart
April 4, 2016

In the month of April, the Office of Career Development is featuring a Beyond the Lab video each day of the month, highlighting awesome alumni in the video series. 

Today we highlight Jeremy Richman, a former Vanderbilt postdoctoral fellow and the founder and CEO of the Avielle Foundation. 

 

This video is supported by a BEST award from the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health* (DP7OD018423)

Check out the video! Can't watch the video? Read the transcript below!

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Dr. Jeremy Richman has extensive research experience that spans the range from neuroscience and neuropsychopharmacology, to cardiovascular biology, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, immunology and inflammation, and kidney disease.  He has worked in the drug discovery arena for over two decades and is passionate about helping people live happier and healthier lives.  His hobbies include rock climbing, mountain biking, kung fu, and teaching children how to be healthy and happy.

Dr. Richman earned his Bachelor of Science degree in molecular and cellular biology with an emphasis on chemistry and physics from the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ in 1992.  He worked as a laboratory technician for two years in the lab of Dr. Henry Yamamura, studying the pharmacology of pain modulation and molecular pathologies of Alzheimer’s disease.  In 1994, Dr. Richman was accepted into the graduate program of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Arizona where he earned a Ph.D. studying the distribution and functions of alpha2-adrenaline receptors in the laboratory of Dr. John Regan.

In January of 1998, Dr. Richman continued his research on the sympathetic nervous system in the laboratory of Dr. Lee Limbird at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN.  Here, Dr. Richman focused on the sub-cellular distribution of the alpha2-adrenaline receptors as it pertained to micro-domain and synaptic formation.  In January of 2001, Dr. Richman moved into drug discovery as a neuroscientist at Arena Pharmaceuticals, Inc, San Diego, CA with the hope of identifying therapeutic mechanisms to prevent schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.  His drug discovery interests broadened over the next decade, leading projects in atherosclerosis and thrombosis, and eventually diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.  In January of 2011, Dr. Richman took on a drug discovery leadership role at Boehringer Ingelheim in Danbury, CT exploring ways to prevent or cure a number of autoimmune and chronic diseases of the cardiovascular and metabolic systems.

Following the murder of his daughter, Avielle, Dr. Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, started the Avielle Foundation. It is his belief that through brain health research and initiatives, we can protect our loved ones and foster happier and stronger communities.

 

 

[KATE] Welcome to Beyond The Lab, a series by the Office of Career Development within The Biomedical Research Education Training Department of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. I'm excited today to welcome Jeremy Richman back to campus. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship in 2000 in the pharmacology department.

 

So welcome back, I'm glad to have you. So tell me a little bit about what you did here at Vanderbilt.

 

[JEREMY] Well I did my postdoc here in the lab of Lee Limbird and it was a really exciting time and environment, and I hope things haven't changed a whole lot. I looked at the micro environment within a synapse for how cells communicate with each other and how proteins could be recruited to the area and held in that area to coordinate signaling effectively.

 

As exciting as that sounds, [LAUGH] It was an awesome time and I got a lot of great education. I think working here it really carved out, kind of a vision beyond the academic study of what I was doing per se, it was a really great environment to learn how to be a scientist and to create a vision of what I wanted out of life.

 

[KATE] Very nice. So tell me about the path when you left Vanderbilt, what happened after that?

 

[JEREMY] The surprise to me and maybe not to my mentor Lee but I went into instead of academics which I thought I was always gonna go into the academics, I ended up exploring the opportunities in biotech arena.

 

And of all places I ended up going to Arena Pharmaceuticals, when they were a really small and tiny company in Southern California in San Diego and there I was hired in the neuroscience department and it was a really great opportunity I enjoyed working there a lot, that was my first exposure to the actual drug discovery process which you can be an expert in pharmacology.

 

But you're not gonna necessarily understand the process until you're in it. And you understand what the pipeline looks like and why it looks like that. And I really enjoy that it was a really fun way of working, it was really rewarding. And then because of the environment that I worked in and being at Biotech you wear a lot of hats.

 

There's nobody, there's no group or department that's set to do one thing, often times in this environments you kinda just take off your receptor target enablement hat and you put on your safety pharmacology hat you take that off and you put on the toxicology one and then you put on the clinical one and so I got a lot of experience with the whole pipeline and also was really fortunate, you can't pretend it's anything other than just damn luck, I got into some projects that really panned out and they span the whole range from CNS to obesity, diabesity, atherosclerosis, thrombosis.

 

So I got a lot of experience into the whole spectrum of the pipeline and that afforded me a lot of opportunities to go other places if I wanted to and I was recruited to a big pharma company called Boehringer Ingelheim which is located throughout the world but they recruited me to New England and Western Connecticut.

 

And I worked there for a while in a new role that they had created called a Research Project Leader. They wanted people that had, had experience from bench to bedside and understood the pipeline process really well and could speak the science but also create a vision and build timelines and mitigate risk and keep the upper management abreast of what those risks were and the timelines that were appropriate.

 

And so that was fun and it was great job and since then for a very tragic reasons I have left the drug discovery arena and now I work in a non profit world running my own non profit called the Avielle Foundation named in honor and to create a legacy in honor of my daughter who was one of the six years old that was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on December 14th of 2012.

 

And I've now got the experience of self creating a small business, which a lot people forget that you have to create a business to have a non profit. So we have a small business the Avielle foundation. And it's a 501(c)(3) non profit, I'm the CEO and currently only employee but that only for the short-term and long-term we have grand visions.

 

We have a simple mission, and that is to prevent violence and build compassion through Neuroscience research community engagement and education.

 

[KATE] So you had a lot to learn starting from nothing to now a non profit, so there is a lot off things that you have to jump into to do. What are some of the things that you had to learn about starting your own foundation? What were some of those beginning things that you might not necessarily been equipped when you first started?

 

[JEREMY] Pretty much everything. First and foremost it really didn't dawn on me that when you gonna champion a course you have to build a business, so we had to incorporate, I didn't know what that even meant, why does everybody incorporate in Delaware? I couldn't tell you at the time and how I understand what that means to incorporate to create a business.

 

You have to create a business plan, you have to create a business structure. You have a short term and long term vision and goals, you have to create a board of directors. Different states have different laws for what comprises a board, you have to write bylaws. That's not just a simple hey everybody is going to show up on Friday, drink a few beers and we're going to get together and talk about the company.

 

Now it's like a very detailed rule book that you have to play by and different States have different requirements for the bylaws and so we had understand what Delaware's bylaw and board or director requirements were. And that was just to establish ourselves as a business, as a corporation.

 

And then from there we had to learn how to file for nonprofit status. What that meant, who do you file to, what are the forms. These are not straightforward forms becoming a non-profit is really arduous. The IRS is not easy to work with, surprise. The process takes a long time, but they make exceptions, which is really fortunate and we're really lucky that they do.

 

And some of the exceptions are if the nature of the nonprofit work you wanna do is contemporaneous, meaning there's a time tag associated with it, then they can rush things. If there's donations to the foundation or to the entity that's gonna be a nonprofit that would depend on nonprofit status, then they'll rush it.

 

And we met all of their requirements and so they expedited the review and approved it really rapidly and in record time. And so from the inception of our mission, our scope, our vision, to forming a board, incorporating and receiving our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, was about six months.

 

Which is a huge whirlwind, and it was forcing it since I wasn't sleeping much at the time. Anyway, I had a lot to do with my time. And so we got the ground running and started acting on our mission. So yes, it was an incredible learning process and still remains that, and the beauties of life are finding those opportunities to grow and learn.

 

[KATE] Yes. So what is your daily life look like? What are some of the activities you do on a normal Monday or Tuesday?

 

[JEREMY] Every day I get up with my one year old and we hang out, we play, we read, we get breakfast and coffee. I just drink juice but she gets coffee. We hang out and then either my wife comes down, we were both fortunate that we work from home, and we also have a nanny that comes in, and so Natalie shows up and Imogene plays with her, and Jen goes to work in her office downstairs and I go to my office upstairs.

 

And most of my day is spent in four ways. Of course, first thing that you do which I only allow myself this on a couple of days, is to look at my email, cuz as soon as you look at your email, you're stuck. So the first thing I do is I try to read a paper, a scientific paper, or maybe finish a book that I'm close to finishing or start a book that I was committed to starting.

 

So I'll read for a while, every morning, then I'll check my email. I have a lot of meetings. Virtually everyday, just about, I have a virtual meeting where I'm talking to somebody over the phone or through Google Hangout or a Skype chat or what have you, a teleconference and a lot of days I'll meet with somebody in town, because I think it's really important to just get out of the house.

 

Cuz it's great that you can work from home but you also go crazy. So of a lot of meetings that I have, I meet people on running trails and we'll go for a running meeting, or we'll go for a lunch meeting and we talk about everything from the science of violence in the brain, to nonprofit development, to business development, to educational strategies and philosophies and such, because that's a critical part of our mission.

 

Then most afternoons, one of our interns will either call me and I'll have a virtual meeting, or will come over to the house and we'll work on whatever their interests have been, and they all have sort of outline project and kind of help them on that if they need a lot of help otherwise existed at their desk and we have a desk up in attic, and they'll just work there or we'll just touch base over the phone and say what can I do for you today? How is the progress going? And a lot of them are writing articles or creating videos.

 

So that's my day it's really fun, it’s always a new adventure and very rarely do I feel like I'm doing the same thing all the time.

 

[KATE] So you worked both in pharm and now in foundation, what are some of the things about each that were a good fit for you because I know they are very different industries?

 

[JEREMY] The most important I think aspect of life is to continually grow and I think there's lots of ways that you can grow.

 

I think the most important one is through friendships and in connection to people and there's specific kind of connections that you can have with people. Well, probably in any work environment, if you are working in an area that you are passionate about and that's where your interest lie, then that's great.

 

Well if it's not then I suggest you change because, you know you should always follow your passions. But I have been fortunate, I love science, I love discovery, I love learning and I love the people that you meet when you work in that environment and so, where are we going with the question again?

 

[KATE] How are both the pharm and the foundation good for you?

 

[JEREMY] The pharm and the foundation are good for me because the people in those arenas are like-minded, they wanna grow, they wanna learn.

 

They want to discover and the discovery process is what really excites me and and going, through the discovery process with somebody else is really fun. It is one of the most rewarding things in life and discoveries. Come on, everybody likes that from childhood throughout your whole life, everybody likes an adventure and science is the greatest adventure, and so the pharma discovery processes is no different than it did the nature of our nonprofit, which is research-based and really love being in a position where I can direct the money to go into that discovery process, and I can talk to the real pioneers, the best in the world at it.

 

And so they're the same in the sense Pharma and the nonprofit world are the same the sense that you have this people coming together to to geek out on discovery, and I like that to the core. They are different in the sense of what motivates them. At the end of the day, Pharmas in the business of making money, and if they do that by decreasing suffering and helping people's lives, that's great.

 

And so there's nothing wrong with profit. In the non-profit world, there's no profit and what you're benefiting isn't financial. It's philosophical, spiritual and that's a lot more rewarding to me.

 

[KATE] Okay, great. There are students in postdocs here that are interested in working in the non-profit industry. What kind of skills do you think they need or what are some of the activities that they need to do now in order to prepare them for that industry?

 

[JEREMY] If you want to move into the non-profit industry, there's a couple of things you need to be prepared for. One, is a lower salary and if that's not what motivates you, great. Because there's two kinds of people in the world that want to do something and those that want to be somebody. If you're the kind of person who wants to do something in non-profit, it's perfect for you because that's what it's geared to do. Also, you've got to be a fighter. You've got to be prepared to get knocked on your butt, get back out, put your dukes up and get knocked down again.

 

But I would argue that if you are in the research arena already, this will come as completely no surprise and you'll say, yeah of course. Isn't that how life is? If everything worked the first time, they would just call it search. But we're used to being wrong nine out of 10 times that one in 10 really fills us up.

 

In the non-profit world, it's really the same. You're going to be asking or a lot and it's different than being sort of just a sales person in the general generic sense because hopefully you believe in what you're selling and you're passionate about it so it's not a hard sell. But you do have to be prepared for people challenging you and disagreeing with you.

 

But again if you're coming from the academic arena, that's nothing new either. So it's really not a whole lot different. The largest difference is when you're new in, or this is actually very similar too, when you're new in academics, your whole life is filled with how do I get funding, how do I get funding, how do I get funding, but once you're established, you're good to go and you can relax and really sink your teeth into your mission.

 

And all your hypotheses and your research efforts and the non-profit I mean is just like that too. I'm all completely worried, how do we become sustainable, how do we move beyond the grass roots, generous donor base that we have and get to a real endowed philanthropic journey that we wanna be so that we can fund impact meaningful research, we can create real internship incentives to get people to move in to the Brain Health Arena.

 

How do I get paid a salary that will sustain a household without. [LAUGH] The risk of turn the lights off. That is a fear that you have in the academic arena when you're new, and that's the fear that we have right now.

 

[KATE] So I'm sure you do a lot of networking. What does that look like for you? What are your networking secrets, your individualized approach?

 

[JEREMY] Whether you are staying in biotech, big Pharma, academics or if you move in to the nonprofit world, being able to communicate is really key. It's key to life in general. But being able to communicate in these areas is key for two reasons, one you need to be able to take very complex heavy information and break it down to the everyday person. Mostly because they pay for it, and they earned it, and you owe it to them, quite literally, whether you're in that nonprofit arena, or whether you're in industry, if you're publicly traded company or if you are in academics. They're paying for the research, you will owe it to them. They bought it, give it to them in a way that they understand it. So that's networking but is really communication and education. What you mean is building friendships, collaborations, relationships with people in other areas.

 

Obviously that's really critical for the progress of science because you need to share knowledge, that's how we evolve as a species and that's how we evolve scientifically. It's that sharing of knowledge and that's really critical to network. Finding a job, you obviously have to network as well because right now in this competitive age that we're in academically or in industry and most certainly in the non-profit world.

 

There're 30 applications, 40, 50 maybe 100 applications for the position that you're looking for. And the higher you go in sort of on a ladder, so to speak, the fewer opportunities there're and the more applicants there're. And there's no question, you gotta be really well qualified, well spoken, you have to understand what you're talking about.

 

But probably more important than that you gotta know somebody that can get that application out of the top of the pile and head it around and say, I know this person, she's awesome, give her a chance, bring her in, she gives a great talk. She really knows what she is talking about, without that it's going to be really tough.

 

So there's lots of ways to do that, everywhere I go people joke about but I’ll meet somebody in the line at Starbucks and I'll become their best friend, everywhere you go there's an opportunity to meet someone new, create a relationship, learn their story and that only benefits you and that person and anybody related to that.

 

When you get in just underneath the surface you can see what they're about. When it comes to the academic science arena or biotech Big Pharm or wherever it is, in the science arena you need to build these relationships so that they trust you, they know what you're talking about.

 

You can learn from them, they can learn from you, but you build this relationship so that you can do each other favors and get each other exposure through giving a talk, successful publications, collaborations, and opportunities for jobs as well, no question that's been really critical in my lifetime, and is really critical now in the nonprofit arena.

 

You have to relationships and trust and that requires a lot of certainly nothing superficial, you have to get in and listen to somebody, understand what they're about and get a connection with them.

 

[KATE] Great. We're glad to have you back, thanks for coming and talking to us.

 

[JEREMY] My honor and pleasure, thank you.