From Startup to IPO, Growth Mindset with Absci CFO

From Startup to IPO, Growth Mindset with Absci CFO

Think Beyond Space | The PDX Workplace Insider Podcast


Greg Schiffman, CFO Absci

On this episode Blake welcomes Greg Schiffman, Chief Financial Officer for Absci, the drug and target discovery company harnessing deep learning AI and synthetic biology to expand the therapeutic potential of proteins. Greg discusses his career journey, the exciting growth from startup to IPO, and how SW Washington and Portland are positioned well to become a biotech hub.






Transcript: From Startup to IPO, Growth Mindset with Absci CFO

On this episode Blake welcomes Greg Schiffman, Chief Financial Officer for Absci, the drug and target discovery company harnessing deep learning AI and synthetic biology to expand the therapeutic potential of proteins. Greg discusses his career journey, the exciting growth from startup to IPO, and how SW Washington and Portland are positioned well to become a biotech hub.


(We use a transcription service and please excuse any errors)


Blake St. Onge  01:03

Welcome to think beyond space, the PDX workplace insider podcast. I'm your host Blake St. Onge principal for the Portland office of Cresa, a global corporate real estate firm, from the people the culture and their thoughts on the future of work. We sit down with leaders from Portland's most respected companies to learn about what makes their workplaces tick, subscribe at or wherever you find your podcast. Hey, everybody, welcome back to the podcast. Over the last 12 months, there has been an incredible amount of interest in investment IPO SPAC m&a activity going on in the Portland metro, and one of which is a biotech firm up here in Vancouver, Washington, Absci. And I am really excited to have Absci CFO with me here today on the podcast, Greg Schiffman. So Greg, welcome to the show.

Greg Schiffman  01:47

Thank you very much. It's great to be here. I appreciate the chance to participate.

Blake St. Onge  01:51

Greg, the last 18 months has been it's been a lot, let's just say I mean, not the least of which is you're in a new role. As I went through an IPO, multiple acquisitions, and new headquarter relocation at that we're sitting in which is absolutely gorgeous. And yesterday was a ribbon cutting with the governor and the mayor. And it's global pandemic through all of that. So we'll get to all that. But I wanted to first sort of go back to learn more about you your unique career path, your unique journey, how you got your start, where you got your start, and how you ended up in Portland, and outside. So we'll start there and let the discussion unfold.

Greg Schiffman  02:29

Anytime people think back when you're my age, and I told Sean this is the first time I've ever felt old because I'm the oldest employee at Absci. I've never been the oldest employee at any business. There's can be revisionist history. Career wise. I started probably different than most people because I took a seven year break from high school to college, was driving forklift and intended to become a professional photographer was doing professional photography and commercial photography work, became very good friends with a vice president at Bell and Howell, where my wife and I would house it for his kids. And after spending time with him, I convinced myself I was going to go to college. After seven years, seven years, yes. So I went to went to undergrad, took a job with IBM spent a year at IBM. But it became real clear to me at IBM, it was very important that you had an MBA at that point in time. And I had been accepted a lot of the programs I had interested in going to as an undergrad and went back to Northwestern to get my MBA, and from there really stayed in the tech space, went to Hewlett Packard where I worked for about a decade, various roles, both domestic and international gave me the opportunity to work both in Singapore as well as France. And my last role there, they gave me the chance to head up both manufacturing and finance and I've really always been associated with manufacturing enterprises. I like to be associated with manufacturing, it creates great jobs, I believe. And he gave me the chance to sort of run both the functions, but it really started me on a direction career wise that I think I've always stayed with the second job I took at HP I'd been very successful. My first role. They just acquired Apollo, which they were bigger than sun at that point, the Unix base. It was the hot area. Everybody wanted to go there.  They offered me the opportunity to head up finance for the hot division. She PCs approached me and offered me an opportunity to work there. Nobody wanted to work for PCs. I took the job with the PCs. We got a lot of people questioning. It's the stupidest move. I mean, you got the job everybody wanted. You took a job that couldn't even get anybody to take. But when I took it, we had three years we were told to turn the PC business around. Our HP was going to shut down and exit PCs. They never made a profit they'd never been successful. Three years later, we were a billion dollars in revenue in the most profitable sector of HP John youngest said it's the biggest Cinderella story in HBs history. And to me that really put me on a career trajectory of what I really found I liked which has been associated things that have transformational period and PC certainly became very Important part of HP.  No kidding. I went from there to France. Everybody said the stupid move, you have the job everybody wants, why would you do that? That's sort of my career path. But actually, when I left HP, I moved into life sciences. And I think for me, that's been an area that I've been very passionate about it, it's really a chance to create real value that helps society and benefits in a big way. And doing that as a financial, I think it's a great thing to be a part of. And it's ranged from, really my first job outside where I joined a company, it was called PerkinElmer. When I started, they sold off half of their company to a company called EG, and G, and EG, and G. Now as PerkinElmer, and PerkinElmer became applied biosystems. And we created another entity called Solera. It was right at the time, when everybody was working to sequence the human genome, they came up with a new method for doing the sequencing really accelerated the government's efforts by yours, and was transformational for them as a company, as well as I think, our understanding of biology and science. And so it was exciting to be a part of, in our CEO get to sit down and stand on the stage with Bill Clinton, Francis Collins announcing successful sequencing of the human genome.

Blake St. Onge  06:10

I don't even know how to how to have this sort of back up on that, but so I mean, it seems like you're sort of a biologist in one side of your brain and manufacturer on another side of your brain, the finance guy on the other side… so did I understand correctly, you went to DePaul for undergrad, right? So are you from Chicago?

Greg Schiffman  06:28

I grew up in the Chicago area, wasn't born there. But that relocator I grew up,

Blake St. Onge  06:32

And then you went to Northwestern, right? What did you study? And then you go from PCs and that sort of work at HP? What made you make that shift into biotech there? And like I said, it's sort of your brains are sound like a biologist, you just sort of you just, I mean, you've been doing it for a while, but it just is what took you there.

Greg Schiffman  06:57

Sure. So for mine, the movement into biology was really more happenstance. But I was approached with HP, I had spent time both in Singapore and in France, you've gotten to understand international a lot.  When I joined, applied biosystems, they were needing somebody to help them really manage a growing enterprise and had international experience and running an operation. And so they approached me, when I looked at what they were doing, I found it fascinating. But my undergrad - I'm an accountant, CPA practice today of public accounting, but I did get my CPA, and I never have taken really Science in Biology. That was not my strength. I've gotten to know a lot of it because of being involved with the science. It because I think when you work for a company, you really have to get passionate about what you're doing. Right? You need to understand it. In my case, you had to be able to talk to PhDs and MDs on Wall Street about what the science was.

Blake St. Onge  07:55

 It's interesting, because I would imagine, most in this business, sort of go into school and beyond PhDs, etc, sort of get that. And it was sort of seems on the job training for you that like, you get hired to do operations and finance NASA. Oh, damn, this stuff is pretty interesting about what it is they're doing. So then he sort of die, you know, seems like you're sort of a career learner in that regard.

Greg Schiffman  08:17

I guess I really do find the science fascinating. And what we've accomplished, I mean, it's amazing. If I just look at the period when I started sequencing the human genome. At that point in time, everybody talked about 3% of the genome, right? Most of your DNA was junk DNA. And if you look today, everybody realized this, that the junk DNA wasn't junk DNA, that nature was preserving things there that across species, you know, plants animals up for 1000s of years, because it's important for biology. And our understanding of this has grown, you know, exponentially right last decade, and we still really probably only understand a small slice.

Blake St. Onge  08:57

 So, okay, what took you here? What took you to the Portland area from Singapore and France and everywhere else? A tiny little place of Vancouver, Washington.

Greg Schiffman  09:11

When we moved from France, we moved to Colorado and your family, your family? And I realized that was not going to be a long term career stop, because unless I wanted to retire in the job that I had, which was a great job, there wasn't promotional opportunity. You needed to come back into the bay area if you're staying with HP, right. And so, started looking at what I wanted to do an opportunities and was approached by applied biosystems was a unique time the job there for two years. I traveled about 350,000 miles a year each year for two years. When they sold off half their company, they didn't just sell the products. They sold all of the infrastructure in Latin America and Asia Pacific other than some sales reps, and half of the European infrastructure. You had a business that was doing over a billion dollars in revenue that you had 12 months to rehire a global workforce and get it in place. Deal with all the legal entity build up the transfers.  That was my job for a couple of years. And you're a fixer two years, an exciting time. I was on the road a lot. When we did that. My wife was not a fan of the bay. Her family at all moved to Portland for some reason from Chicago. She says, doesn't matter where we live, because you're going to be on the road all the time. You moved to Portland. I thought we'd be here two years. We never moved out of Portland and stayed here. Since it's just career wise. I just never took a job in the Portland area, always worked outside.

Blake St. Onge  10:43

 So you were traveling all this time. And Ronnie, you have you have a daughter, two daughters, three daughters, three daughters. Okay, I've got three sons. You know, minor is much younger. I'm in the thick of that whole world. So traveling around, how long did you do that stint of traveling that that much was it a couple years,

Greg Schiffman  11:03

It was two years really hiring the global workforce and getting everything in place, stabilize it, again, effective. And then at that point, actually moved from there over to Alpha metrics, my first role as a CFO, where they had approached me really looking for somebody to help them build their business and had international experience that I'd had, as well as understood sort of the marketplace.

Blake St. Onge  11:25

You're far from our traditional CFO, most CFOs are not they're not run into an organization to help build anything, or help spin I in some cases, spin off things. But I mean, that's just fascinating. And so without How did Absci come about? What did you What did that look like? And you mentioned, you sort of came out of retirement. So walk us through this to me to finish talking to you for a couple minutes. He don't seem like a retirement type guy, your brain just moving too quickly. So walk me through some of that, and how long were you in retirement? Did you call it that?

Greg Schiffman  11:59

You bet. So, I mean, if we look, I'd stayed after Dendreon. And I stayed with cell therapies. I was in a stem cell company for a little while that was working spinal cord injuries, and then went over to Iovance, which was oncology treatments using what's called tail therapies, and then retired for two years.

Blake St. Onge  12:18

And what did you do during retirement?

Greg Schiffman  12:20

We have some grandkids. We spent a lot of time you were a grandpa. And that was an exciting thing. You know, it was really my wife and I spending time with our kids and our grandkids. And that was, I did more bike riding then. I have always been a bike rider. But it definitely got in the best bike riding ever during that window of time.

Blake St. Onge  12:43

And so then, as you're doing that, and you're retired and changing diapers as a grandpa, so he said, I'm out of here. Now, what was that? What’s the transition?

Greg Schiffman  12:52

They approached me with the opportunity. And, you know, this is the first time my wife was the one who came out with Are you crazy? Why would you do that? Just retired, why would you go and take another job? You don't need another job. There were other reasons that for mine, I think it was probably a good time to get back in for a few years. And from that, I wasn't going to keep commuting. So I figured I never would work again, because I'd always commuted to somewhere and I just hit a window with my life where I just didn't want to be on the road five days a week. And Absci approached me it was a recruiter that reached out. I didn't know much about synthetic biology. I was familiar with it conceptually, because certainly monoclonal antibodies are Gentex business. I've been involved with where we've had products synthetically produced that we used as therapies. But I'd never been in this industry. But as I got a chance to, I was open to the idea for a lot of personal reasons we'll leave out as open to it. After talking with Sean and understanding his vision, what he was building. It was early, we had about 50 employees. Then we hit they had their first deal, which was truly a drug development assistance deal. And I believed that he was building something special that is going to transform and I think sind bio is this is an exciting time for synthetic biology. I think it is transforming a lot of areas. And I think he had a vision there that I wanted to be a part of.

Blake St. Onge  14:27

And it seems like Greg Schiffman history you got in right at the right time, right. I mean, you know, the start. Incredible. You started in May of 2020. April/May, of 2020. Wow. That's a great time to get in. Right. I mean, obviously the things that I mean, TRANSFORM 1818 years later, there's so much has happened but what was that like in the middle of the global pandemic.

Greg Schiffman  14:54

I interviewed pre-COVID. I came into their office, a lot of people around, the offer was made post- COVID. And, you know, a lot of it, we were never shut down, we were viewed as an important business. And it was we always kept alive. But we didn't want anybody at the office that didn't have to be here to work at the lab. And so right. It's very unusual to start a new business remote. And if I look at a lot of challenges, we've had both, you know, recruiting and hiring. It's been a great success story. We've gone from sort of the 45 people when I started to, I think we're getting about 250. Now and hopefully, by year end, or at around 300. It's a lot of growth in a year and a half. That's incredibly exciting to be a part of, but recruiting and hiring during a pandemic is a unique thing to deal with ourselves.

Blake St. Onge  15:45

And what type of people I mean, are you looking for sort of lab engineer by, you know, biologists, chemists like that sort of, sort of admin side, like, what's, what's sort of the makeup of who you're looking for? And that's the first part. The second part is because there's not a huge ecosystem of biotech in the north. I mean, there isn't depth West up in Seattle, and obviously, down in the bay area, but in Portland - the metro area - there's not a ton, but we're starting to build that out, which is positive. But what, have you guys seen resistance or positivity about being in Vancouver?

Greg Schiffman  16:21

I think that you're absolutely right. There's not a large ecosystem here yet, yet. And actually, for sin bio, I think we were the first but I think there's another major synthetic biology player coming here, in the process of building out their manufacturing, it's all public. And that's quick. So I think, you know, hopefully, maybe we're creating a synthetic biology hub here. But it is people involved in, in synthetic biology biologists, you know, scientists, and from that standpoint, most of the people that we hire are all coming from out of the area and moving here. I will say it's probably been a good time from that standpoint, because some of the areas that we're looking to attract talent from there's a lot of people looking to leave. Yes. And from that it's worked very well, and being able to track the talent, in addition, and it's where I think, absolutely, it's important to understand, you know, we're really, when you talk about synthetic biology, and if I just think about it, and early days for PCs, and Apple and IBM, maybe a pad that you've got, whether it's an iPad or something else. They're all computers.  But they're all very different. Same thing with synthetic biology. There's a lot of players out there. We're nothing like twist. We're nothing like Berkeley lights go down a whole list. We're not lighter. Sure. We're unique combination of synthetic biology. And with acquisitions, we've done, you know, deep learning and AI. Toshi notions of tissue work. And it really is that combination that's enabling us to hopefully hit the point where we're able to bring drugs to market working with partners, through the AI and others, far faster, far more effective than anything that's able to be done today. And the AI, when you look at some of that, and some of the science side, we've got people all over, we actually have a small operation over in Europe that was acquired as part of Toshiba really have a global workforce. And we have attributed workforce, right? A lot of them. They don't have to be local, Harvard people in the lab, that's all here. And that's probably 80% of our employment.

Blake St. Onge  18:20

And I think with toshin, I believe there's also you have something in Cambridge as well. So you have a footprint in these in the sort of these hubs, you're sort of creating your own hub here, honestly, right. And then, and probably through a creative acquisition that you do, I think you guys did, too, this year. My guess is there's probably more in the future as you guys work through that. But then what so incredible growth, you're the right guy for the job based on your history. I mean, holy cow. And so what was it like for you? And Sean, the executive team thinking about the IPO thinking about getting outside money? What was your back? What was that?

Greg Schiffman  18:59

So I think when I came on, and the timing was probably right, I would not have been the right person two years before I came here. And I think they had a great person. It was very much more operational accounting and other activities. When I started, we had raised some capital, but shot had been very effective in the amount of cash that he had needed. In his first nine years building the company. We hit a point where we needed to expand and grow and we needed to raise up a lot more capital. We actually raised more in our first financing that I was involved with in October last year, we raised more than we had as a company in the prior nine years. And we brought in it was really, to some degree, Sean talked about sort of the coming out party for Absci, best kept secret. Nobody had ever heard of us. And we went out. We brought in a couple of very high profile investors, that Kazdin and redmile arrow mark has a mutual fund. And it was the first introduction with I'd say the main stream Wall Street players that I'd gotten To know in the past. And subsequent to that we've done to other financings. I didn't expect us to IPO and go out public as quickly as we did. There, but I didn't think we'd get fast. probably wasn't a great quality of life or six months. We worked our way through the process.  But Sean and I, we knew we needed to raise capital, we raised 65 million upfront. And then we did I think, another 125 million. On the follow on convertible, where we brought in fidelity is a name that probably most people know. But again, like D one, Moon Irving, great group of investors in that round, and then we did the public IPO not long after that, in July.

Blake St. Onge  20:44

So not only Sean smart as an absolute weapon, his early 20s, but damn he was smart bringing you in to help take it to this level, right? Because I mean, the just the know-how, and in the history, and again, you're not a typical CFO, a lot of CFO are sort of operational and making sure that the you know, the money is where it needs to be and investments in that sort of stuff. But for you to have that growth mindset, and that sort of why around what it is that you guys are wanting and trying to build, and then going out with that passion to get to get people excited about that. Right. I mean, that's incredible.

Greg Schiffman  21:21

It’s been a great fit. I have incredible respect for Sean and the team that was here. I think we all bring unique skill set. Certainly, Sean and I work very well together, raising the capital that we need to bring on board. And I think from that, you know, between that and the IPO, I think Sean's now raised probably over $500 million in a short period of time to get the company, what we need, so we can be successful moving forward. And I've been involved with a lot of growth, and we needed to put infrastructure in place. So you can imagine we had two people in finance when I started here. That's not great for a public company. And so and we're working on, you know, systems that are geared around a 50 person organization, and we quickly need to get new systems and things. So we're building the infrastructure and putting things in place, and probably a good assistance in those sites. Those areas I bring value, it's a great team that we've got here. I think putting together a special company.

Blake St. Onge  22:17

So what are the if you're at 250? Now, you hope to be at 300 in the next year, it's sort of challenging I would imagine to put through your growth path. In some cases, a lot of people are like, I don't know what the next six months are gonna be like, hell, you guys may not even know you're gonna go to IPO this quick and have that happen. So what I mean, what are the some of the things that look like for you guys peoplewise, growthwise, in the next few years?

Greg Schiffman  22:47

I think we've grown substantially, I think that we will continue to grow, but the pace of growth is going to moderate. A lot of what we brought on board is building out the platform, getting a lot of skill set, and then having the bandwidth to be able to execute on a lot of the programs that we're working on with our partners. I think as that platform builds out a lot of that we'll be able to come over and work on platform programs. And so I think that we will be able to moderate our growth a bit over the next couple of years. However, if we're successful going where we're looking to go, I would say probably in another couple years, a good chance we'll be looking to build out another facility like we have here. And hiring a lot of people to be executing on the programs we're bringing on board for the our vision and goal.

Blake St. Onge  23:29

And I would think too, as you do toshin and Novia and others that could be in the future, or not just maybe organic growth, but maybe organic growth touching in different parts of the country in the globe, possibly, too, right? I mean, you're at a certain point, you grow as you can, you know, in a certain geography, but then you start tapping into other opportunities, whether that be in San Diego, whether that be up in Redmond, whether that be in Cambridge, whether that be wherever the case might be in the US, and then and then globally, based upon, you know, the workforce.

Greg Schiffman  24:01

I think as you as you get to a certain size you there's a just from a recruiting standpoint, it's right to be in a couple of different areas, right? attract talent. And acquisitions, for us have been a combination of technology that you were bringing in house that it was going to be far more effective to acquire it than it was to build it. But also the talent that came with that. And that's where we weren't buying a product that you're just looking to sell. You're buying a capability that expands what we can do as a business creative and the people that we acquired with that were every bit as important as the technology that we got, and it's been a great value. Add us we've got a great group, like I say over in Serbia. Great group back in East Coast. And then we've got people spread throughout the country working remote as we look at the AI platform that we're building out.

Blake St. Onge  24:51

Seems like you're having a hell of a time. I mean, it's exciting. I mean, I can just tell you, it's just to me, it doesn't seem like someone who came out of retirement is like okay,  . Get back into something, it seems to me like you're in your early 20s. Like just ready to go light the world on fire. Truly, when I'm listening to you talk that that's the way I'm feeling about what it is you guys are building here. I mean, it's incredible.

Greg Schiffman  25:13

It is. It's exciting to be a part of I think that's what convinced me to come out with my belief. I thought we would get here, I think that probably Sean and I both what we sort of pictured when we did our first fundraising in October and where we are today, I don't think either of us expected it to progress as quickly as it has we both believed it get there.  But it's exciting in terms of the progress that we're making him the opportunities that it's bringing to one build up a base here. And I think it is establishing something in Portland that, you know, to me, it'd be great if we're able to if there's a small biotech community here. We don't have the mass that you see up in Seattle, we don't have the masses in the bay or Southern California or Boston, it'd be great to be able to build up and get that critical mass here.  And I think that this could be a start.

Blake St. Onge  26:01

And hopefully with others sort of coming in and dipping the toe being like, wow, this is a great place to live, it's a great place to raise fan, whatever the case might be. Oh, and by the way, there's some incredible companies out here, one of the couple things that you have learned, I mean, your career is wide and deep. So what are some of the things that you have learned in the last year and a half, since you joined outside, just you personally, as a leader.

Greg Schiffman  26:24

Every business I've ever been in is different. And certainly starting in a COVID environment is very different to me, you know, challenges of bringing in and integrating a lot of people I've dealt with in a lot of different businesses. This is a higher science business than any I've been associated with, in terms across the board. So if I looked at Dendreon, and we build out a lot of manufacturing facilities and great opportunities, but the science in a lot of those facilities doesn't match the science that we have here. And I'd say that's probably for me, the biggest growth change for me in a management is really getting a simulated into one where the vast majority of the jobs are high science genius.

Blake St. Onge  27:08

It seems like it. I mean, wow. And so, as we as we close off, if you if you had a chance to grab a drink or coffee with anyone in history past or present, or who knows with AI stuff, you might know someone in the future. I don't know. Who might that be and why?

Greg Schiffman  27:29

I want to think about one person is always tough. I'll give you two.  Current day to day, Elon Musk is probably high on my list, just because he is exactly what I have found fascinating.  How many people would have thought they could go out and compete in the auto industry against all of the behemoths out there on a basis of one sports car and built what he's built. And so I've got incredible respect and it would be great to get a chance to understand and his vision and story of where what he went through. I think on the other side, maybe going back in time in history, maybe in a completely different area. Somebody like either Mother Teresa, Gandhi, that really I think, to me, some of their skills could maybe be useful in the world today.

Blake St. Onge  28:17

Oh, isn't that the truth? Wow, great answers. Really great answers. So Greg, for those that want to learn more about you and learn more about Absci, where, where can they go to find out more?

Greg Schiffman  28:30

Well Absci, we certainly do have a website. On top of that, routinely we'll be going we've got a couple of conferences, investor conferences, that will be webcast that we're going to. And I think as we go along the continuum, you know, we'll be hitting a lot of these conferences, we've got several analysts covering us and a few others that are looking at that. And I think it's a good way for people to where we'll be able to update people on what we're doing as an organization to keep them informed of the successes that we're having with the science and how we're moving it forward.

Blake St. Onge  29:00

Well, Greg, thanks so much for saying yes and joining us. I mean, I from a forklift driver and a seven year gap to what you're doing now. It’s just really inspiring to sit here and listen to the passion that you have for the company. And just your career path. I just appreciate you saying yes to your first podcast. It’s great.

Greg Schiffman  29:21

Well, thank you. It's less stressful than I thought it would be.

Blake St. Onge  29:27

But it's got some stress as well. Hopefully, we can do that. Well, thanks so much for your time, Greg. Really appreciate it.

Greg Schiffman  29:32

Thank you.