Verge Genomics CEO: Biotech works better when employees can express fears, vulnerabilities

Alice Zhang is CEO and cofounder of Verge Genomics.

I started my biotech company Verge Genomics out of graduate school in 2015. Our north star is to leverage artificial intelligence and patient data to treat some of today’s biggest unmet medical challenges, including ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia.

In the company’s early days, I was told that “scientists can’t run companies,” or “you need drug development experience to be a CEO.” But a startup with a fresh culture that allows it to move faster and incorporate technology more deeply can become a dominant player.

At Verge, we have become obsessed with building a conscious culture that operates on authenticity over fear. This has allowed us to move nimbly and quickly—not destructively or chaotically. A great workplace allows you to focus all of your energy into doing meaningful work, with exceptional colleagues, in a no-drama environment. As one scientist at Verge once told his manager, “I can do good science anywhere, but Verge is the only place I can practice conscious culture.” 

This might sound fluffy to some, but a tremendous amount of unaddressed fear hinders the biotech sector: fear of failure, fear of not moving fast enough, fear of not achieving goals. Add to this an anxiety that going down one path with a certain model may not work, and it will have all been a waste of time. That encourages a management style of control, fear, and an obsession with image—a desire to promote a shiny exterior of “wins” that might be a lot more complicated beneath the messy and necessary experimentation of it all.

Yet when we push for openness and experimentation rather than control—and when we trust in the brilliance of the scientists and mathematicians we hired—“wasted time” is not necessarily wasted time. For example, to know that an assay has no more path forward, and to come to a concrete decision, is actually knowledge gained.

In traditional corporate environments, acknowledging emotions like fear and anxiety comes across as hysterical or unhinged—especially for women. But at Verge, allowing people to understand themselves better and face their fears has led to less externalizing blame on others. When free from the urge to blame others for the emotions surfacing within us, we can fix those things internally rather than stir up turmoil with the colleagues we must work with to be productive. This has made Verge a low-drama company, with minimal office politics. 

Vulnerability, a key leadership principle, helps me better understand my colleagues. The more I understand the individual behind the science, the more their work and management style makes sense to me. One of my direct reports, a scientist, shared with me her sadness over her mother refusing to take the COVID vaccine. The fear that her mother would become sick led her on a primal level to want to control outcomes in all facets of life, including with her team. Acknowledging the control impulse’s origin brought a new layer of self-awareness to how she interacted with her team.

I express my vulnerability with my colleagues, as well, working to eliminate the stories I made up in my head, sometimes borne out of assumptions that stem from my own fear of worst-case scenarios. For instance, when we were closing a deal with a major drug discovery partner, I stewed over an element that was not going as I expected, and I noticed myself spiraling into a depression. I feared revealing my true feelings to the chief business officer spearheading the deal because I did not want to come across as an unreasonable CEO. I withheld because I feared she would leave me, and I did not know what I would do without her.

One Sunday, though, it all came out: I expressed myself and we cried together, ultimately realizing we could agree on how to proceed. When she knew the context of my feelings, we were able to pull off a compromise that made both of us feel secure—leading to positive business results.  

I am acutely aware that drug discovery, however clinical and mathematical, has deeply emotional reverberations on patients and their families. Most of us at Verge are driven to do this work because we have had loved ones affected by a neurodegenerative disease. Failures feel especially difficult because what we’re working on is incredibly high stakes for families and patients’ lives. Our work could make someone’s end of life more joyful and less painful, or give families more time with loved ones. 

At Verge, our employee engagement score, a measure of how motivated people are to further the company and stay, puts us in the top 10% of U.S. companies, according to findings from the most recent Gallup survey of U.S. employees. Our departure rates are nearly half industry averages, and most of our founding leadership team are still at the company. And today, we are one of the few AI drug discovery companies to have developed a drug from platform to patient entirely in-house, at one-fourth the cost of our competitors. 

Is this causation or correlation? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. If I’d known about all of the daunting technological challenges and entrenched biases I’d have to overcome—including being compared to Elizabeth Holmes for simply being a woman scientist—I would have thought twice about starting Verge. But looking back, I now know my idealism and what some may have viewed as naivete were in fact my biggest assets. They allowed me to unwittingly build a radically different culture—one allowing for scientific discovery to flourish, and for us to create a better future for patients.

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