Chris Guiffre has come a long way since his days as a wide-eyed Bingham summer associate—an opportunity that he describes was for him like being “drafted into the NBA.”
In fact, saying Chris has “come a long way” is an understatement. After his two summers as a summer associate and then practicing under influential mentors in Bingham’s Corporate Area, he went on to work in general counsel and business roles at companies like Renaissance Worldwide and Cubist Pharmaceuticals. In March of 2015, Chris was tapped as CEO of Cerulean Pharmaceuticals, a cutting-edge nanoparticle-drug conjugate (NDC) company that is in the business of creating “magic bullet” cancer treatments that use nanotechnology to help drugs target tumor cells while sparing healthy tissues.
Chris took some time out of his schedule to talk about the promise of NDCs, his new role as CEO of Cerulean, and his fond memories from his time as an associate at legacy Morgan Lewis firm Bingham McCutchen.
What roles did you hold at Cerulean before becoming CEO?
It’s been a wild ride. They keep me busy. Technically, I’ve held three roles at Cerulean—CBO, COO, and about six months as CEO. The previous CEO left unexpectedly, so they had to decide very quickly how they wanted to handle the situation. They decided to promote me to COO and “test drive” me while they ran a search, and then make the decision they thought was best for the company. I think they spent about five months doing that, and at the end of that five months, they invited me to dinner and said “You’re the guy. Good luck. Get to work.” I’ve been jumping at it ever since, and we’re making a lot of progress, so I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Have there been any surprises for you coming into the role of CEO?
I don’t think there have been any big surprises. For quite a long time, I had been working at the right hand of CEOs. I have been very, very lucky in that I’ve been in situations where I’ve had CEOs who sort of treated me as an “Assistant CEO”. . .who saw me as an entrepreneur and leader who could also hold down the fort in the GC post. So I got very used to working for CEOs who didn’t treat me as a back-office lawyer who would be kept in the dark until something went wrong and then would say “Hey, lawyer, clean this mess up for me.” Instead, the CEOs who mentored me taught me how to be a CEO by inviting me into their world and letting me help them do their jobs.
As CBO of Cerulean, I was again in a situation where the CEO basically looked to me as a partner. I think that helped prepare me. He was an excellent CEO, and he really used me as a thought partner, a leadership partner, an execution partner. All of these experiences are a fairly unique mix that has led me to feel quite experienced as a CEO even though I’m just over six months on the job.
A focus of Cerulean are so-called “NDCs.” Can you give us a layman’s view on what NDCs are and what they mean for the pharmaceutical industry?
“Nanotechnology” is a term that means different things to different people. As you probably know, “nano” means “small.” It’s a widely acknowledged term that means anything under 100 nanometers in diameter, which is pretty darn small. But, amazingly, the thing that we do with our nanotechnology is to make products that are bigger than your traditional small-molecule chemo products, so they are small enough to penetrate tumor tissue but large enough to not readily diffuse into healthy tissue.
As we all know, chemotherapy is a mainstay for treating cancer. Why? Because it is extremely good at killing cancer cells. Why is it good at killing cancer cells? Because chemotherapy is poison—plain and simple. The problem with chemo is that it kills cells indiscriminately. That’s why you see hair loss, neuropathy, horrible gastrointestinal toxicity, and so on. The problems that come along with being treated for cancer are almost as bad as the cancer itself. That’s because you’re injecting poison into people’s bloodstreams.
But if you put those poison molecules inside a nanoparticle and create an NDC, those NDCs are actually larger than small molecules, and what that means is that they are small enough to slip through the large pores that are present in tumor vasculature, but they are too large to slip through the small pores that are present in healthy tissue vasculature—sparing the patient many of the horrible toxicities that you’re aware of if you’ve ever known a patient being treated on chemo.
How do you like being on the business side vs. the legal side?
I did a JD/MBA when I went back to school in my early twenties because I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a lawyer or a business guy, and I recognized that I didn’t have enough information to make that decision. So I did both. I remember being very flattered when Bingham was recruiting me because they made such a big production about how much they liked that I had the JD/MBA, because they wanted business-oriented lawyers.
What kind of culture do you try to foster at Cerulean?
I have tried to infuse Cerulean with a mindset that says “we are going to find a way to overcome obstacles no matter how big or how small, how many or how few, because it’s important to more than just us.” What we do matters a lot to patients. When you think about the fact that one in every two men in America will ultimately have some form of cancer and one out of every three women will, we’re not just fighting for anonymous patients in hospitals, we’re fighting for ourselves, our friends, our families. So I want people to feel like we are a mission-driven organization, and because our mission matters so much, failure is not an option.
Were there any mentors or other lawyers at Bingham who were influential in your career?
I loved working with the mentors that I had at Bingham. I’d say Justin Morreale, of course, was a great mentor. Roger Feldman was a great mentor. Wayne Bennet was a great mentor. They were great guys and super lawyers. But I want to specifically highlight one of the best mentors I’ve had in my career, Julio Vega. I think he taught me most of what I know about the law in the brief time that I worked with him.
As you cast your mind back to your days at Bingham, do any particular fond memories come to mind?
The fond memories never end! I was there for two summers as a summer associate, and I have never had more fun in my professional career. I was like a kid in a candy store learning about all of this exciting stuff. It was intoxicating—having all these incredibly high-powered lawyers teaching me about all of this deal-making stuff you’d read about on the front page of the The Wall Street Journal. I remember thinking “wow, how did I get so lucky to do this?” On top of all that, they would take me to lunch, to dinner. We went to the Barking Crab constantly. We went to a World Cup game, played softball together. The partners had incredible cocktail parties at their houses, and I got to meet all these interesting people. It gave me a glimpse into what success looked like early in my career, and it made me hunger for that. I would call my parents and say “I can’t believe I did this” and “you wouldn’t believe I did that.”
I loved many of the people I worked with. For the most part, I worked in Justin Morreale’s group. It was the golden age of the Entrepreneurial Services Group. To a person, the group was amazingly smart, amazingly hard working, amazingly fun. We really thought of ourselves as a family. They still arrange for a dinner about every other year and we get together. It’s really cool that we still have that alumni group. It’s almost like an alma mater.
What do you do for fun?
You know, someday I’ll go back to the golf course again! Someday I’ll get on a bike again! I have wonderful kids—an eighteen-year-old girl, a seventeen-year-old boy, a fifteen-year-old girl, and a thirteen-year-old boy. I just put my oldest child in college a few weeks ago. It has been fun watching them grow up and become "mini adults."
But right now, most of my fun has been defying the odds (because making oncology drugs is not easy!) and keeping this company racing forward with full momentum so that we can achieve our important mission.