Chris Ehrlich ’98 is a managing director and head of Locust Walk’s biopharma where he has led multiple transactions for emerging life sciences companies.
Prior to Locust Walk, Ehrlich was a managing director at InterWest Partners, a venture capital fund. There, he served on the boards of KAI Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Amgen) as the lead director, Biomimetic Therapeutics, Inc. (NASD: BMTI, acquired by Wright Medical Technologies), Invuity (NASD: IVTY, acquired by Stryker) and Xenon Pharmaceuticals (NASD: XENE).
Prior to InterWest, Ehrlich was director of licensing and business development at Purdue Pharma, where he developed a biologic oncology franchise and led the commercial operations of Purdue BioPharma, a biotechnology company. Before that, he worked in business development at Genentech, in venture capital at The U.S. Russia Investment Fund and in biotechnology strategy development at LEK Consulting.
Ehrlich currently serves on the board of directors of Prostate Management Diagnostics, Inc., and on the advisory board of the Peter Michael Foundation, where he is a senior advisor. He is the biotechnology policy advisor to Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom of California, a member of the Young Presidents Organization NorCal Chapter and a member of the Healthcare at Kellogg Advisory Council.
What’s one impact you’d like to highlight?
My work in biotech helped give my father two additional months of life.
I’ve spent 26 years as a life sciences professional trying to move drugs from concept to bedside. In 2001, I worked as a venture capitalist at Interwest and was one of the original investors in Salmedix, a cancer-focused drug-development company. Bendamustine, one of their drugs, is a potent anti-cancer agent—one of its cancers of focus is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
Fast forward 17 years later: my father was diagnosed with CLL and by 2018 had undergone multiple chemotherapy regimens without much luck. I asked if he would consider trying Bendamustine, and he agreed. The drug gave him two more months of life, and gave all of us hope and precious time together.
Bringing to market a drug that helps to prolong your father’s life—what kid doesn’t want that?
“Healthcare is a business”—what’s your take on this statement?
I’m all in on that idea.
In the late 1990s, when I was at Kellogg, everyone wanted to be in technology and saw healthcare mainly as things like hospital administration, which was a much less popular career goal. The school’s focus, too, was on provision of healthcare services.
But I argued that there was a lot of value at the intersection of healthcare and technology: med tech, biotech, e-health and others. At Kellogg and in my career I practiced what I preached. I joined the consulting firm LEK as one of the first people in their biotech practice. The idea is that biotech and med tech companies are almost always interesting “science projects,” but can greatly benefit from looking at things through a business lens to successfully advance the science into patients’ hands.
I’ve always believed that half of success in this domain depends on science, and the other half on business. That might mean focusing products on things people care about, or making sure there will be reimbursement for what you offer. That’s where business comes in.
In fact, I was one of the founders of Kellogg’s Business of Healthcare Conference. I still have the original poster on my wall from 1997!
Overall, I completely agree healthcare is a business and have dedicated my career to this idea.
How has Kellogg been of value for you?
Kellogg has been of value to me for its healthcare offerings—some of which I helped formulate—and for what I learned about running a business more generally, too.
When I was at Kellogg, the school’s healthcare program was first called Health Services Management and then morphed into Health Industry Management. I worked with Professor Ed Hughes on the Managerial Challenges in Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology, and Med Devices class, and helped him expand that into a full-blown biotechnology major. The idea was to use typical resources like case studies to help future healthcare leaders learn and to give them footprints to follow through the snow.
I went to Dean Jacobs and said that we needed more offerings in the biotechnology space. He told me that students run things here and encouraged me to be proactive about what I was proposing. I ran with it and I helped build out the Biotech Club and Med Tech Club, along with curriculum offerings and conferences focused on multiple healthcare areas. So Kellogg helped me take initiative and focused my thinking on what would be most valuable to help current/future healthcare-focused students.
I admit that while at Kellogg I wasn’t sure how I might use what I was learning through the more general business offerings. But now in my managerial role at Locust Walk, I have to think about everything from corporate strategy to finance to HR. I use what I learned at Kellogg every day now, from management strategy, organizational behavior and accounting classes, among others. I quote my organizational behavior professor regularly!
What’s your advice for rising leaders in healthcare and business more broadly?
A lot of people may feel intimidated about entering healthcare because they’re not trained as a scientist or didn’t major in biology. It’s more important to think of healthcare as being like any other business, like oil and gas or tech. Don’t be afraid to get in.
Don’t let the past limit your future, either. You never know what you’ll become. For example, my two worst subjects in high school were math and science, and I majored in government in college. However, I still somehow became a biotech venture capitalist.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the healthcare space is especially large, diverse and dynamic—it changes rapidly. So if you want to be part of it, take risks to get the broadest exposure possible to different areas within the field, to see what floats your boat. Don’t “declare your major” too early, because you may not know what you’re going to like.
So be a sponge and seek exposure to lots of different areas and opportunities while you’re still young. If you’re not passionate about what you do, you’re not going to be successful. That’s true in healthcare and any other field.