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John Snisarenko, MBA, CCO of Oyster Point Pharma, developed his interest in eye care at age 13, upon being fitted with contact lenses by an optometrist.
That interest led him through positions with several eye-care companies and eventually to Oyster Point Pharma, which, Snisarenko says, has “a very unique approach to dry eye.”
In this episode of the OIS Podcast, Snisarenko talks with host Paul Karpecki, OD, about building a start-up, moving through a successful IPO, and getting to a position of having a product ready to commercialize, which Oyster Point has done with its nasal spray OC-01. He said, “Be prepared to roll up your sleeves, and sometimes you’re building the plane as you fly it.”
Snisarenko also talks about the importance of developing a good corporate culture, and says at Oyster Point two main credos are:
• Follow the science.
• Think about the patient first.
“If you do those two right,” he said, “follow the science and really follow the patient journey, the other things kind of fall into place.”
Click “play” to hear John Snisarenko share his experiences in the eye-care industry, and how other innovators can apply what he has learned!
Paul Karpecki: Hello, and welcome to the OIS Podcast. I’m Dr. Paul Karpecki. And I have the privilege today to get to meet with John Snisarenko in Oyster Point Pharmaceuticals, John has been well known in eye care, you know, certainly was a name that we all knew well, that really made a difference in Shire in terms of the lifitegrast and Xiidra launch. And so I’m excited to get to know John a little better for all of us to in terms of his background, but also to understand where Oyster Point is now with OC-01, it’s got to be, you know, probably getting close, very exciting time. As far as you know, the potential for approval, what is going to mean to eye care practitioners their strategy around education? We’re going to go through all of that today. But let me start by welcoming you, John. It’s an honor to have you on the program.
John Snisarenko: Yeah. Good to see you again. Paul. I wish I could see you in person very shortly. Hopefully, we’ll get out there. And I could actually shake your hand again.
Paul Karpecki: I look forward to that, too. You know, it’s funny, we have all these virtual calls, which are great. We’ve made the most of all of this, and I love these podcast interviews. But there’s just something so special about being in person again, I look forward to that, too. And it couldn’t come soon enough. I am kind of curious, you know about your background. I was thinking about that earlier when I got the privilege of getting to interview here. And I thought, you know, I’ve known John for a while. I don’t know that I know how and where he grew up. I knew you had a Canadian connection. It’s really played a role. But tell me a little bit about your personal background, growing up education. And then maybe after that, we’ll get into your kind of pathway into eyecare.
John Snisarenko: Yeah, no, sounds great, Paul. Yeah. So I grew up in Montreal, Canada, French, Canada, went to school in English. So a lot of people say, how come you don’t have that French accent, but I went to school pretty well, my whole time in English. And the interesting thing that a lot of people didn’t really know, is really, when I was in high school, I did a work study program at an optometrist office. Because I was interested in eye care, I started wearing contact lenses at 13. And I started visiting the optometrist, and I thought this is kind of cool. So I did a work study for two weeks. And that’s where I kind of got the eyecare bug. And, you know, we can talk about how I continue to pursue that. But yeah, early, early age that I really got into eyecare.
Paul Karpecki: Neat. That’s neat, which didn’t go the optometry route, you decided to kind of look at maybe bigger, big picture or running big corporations being king or key roles, you know, getting to be part of an IPO. So I’d say you made a good choice. It’s interesting how that bug kind of starts. So eyecare probably wasn’t your first out of school out of college and university wasn’t kind of your first step or was it?
John Snisarenko: Well, I did, you know, it’s interesting, my first job was actually in eyecare, but I did my Biochem degree with still kind of the potential to maybe get into eyecare. But after I did my Biochem, I started working as a rep for Alcon. Back in ’87. So long time, you know, the company car was really a company horse and buggy. So it was a long time ago. And I did a stint at Alcon and Allergan as a rep for like, was doing my MBA part time at McGill. So I did both Biochem and my MBA at McGill University in Montreal.
Paul Karpecki: That’s pretty neat. So you are one of the rare of people I get to interview that actually started in eyecare, what was the path and you are with Allergan, and Alcon, first Allergan, I mean, certainly, Shire was that immediately after those that with lifitegrast Xiidra launch and then the opportunity to Oyster Point, tell me how that came about.
John Snisarenko: Yeah, I know that there’s quite a few steps in between. So after, you know, carrying the bag at Alcon, Allergan, once I finished my MBA, I was really interested in marketing. So I got right into marketing over the counter or visual tears with Allergan. Moved to Toronto from Montreal. And then really where I spent a lot of my career in Canada for 14 years was I joined CIBA Vision to really start their ophthalmic division because CIBA Vision at the time, it’s just known for contact lenses and lens care solutions. And then through the acquisition of iOLab, I had the privilege to run kind of the first ophthalmic part of that business. And that CIBA Vision then morphed into Novartis Ophthalmics, and they brought on Visudyne back of the eye stuff. And so 14 years later, is when I actually jumped to the US. I went to San Francisco, join Genentech and ran their ophthalmology for about five and a half years and then moved on to run rheumatology for five and a half years so but good 10 and a half 11 years at Genentech, only then I moved back east with Shire to join the team that just launched Xiidra. And then we know the story with Takeda buying Shire and then obviously, divesting Xiidra to Novartis. And right after that, I joined Oyster Point September 2019, probably three or four months before the IPO.
Paul Karpecki: Wow, what was it like being up there during an IPO on NASDAQ or the setup was a surreal experience?
John Snisarenko: Yeah, it’s a once in a lifetime experience for sure. It’s something I’ve never done before. The interesting part is initially when you’re, you know, really telling a story of the company and the science and so on, you’re telling it to investors, I’m so used to speaking with physicians and practitioners and eyecare specialists. And all of a sudden, your audience is investors and the street. And so it’s a, it was a very great experience in kind of a whirlwind, because you cover so many investors over kind of a period of two weeks. Just to get your story out. And then obviously, with the interesting approach, we have to dry eye it was a lot of interest. So it was a very successful IPO.
Paul Karpecki: Now certainly was and certainly a great background to it. I love how you started in sales and had that interest in marketing, also have the investor side makes you incredibly around it was the stent outside of eyecare beneficial or was it just kind of neutral? Did it give you any further insights? Or would you just to state and eyecare the whole time through?
John Snisarenko: Yeah, you know, that five and a half years, what’s interesting in Rheumatology, because literally just learning the immunology process, and there’s so many eye diseases that have that component in it. So it was interesting to connect all that. So I’ve been in eyecare. And we know I care so diverse everything from, you know, I’ve been cataract surgery side, the contact lens side, you know, over the counter the prescription, retina. But the immunology aspect of it was something that really complemented what I did, in eyecare for all those years. So I was very happy to get back into eyecare because it was really kind of rounded it all out. And it was fun.
Paul Karpecki: That’s pretty neat. Now, was it things just fell into place as you went along? Or were you picking up certain things that you would say I wouldn’t, you know, knowing this helped me to get to the next level, like even going from sales to marketing, we probably have some listeners who are in that situation.
John Snisarenko: Yeah, I mean, interest. Yeah, it’s good to really do as much as you can get a diverse set of skills and background. And, you know, the sales aspect is one component up your front line, and you’re visiting the eyecare practitioners and then detailing your product, but then marketing, you have to think a little bit more, how do you tell your story more broadly. So that’s very complimentary. And then I was just fortunate timing wise that CIBA Vision board was going through some transitions. So I got the Runcie division candidate that’s a little bit more general management experience and some other functions kind of reporting in other than sales and marketing. So that part of my past in Canada really helped me to transition to the big, big businesses that are in the US, especially with Genentech watching Lucentis that was a big foray into wet AMD and big team big investment buying everything. So it definitely prepared me to kind of look at it more broadly more in a diverse fashion.
Paul Karpecki: What helped you make, because you’re the IPO price point was very successful, good launch came up above, you know, oversubscribed and kind of rose very nicely. And certainly now the story is kind of waiting to see what happens with approvals and other things. But what do you think made it such a success are so many companies right now they’re looking maybe should I go IPO should I do right? What made that such a successful launch?
John Snisarenko: I mean, part of it is, is the platform you’re working on, we did feel we had a very unique approach to dry eye. It’s basically the philosophy of Oyster Point is we want to look at follow the science and look at very novel approaches to treating eye disease. And we’re specifically focusing on ocular surface disease. So, you know, we saw in the past, a lot of the approach was kind of more the anti-inflammatory immunomodulator. And we thought, let’s take a look at it from a very different perspective. And so the mode of action and the route of administration is very unique. And it kind of brings it back to school where you know that nose – eye connection that, you know, a lot of your basil tears are formed through, you know, your breathing through your nose, and really the trigeminal system. So that part of the story was very interesting to investors when we went out there and started to tell them how we’re approaching, you know, dry eye disease. So that’s what I believe led to the success of the IPO. And even now there’s a lot of inbound interest now that we’re getting closer to potential approval in October of this year. There’s a lot of inbound interest to join our team. We’re growing quite quickly here at Oyster Point.
Paul Karpecki: Yeah, potential for October is exciting. So what stage what is company working on now focusing? I mean, obviously, you can’t promote until we have an FDA approval, but you’re getting your team in place. You’re looking at disease state arenas, what are your plans in both the eyecare professional space? Or do you do them together? Because it’s a dry eye type product?
John Snisarenko: Yeah, so definitely building out that commercial organization. You know, as we’re now doing all the pre-launch activities and kind of preparations, building that team out. I’ve got the head of sales, Mike Campbell, who’s got to build a pretty large team. So that takes some time. And so we’ll we started those efforts already. And that’ll go out through of the summer. But from a disease state awareness, we want to tell the story around the, you know, there really is no substitute for natural tears and kind of the beneficial components of natural tears, lipids, proteins, growth factors, you know, inherent anti-inflammatory properties in your tear film antimicrobial properties. That’s the story, I think that we want to, you know, remind folks, that natural tear film has so many beneficial components, that’s part of the education we’re doing now, it’s completely kind of dissociated from OC-01 that’s going through the FDA approval process, but just kind of reminding everyone on the natural tear foam, and how that works with the eye and the nose, connection, and so on.
Paul Karpecki: I agree with that. I mean, think about an artificial tear, there’s a few components, but there’s nothing to the level of the number of proteins, Eliza’s AMD, antimicrobials, the number of lipids alone in terms even though it’s such a small layer, and of course, mucins, you know, it’s so incredibly complex and is nothing is quite like that. I love that message.
John Snisarenko: One of the things we thought of early on when we were designing our Phase 3 clinical trial is to make it as real world as possible. So we, you know, we basically had all comers that were part of the trial from mild moderate to the more severe dry eye. So at the end, when we do talk about our clinical results after approval, hopefully, that’ll mimic really the real-world kind of patient that walks through your door. So that was part of the strategy.
Paul Karpecki: You know, one thing you did exceptionally well, you the team Bob and others were in with Xiidra was you came out and this was at the time kind of novel actually with the same amount of involvement of both the eyecare professionals, ophthalmology and optometry because you’re going to get prescribing on both sides. And I think you’re very rewarded because at some, one point 68% of the prescriptions were coming from optometry which we’ve not seen with any other therapeutic agent show perhaps allergy drops to date, set an approach you’re thinking of implementing, again with that success as are Oh,
John Snisarenko: Absolutely. Yeah, no, the optometry, specialty as well as ophthalmology are both very, very important for the dry eye patient and other therapeutic areas as well. So we’re going to, you know, have just as much effort at both specialties. And, you know, interestingly enough, when you look at the demographic of your dry eye patients, you know, some of the older patients that are going in for cataract surgery and so on so forth, they have dry eyes while they see more the ophthalmologists and the optometrist as well. But then there’s the younger demographic as well. And now that we’re all staring at zoom screens for the last call a year, year and a half, you know, we’ve got a younger demographic that’s starting to suffer from, you know, inadequate blinking and some dry eye. So I think the market is naturally expanding. And I think part of our role and our strategy to really try to educate the population, the patients go and get your eyes checked. And you know and see if we can catch your eye a little earlier in the disease progression.
Paul Karpecki: I agree. It is great to see, seem superstars coming up in the area, like focusing on dry eye and ocular surface disease, more so than even cornea in ophthalmology and optometry becoming its own kind of subset. That’s so critical. And it’s good to see that because there’s plenty with zoom calls you said, and with the demographics and the changes, there’s more than enough and creates a neat opportunity. So obviously, your hands are pretty full with a potential approval in the fall as soon as October. They don’t gotten backing up. What’s the plans for the company? Do you see this being really what you’re gonna focus on? Are you looking for other potential, you know, acquisitions, partnership opportunities, where’s the company from a macro perspective in terms of their thoughts? It might be a tough time to ask that question when you’re about to launch perhaps in just a few months, but what’s the company thinking long term?
John Snisarenko: Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right, too, you know, priority one is we want to gain approval by the FDA for OC-01 and then commercialize and launch. So all hands-on deck, from a commercial perspective, getting that ready from a manufacturing perspective, getting that ready. But, you know, more longer term. The one thing that impressed me joining Jeff and team is that, that investment in R&D, and you know, we really have not talked a lot about our R&D and what we’re working on. But what thing we want to become is really, the premier ophthalmic company, eyecare company focused on ocular surface disease. So there’s not just dry eye, dry eye is kind of our first foray into the space. But there’s lots of unmet need in this space, and we’re looking at a lot of things and we brought on both Marian Macsai, our Chief Medical Officer and Eric Carlson is our Head of Development in R&D. And those two talents definitely are adding to that scientific curiosity. And everything we’re looking at from a pipeline, you know, and investment perspective. So, yeah, that’s we want to become that premier company that focuses on ocular surface disease, and, you know, hopefully 3-4 years from now, it’s something that we’ll be talking about a whole portfolio of approaches to these diseases.
Paul Karpecki: That is exciting. Yeah, I mean, certainly have to compliment Jeff’s leadership, yours, I mean, really assembled an incredible team and, when you look at the team there, you know, product going through FDA process, but now late stage, you know, and you think of the team that’s surrounding it, there’s got to be bigger goals and pictures and sounds like that’s exactly what’s in mind. I mean, I think this and of itself is going to be significant. But it’s good to hear that the company is not going to say, Okay, this is exciting, we’ve got something great should approval occur, we’re gonna still continue to hone in on the ocular surface disease space, and there’s a lot of need in that space. And I like that area of division because it is more than dry eye. And there’s significant areas to approach. it the perfect person for me to ask this question because you’ve worked in many different settings. And many different sizes of organizations from Genentech, as big as they get Allergan and others to also here is a startup with a product potentially launching later in the year, next year, depending on FDA approval. So you have any advice for listeners that are maybe in a large organization who have aspirations of, you know, launching company, or joining a startup such as this is, is this a good route for them to go? And what advice would you give them?
John Snisarenko: Yeah, no, great question, Paul. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of my career in the larger companies, and here and there that smaller companies and, you know, larger companies, you walk into a pretty well-oiled machine, a lot of the processes, policies, everything’s in place and, you know, you basically have your therapeutic area you’re in charge of, and you want to maximize that opportunity, but a lot of the infrastructure around you is already in place, at a startup, you’re literally building all that as you’re continuing to development and so on with your platform. So if you love that energy, of rolling up your sleeves and getting everything, you know, build from scratch, and that, especially if this is your first, you know, asset in the space, you know, this first time we’re commercializing something at Oyster Point. So building that whole infrastructure and everything around, it takes some time. And it’s high energy. So I think that’s, that’s what I would say, if you’re looking to go to a startup, you know, be prepared to roll up your sleeves. And sometimes you’re, it’s a cliche, but sometimes you’re kind of building the plane as you fly it, right. And kids, you’ve got to get things in process in parallel. But it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. And we’re attracting a lot of folks because they love that energy. And it’s kind of entrepreneurial, and the beauty of a startup as well, as you’re building the team from scratch as well. So you’re able to really look at the talent that’s out there. And hopefully, you know, the platforms we have are attractive for that talent to come to Oyster Point as well.
Paul Karpecki: Sure seems like that’s exactly what’s happening. And it is, you’re so correct about that energy, you know, in creating that, because that’s something that just is just getting the right people in place that that helps created is a combination of that, but the leadership what why do some companies like yours have such a great energy that attracts the superstars and excitement that goes with it to such a level?
John Snisarenko: That’s another great question, Paul. I think, you know, culture is something that is developed and evolves from within, and you’ve got to nurture it, right? So you can’t ignore it or else culture just kind of forms on its own. But, you know, being able to step back and talk about the how we’re going to do things, you know, some of our credos are, like, really follow the science, make sure that we’re thinking about patients first, when we’re looking at something. These are things that kind of help build that culture. So people approach things differently. If you do those two, right, follow the science and really, you know, follow the patient journey, then the other things kind of fall into place. So but you’ve got to nurture it. And I think that an investment in the culture, especially when you’re growing, growing very, very quickly, is an important part of the, you know, the aspect of the startup as well.
Paul Karpecki: You create that is it just the communications? Is it just allowing people to connect at a different level? I mean, obviously been a little different in this COVID here. Oh, for sure. But, you know, what are the steps because culturing I love that the culture is really the key. I love how you said nurturing, because I don’t think people focus they just kind of say, well, the culture fell into place. Perhaps you guys are really nurtured of how’s that done? If that’s not too specific of a question?
John Snisarenko: Yeah, no, it definitely committed high communication is key. And it was a challenge in the pandemic era as well. You know, we started with zoom meetings, we look like a Brady Bunch with nine squares and now a company meeting 80 people. So, and it’s still high touch, we still meet as a company every week. And we go through a lot of things, not just, you know, just even How is everybody feeling over the pandemic, to? How’s the science progressing? How are we building the commercial organization, the part that’s important in a startup is all the interdependencies amongst the functions because, you know, manufacturing has to be ready and quality has to be ready and commercial has to be ready. And we have to talk to each other. So that when we are ready of the investment that definitely does the culture of the company.
Paul Karpecki: That’s fantastic. This is terrific interview; John shared some amazing insights. I love the granularity we got into in establishing a culture I think that’s so valuable for anybody listening in, you know, and for innovative companies to succeed. But it was great to also get to know your background, one of the few that really started right and eyecare is incredible way.
John Snisarenko: There’s not a lot of people knew that not a lot of people do that. Now, you know.
Paul Karpecki: I do know that I’m impressed. And I can see the results are obviously very positive because of that experience. But I guess Well, certainly, you know, all my best to always point to you, Jeff the entire time.
John Snisarenko: Thank you so much, Paul.
Paul Karpecki: You’ve got a great group there. Excited to hear of progress and hope that that continues to go well and certainly thank you for sharing so much of your insights with everyone here today.
John Snisarenko: No, thank you for the opportunity Paul. It was a pleasure.
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