Click here to watch the video version of this podcast.
One of the most influential women in ophthalmology today, Adrienne Graves, PhD, has excelled in nearly every aspect of the industry, from research to industry to nonprofits.
While many know Dr. Graves from her executive experience—eight years as CEO of Santen Pharmaceutical, board positions with more than a dozen ophthalmology companies—she got her start as a scientist.
Her work in visual neuroscience got the attention of Alcon, where she was hired to set up the company’s first retinal electrophysiology lab. “It was the best decision of my life,” she tells OIS Podcast host Rob Rothman, MD, (even though she had to move from Paris, France,
to Fort Worth, TX). With support from her manager, Dr. Graves moved up through R&D to eventually become Alcon’s director of international ophthalmology.
After closing her chapter with Santen, Dr. Graves went on to guide other companies and cofound Glaucoma 360, an annual gala and conference produced by the Glaucoma Research Foundation. The hybrid 2022 event kicks off on Thursday, February 10.
Tune in to the conversation between Dr. Graves and Dr. Rothman to discover:
• What inspired Dr. Graves to choose visual science early in her career and how that initial spark keeps her going today.
• The details on the venture philanthropy fund started by Foundation for Fighting Blindness.
• More about the broad portfolio of professional opportunities that comprise Dr. Graves’ career.
• Why it’s exciting times for biopharma company Iveric Bio, where she serves as board chair.
Click “play” to listen
Rob Rothman: Hello OIS podcast audience. Nice to be speaking with you again today. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Rob Rothman. I am a Practicing Ophthalmologist, glaucoma specialist. By training, I spend about half of my time in clinical practice taking care of patients, the other half of my time, I spend running InFocus Capital Partners, which is an ophthalmic venture capital fund. And today, we have Adrienne Graves, who is arguably one of the most influential women in ophthalmology today. So welcome, Adrienne, it’s a pleasure to have you here today. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your incredible schedule to speak with us. And I’m looking forward to getting in deep with some of the things that you’ve done in your life and exposing the audience to, you know, all the amazing stuff that’s going on in ophthalmology in your world. So thank you.
Adrienne Graves: Well, thank you, Rob, it’s always a total delight to talk to you. So, let’s have some fun here.
Rob Rothman: We should probably start by letting people know, you know, where you came from, sort of where you grew up, what your education was, you know, childhood, things like that. So people can sort of hear about how somebody becomes you. And where you start from.
Adrienne Graves: Okay, well, I was born and raised in Seattle. My father was a Presbyterian minister, I shouldn’t say that. I was always really interested in Math and Science. And I never had the intimidation factor. I never really felt that, that was not for girls. And was actually quite the opposite. And I think I told this story on the OIS stage actually a few years ago, but I just always assumed that girls were better at Math and Science than boys were, because I used to tutor, the football teams, basketball teams, all my guy friends. And so I just, we girls, was just better at that. And so that was always a fascination for me. And actually, you know, ophthalmology, as you said, has been, you know, my entire career. And it actually started as an interest very very early childhood. I thought the vision was like the coolest magic trick in the world. You close your eyes, everything goes black, you open them up, and everything just appears instantly again. And I used to ask people, How does that happen is that the coolest? And so is no one could really tell me. As soon as I could study it, which was in college, I didn’t. And I just never stopped. It’s been a lifetime passion.
Rob Rothman: So educationally did what were you, what did you do in college and is postdoc that sort of, you know, sort of built your interest in this space and more formally, you know, it’s a little bit different, you know, you found that fascination, you know, from the visual process itself. When you’re a Jewish guy from Long Island, it’s your mother says, you’re going to go be a doctor, and then you pick something, and some guys end up being ophthalmologists. That’s the difference between how we do it. And how you did it. Yours is obviously a lot more pure. But there must have been something that happened along the way that sort of formalized you onto the path of being able to run companies and direct companies at the level that you do.
Adrienne Graves: Well, in college, I was really interested in psychology, biology and neuroscience, and I was lucky enough to have courses in Visual Science and Neurophysiology courses that I have craved since I was a kid. And I did a senior honors thesis in Visual Science, I did a visual psychophysics project, hung out with graduate students, and I was totally hooked. I had earlier thought about going to graduate school in clinical psychology, but I changed my mind, and actually, a lot of people said to me, Look, you know, you’re so interested in Science, why don’t you go to medical school? You know, you can make a lot more money as a physician than a scientist. And I thought and find my parents didn’t push me that way though. My parents just were thrilled that I found something I was passionate about. And I didn’t want to go to medical school because I wanted to continue in vision research. I wanted to I just go, you know, straight on into the lab. That’s what I did.
Rob Rothman: So that’s what you did. So you did postdoctoral work in visual science. Is that really what started off?
Adrienne Graves: Yeah, I did. You know, right after college, I actually spent a year at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital working for Ann Fulton who was a Pediatric Ophthalmologist and Retina Specialist. And I helped she had just arrived there, I helped her set up her lab and electrophysiology lab, a retinal electrophysiology lab, she also taught me to do clinical ERGs. So I was her clinical ERG tech as well. I couldn’t believe that she trusted me to do that. I learned so much. But that was when I started really having a passion to be involved in looking at new therapies, particularly in the retina, there was really nothing at that point. I was doing DRGs on kids with family histories of inherited retinal disorders. And I would just pray every time I did their er G’s, that there would be a normal signal because there was at that time, this was in the late 70s, there was nothing really on the horizon even to treat those precious children.
Rob Rothman: So you just you had an interest, you saw a need. And then you know, and I’m asking you these questions, just so you know because I think that it’s important for people who may listen to this to want to, you know, think about a pathway, how does that translate into, you know, a paying gig? What’s your first job out of that? How do you transition from that word, world inside the laboratory out into the world, you know, outside the laboratory, where clinical things are happening?
Adrienne Graves: Yeah, it was really an interesting path, because so I did, I did do a Ph.D. in visual neuroscience, went on and I did a postdoc in Paris, which was pretty wonderful. In Visual neuroscience, and I was there for I was starting my third year as a postdoc because you know, Paris.
Rob Rothman: Take your time, right.
Adrienne Graves: And I was having a blast, I was learning some new technologies. I was learning single-unit recording. And I was teaching some of the techniques that I knew to the rest of the lab was really, really a fun experience. And I got a call, though, from a headhunter, essentially, for Alcon. And they wanted to hire someone to set up a visual function lab, essentially, retinal electrophysiology lab, and I didn’t know anything about the pharmaceutical business at all. I knew nothing. And, you know, they said decades in Fort Worth, Texas. And I, at first, I just, you know, I thought that sounds kind of crazy. But then I, you know, I thought, Well, why not? Why not explore it? What the heck. And I went on the interview. And I was amazed, actually, I mean, you know, when you come from academia, and then you go to Alcon’s lab facilities, and it’s like, a paradise for a scientist. And I, you know, I started to think well, oh, my gosh, they were giving me they wanted to give me a budget, which seemed, you know, huge to me at the time. It actually was it a huge budget to set up an amazing lab. And so I did you know, I ended up taking the job and you know, moving from Paris to Fort Worth, Texas. Starting in industry, which I knew, you know, pretty much nothing about and had never thought about, turned out to be the best decision of my life.
Rob Rothman: That’s crazy. It seems easy though. Paris – Fort Worth I mean, that’s what’s the difference?
Adrienne Graves: Well, you know, back then I used to have to tell people that I met in Fort Worth. When they asked where I was moving from. I had to actually say Paris, France.
Rob Rothman: France, right Paris.
Adrienne Graves: Because I just said Paris times and people were like because there is a Paris Texas, Texas. Yes. And people would say like, Oh, so you moving up to the big city A. But yeah, it, Alcon was just an amazing experience for me because I want my very first boss called me in on my first day of work and said, you know, Adrienne, I just want to tell you right now, there are so many opportunities for you at Alcon. And he said, I’m going to introduce you to people and I’m going to be happy, no matter where you end up in the company. There are opportunities for you. So don’t think that you know, this lab is all you can do, there are so many opportunities for you. And at the time, I thought, I mean, I knew he was being wonderful because he was, but I thought, you know, all I care about right now is I’m going to build the best darn retinal electrophysiology lab that there ever could be. But, in fact, I did go on, he did introduce me to not only the CEO, the sales marketing people, they took me on trips all over the world, just to have me talk about visual function and how it related to the different drugs that we were developing. So it was just amazing training grounds and a wonderful experience.
Rob Rothman: So, you know, we can probably go through every single step along the way but let me jump forward a little bit. So, you know, you ultimately, and doesn’t really matter what the timeframe is, but from there, you achieved some pretty unbelievable success in the world of Ophthalmology. So and just for the audience, you might want to just look up Adrienne’s you know, bio, somewhere out there on the web, but she has been the CEO of Santen. You know and was at Santen for many years, I think was 15 years. You are CEO, and then you were, I think, Clinical Development VP, right. So worldwide development VP?
Adrienne Graves: Yeah, I started in R&D and Clinical Development, and did the Worldwide group in clinical and then was asked to be CEO, so I was there. Yes.
Rob Rothman: Right. And then you for I think it was how it was eight or nine years; I think you mentioned at Alcon before that right? So correct. So moving up through the ranks there. So these are two of the biggest companies in ophthalmology, pharmaceuticals. And Adrienne’s been at the, you know, the top of the executive chain at both of those. So that in and of itself is pretty fascinating. But then you start to mix into it, you know, all the board positions, right? So, you know, board director of iVeric, which you’re going to spend some time talking about, I think there’s some stuff that we should probably discuss about that company, but NiCox and Oxurion and TherOptix and companies that have been acquired by other uptown companies like Envisia and Encore that we talked about that have been acquired by other companies Aerpio, these are some of the, you know, up and coming in, you know, developmental companies inside the ophthalmology space. So, you know, some of the ones that have become public companies that were originally startups you’ve been involved in these companies at every level, both from board directorship all the way through operational roles, at the same time, having taken on philanthropic responsibilities as well. So the ophthalmic world leaders, right and Glaucoma 360, so you know, to two entities that, you know, you’ll explain, you know, who’s sort of who they are and what they do, but also, you know, foundational positions at Foundation Fighting Blindness at the American Academy of Ophthalmology. You so you’ve ended up serving in all of these different roles inside of ophthalmology and it really started with a job at Alcon right, so it started with the job, and it’s become all these things and that’s why you know when you think about all the people who have been involved in so many aspects of ophthalmology, you know, your name comes up doesn’t matter. If you know, if you’re a man or a woman or whatever you’ve been at the forefront of the both developmental and the business side of Ophthalmology for many years. So you know, I think that you probably should sort of telling people how this sort of goes, you know, and how you find the time or how you navigate responsibilities or how you think about your responsibility to patients and to ophthalmology through your work? Because I think that’s a big question. Right, you know, people go down a business path very often and succeed. But then some people also find the time to do other things there that are also beneficial like board directorships, and the foundational work. So, just maybe, pontificate off, you know, that for us.
Adrienne Graves: For sure, well, I feel really fortunate, because ophthalmology has been my passion for a long time, and it continues to be my passion. And I think there have been so many advances, and we talked about retina, but advances in all parts of ophthalmology, that technologies are studying the pathophysiology of disorders, and then therapeutics that come out of those studies. It just keeps, it keeps marching along and some of the thing’s gene therapies seem like, would have been science fiction, way back when. So there have been so many advances in ophthalmology and that’s what really keeps me passionate, it’s my career, I’ve loved my career, and it’s been, you know, so much more than just a way of making a living, it is, I still find it so fascinating. Find the science fascinating, I find the people fascinating. I think I have so many lifelong friends in ophthalmology and people who were kind to me when I was first learning ophthalmology, and who’ve become, you know, lifelong friends. It’s a world that continues to excite me, and when I was at Santen and became CEO. You know, obviously, that was an incredible learning experience as well. I was on one outside board when I was CEO Santen. And I realized that I love being on the board, partly because you’re with a group of people from varied backgrounds that, you know, all sort of contribute strategically to the growth of a company. And I love that, and I thought, well, that’s, that’s something that would be, you know, really cool for me to the next stage of my career. And, again, I’ve been really fortunate and how that turned out. I, as you said, I’m on a number of different boards, public boards, private boards, in pretty much every aspect of ophthalmology, Retina companies, glaucoma companies, external disease companies. And so it’s really, it’s really cool because I’m involved in so many different aspects of ophthalmology, and advances in ophthalmology. And for me, it’s sort of the perfect situation, it’s, you know, when you’re at one company, as in any role as a, keep it as a CEO, you’re pretty much you know, you’re very focused on your business, your competitors, your pipeline, whereas being on all these different boards, I, you know, I get a much broader view, and, you know, have able to influence a lot of different aspects of ophthalmology, and it just keeps it so fascinating. Interesting, and, and I did mention sort of, you know, relationships in ophthalmology and that’s been something that I’ve loved to I’m friends with people that I knew, you know, back in graduate school in my early days of Alcon and, and that’s, that’s something that is still a thrill and, and keeps me passionate about what’s going on in ophthalmology.
Rob Rothman: It’s funny, I’ve made this comment before but when InFocus launched and you know, we’re not the first ophthalmic-focused venture fund but as we were raising money for our first fund, one of the pushback comments was it’s too narrow in Ophthalmology is too narrow. You know, you’re trying to explain to people what ophthalmology, you know, business really looks like and how much entrepreneurship and development and how much industry there is surrounding ophthalmology. It’s pretty insane. It’s incredible. You’ve been involved in so many aspects of it. You’ve even been involved at the investor level, I know that your work at Foundation Fighting Blindness, you know, was somewhat of an investor-level sort of activity, correct?
Adrienne Graves: Yeah, I mean, that is really, really exciting. So I’m on the board of Foundation Fighting Blindness. And I’m also on the board of the venture fund that they started Ben Yerxa actually the CEO. For the past few years. I started it when he joined FFB. It’s called the RD Fund, the Retinal Degeneration Fund, and it’s a venture philanthropy fund. But we invest along with the, you know, key people like you in ophthalmology. And we invest in early-stage, either close to clinical stage or clinical stage companies who were studying therapeutics for inherited retinal disorders. And it has been I can see why you love doing it. Because it’s been really fascinating. We have a cool board that includes people like Eugene de Juan, Tony Adamis, Kelly Lisbakken, and others. I’ve learned so much from them. And we actually in just a couple of years, we’ve already had a return on investment. We invested in Vedere, which is not to genetics play, and Novartis. It’s a preclinical asset that Novartis acquired. And that was pretty thrilling to be our first return. So yeah, love it!
Rob Rothman: That’s great. And that’s, it’s right. So that it’s the beauty of that side of it is not only to get to know what’s going on in the world of revenue, generating ophthalmology, but you also see what’s hopefully going to be up and coming one day and have input into what eventually may become, you know, important therapy for people with significant ophthalmic disease and knowing that that’s occurring. You know, at least for us InFocus, we believe that a lot of what we do is mandatory, because these therapies that we invest in, we believe need to succeed, we’re going to make things better for patients and it’s our responsibility as, you know, clinicians and people who are involved in ophthalmology to make sure those things happen, and it’s great to see one, like you’ve already had, you know, get funded, developed and get acquired, and hopefully end up coming out into the world. It’s something that benefits people, it’s pretty fascinating, very gratifying phenomenon. So it’s, you’ve now had the ability to see what it’s like to maybe build those assets in-house or move them up through the chains at the corporate level. But now you’ve also seen what it takes to get it to that point, right before Alcon or Santen or Allergan or anybody’s gonna buy something, right is a whole chain of events that has to occur before that they can take years and lots of money. And that’s where, you know, the RD Fund comes in, and we come in and Visionary and ExSight and all of us, you know, come in at that point and try and make these things succeed. So it’s a fascinating perspective.
Adrienne Graves: Pretty cool. It’s pretty cool. Now also, we also the RD Fund, we started our own company, with Jean Bennett as a Scientific Cofounder. And then Yerxa and his team as initially getting the company started, we have now Chief Scientific Officer as well. And we have a number of gene therapy assets that Jean Bennett has brought to the table that some of them are ultra-rare and you know, probably conditions that other companies might not want to touch because of the market size. But you know, it’s a really exciting undertaking.
Rob Rothman: Yeah. Where InFocus is prepared his planning for that and fun too. So building out companies, when you put together the right people and you have enough, you know, the money behind you and you understand assets, especially on the pharma side, or even the device side. You can do that you can build companies and sometimes that’s, you know, that’s, even more, it’s like raising your own child. Right. Now, we just did we just adopt children and propagate them. You can actually birth your own child and raise it if you want, which is sort of exciting, too, is so much and that’s what I mean, it’s ophthalmology is a fantastic place to be involved in to invest because there’s just such an incredible amount going on and so many great people and you’re right, I think that there’s unique collegiality inside of Ophthalmology that allows people to work together for the common good. And I don’t have a lot of experience investing outside of Ophthalmology at all. But, you know, I’ve been told by people who do that this is a unique space.
Adrienne Graves: Yeah, yeah, no, I think it really is. And I you know, from my earliest days, I really saw the generosity of spirit of people in the ophthalmology world. And, when I first joined Alcon I saw that glaucoma was the biggest market and ophthalmology and for Alcon at that time, I didn’t know anything about glaucoma, although I knew the neural pathways. And I actually, you know, this was before the internet, so I couldn’t google glaucoma. And I was damned if I was gonna go to the library. So I had the marketing folks drop the list of the top glaucoma people in the US. And, again, no internet, no email, I cold-called these Glaucoma KOLs. I was a nobody. And believe it or not just about everybody returned my calls and invited me to visit them. I learned so much from them and their, you know, dear friends to this very day and that in and amazed me that, first of all, that they would have that kind of interest in, you know, extend those invitations to me. And, and also, I saw how committed they were, you are to your patients. And it was, you know, just from the very beginning, I just, you know, I fell in love with that other aspect of the ophthalmology world. The ophthalmologists.
Rob Rothman: It’s funny, you know, I had the privilege of speaking a few months ago at Jeannette Bankes, as you probably know from your days at Alcon. Right, so and I think the theme of both of those conversations for the both of you and again, you know, to unbelievably influential women in the world of Ophthalmology is that you’re not going to be successful unless you actually really care about it, you really have to care about what you’re doing, especially when it comes to anything involved with caring for people
Adrienne Graves: Completely agree.
Rob Rothman: You know, you have to be right. And that was she made the same point is that if you don’t really if you’re not really invested in making people better, if you think this is just a financial play, or if it’s, you know, just a job where you have to, you know, it sort of succeeded a task, it’s not going to work, they’re gonna get to the level. And I think that that comes across, when you speak to people who have gotten, you know, to the higher levels of industry, you know, as you have that, you’ve got to care in this space, because if you don’t, the people who you work with, and, again, this may not just be unique to ophthalmology, but it’s certainly prevalent in ophthalmology, we really, really care about trying to make these patients better. It isn’t just about providing a return, we want to do that for our investors, you want to make sure that you do that for your investors, as well. But like you have to be able to do it in a way that actually benefits people in a meaningful way. And if you don’t care about that’s probably not right. And not the right place for you to be.
Adrienne Graves: Well, it’s that kind of passion really came through to me, you know, since the early part of my career, and it really sustains me. I mean, it really, it just keeps me passionate. And you know, I’m also really impressed with the, with scientists in our field that, you know, look how long people have, like people like Jean Bennett, look how long they worked on, you know, on gene therapies, and, you know, when and all the obstacles in their way and even gene therapy deaths, and they kept on and it’s just that kind of dogged determination. For the good of patience is tremendously impressive. And, you know, it just does keep me passionate.
Rob Rothman: Can you give me two minutes on what’s going on at iVeric? I think, you know, as we get close to winding down, I think it’s important to talk about that you’re intimately involved with iVeric, and I think they’ve got some pretty exciting stuff going on. So I know you’re involved with so many companies but because that one’s sort of at the forefront of retinal investment. Right now. What can you tell us?
Adrienne Graves: Really exciting times that iVeric, exciting for me, it’s the first time I’ve been Chairman of a Board and iVeric has just amazing team starting at the top, you know what the CEO Glenn Sblendorio. He’s amazing. Pravin Dugel’s part of our team. Now he’s actually president.
Rob Rothman: He just came on board, right. So he just came on board as president.
Adrienne Graves: He just he came on board two years ago, he’s been this past year was promoted to President because he, for being you know, we know how brilliant he is, and, but he’s also an incredibly strategic thinker and team player in and iVeric and has helped build a team, we’ve added a number of really top people just within the past few months, even. Because we’re getting ready for possible commercialization, we, as you know, our lead program, as I grow, which is a compliment, inhibitor of C five, and for geographic atrophy in dry AMD, we’re getting close to finishing our second Phase 2 study, Phase 3 study, that is, our first Phase 3 was I gather one, and very positive results met primary endpoints. Just a tremendous, you know, tremendous effective 27% reduction, I think, in GA, over a 12 month period. We’re now with the second Phase 3, got completely enrolled over the summer, which was amazing for an international huge study, during the time of pandemic. But it’s gone extremely well, we should have a rib out the second half of this year, we’re just really excited about it, you know, really the possibility to be first with the treatment for GA, so tremendous need. And we’re just really excited and felt a tremendous team to get ready for possible commercialization.
Rob Rothman: It’s great, it’s exciting for everybody, we’re happy to hear that. There’s progress and geographic atrophy that’s been, you know, sort of the holy grail for investment in ophthalmology for a long time. And we’re starting to see lots of companies have some progress there. And it’s pretty great to see that your first chairmanship will turn into something positive, although it’s going to set the bar pretty high for you. So be careful when people ask you to come on boards, they’re going to expect you to commercialize their asset. So just be careful about how successful it’s like Burke becomes, you know, people say, a wonderful outcome, or a horrible problem to have. And listen, you know, I think that you could probably spend 1000 more hours talking about all the companies and I didn’t even get to the foundational work you’ve done and all the things you’ve done in a philanthropic way for people, for patients. It’s just a million things going on in your world. And I think that on behalf of all of us who are out here in ophthalmology both, from my perspective as a clinician and also as as an investor at this point, you know, we all want to thank you for everything you’ve done to help advance the treatment of ophthalmic disease. And I know that you will continue to experience loads of success as you move forward. And I personally am looking forward to working closely with you. I’m looking forward to seeing you at New Horizons in February in San Francisco, hopefully, people will be out for your Glaucoma 360, which is your Co-founding foundational and educational entity. Happy to be a part of that. And looking forward to seeing you there. And again, just thank you for everything that you’ve done and wishing you continued great success going forward and really appreciate you taking 45 minutes out of your time to sit with us today.
Adrienne Graves: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. And you know, a shout-out to OIS in general, OIS has been a tremendous inspiration to me. And it was part of the inspiration for starting Glaucoma 360. So, and I’ll see you there, Rob. You see a lot of other folks there too.
Rob Rothman: Yep. So thanks, everybody for taking the time to listen today. And thanks again OIS for giving us the opportunity to have these conversations. Looking forward to seeing everybody on the next podcast.
Adrienne Graves: Thanks, Rob.