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A Culture of Curiosity and Collaboration

Like many start-ups, Aurion Biotech defined our mission / vision / values at the company’s inception. But culture takes time to evolve. It sprouts from the seeds planted by mission / vision / values and – most important – the traits of the people we hire.

Why does culture matter? How does it differ from a company’s values? These questions weren’t discussed directly, when we sat down with Michael Goldstein, MD, MBA, who recently joined Aurion Biotech as President and Chief Medical Officer. But we talked all around them. It was heartening to see how Michael embodies Aurion Biotech’s emerging culture – where we encourage curiosity, collaboration, the desire to make significant impact, and the recognition (and humility) that in biotech, “it takes a village” of diversity of expertise to create a successful product.

Curiosity: Asking the “Why” Questions

A corneal specialist, Goldstein still practices one day a week, at Tufts New England Eye Center, and he directed the Tufts residency program for many years. His advice to residents and fellows: “do your homework and – of course – observe and absorb everything you can. But also, take advantage of what’s unique to this environment: experienced clinicians. Ask each of them why they’re making those patient care choices – it’s the best way to learn.”

Goldstein’s innate curiosity has guided all of his own professional choices. Originally, he aspired to orthopedics, but after two years of med school, he realized that while he loved the “fixing” and “building” of orthopedics, he missed the intellectual challenges of other areas of medicine. Ideally, he’d focus on a specialty that provided both the “med” and the “surge.” A three-month rotation in the cardiac care units at the Jamaica Plain VA hospital in Boston and Boston University Medical Center earned him a potential offer of a fellowship in cardiology and he seriously considered it. 

Instead, Goldstein opted for fellowship training in cornea/external diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Eye and Ear Institute. Goldstein embraced ophthalmology for many reasons: the eye is a complex organ; sight is vital to people, so he knew his work would matter; there are still many eye diseases that are not well understood (or managed); and ophthalmology offered him the opportunity of practicing both medicine and surgery. 

In addition, Goldstein says, “every disease pathology presents itself in the eye – and often early.” Moreover, it’s the ultimate litmus test for systemic safety and tolerability for the entire body. “If we can develop meds for the eye,” he asserts, “then we have confidence they can be tolerated systemically.” Goldstein believes we have so much more to learn about all of our anatomy by studying diseases of the eye. 

Meanwhile, his father – a very successful ophthalmologist with a thriving practice in Colorado – made it clear he’d welcome Michael into his practice. This was a big pivot point for Goldstein. Not surprisingly, his curiosity (and a desire to establish himself independently from family) led Michael to accept an Assistant Professor position at the University of Florida where he was Director of Refractive Surgery. At the University of Florida, Michael was fortunate to work with an innovative researcher,  Dr. Gregory Schultz, who taught him the importance of translational research and cross-functional collaboration.  Goldstein loved this basic science corneal research, and it set him on a pathway in academic medicine and on thinking about the potential clinical impact of fundamental research .

After University of Florida, Goldstein came back to Boston, teaching at Tufts University School of Medicine and then becoming Co-Director of the Cornea, External Disease service and Residency Director at Tufts University/New England Eye Center.

At Tufts, he enjoyed the teaching, the research, the diversity of patient referrals – and the proximity of biotech companies – both start-ups and well-established giants. Goldstein had already-present entrepreneurial inclinations: he had interrupted med school to complete an MBA at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. So it made sense to begin consulting to biotech companies. His curiosity in translational medicine and a desire to make a greater impact on entire patient populations led him to explore a deeper involvement in biotech, beyond the traditional “KOL” consulting role. “I prefer to do the strategy – what are we going to create, and why?”  

Collaboration In Biotech: Why It “Takes a Village” to Build a Product

Perhaps most important, in comparison to academic medicine, Goldstein believes that biotech offers the ability to deliver impact – rapidly. “All of us, each of us, can only leverage a finite number of hours in the day,” says Goldstein. “When you’re in a practice, you can make a huge impact, but only one patient at a time.” Academic research can ultimately have an impact, but it may take many years to get from the lab into patients. Goldstein recognized that innovation in biotech could quickly deliver orders of magnitude greater positive impact on lots of patients. 

His trajectory from “there to here” had begun – first consulting to Pfizer, then roles at Eleven Therapeutics, AGTC, Ocular Therapeutix, and now at Aurion Biotech. Along the way, he has been fortunate to be able to maintain his affiliation with Tufts, which means that he continues to see and treat patients, and stay connected to colleagues and residents.

In addition to the leverage afforded by translational medicine, Goldstein also relishes the collaborative environment of biotech. “Each of us brings expertise into the room,” he says, “but none of us knows the entire answer.” Initially, Goldstein says his unique value-add was “bringing the patient’s perspective into the room.” He quickly realized an unmet need to expand his expertise into all things clinical / regulatory. 

His experience in biotech has taught him that there are often many pathways to solving problems. Exploring these challenges with a group of people – each of whom brings very distinct skills and experience – is deeply rewarding for Goldstein.

And what about Aurion Biotech? 

“What’s unique is that we’re ‘starting at the end,’ the opposite of most biotechs at our stage,” Goldstein says. “It’s pretty clear that our cell therapy works. We need to prepare the supportive data and studies to prove that out.”