Succession: Jay Duker Of EyePoint Pharmaceuticals On How To Do Effective Succession Planning

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

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In today’s rapidly evolving corporate landscape, it is essential to ensure the continuity and legacy of an organization with effective succession planning. C-suite leaders play a pivotal role not just in charting the company’s direction, but in shaping its future leadership. By building their bench strength internally, companies can achieve a smoother transition, reduce risks, and ensure alignment with their core values. But how do seasoned C-suite leaders go about cultivating talent from within? What strategies do they employ to prepare the next generation of leaders for the helm? In this interview series, we are talking to C-suite executives who can share their experiences and insights about these questions. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jay S. Duker.

Jay S. Duker, MD, is the President & CEO and Board Director of EyePoint Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company that develops sustained-release medications to treat serious retinal diseases. Dr. Duker has devoted more than 30 years to the field of ophthalmology focused on improving eyesight and preventing blindness, holding roles in clinical research, business, and academic settings. Dr. Duker joined EyePoint in 2020. Prior to becoming President & CEO in July 2023, Dr. Duker served EyePoint as President and Chief Operating Officer, and as Chief Strategic Scientific Officer. He also served on EyePoint’s Board of Directors from 2016–2020 prior to his re-appointment to the Board of Directors in July 2023.

Between 2001 and 2021, Dr. Duker was the Director of the New England Eye Center (NEEC) and Professor and Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Tufts Medical Center and the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts. He has published over 345 journal articles, concentrating on retinal imaging, retinal vascular diseases, and drug delivery to the posterior segment. Dr. Duker remains in clinical practice, seeing patients with medical retinal disorders and intraocular tumors.

Dr. Duker is the founder of three successful start-up companies; SurgiSite Boston, the fifth busiest independent ophthalmology-only out-patient surgery center in the United States, the Boston Image Reading Center (BIRC), and Hemera Biosciences, the developer of HMR59, an AAV-based gene therapy for dry age-related macular degeneration that is now in a ph2 clinical trial after being acquired by Janssen in 2020. Dr. Duker was on the Board of Sesen Bio and served as its Chair. Dr. Duker received an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.D. from the Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about succession, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Mydad had a very serious eye accident when he was eight years old and was blind in one eye. He was able to live a normal life, but growing up I saw his experience with having somewhat limited vision and his concerns about the ever-present risk of potentially losing vision in his other eye. When I got to college, I became fascinated with retinal anatomy physiology. It was then that I realized I wanted a career that blended science with helping people; that’s when I decided to become a doctor. My interest in retina was fueled not only by the precision of the surgery, but that it required the surgeon to be flexible and always thinking and adapting to the variations that occur with every operation. No two procedures are the same, and as a retinal surgeon, you must be comfortable with thinking on your feet and in the moment. In addition, during my early career as an ophthalmologist, the business-side of medicine and drug development attracted me, and then finally, after a successful career in academic medicine, I made the decision to pivot and enter a second career as a biotech executive.

Now I’m helping patients in a different way. Instead of serving patients on a ‘micro scale’ — one patient at a time, or even dozens or possibly hundreds at a time by training young physicians — I now have the opportunity to help hundreds of thousands of patients around the world. At EyePoint, we’re focused on developing and commercializing innovative therapies to improve the lives of potentially millions of patients with serious eye disorders. So, I guess you can say I’ve stayed true to my original goal of working in a science-based career that bridges the business of medicine with novel drug development to help people. It’s a very exciting space. While ocular treatments have advanced exponentially, there is still much more to be done in terms of drug delivery to reduce the treatment burden for both patients and caregivers and most importantly, improve patient outcomes.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I excel at executing a plan, and the operational aspects of successful execution don’t make for exciting stories. However, I can share a few quick experiences that underscore the importance of strategic risk-taking and why, above all else, the patient experience must rule.

About 15 years ago, I founded SurgiSite Boston. It’s a modern, state-of-the-art ambulatory surgery center that is used by 70 ophthalmologists from throughout the region and today, it’s the fifth-busiest independent eye surgery center in the U.S. However, starting it was a BIG risk. To open the center, my team at Tufts and I had to take a loan from the hospital. The first year was a struggle and I started to doubt my plan. But in year two, the center really took off. What I learned is that if you have a good plan and good people, the execution will follow. You have to stick with it and have a long-term game plan. Also, I learned the success of a surgery center is linked intrinsically to the patient and doctor experience. Doctors have options of where they can operate. So, it’s critical to make it a good experience for everyone and make it seamless. Patients notice when things aren’t quite “right.” We invested a lot of money to make the center function well, but initially volume lagged. It took a while to convince doctors to try our center versus other operating rooms, but once they did, they saw what we saw — and that was that SurgiSite provided a great experience for both them and their patients. And frankly, for the payers as well. Eye surgery centers perform identical surgery to hospitals, but at a lower cost. The experience hit home when my wife’s father had his cataract surgery at SurgiSite and my wife said the experience was almost “too fast” and efficient. In the world of healthcare — where appointments and procedures are often dominated by patient delays and downtime — that’s a rave review!

Also, during my time at Tufts, I was asked to be interim chair of Dermatology. I had no experience in dermatology, and this was a completely new area for me. But, I approached the position with the same patient-first mentality that has guided my entire career. The first thing I did was follow a patient through the entire treatment process, to see the full patient experience first-hand. By doing this, I was able to pinpoint some key opportunities to help patients stay on track. While I was interim chair, I recruited five new dermatologists and assisted with finding a new chair as my successor, and substantially improving the patient experience. It was a very rewarding time in my career.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Hire great people and keep them happy. It makes leadership so much easier!” People want to succeed and do a good job. No one wants to fail. As leaders, it’s our job to mesh the skill set with the job description while allowing individuals the opportunity to make the right personal/professional choices and grow in their career. Also, you have to give people the tools they need to be successful. At EyePoint, we make a concerted effort to identify our strategic goals, operationally outline the steps that are necessary to achieve the goals, and then make sure we have the right people in the right jobs. You have to let people grow and embrace empathetic leadership to get to know your workforce and what motivates the people around you.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

EyePoint employees are extremely talented, focused, and they excel at execution. To share one example, EYP-1901 — the name of our premier pipeline asset — is a potential treatment for several serious eye disorders, including wet age-related macular degeneration, or wet AMD. The current standard course of treatment for wet AMD is medication delivered by injection directly into the eye, which lasts about two months. EYP-1901 has the potential to last six months or longer which, therefore, has the potential to allow patients to be free from a difficult and demanding treatment schedule. Our phase 1 clinical trial enrolled the first patient in January 2021, and we are on track to have top-line data from our 160-person phase 2 study in December 2023. This is a very rapid and successful execution and well beyond the industry average. Once again, I am inspired by this talented, committed team of professionals who continue to put patients first in everything they do.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I am a quick learner; I believe in finding win-win solutions; and I am empathetic and can often see and understand the “other side” of a discussion, debate, or decision. These traits have guided my entire career as I’ve worked in private practice, academic institutions, and now in biotech. I’m able to see things differently — from the patients’ and doctors’ perspectives. It’s like when it comes to designing and executing a clinical trial; while the goal is to ensure that any drug we develop is commercially successful, we’d like to ensure that our drugs are wins for patients, practitioners, and insurance companies. Some people view the world of competition as a zero-sum game — where one side wins and one loses — I like to view the playing field as an opportunity to find solutions that are wins for all. You have to know your audience, stay focused on what you’re trying to accomplish, and aspire to achieving the big picture, which is always patient impact.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

If there are two good paths, then both can be correct. When that’s the case, it’s important to gain as much information as you can prior to making the decision and then plan to move forward with confidence in the choice you’ve made, regardless of the anticipated results. For example, several years ago, three partners and I founded a gene therapy company. We built it from the ground up, beginning with raising capital, licensing, and we completed two phase 1 trials. It took 12 years to get to that point and the company was bought in 2020. It was a virtual company that began with the patient in mind, and now a large pharma company is moving the drug forward, and it might just be a breakthrough product for Dry AMD. For me, this is an outstanding example of why it’s important to always lead with your strengths, advance the opportunities you know are right, and allow your focus on fulfilling unmet patient need drive your action. That’s where true innovation can shine and grow.

Ok — thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. What does succession planning mean to you?

At the most basic level, succession planning is making sure the company or organization is in a position for continued success. It’s about business continuity and sustainability. In any organization, there are certain people within it whose departure would cripple the organization. This is particularly true for smaller organizations. You need a back-up plan — whether it’s a network of consultants or industry peers who are ready to jump in and take the reins. With my transition to CEO, EyePoint developed a succession plan with Nancy Lurker before she moved from EyePoint President and CEO to her current role of Executive Vice-Chair of the EyePoint Board of Directors. She went to the Board and told them her intention early and, together, they identified me as potential successor and brought me in as a full-time executive with no promises, just consideration. Nancy worked with me to get me up to speed, build my skillset, and make sure stakeholders were comfortable with me. During this time, the company pivoted from specialty pharma to biotech, which made the leadership transition seamless and strategic. It was a thoughtful, well-executed plan — and Nancy was extremely helpful, accompanying me side-by-side on calls and in meetings, telling our story — and I truly believe that’s why it was successful. We provided a unified front, solid strategy for the change, and we maintained an open dialogue to field real-time questions.

What are the nuanced challenges often faced in succession planning? What are the strategies to overcome those challenges?

Nobody wants to face their own “mortality” or even the possibility of a predecessor, partner, or mentor moving into a new position or onto another company. It takes confidence and maturity to allow a direct report close access to gain the experience and skillset that is needed to one day replace you. The way to overcome any hesitation or resistance is by mandate and leadership. I believe it’s critical to make succession planning a requirement for all executives in the company including and especially the CEO, to ensure that there is always someone who is ready, willing, and able to fill any open slot. In today’s fast-moving business environment — and in an industry as dynamic as biotechnology — human resource gaps can be devastating, especially when the company is a small, nimble organization where every employee is a leader who plays a vital role.

How do you cultivate an environment that not only identifies but nourishes the hidden talents within your organization? What practices have you found to be most effective?

Hire great people and keep them happy, and constantly evaluate job descriptions and individuals’ talents and limitations and adjust accordingly to ensure success for both the individual employee and the company. At EyePoint, as we work together to deliver for patients, we know that there will always be challenges — which is why it’s important to cultivate an environment that sees problems and challenges as opportunities to develop unique solutions. Also, fostering a culture of accountability and ownership that encourages collaboration and candid, real-time communication is key to ensure alignment within teams and across functions. For us right now, it’s about staying focused on ramping up for our phase 3 trials. We’re a solutions-oriented team with a clear, collective vision to advance on our expanding retina pipeline to ultimately support patients’ unmet needs with new indications and assets, which requires an ever-expanding, evolving set of skills, behaviors, and competencies.

What’s your philosophy on growing talent from within versus attracting external talents? How do you find the right balance?

Culture is learned. It can be difficult for a person experienced in another company’s culture to adapt to yours. But hopefully in the interview process, along with testing the skillset, an interviewer can assess the cultural fit. At EyePoint, I’m inspired by our commitment to cultivating a culture that is collaborative and transparent, yet encourages accountability and ownership. Because we empower our people to lead from where they are, we attract driven, dedicated, and passionate professionals who are motivated by the opportunity to deliver first-in-class solutions and technologies to ultimately provide a brighter future for those at risk of losing their sight. Success in the industry — and on behalf of patients — requires innovation, strategic vision, and focus.

We are committed to addressing patient needs with lasting impact; you can see our dedication in action in the work that we do every day. While it’s critical to grow your internal talent by offering development opportunities, it’s also important as you build your team to look for some basic inherent leadership traits that can’t be learned, such as uncompromising professionalism, ethics and integrity, and an unwavering drive to continuously improve and be the best. Your people are your competitive advantage and your difference-maker, and how you stand out within the industry.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

A simple and effective way to ensure that succession planning is a holistic process is to require employees to answer these key questions: What would happen if your direct report left in two weeks? What is your plan? In addition, at EyePoint, we’ve looked across the organization to identify key leadership roles where unexpected or long-term vacancies would be detrimental or result in significant business impact. These are critical risk positions to support business continuity. With that in mind, on an ongoing basis, we’re identifying current/top business challenges; evaluating competencies and skills of potential successors; providing training and development opportunities to high-potential employee leaders who can fill open roles; communicating with transparency to all stakeholders; and continuously reviewing and iterating on a comprehensive succession plan. Following these general steps helps ensure that our organization can continue to thrive when leadership is needed.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do for Effective Succession Planning”?

  1. Make it a mandate.
  2. Get Board agreement.
  3. Start with every “what if” (What if our head of HR were to leave in 2 weeks? What would we do to replace them?).
  4. Build a reliable, ready network of contacts and consultants.
  5. Review the plan yearly.

Also, realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Effective succession planning takes time, commitment, and ongoing evaluation, but it’s business critical. Plan for it, be ready for it, and you’ll be prepared for it.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I always approach perceived “problems” as unique opportunities to develop solutions. Some of my best ideas come from lying awake thinking about a problem. It lends itself to “outside the box” results.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Life and business in the United States is not a “zero-sum game.” Over and over, we see examples of a person or a company’s success resulting in incredible advances for many people. The idea that one person or one group’s success only comes at the expense of another is antithetical to the way we should behave. I’d love to see this mindset shift across industries to help fuel collective innovations.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.