writes copy 02 Mar 2019

3 leadership lessons from Adaptive Biotechnologies CEO Chad Robins

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Adaptive Biotechnologies Co-founder and CEO Chad Robins speaking from the Health Tech stage at the 2018 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

As the CEO of Adaptive Biotechnologies, Chad Robins has shown a knack for turning really good ideas into a viable business. But even Robins admits that he makes for an unlikely leader of a biotechnology company.

Robins revealed his thoughts about what makes an effective CEO during an a recent conversation on the What Fuels You podcast, hosted by Fuel Talent CEO Shauna Swerland.

Adaptive dates back to a phone call Robins received ten years ago from his brother, Harlan Robins, saying he’d made a discovery that he thought could “change the world.” Chad Robins jumped at the chance to start a biotech based on sequencing the immune system.

The company is now at the forefront of immunosequencing and has signed massive partnerships with Genentech to create personalized cancer therapies and Microsoft to make a universal blood test using AI.

Here’s what Robins had to say about leadership.

Lesson #1: Do the right thing.

While in college at Cornell, Robins spent more than three months on a backpacking trek with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

“My whole leadership style to this day is based on those 100 days in the wilderness,” Robins said.

“There was a thing called expedition behavior and … at the end of the day  it’s just do your sh*t and be a good person. Do the right thing, right?”

While hiking in the desert, Robins was part of a group, and each member had a job to do when they got to the campsite. “If one of those people didn’t do their job, you either wouldn’t drink, you wouldn’t eat, or you wouldn’t sleep well,” he said. “If I was mailing it in, someone else was picking it up. And that’s not fair.”

His love of the outdoors led Robins to his first attempt at launching a business. Soon after graduating, Robins started an outdoor luxury travel company called American Beauty, named after the Grateful Dead album.

Lesson #2: Learn to love fundraising

“I love fundraising” isn’t a phrase you hear often, but that’s exactly how Robins feels. As he sees it, his job is to make sure the company has the money it needs.

“I try to simplify a CEOs job into really three categories: money, people, strategy. If you don’t have money, you can’t get the right people. And if you don’t have the right people, it doesn’t matter what strategy you set,” he said.

Fundraising has also led Robins to Brian Kaufmann from Viking Global Investors, who helped Adaptive find its strategy and set fundraising targets.

The biotech industry requires mountains of cash to stay competitive, which has spurred Adaptive to raise more than $400 million to date.

Lesson #3: Build culture from the top-down and the bottom-up

When companies talk about management strategies, they often discuss either ruling from the “top-down” or encouraging grassroots change from the “bottom-up.”

For Robins, building a company culture requires doing both at the same time.

“First and foremost, you have to have a cultural leader. And that should be the CEO, who sets a tone of what you want this company to be,” he said.

On the flip side, cultivating culture from the bottom-up comes down to smart hiring. “We want to be an innovative company overall and we want to be compared to the disruptive, game-changing companies across the board. To do that, you need  to hire for the right mindset and the right type of person.”

For Robins, the right type of person is one who has good ideas and is eager to listen and encourage debate within the company.

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