Operating Partner, Lundbeck Foundation & CEO, Vesper Bio (February 2024)

Paul Little is Operating Partner at Lundbeckfonden BioCapital and CEO of Vesper Bio. Paul has a PhD in organic chemistry, he undertook postdoctoral research into the synthesis of natural product phorboxazole before moving to industry as a medicinal chemist. Paul later moved into development, CMC, toxicology and early clinical trials at various biotech companies over the last 20+ years including approaching a decade in management and investing.

Vesper is a clinical stage biotech and world leader in sortilin receptor biology. Its lead programme uses a sortilin inhibitor to rebalance levels of progranulin in patients where the sortilin receptor would otherwise reduce circulating and extracellular progranulin, contributing to disease. Progranulin is a protein that the body uses to regulate cell growth, survival, repair and avoid inflammation. Low progranulin levels are believed to be a factor in cell dysfunction and damage in a range of indications across neurology. By normalizing progranulin levels, Vesper believes its compounds will have a disease modifying effect, protecting and preserving the remaining cells.

Key milestones in your career journey to date?

  • My PhD placement in a leading UK lab with an international cohort encouraged me to find an international placement in Denmark, learn the language and ultimately led to my first pharma role at 7TM Pharma; and an exhilarating eleven years.
  • Adjustment to life in Denmark was remarkably easy; the culture and work/life balance we enjoy is exceptional; I met my wife and enjoy a rewarding personal and professional life.
  • My journey from discovery into development included 7TM; becoming Director of Chemistry; Director of CMC at Orphazyme followed. Then the opportunity to develop my leadership skills as SVP CMC with Insusense, funded by the Lundbeck Foundation.
  • In 2015 I became an employee of Lundbeck Foundation, and ultimately Operating Partner in 2018. During this time I have been a Board member of a number of our investee companies; including as COO at NMD where I led a key investment round.
  • I was appointed CEO of Vesper Bio in 2018; and am now leading my 4th programme from the bench to the clinic with a talented team of 14.

Who has had the greatest influence over your career?

  • My chemistry teacher at school, Benny Wilks, who catalysed my enthusiasm for chemistry.
  • My PhD supervisor, David Knight, inspired my work ethic.
  • Peter Moldt, the COO at 7TM, made the move to Denmark so much easier.
  • Christian Elling, Managing Partner at Lundbeck Foundation, and co-founder/CEO of 7TM Pharma has continuously inspired me.

What top three attributes make an outstanding and relevant leader in today’s world?

  • A laser vision towards the end goal; persistent communication of this across all teams to ensure their buy-in; this takes determination, tenacity and a doggedness.
  • Listening and taking on board the views of others.
  • Strong EI; it’s not all about data and maths; the relationships you build to create engagement across your network are as important.

Describe your approach to identifying and developing high performing teams

  • Focus on the cultural fit; the ability to engage, work collaboratively whilst encouraging healthy debate, bringing energy to the team.
  • Clearly define the job profile and work with a search company which assesses and interprets your culture with prospective candidates.

How does your company meet the challenges of leading a multi-generational workforce?

  • The age profile of Vesper Bio is 30-65.
  • By combining and recognising the following, we create a very positive multi-generational culture: consider different ambition levels, nurture the younger stars, respect the seasoned professionals and play to individual strengths.
  • We get together weekly as a team and the Danish work culture has always been very flexible (well before Covid).
  • Technology requirements are often delivered by the younger cohort; who also train and support those who are less tech savvy!

Tell me something about your company that you would like to share with the PIR community

  • Vesper Bio makes a difference to patients with incurable diseases; giving hope whilst managing expectations.

How has your company created a more diverse culture in recent years; and what do future challenges look like?

  • Different education and life experiences are actively encouraged within Vesper’s team; which encourages diversity.
  • Applying a qualitative and robust recruitment programme, through a trusted search company, ensures the best candidates are selected for each role.

The provision of flexible working and employee wellness support are increasingly important in the retention and attraction of key talent. How are these being managed by your company whilst ensuring that productivity targets are met?

  • Covid did not change our working patterns; as mentioned, the Danish working culture has been flexible around work/life balance for many years now; hybrid working is perfect.
  • A happy, balanced, productive team is generally achieved by incorporating individual needs, letting individuals find their own way and not imposing inflexible rules.
  • The ‘temperature’ of the company is measured informally and formally; including a Wellness assessment via a strategic partner.

What will be the biggest technological transformation in your sector over the next 5 years?

  • The impact which AI could have on speeding up toxicology analysis and clinical trials would make a huge difference. However this might take longer than we expect.
  • The evidence required to prove drug safety under these new protocols will potentially take some adjustment of the industry mind set.

What is your hidden talent or something that might surprise others about you?

  • My passion for the biotech sector is 100%; verging on the nerdy! I liken growing a biotech company to that of a bonsai tree; it takes time to shape and requires constant diligence!

What advice would you give your 23-year old self?

  • Don’t let the S bends put you off; you will get through them if you keep going.

Words of Wisdom?

  • Best Advice I was given:
  • Advice I’d give:
    • The value of an engaged team; no-one gets there on their own.
  • What I wish I’d known:
    • I will get there, despite what my insecurities might indicate.