As Mark Currie, chief scientific officer at Ironwood, walked among scientific posters at a premier medical meeting, he was struck by the fact that despite the availability of various medications to treat gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD, commonly known as acid reflux or heartburn), a significant number of patients appeared to still struggle with the condition. In medical circles, it was often thought that these patients were just not taking their medication. But Currie thought this couldn't be the whole answer. Many patients were taking their medications but still suffering from GERD, and looking for relief. The data triggered a radical question in Currie's mind: what if the accepted path of treatment for people with uncontrolled GERD, targeting stomach acid, was not the Holy Grail after all? What if there was another underlying problem, not just stomach acid but what about bile acid - more specifically, bile acid that was refluxing into the esophagus? It seemed a foolhardy theory at a time when most GERD patients were perceived to be managed with existing medicines. Fast forward to 2018, and the "bile acid hypothesis" is now gaining traction within certain medical circles and Ironwood's compound IW-3718 is progressing in late-stage clinical trials.
The IW-3718 story is emblematic of Ironwood's approach to innovation. Currie and the team at Ironwood had no way of knowing they would inspire a new way of thinking about GERD. They saw potential in an uncharted path and let science and data lead the way.
Ironwood's approach to drug development is different from the approach of companies that hone in on specific therapeutic areas first. Ironwood's strength lies in harnessing core areas of scientific expertise to develop diverse molecules that could treat multiple diseases. For example, the company has built significant pharmacologic expertise in guanylate cyclase (GC) pathways through its discovery and development of the GC-C agonist, linaclotide. Linaclotide has become the branded prescription market leader in its class, and Ironwood is now applying its GC pathway expertise with the aim of discovering and developing soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) stimulators designed to target life-threatening diseases ranging from heart failure to sickle cell disease.
"We've accomplished a fairly unusual feat for a biotech company, which is that we're now marketing and/or developing medications in several different therapeutic areas, including gastrointestinal diseases, uncontrolled gout and cardiovascular and renal diseases," explains Todd Milne, co-founder and vice president of sGC R&D. "We're driven by pharmacology. In some cases that results in medications that help relieve disease symptoms, and in others it may translate to medications that can save lives."
A big part of Ironwood's success can be attributed to an environment that empowers people to take bold chances, to follow data and to fail fast. For instance, recognizing that not every compound will succeed, the company holds "molecule wakes" to celebrate great ideas and data-driven decision making that resulted in a discontinued clinical candidate. These wakes - complete with eulogies for the compound - give employees the chance to say goodbye, memorialize the lessons learned, and then move on to the next promising project.
It doesn't stop with science, however. Ironwood encourages everyone to push the boundaries and strive for excellence.
At Ironwood, innovative ideas sometimes come from unlikely places, thanks to the company's practice of involving a multidisciplinary group of experts across functions - commercial, legal, regulatory affairs, analytics and more - in key decision making. Rather than a meeting of similar minds and experiences, decisions at Ironwood are based on rich and wide-ranging debates that borrow from a deep pool of experience.
Finance, for instance, is not a function that one typically associates with innovation. However, Ironwood's finance department has been deeply involved in decisions that influence the company's strategic path. Says Gina Consylman, chief financial officer, "The finance team has a seat at the table for every significant decision, financial or non-financial, early in the process. For example, we've worked hand-in-hand with R&D to make difficult decisions about redirecting funding from some key programs to others, all the while balancing financial responsibility with scientific promise and patient needs. There's recognition that all departments must work together to bring value.
The beauty of this collaborative approach is that it encourages a true atmosphere of innovation, where team members push each other to constantly adjust the bar just a little bit higher, and work harder to clear it.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. As we look back on the past 20 years, these images of both major milestones and small moments capture where we've been, who we are, and where we're going.
For our 20th anniversary, we're more focused on the next 20 years - and beyond. Ironwood's team make the company's long-term success an everyday habit through an ownership mindset, boundless collaboration and a shared goal.
Milestones can be a cause for celebration and often provide an important opportunity for reflection. On the occasion of our 20th anniversary, Ironwood co-founder Brian Cali shares four thank you notes addressed to some of the many people who have made getting to this milestone possible.