As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Dobak.
John Dobak, MD, is President and CEO of DermTech, a leading company in precision dermatology enabled by its non-invasive skin genomics platform. Dr. Dobak has served as Founder and CEO of several venture-backed life science companies in San Diego and is the President of the JAKK Group, a life sciences technology accelerator, which has created several companies, including Lithera, INNERCOOL Therapies, and CryoGen/CryoCor. These companies have developed and marketed therapeutics, ranging from endovascular hypothermia to treat cardiac arrest to catheter-based treatments for cardiac arrhythmias. They have been financed by top tier investment firms and have achieved exits through acquisition and an IPO. Dr. Dobak and these companies are the recipients of several awards for entrepreneurship and innovation, including UCSD Connect’s Most Innovative New Product and MIT’s Technology Review 100. Dr. Dobak received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a medical doctorate from UCSD.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was a fourth-year medical student at UCSD in 1992 with the goal of becoming a surgeon. In my last year, I had an epiphany that I wanted to be a biotechnology entrepreneur, partially inspired by an accident where I spilled a day’s worth of liquid nitrogen for cryosurgery treatments, which made me realize how inefficient and outdated the tools were for that process.
Entrepreneurship was an uncommon path back then, and although my advisors were skeptical and tried to talk me out of it, I withdrew from my surgical match and took a post-doctoral position at Scripps Research Institute.
I spent three years trying to find the path to entrepreneurship. I even ended up back at UCLA during that time and put in the extra hours to get my medical license as I started to better understand the uncertainties of entrepreneurship that my advisors tried to protect me from.
After a number of failed attempts, I finally secured a grant that allowed me to develop a medical device prototype and raise my very first round of venture capital financing. That first company had a successful exit and I parlayed that momentum, capital and key learnings into a series of subsequent medical device and pharmaceutical companies.
There were a number of challenges that I faced during that time — both within and outside of my control. But I’m stubborn and I don’t give up easily. I sometimes think I could have been a case study for Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I once accidentally took a sleeping pill right before an investor meeting having confused it with a prescription anti-inflammatory. While my recollection of the meeting wasn’t as sharp as it usually is, my team genuinely said it was one of the best pitches and Q&A I had ever given. That experience made me realize that I don’t need to overthink important meetings too much, and that I can be at my best without stressing. It helped me learn to trust myself and my instincts in this business.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I started my first company right after my medical school training, when I had no experience managing people. The One Minute Manager, a thin little “how-to” book, gave me some basic tools about managing different types of people that I still find useful today, things like — give praise, don’t be afraid to re-direct your team members, and write down simple and tangible goals to pursue. I also listened to the Play Bigger audiobook on the recommendation of my Chief Commercial Officer and it really made me think differently about how to position a company for success.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I originally started DermTech because someone in my life had a delayed melanoma diagnosis and ultimately succumbed to the disease — a disease that, as a MD, I know is very treatable when caught early. I saw an opportunity to create a better approach to melanoma detection and potentially save lives.
Genomics is creating a revolution in cancer care and DermTech is the first company to bring genomics to dermatology to enable early detection of melanoma — the most deadly and aggressive form of skin cancer — with greater accuracy, contributing to objective and informed disease management.
Advancing innovation across the healthcare industry can be glacial, and evolution is often only incremental — so it can be hard at times to see the forest through the trees. Our team has embraced our unique role to lead this space as we work to fundamentally change the way medicine, and particularly dermatology, is practiced, and it gives us all a tremendous sense of urgency and purpose.
This has been even more evident throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as I’ve watched our teams and people come together to adapt and push themselves to make our diagnostic test and our business work for doctors and patients in this strange new setting.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
When times are tough and things aren’t going right and I’m feeling burned out, which can happen often in this business, I always start my day with this mantra
If not me, then who?
If not this, then what?
If not now, then when?
This just reminds me that opportunities to make big changes are rare and always present unique and difficult challenges that most people aren’t willing to pursue or sacrifice for. This saying always gives me an extra boost of motivation and inspires me to keep going.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’ve been very fortunate. My family is healthy and San Diego hasn’t experience the same level of outbreak and impact as other hard-hit areas. Nonetheless, everything shut down, my son came home from college and we’ve had all three kids in the house with nowhere to go.
My biggest concern (and I’m lucky in this respect) — my boys’ brains are turning to mush. They need the routine of getting up each day and going to school, completing assignments, participating in their sports, etc. The lack of consistency with online schooling causes them to check out even more. Interestingly, this has not been the case with my daughter, who is skilled at developing her own routines.
Throughout all of this, my wife and I have been very intentional about doing a few specific things for our three teenagers:
Establish a Routine — We’re using this as a “learning opportunity” to help them get in the habit of developing and keeping a healthy and productive routine, even when there is a lack of structure. We have them up at a modest time each day, do their schoolwork and get some exercise before they get to veg.
Keep it Light — It’s easy to get caught up in the confusion and uncertainty of the pandemic — those feelings can spiral quickly, so we try to do a couple things each day that feel “normal” and allow us to focus on time with each other — go to the beach, surf, play tennis, play a game, order out for dinner. Regular happy hours with my wife help too.
Maintain Connections — We try to FaceTime or Zoom often with our family members and close friends that we can’t be with in person. It allows us to check in on one another and also celebrate together the milestones that continue to roll in — birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, promotions. Of course the happy hours spill over in to this category also.
In many ways, this pandemic has allowed me to have more family time and an opportunity to better connect with my wife and kids. That’s my silver lining in all of this.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our number one concern throughout this crisis has been ensuring the safety of our employees. Providing test results for early melanoma detection is imperative, so our company is considered essential and our genomics lab has remained fully operational. This adds another layer of complexity to the already-complicated procedures and protocols we put in place at the start of the pandemic. It can be time consuming and anxiety producing to navigate, especially for those who are physically in the labs, but it’s also necessary. Knowing we have these guardrails in place and we’ve done everything we can to ensure our people and communities are safe helps me — and hopefully others — sleep at night.
At the start of COVID, we also pivoted our business to provide our non-invasive melanoma detection test as a telemedicine solution for physicians and patients. This crisis has caused a dramatic shift in the delivery of health care services, moving some consultations to be conducted via telemedicine and delaying others, but we know that melanoma doesn’t wait, so we moved quickly to adapt our product to the situation.
It has been a tremendous amount of work to implement this solution quickly and effectively — especially with most people working from home — but our teams understand the importance of providing this tool to dermatologists and patients and it was all hands on deck. This has turned out to be a really unique opportunity that leverages the advantages of our transformative platform, and our team rose to the occasion to make it possible during this time.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As a medical doctor and having worked in the industry for a number of years, I have tremendous confidence in medical innovation, and I know we will find an effective treatment and/or vaccine. Hope always allays anxiety.
However, I also try to put things into perspective. COVID-19 presents a new risk that requires mitigation procedures. A more familiar example of where we see this in our day to day life is driving to work. There is always a measurable risk of getting in a car accident. We do things to mitigate that risk, like wearing a seatbelt, driving the speed limit, and taking a known route, but we see the benefits of work as outweighing the risk, so we take the necessary precautions and follow the guidance of experts, but we don’t let the risk paralyze our lives. While we wait for things to get back to “normal,” we are all finding acceptable ways to carry on and maintain activity around those pieces of our lives that are most important or prominent.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The changes we’re seeing now are both necessary and exponential in comparison to the historical pace of this industry. COVID served as a catalyst to a number of new healthcare technologies, faster adaptation to telemedicine and solutions for connectivity. Looking beyond stay-at-home orders, these advances will play an important role in the evolution of our industry.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
A new threat has been introduced to the world and, like climate change, or nuclear proliferation, we have a new existential fear to contend with and monitor. While the fear and uncertainty may linger, I’m hopeful that this will develop in us, as a whole, a greater sense of comradery, collective responsibility and a willingness to reassess some of our long-standing status quo.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are excited about the future and how we can play a part in this new and evolving paradigm of remote healthcare delivery. As an industry, we’ve understood the importance of telemedicine for a long time but uptick and adoption across the board has been slow — as change typically is in healthcare. As we were all thrust into this new reality and forced to adapt in a short period of time, the significant response we received to our telemedicine solution quickly reinforced to us the unmet need in this particular area of medicine and dermatology. We look forward to building out our capabilities and services to optimize and streamline these offerings for patients and physicians in the future, and also evaluate how we can potentially expand telemedicine solutions across our broader precision genomics platform.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
When asked about his opponent’s game plan before a fight, Mike Tyson is famously quoted as saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.”
Everyone wants to “have a plan,” but that plan has little meaning once a crisis hits and leaves everyone dazed and confused. That doesn’t mean you don’t plan, but you have to recognize the limits of that work.
Leadership is not about having a plan — it’s about defining a vision that gives people purpose. If you create a vision, the plan will emerge. Now is the time to either reaffirm your vision or create a new one.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
Biotech is riddled with failure. I have had my share, as have any other successful individuals in this business.
How can our readers further follow your work?