As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Eddie Martucci, CEO and co-founder of Akili Interactive. Prior to Akili, he co-founded two other health-focused start-ups through PureTech and helped launch their digital health initiative. Eddie is a healthcare innovation thought leader and frequently appears in media and serves on discussion panels for industry and academic events.
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 have always had a personal interest in neuroscience and have been passionate about new approaches in medicine. After graduate school, rather than take a traditional academic or industry research path, I pursued healthcare entrepreneurship which led me to PureTech Health. While there, I had the opportunity to identify innovative technologies and develop early-stage companies based off of cutting-edge science, aimed at big healthcare problems. At the time, pharma was largely pulling out of work in the central nervous system and we were learning more and more about the brain and devices were becoming ubiquitous. The science on activating the brain through sensory experiences was starting to hit its stride and was frankly incredible. This was the start of Akili.
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?
As with any early stage company, we had to sell our idea to investors. In the case of Akili, every day, we set out to convince the world of something it hadn’t seen yet. It was a bit audacious if you think about it. One of the funniest memories (although was not quite as funny at the time) was a meeting Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Akili co-founder and chief science advisor, and I had with an investor in San Francisco. It was quickly clear they didn’t get our vision of making a new type of real medicine. After more than 90 minutes of deeply discussing the science behind our technology, we were met only with snarky remarks, including comparing our products to Pac-Man or teenagers playing army games. The funny part was that we were so frustrated afterwards, we couldn’t believe how they didn’t get the concept! But soon after, I started realizing that you have to have a strong backbone, especially when your idea conflicts with the patterns in people’s heads. That experience taught us to spend our energy reimaging the future with open-minded and curious individuals versus wasting time trying to sway a brick wall that only wants to look at past patterns of success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are countless people. Every year and every month, even today, people continue to support me and help Akili along the way. I think that comes, in part, with being a mission-driven organization and working on something many people deeply care about.
It’s impossible to single out one, but there were three individuals that propelled me at various stages of Akili’s development that I’m extremely grateful for.
Early on in grad school, I was at a crossroads between the traditional science path and entrepreneurship and had the fortune of being connected with neurosurgeon and, serial inventor Kevin Tracey (CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research). Kevin got me irrationally excited about entrepreneurship and inspired and encouraged me to go for it. I remember him saying: “You should just be the first employee of a start-up and learn the rest on the job.”
I joined PureTech Health out of grad school and had the privilege of working with Daphne Zohar. Daphne has tremendous resolve and taught me the importance of internally benchmarking the value of your idea in the early days, andnot relying on the discounts of others’ doubts. In the face of doubters, she not only stands by her ideas, but she puts immense value on them and pushes to see them through. Changing the future of medicine doesn’t happen overnight and Daphne has had the foresight and patience to give legs to many new medicine ideas longer than most people would.
As any founder can attest, starting a new business is a bumpy ride. When we hit these bumps, I could always count on one of Akili’s earliest Board members, Dr. Ben Shapiro, to remind me to keep my eye on the prize: our vision of incorporating an appreciation of brain function into medicine. He has always been an ardent believer in what we are doing at Akili and continuously reminds me that we can do better than today’s medicine and that the work we are doing at Akili is important to the world.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
From day one, Akili set out to challenge the status quo of medicine. We wanted to change how medicine was developed, delivered and experienced. Recognizing a huge need for new ways to treat CNS disorders, we set out to create a novel way to improve cognitive health. In those early days of Akili, we set a bold target of developing a prescription treatment delivered through a video game.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The two years when we were working to get FDA clearance of our first product were challenging. After years of research and development, this was the last stop before being able to get it in the hands of patients and help children’s lives. This had never been done before so there was no roadmap. And, naturally, there were times of frustration and doubt. The process was full of uncertainty, including a government shut down and then COVID-19, both during our review.
Throughout it all, we never lost sight of our mission and our passion for doing whatever it took to help people benefit from our product. I was candid with the team about our frustrations but led with my personal belief in what we were trying to do and the important role we could play in people’s lives. When you have a team of people passionate about your mission, uncertainties and frustrations feed persistence and determination. It’s that shared passion for our mission that led Akilians to respond to COVID-19 with the initial release of our product which we accomplished in record time. In June, we completed our FDA process and announced FDA clearance for EndeavorRxTM (AKL-T01) as a prescription treatment for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). EndeavorRx is the first prescription treatment delivered through a video game.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. While there were many times that I wished it weren’t so hard and that medical stakeholders saw what we saw more quickly, I never contemplated giving up. If Akili weren’t such a mission-driven organization, I might have, but I believed strongly in what we were doing and met so many families along the way that were looking to us to help them so giving up wasn’t an option. Akili had an opportunity and, I felt, a responsibility to them to push forward even in the face of obstacles and skeptics.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Don’t get distracted by the tactical issue of the day. Especially during challenging times, you have to stay focused on the “why” of what you’re doing. In our case, it was to give new hope to families with children living with ADHD, and why the world so badly needs what we make.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
At Akili, we call it the “patient at the table.” As a pre-commercial company, it’s easy to get lost in the day to day and lose sight of why you’re there. We work hard to bring the patient perspective to every meeting. What would a patient say if they heard this discussion or decision? It keeps our eye on the ball. There’s nothing more motivating than hearing from a family about their needs or about how your product has changed their lives.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Don’t sugar coat it and provide context. We all work with smart people and should always treat them with respect, which includes not sugar-coating difficult news. Share the news directly and give them the opportunity to share their feeling and questions. But also provide context. As smart as everyone in the room may be, they rarely have the context you bring to the situation, which can result in over-reacting. I’m still learning how to give all of the context I have in succinct communications to the team!
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to be nimble, accept changes, and look at the uncertainties as opportunities, not obstacles. Develop your plan based on the best information you have at the time but know (and be sure everyone knows) that the world around us could change and we can, and will, quickly adapt. The issue is when you believe your plan is the only plan. If you’re focused on your mission, the “why” of what you’re doing, whatever the future throws at you is an opportunity to look at new ways to achieve it. We try hard to keep our team used to changes and pivots in plans — it ends up being a muscle that a good disruptive business needs to succeed.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Avoiding paths that, at the outset, appear too complex. Sometimes the harder paths mean the greatest impact.
- Falling into the trap of investor skepticism and demands for rapid returns and taking the short-term quick flip path.
- Rapidly pivoting away from your core. You must stay true to your vision but then learn and adapt to make it as successful as possible tactically.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay true to your core. Focus on the “why” of your business and remind yourself of that “why” every day. For us, it’s all about helping people living with cognitive impairments. If we focus on doing what’s right for them, it will sustain our business.
- Be passionate. Everyone has tough days. It’s especially important on those days to continue to always show your enthusiasm. It helps others, and it helps you.
- Have conviction. Learn from others who are trying to help, but don’t let the critics shake you and abandon your vision.
- Create belonging. Build a culture where everyone feels that their voice is heard, that they belong, add value and are critical to your company realizing its vision. It will mean more perspectives and take longer, but it’s critical.
- Be humble. Without humility, you can’t learn, improve and adapt to change. I basically assume I could be wrong in every decision I go into and try and listen to everyone’s ideas as equally valid. It helps when you build a smart team!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm
- Winston Churchill
Getting here was crazy. Stopping now would be crazier.
- Serena Williams
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn, and you can learn more about Akili on our website. I’d also invite readers to follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.