WALTHAM — For many biotech executives, an invitation to speak at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco is tantamout to an invitation in Hollywood to walk the red carpet on Oscar night. It’s unmistakeable proof that you’ve arrived.
Praveen Tipirneni, CEO of Morphic Therapeutic, certainly felt that way about his first chance to address colleagues. But the offer also started a sideline interest that couldn’t seem more removed from drug development: drawing cartoons.
Last fall, Tipirneni met Philip Ross, vice chairman of J.P. Morgan’s health care investment banking division, at a Cambridge restaurant to discuss the startup’s progress. Ross then made the offer: How would you like to speak at the upcoming J.P. Morgan conference in January?
Tipirneni was so excited, he recalled, that he took out a pen and began drawing on a napkin. It was a rough cartoon of an executive at a packed conference yanking another by the arm.
“I can get you out of here,” says the first executive.
“Do you have any idea what it took to get in here?” replies the other, pulling back.
The lines came from one of Tipirneni’s favorite movies, the 1997 science fiction cult film “Gattaca.” But it was Tipirneni’s whimsical drawing and transfer of the scene to the crowded, caffeinated J.P. Morgan conference that impressed Ross.
“It’s incredible,” recalled Ross, who soon shared copies of the cartoon with biotech executives. “It’s almost like The New Yorker of biotech.”
Tipirneni, 50, drew comics as a kid but stopped to study science. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a medical degree at McGill University in Montreal, and an MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
When other biotech executives said they loved his first cartoon in 30 years, he was startled.
“I was, like, ‘Who knew people liked this stuff so much?’ ’’ he said.
In less than a year, Tipirneni has created about two dozen cartoons explaining and poking fun of the often abstruse world of biotechnology, many of which adorn a Morphic conference room and his office.
He draws them when he has a free moment at work or while waiting at the airport. He tweets the cartoons and puts them in Morphic slide decks that his firm shares with investors.
Roz Chast and other star cartoonists at The New Yorker probably won’t lose sleep over the competition, but his drawings are irreverent commentaries on biotech. They seem particularly cheeky coming from the chief executive of a publicly traded startup.
Consider the one that depicts a balding executive standing next to a scientist in front of a whiteboard. The executive is scrutinizing chemical formulas that the scientist has scrawled on the board.
“Close enough,” the executive says. “From here on in, it’s who you know.”
Tipirneni, who says he knows just enough chemistry to realize he needs to surround himself with real chemists at Morphic, said some of his colleagues were appalled by the drawing. It wasn’t because it suggested that who you know beats what you know in biotech. It was because one of the molecules features five hydrogen atoms and one nitrogen atom.
“Apparently, that’s impossible,” Tipirneni said.
Another cartoon with three panels shows him and Mike Huckman, a former CNBC biopharma reporter who gets paid to coach CEOs on how to give presentations at J.P. Morgan.
In the first panel, Huckman gives Tipirneni some advice: “You need some personality, Praveen . . . SMILE!”
Tipirneni makes a toothy grin.
“Never mind,” Huckman says. “Just be yourself.”
Huckman said the cartoon recaps what really happened when he met several times with Tipirneni before the executive’s speech at the January conference.
“When I coach people to smile and wear confidence, I never want it to look like a pasted-on smile that it becomes so apparent that someone has coached them,” said the consultant for W2O Group, in Wilmington, N.C.
“So, typically, my counsel is that if you’re a natural smiler, do that. But if you’re not, forget about it.”
Several of these cartoons were in a booklet that Tipirneni published recently for donors to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle as part of a fund-raiser he participated in.
Tipirneni has also produced a series of cartoons explaining the science behind Morphic. He joined the firm as CEO in 2015 after spending 13 years as a vice president of Cubist Pharmaceuticals, a Lexington company which Merck acquired for $9.5 billion.
Morphic had just been founded by Timothy Springer, an immunologist and entrepreneur who teaches at Harvard Medical School. In the 1980s Springer discovered integrins, a group of proteins believed to play a role in a variety of serious disorders, from fibrotic diseases to cancer. He also figured out that treating those conditions requires restoring the proteins to a healthy shape.
With Springer’s guidance, Morphic scientists have designed compounds that aim to do that. In one cartoon, a man holding an integrin with the wrong shape is about to jump out of an airplane. He has an anchor on his back. A friend holding the correctly shaped protein is equipped with a parachute.
At least one big drug firm evidently believes Morphic is on the right track scientifically. AbbVie, the Illinois pharmaceutical company, signed a deal in October to pay Morphic $100 million upfront for exclusive options to license the Waltham company’s fibrosis drugs.
Tipirneni, whose other activities include riding motorcycles with friends across the Sahara desert and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, hardly claims to have great artistic skill.
“An artist would be mortified if they saw my process,” says the executive, who lives in Lexington with his wife and two teenage sons.
He typically starts drawings by hand, sometime with the help of plastic stencils. He then refines them on computer apps, including Adobe Photoshop and Procreate.
Like other people who have tried cartooning, he says the hardest part isn’t drawing. It’s coming up with a clever idea.
Since he began creating cartoons less than a year ago, Tipirneni said, a number of people have requested he make one for them. He invariably gives the same response:
“Look, when the idea comes, I can do it. But I can’t tell you when the idea’s going to come.”