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Remembering Anne Baia, an essential start-up team member in Boston's biotech community

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 25, 2010 09:41 AM

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baia.jpgLate last week, I started receiving e-mails and calls from biotech executives and venture capitalists. They all wanted to talk with me about a woman named Anne Baia.

I'd never met Baia, but she sounds like the kind of person whom you no doubt have encountered at some point in your work life: the person who's intimately involved in laying the foundation for success and almost single-handedly responsible for keeping all kinds of crises at bay — but who operates entirely behind the scenes. The person never quoted in a press release, or invited to keynote at an industry conference. Baia was one of those people with start-ups in her DNA: someone who devoted her career to helping transform scientific research into actual products that could help people.

Most recently, Baia had been head of finance at Cambridge-based Visterra, a start-up developing new vaccines for seasonal and pandemic flu. She was also a co-founder at Avaxia Biologics, a Wayland company working on drugs that might help control the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy treatment in cancer patients. Over her career, Baia was a sort of "free agent" finance and operations executive who helped launch many other local biotech start-ups. She died last Wednesday of lung cancer, at age 54.

(In the photo at right, Baia is wearing a polo shirt with the Andora logo on it — the Cambridge company that became Living Proof — one more company she helped get off the ground.)

Many of the Cambridge biotech community's leading lights are at Baia's funeral this morning. Here are a few of the reminiscences they sent...lightly edited for length...

Glenn Batchelder, CEO, Corregidor Therapeutics:

I met Anne as I started as CEO of BIND Biosciences — we were barely a company just getting space, and I was joining as the first employee. She and her business partner Pat [Abbott] had everything mapped out from the very beginning. They connected us up with their circle of world-class people [who were] needed to support a company/idea with lots of potential but no infrastructure or staff. It was clear that everyone Anne introduced us to had a very deep respect for Anne and trusted that if Anne & Pat were involved, this would be a good group to take a leap of faith and believe in. Anne had a unique personal compass as to how to navigate through the many decisions, large and small, that ultimately define the success of a start-up both in establishing a great culture and building a strong foundation.

She was a person known to everyone in the biotech community for her absolute integrity and her deep sense of humanity. She reached deep to help us at BIND to ensure we succeeded at a time when she had many people — customers much larger and more important than us — desperately needing her support. I understand from my colleagues that she finished her days with that same selfless dedication, professionalism and loyalty to this biotech community that defined our time working together. We collectively spend our lives striving to develop new therapies to make the lives of people like Anne better and longer. She, in the end, becomes the ultimate inspiration for doing what we do every day, and we were privileged have her as a partner in our efforts.

Rob Robilard, CEO, Living Proof:

I could tell Anne truly loved her time at Living Proof. She viewed it as an exciting new world. Having spent so many years working in start-up bio-techs with no revenues and only costs, the idea of working within a consumer products company, a beauty company, challenged her. She always liked a challenge. Her direct, organized and polished style was a sharp contrast to the emotive, excitable and energetic culture that comes from the beauty world and, frankly, from me. We were a bit of an odd couple.

One of my favourite stories about her integration into this new world came when we asked Anne to join us for a brainstorming session in New York City to figure out the brand name for the company. Since she often played a behind the scenes role, I could see the excitement in her face the moment I asked her to come and join us. We arrived for our meeting at the West Village office of our branding firm ready to solve the problem at hand. Anne looked in awe, and with a bit of confusion, at the open concept loft space where employees sat next to one another with no separation to help facilitate creativity.

She quickly noted “it’s nice, but it would be so loud in here. How would you make a phone call without everyone being in your chili.” Always practical.

We entered the conference room to a group of 10 creative souls from the firm ready to brainstorm. Of course we needed to start with hellos and introductions. In true “beauty” fashion each introduction was complimented with a kiss on the cheek and a big hug. As Anne moved around the room, she threw out her hand to each person to no avail as it was too subtle to block the incoming embrace. I could see her face getting increasingly uncomfortable (that image even today puts a smile on my face). She made it through and readied herself for the creative process. The brainstorm was extraordinary. In fact, Anne always claimed that [the name] Living Proof came directly from her iPod where she had Cher’s album of the same name pulled up that very day.

The following morning, Anne came into my office. This experience had brought out something in her that she had never experienced and I could tell it meant a lot to her. But she said in her wonderful way, “Rob, I love working in beauty and for you, but at the workplace I don’t do hugs and I don’t do smiley faces in e-mails.” Smiley faces were another cultural nuance that had permeated many of my e-mails to her given the strength of our weekly financial results.

I love the irony of this story because Anne was in fact one of the most caring and happiest human beings I’ve ever met. Truly special is so many ways. She was authentic in everything she did and a sense of humor like no other...

Amir Nashat, General Partner, Polaris Venture Partners:

For a young team trying to get off the ground, as is the case in the vast majority of start-ups, Anne was at once a source of strength and leadership (having been through it all before many times), resourcefulness (she had a solution to most problems), judgment (kept everyone honest and on course as the teams travel on emotional roller coasters), passion (she loved all these ideas and teams and would never go work for a big company), and loyalty (she always helped people long after engagements were over, and you could trust her with all matters of secrets). Her impact on the culture and substance of so many companies (both Polaris and non-Polaris companies) is unmistakable.

Alan Crane, general partner, Polaris Venture Partners:

Anne was an extraordinary human being. I worked with her at Cerulean and Visterra (formerly called Parasol) and she helped us out at Seventh Sense. She was a big part of building our young companies. She brought expertise in finance and across the operations functions, but she also had a real passion for building young companies, inspiring start-up teams, and creating strong cultures. As much as she inspired us in her work, she inspired us even more in the way that she lived her life. She handled the devastating news of her cancer diagnosis by embracing every precious moment of her life even more. She continued to work even as she was receiving chemo, spent long weekends up in Maine with her family and always had a smile and an optimistic and positive outlook. We all learned so much from Anne in work and in life.

Barbara Fox, co-founder, Avaxia Biologics:

Anne Baia and I founded Avaxia Biologics together back in 2005. Over the last 5 years, we struggled through the ups and downs of getting a fledgling company off the ground – drawing on Anne’s enormous network of colleagues, her deep understanding of the issues and hurdles we needed to address, and her keen business judgment. We submitted more NIH grant applications than I care to admit, and revised our timelines and business strategy innumerable times to keep up with our latest data and changes in the business environment. She was untiring in her efforts as we went through both successes and setbacks. I am sadder than I can say that Anne is no longer here to share in the joys and difficulties yet to come.

Chris Adams, chief business officer at FoldRx Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge:

Anne led the team that helped FoldRx establish its operations in our own facility in 2007. It was a project with a very tight deadline and she made sure we hit each and every milestone. Her boundless energy, her attention to detail and her sense of humor brought out the best in all of us. Above all, she loved what she did and you could tell.

Tod Woolf, chief business officer, X-Body in Waltham:

Anne was the founding CFO at X-BODY, working behind the scenes to set up systems, efficiently deploy limited capital, and allow the scientists to concentrate on their work. Anne never stopped working to fund work she believed in. She prepared the financial and administrative sections of our qualified therapeutic discovery project grant this summer, on lung cancer, as well as the filing of our SBIR grant on lung cancer. Just weeks ago, Anne was reminding us to update our SBIR grant application on lung cancer with new data before the review section met. We will miss her greatly on personal and professional levels.

You're invited, of course, to post other remembrances here...

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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