As a pioneer in developing therapeutics for hearing loss, Decibel Therapeutics focuses on its people and culture to help accomplish its research goals.
Launched in 2015 by venture capital firms Third Rock Ventures and SR One and founded by the world’s preeminent experts in inner ear biology and hearing disorders, Decibel Therapeutics’ mission is to create a world in which the benefits and joys of hearing are available to all.
We sat down with Decibel leadership team members Steven Holtzman (President and CEO) and John Keilty (Chief Data Sciences Officer and Director of Operations) in April to talk about the company’s history, culture, and stunning lab and office space in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.
Steven Holtzman: After working in biotech for 30 years, my former colleagues, who were founders of Third Rock Ventures, introduced me to Decibel, and I fell in love with the idea of being at the cutting edge of a whole new field of medicines to address hearing loss. Hearing loss is a condition that affects the development of learning abilities in the young and can lead to social isolation, depression, and even dementia in the old. This seemed to me a challenge worth taking on.
John Keilty: This is a really special mission that we’re on when it comes to addressing people that have profound hearing loss. I love that I’m part of a company that is willing to take on really hard problems with the idea that, when it works, it’s going to have a tremendous impact on people and hopefully on our entire population.
SH: While the creative spark always comes from an individual, fanning the flame requires the group. And drug development is very much that—a group activity which requires people to share knowledge, not hoard it.
So, you need to create an environment and a culture that encourages collaboration—encourages a spirit that says, “What’s important is the quality of the idea, not someone’s title, not someone’s degree.”
SH: I think that people live not only in time, they live in space, and it deeply influences their behaviors. I think the kind of open space we have here, with the ability to personalize the movement of the space, encourages transparency and collaboration. So, I think the design concepts are part of the fabric of the culture, resonating with and reinforcing the culture.
JK: I love the fact that we’re trying to build a transparent culture in how we talk with each other, how we throw basic research data out so that everyone can opine on it. And I really think it’s special to have a facility that we built out with that end in mind.
I think the space is something that, if done well, helps augment the culture. We focus a lot of time and energy on the Decibel culture. How do we enable our people to do their best work? So, why shouldn’t the space be conducive to that?
SH: There’s several reasons.
SH: The hub of the biotech industry in the Boston area has been, up until now, located in Cambridge. But we’ve seen an influx of large pharmaceutical companies into Cambridge starting to make the rents unaffordable for the next generation of young biotechnology companies. As one of those, we saw the opportunity to be a pioneer in a new, really growing and vibrant integrated neighborhood over here in the Fenway. We think it’s a really hip neighborhood with a history in music, which resonates with us in the hearing field, and it’s quite close to the Harvard medical complex and the Berklee College of Music.
JK: What we knew for sure was that Cambridge was becoming challenging—both from a price perspective as well as just finding quality locations. We were overpaying for crappy facilities. We were a 30-person company crammed into three distinct, small locations spread throughout one building. So, it felt very disjointed and didn’t really feel like a unified team.
When we first moved over here, there was a lot of anxiety. Here we are, the first ones moving to Fenway, leaving Cambridge proper. But it’s remarkable how the space itself has turned into something that our people now embrace.
I think being aggressive about going into a space like Fenway actually made a ton of sense. Decibel’s a really special company in that it’s a really risky proposition and the science is really early. And it’s really cool to think that the space now reflects that same sort of pioneering spirit: we’re pioneering on the science side of things, and now here we are blazing a new path of hopefully where biotech is going to wind up growing over the course of the next 10 or 20 years.
I can tell you that the Decibel community is happier here, and new people when they come in and want a job at Decibel are happier being here. And it’s kind of cool to be part of something that is novel—much like the science we’re doing.
JK: One of the biggest challenges we have with starting biotech companies is finding really talented people to come in. And it’s interesting to think about how space can play a role in that.
You go over to some of these spaces in Cambridge, and they’re cramped, they’re small, there’s no natural lighting; it just has an entirely different feel. I think our space has added value to our company, not just because the ROI on the space was good relative to Cambridge, but because it adds value to our ability to recruit and keep our team excited in ways that I personally didn’t anticipate.
It’s funny. You think about the creativity that goes into business development around biotech companies and into building out a team that really hums. So why would we not be creative in thinking about what we’re going to do for space? In retrospect, it seems sort of obvious.