For anyone who has suffered from dry eyes, Dr. C. Randall Harrell has made it his mission to bring relief through cutting-edge ocular regenerative medicine. His product, Regener-Eyes, is a first in class biologic eye drop that is helping patients with mild to severe dry eyes in ways that many previously thought the stuff of science-fiction. His journey to become the Chairman, CEO and CMO of this groundbreaking company started in his youth, when a fateful trip with his mother to her doctor’s appointment triggered a lifelong quest to help bring true relief to the deceptively simple health concern of dry eyes. After getting his Bachelor of Science at Georgia State University, Dr. Harrell attended the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine and earned his doctorate. He completed a General Surgery and Plastic Surgery Residence at Baylor College of Medicine and took a research position at Emory University.
It wasn’t too long before Dr. Harrell was recruited by Dr. Michael Debakey, the father of cardiovascular surgery, to establish a regenerative medicine program at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. It was there that Dr. Harrell started working on regenerative medicine which was an entirely new specialty in the early 1990s. It was considered an impossibility even by credential medical officials that regenerative medicine would provide breakthroughs in health care, but that didn’t deter Dr. Harrell. He eventually melded his growing understanding of regenerative medicine with one of the big unmet needs in ophthalmology, the treatment of dry eye disease. Many don’t see dry eye disease as a major problem, but it affects over 40 million people in the United States and 340 million people worldwide, a number that is actually increasing thanks to the pressure brought on the eye health of people who spend a lot of time looking at computer and handheld device screens.
Dr. Harrell’s “ah-ha” moment was when he learned that dry eye disease is really caused by chronic inflammation. He developed a simple eye drop solution to help improve the problem patients are having and potentially stimulate healing and regeneration to occur. Regener-Eyes Ophthalmic Solution has been a real breakthrough in the treatment of dry eye disease, and it is part of a standard of care that is starting to change based on the science of regenerative medicine spearheaded by progressive thinkers like Dr. Harrell.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
My story starts a long time ago when I was a young boy. My mother had chronic dry eyes and I would go to the doctor with her and all the doctors that she saw really didn’t have much to offer. They’d say put some moist warm compresses on your eye, and that was the extent of what they could do back in that time. Even though I was young, it seemed to me there had to be a better option than a compress. As I was able to acquire more knowledge about it and understand more about the chronic inflammatory nature of all these diseases, including chronic dry eye, I thought if we could decrease the chronic inflammation and get the regeneration to occur we could get a much better outcome than anything else on the market. And that’s what we found in clinical practice. Creating a product to help solve for this seemed logical and exciting to me.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My day is pretty unusual. I really believe a leader should set high standards for himself and his whole company. I’ve always felt like the best way to run a company is more of a collaborative management approach. That’s where you seek out everybody’s ideas and opinions about everything and make them a part of your thinking, but then management has to make a clear action plan about what to do and activate it through deadlines and accountability.
Having everybody’s input is very helpful, so what I usually do is more of what I call a “rolling meeting.” Meetings can be very much a waste of time, so I try to minimize the amount of time I sit in meetings. I can be a lot more productive outside of a meeting than inside a meeting, so I usually go to the other person’s office during the day and spend three to five minutes to get right to the point and try to get a very clear objective and action plan. It helps to make you really focused on what’s happening and what’s needed that day to keep everything on course. That has actually worked out very well for us because we have a very high standard for our staff members. Our customer service is very well received by all the customers, both the doctors and patients, but in order to make that work smoothly it takes a group effort with everyone being clear about what their roles and responsibilities are. That’s my job, to make sure everything does run smoothly.
How do you bring ideas to life?
That’s always the biggest challenge, because that’s what I consider innovation. Going from the idea phase to a prototype and proving it in animals and eventually humans is a long process. It’s not an overnight process. It takes a lot of testing to really prove that your ideas actually work, and we’re in a great position because we do a have lot of peer-reviewed papers that show how it works. We have videos that show the mechanism of action about how they work. This is important because a lot of this is very new science. Even some of the physicians out there haven’t heard of some of these new discoveries, so having a better understanding of how the ocular immunology works and how it can actually improve the lives of patients is really critical.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The biggest trend is now the advancement of regenerative medicine that started in the early 1990s. I was working with this in Texas, and lot of people thought our results were science fiction. Our results were too good be true, like it was some kind of lab error. But a lot of people now understand that regenerative medicine is the next evolution in health care. That’s just progress, and a lot of it is based on the concept of biologics.
Biologics is a new area. If you think of drugs or pharmaceuticals, those are usually small chemical molecules. They’ve been around for a long time. Most of the ones out there usually have some type of side effects associated with them because they stimulate some of the pathways that aren’t necessarily good pathways, especially in the eye, so having something that is more of a natural stimulant to your pathways, to get you back to the homeostasis of the ocular surface, is really what the goal was with that.
All the pharma companies that don’t have a biologic in their pipeline will probably have one in the next five years. They work so much better than pharmaceuticals. They’re safer because they’re more natural, and they’re a lot more effective. A lot of them are derived from living tissue, either bacteria, fungus, or cells of animals and humans, and they’re much more complex than a small molecule pharmaceutical. That’s why a lot of people don’t know how they work, but that’s where the excitement is. That’s a change for almost all parts of medicine because you can affect all parts of your body with these new biologics.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
One of the things that I do on a daily basis is to leave my office and check what other people are doing. This is the “rolling meeting” that I referred to. When I am at somebody’s office and discuss what their priorities are, I can sit a few minutes with them and get complete clarity that we’re all on the same page and moving in the same direction. That allows everybody to really focus and not go down rabbit holes that are a waste of time. We try to avoid wasting time by having everybody understand and work from the same sheet of music.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think you always have ups and downs with any journey, but if you can enjoy the journey, you can appreciate the ups and downs once you realize the end result is going to ultimately get you where you want to go. You might have daily challenges that are a problem, but I would probably tell my younger self to be okay with the ups and downs and try to keep focused on the long-term objectives, not the short-term ups and downs. It’s all part of the journey that will get you to the end result.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The future of chronic diseases can be cured with regenerative medicine and without stem cells. A lot of people when they hear the term “regenerative medicine,” they immediately think about stem cells. I was working on stem cells 40+ years ago and we were doing a lot of unusual things with stem cells. They’re not the breaking news that everybody thinks they are. What’s really exciting to me is doing things without stem cells. You have some potential risks using stem cells, and some of those risks can be avoided completely by eliminating stem cells and just using the proteins and the biologics associated with stem cells. It makes a much safer and more effective product. A lot of physicians and scientists have not come to that realization yet, but I think in the next five years they’ll probably understand that this is a much better path than using human stem cells.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
If you get it down to one word, it’s “focus.” The biggest distractions are people doing things that really aren’t in line with the culture and the objective of the company. A lot of time is wasted, and things don’t get accomplished. If I can keep everybody focused on the core objectives that the company is trying to achieve, then we can be a lot more successful in executing whatever they need. We’re very nimble and changing if something isn’t working, from customer service to any other area of the business. We can actually change quickly if we see an area that can be improved.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One of the things that I was very good at from a very early age is recognizing quality in people. I just have a knack for that, especially for special needs that we try to fulfill when marketing and manufacturing scientific discoveries. Whatever the needs are, I’ve always been good at recognizing that quality. When you attract that quality, you almost get to the point where quality attracts quality because you have a lot of quality people doing quality things. That’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and fine-tuned over the years.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Some partnerships don’t work out. Sometimes you find you have different work ethics, different goals, different directions that people want to go. The way I have overcome it is by realizing that as soon as possible and trying to part as friends, then trying to stay on my path and keep my focus. A lot of people don’t have that desire to achieve the outcomes that we want to achieve, and that’s where it doesn’t always work out. But having quality people that are mature, that understand the bigger picture, usually allows you to avoid those types of problems.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Ocular immunology is kind of a new field. It got started in the early 1990s and people are starting to finally understand it. It’s still a little bit of a sleeper right now, but I think it will become more well-known because the science is coming out to support how we can actually modify this to get better results. So, if I was starting a new business, I would focus on ocular immunology. I would get some experts, some scientists that understood it, and then I would pick out a couple of areas that have chronic inflammation. There are quite a few corneal surfaces that involve inflammation. I would try to design a therapy that would actually help that through the new biologics that are available. I think that people are actually on their way to doing that. When more people see the kind of results that we’ve gotten, they will try to do something similar. That’s why we have over 30 patents of our technology and what we’ve developed.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I love to read hardcover books. I read online, but I much prefer to have a hardcover in my hands, not just for pleasure reading but also for professional reading. My research reading has to be more than books because things are happening so quickly in medicine and science. Usually by the time a book is published, some of the information is already outdated, so my reading has to be a combination of online and books. But reading from a book is a simple joy, especially since I grew up in a time when there was no computer. Books are a very soothing way for me to learn and come up with new ideas. Buying some books recently is probably the best $100 I have spent.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I mainly use Google and it leads me to where I need to go. I don’t have any special web service I can recommend because Google is pretty efficient about finding the things I need to find, especially any kind of scientific papers that are out there in the US or worldwide.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
There’s one book that I was really impressed by. It’s called Conscience and Courage by John Hawkins. It was written about a visionary CEO that really helped start the biotech revolution. His name was Henri Termeer. He was very much a visionary and a great leader, and he actually was doing things that a lot of people thought were impossible. But he was very successful in doing those things, and he really helped a lot of people with rare diseases that people didn’t think there was any kind of cure for. He would think outside of the box, and he would actually come up with solutions that very few people thought were even possible. I was always very impressed by that.
One of his quotes was “Abandon everything you think you know.” You have to think differently when you’re trying to come up with solutions that nobody else in the world has ever come up with you. You have to think, by definition, differently.
What is your favorite quote?
Henri Termeer had one quote that I felt really summed things up: “Overcoming the hurdles has built a great faith in me that things can be done to help people with rare disease. It will drive my optimism forever and my belief in achieving things that seem impossible.” That was kind of his way of saying he can make the impossible possible, if you can get everybody focused and everybody on the same page, and he was a master of that.
● Things are only considered impossible because nobody has done it before.
● The core of getting things done is focus.
● If you help people get a better quality of life, it’s a motivation that goes beyond a paycheck.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.