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Behind the Breakthrough: Q&A with Lyn Baranowski, Avalyn Pharma

Lyn Baranowski, CEO of Avalyn Pharma, brings more than two decades of experience serving in a range of diverse leadership positions across biotech, big pharma, and venture capital firms with a focus on the respiratory therapeutic area.

As Baranowski reflects on her career path, she notes that working in this space is the “common thread” connecting her professional experiences. Lyn began her tenure in the field at Novartis, where she first learned of less known lung diseases like pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension.

By: F-Prime Capital

“It was really striking to me how little research and development was going on despite how serious these diseases are. Many of them are deadly, and patients have very few treatment options. I thought that there was a lot of good that I could do personally to try to bring some new treatments to market.”

There are more than 200 types of Interstitial Lung Diseases (ILD), and the most severe cases, which include Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) and Progressive Pulmonary Fibrosis (PPF), have a patient survival time closer to 3-5 years from diagnosis without a lung transplant. The disease severity is what sets the life expectancy apart for IPF and PPF and currently approved therapeutics for these respiratory illnesses can slow disease progression but carry significant side effects that limit their use. Baranowski saw an opportunity to address a large unmet need and eventually made her way to Avalyn Pharma, which was built on the mission to develop inhalable medicines that minimize systemic exposure and are more precisely targeted to the lungs. She feels she can have the most impact serving in roles at smaller companies, where “you can really see and feel the outcome of your day and how you spend time in terms of driving the company forward.”

On the heels of Avalyn’s tremendous success with an oversubscribed $175 million Series C financing in September, Baranowski shares more about her background, leading and advancing Avalyn, and insights into her leadership style.

What motivated you to join Avalyn Pharma?

My career began at Novartis, where I primarily focused on the commercial, financial, and strategic aspects of the business. It was there that I was exposed to the significant unmet needs in lung diseases, particularly in rare conditions like pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, and pulmonary hypertension. I observed the lack of research and development in these areas and recognized the severity of these diseases, often with limited treatment options.

Driven by a desire to make a positive impact, I left Novartis to work at a New York family office involved in venture capital-style investing. My biggest investment in those years was in Pearl Therapeutics, a company working on combination therapies for asthma and COPD. This experience provided valuable insights into inhalation drug delivery.

Over the years, I discovered my passion for working in smaller companies, building teams, drug pipelines, and making a difference. Despite limited resources, I found it rewarding to be entrepreneurial and witness the tangible impact of our efforts. I was heavily involved in the respiratory therapeutic area which is why my passion for addressing rare lung diseases continues to grow and I’m excited about the potential to make a positive impact in this field.

What differentiates Avalyn from other IPF and ILD players in the industry?

Most lung-focused companies still prioritize systemic drug delivery and in the case of IPF, inhaled delivery is a distinctive approach. At Avalyn, we focus on pulmonary fibrosis, a deadly disease that falls under the umbrella of interstitial lung diseases, and despite its severity, there are only two approved drugs for this condition, pirfenidone and nintedanib, both of which are administered orally. These oral medications are often poorly tolerated, leading to a high rate of discontinuation, with only 30% of patients in the U.S. taking them.

Our therapeutic focus is to improve treatment by delivering these drugs through inhalation. This approach enhances drug concentration in the lungs, improving clinical efficacy, while reducing systemic exposure, resulting in better tolerability. Inhaled delivery is itself incredibly challenging and complicated, so you really have to think about the way to deliver the medicine, how often you deliver the medicine, what the formulation is, and what the device is. It has the potential to make effective drugs more accessible and tolerable for patients, potentially extending their lives and improving their overall health. This shift in perspective is a learning curve for our field, and we hope the market will follow suit, positioning us for future success.

Avalyn’s executive leadership team and board of directors is 50% women. What’s that like, and how does it compare to the industry as a whole?

Are there any companies in our industry whose board is half women? I don’t think so. I’m incredibly proud of that. We’ve also just hired a bunch of fabulous women who aren’t necessarily on our leadership team but are VP-level. I care about hiring people who care about their jobs and patients, and I think that’s again, the right way to align as a team and be motivated.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

Do not shy away from being empathetic. As a woman, it is important to remain committed to embracing this part of our identity. I believe in being authentic and accept that it’s perfectly fine for me to get a little emotional when a patient shares their story with us. Making a difference for patients is what drives me and I’m often touched by the stories they share with us about what living with their disease is like.  It’s a natural and genuine response, and I’m proud of it.

What’s been the most rewarding part since joining Avalyn in 2022?

I love telling the story of the company, so it’s a lot of fun for me to sit down with doctors,  investors, analysts, or people we’ve recently hired at Avalyn and tell them what we’re up to. It’s empowering to watch people go from not fully understanding to a moment of excitement and realization of the impact we can have.

We also just completed a $175 million financing at the end of September which feels like a huge accomplishment, especially in today’s market, and has enabled me to start hiring great people.  Whether it is people that I’ve worked with before or have always wanted to work with, it feels great to now have an incredible team that we’re building and together, we’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of patients. At the end of the day, 95% of the fun I have at work has to do with the people I work with and how much I enjoy working with them.

What’s one lesson you’ve learned so far as CEO?

Don’t be afraid to be passionate and be yourself. I’m genuinely passionate about what I’m working on, and I know it translates to my peers because I’ve been told it’s infectious. If you can do that and lean into what you’re good at, then people respond to it. And, if you don’t know the answer, that’s okay. Ask your colleagues for help, advice, and feedback.

How has F-Prime been supportive during your tenure as CEO?

When I started at Avalyn a year ago, F-Prime’s Ketan Patel and Brian Yordy were invaluable and provided me with essential context regarding our historical data and the market’s overarching trends. They both possess a unique perspective when interpreting data, which enriched my own understanding and enhanced my capabilities.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am very much a lead by example kind of person. I love talking things through and collaborating and getting people’s input. If I have a strong opinion, I’ll tell you, but often I like to hear from the team, and I think people like to be heard. At Avalyn, we’re all about integrity and keeping the patients that we’re trying to serve at the center of our focus. To me, that’s the right thing to do, but it is also the right thing for our business. If we can make decisions about how to develop our drugs with patients in mind, it means we bring drugs to market that are going to be able to impact their lives positively.

At the end of the day, we all work in this industry because we care about making a difference in patients’ lives and if we can keep that as our driver and our mission, it’s a great way to remind people of why we all wake up in the morning and what we’re trying to do together.

What makes you most hopeful about Avalyn’s future on the heels of a successful series C fundraise?

We’re in the process of launching a significant clinical trial for inhaled pirfenidone (AP01), and our focus is on diligently executing the study startup. This trial is set to be a large, well-controlled global effort, representing a crucial step forward for inhaled pirfenidone’s path to market, which is a very exciting development.

The capital we just raised also allows us to do the next stage of work with AP02 (inhaled nintedanib), which is the second lead clinical asset, and continue our efforts on the preclinical work for the fixed-dose combo of the two together. By transitioning from one mechanism to two, this combination therapy has the potential to revolutionize our field.

A lot of exciting initiatives are going on and it is my priority to build the company, grow the team, and do all the important work to set us up for success for the next stage.

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A lot of exciting initiatives are going on and it is my priority to build the company, grow the team, and do all the important work to set us up for success for the next stage.

— Lyn Baranowski, CEO of Avalyn Pharma