CNYBAC Client Rich Uhlig, Founder and CEO, Quadrant Biosciences, On Leadership: Set The Goal, Empower and Reward Your Team, Improve Lives
After graduating from Cornell University in 1988, Rich Uhlig’s career spanned a few decades on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley. He built and ran an investment banking division and bond-trading business for Deutsche Bank and proprietary trading businesses for Merrill and Morgan, and also worked for the Fed, taught a bit at Cornell, and was happily settled in Central New York.
Then, one of his sons had a significant concussion injury playing hockey. The diagnosis and treatment struck Uhlig as little more than guesswork. He realized that children might die because of second-impact syndrome or develop significant cognitive impairment for the rest of their lives from multiple concussions.
So, Uhlig pivoted from Wall Street finance and put his undergraduate biology education to work. He spent about six months studying decades of clinical research and finding threads that convinced him there was a path to better diagnosis of brain injuries.
In 2015, he founded Motion Intelligence. He put in his life savings and worked his Wall Street contacts for other investors. His aim then and now is to “improve the lives of children and their families.”
Before long, the company was renamed Quadrant Biosciences, and by 2019 Quadrant had been recognized as New York Technology Business of the Year. His team of scientists was using saliva to develop breakthrough tests for early detection of brain conditions like concussions, autism, and Parkinson’s disease.
When the pandemic hit, Quadrant temporarily pivoted to saliva and waste-water tests for the Covid-19 virus and other viruses. Quadrant still does them, and it’s why New York was able to warn about a worrisome resurgence of polio last year.
Uhlig is soft-spoken and can grow emotional as he describes his deeply held mission and what he calls the brilliant team of doctors, engineers, and scientists now assembled in Syracuse. The company is a privately held C-corp with several subsidiary LLCs in Syracuse, Cleveland, and San Antonio. When Quadrant has its initial public offering in a year or two, Uhlig has made sure that Quadrant’s 200 employees and the Research Foundation of the State University of New York will share in that good fortune.
On leadership, Uhlig says empowerment is one of the most important things a leader can do: “It’s empowering people to bring their best work to a project. The word empower is so overused, but what I’ve found consistently from the first time that I started managing people back in 1995 was rather than tell them what to do I would share the outcome that I’d like to see happen … how they got to that outcome was so much smarter and better than anything that I could have come up with.”
Tell me about early leadership roles growing up and early influences that set you on the path to Quadrant.
I grew up in Cape Vincent, a little town north of Watertown. I almost always took the path less traveled. I’ll say that a lot of who I am was driven by my mom (Ruth). My mom is a tiny wisp of a woman, like five feet tall, but somebody that can just overcome. When she went to college, she was going to get her Ph.D., but the faculty told her that women don’t get Ph.D.s in chemistry. She ended up getting her master’s in chemistry and another master’s in math and then she worked at Cooperative Extension. When she started having children, she became a full-time mom, and later started teaching.
When my dad (Robert) became unemployed, my mom bought a used rotor tiller. She created a garden that was giant – maybe half the size of a football field. She bought a used chest freezer, bought half a cow because that was the cheapest way to get high quality protein, canned and froze vegetables and everything else. She always made all her own clothes until like 20 years ago. She’s basically undaunted by just about anything.
Those are a lot of the lessons that I’ve taken forward. I feel so fortunate to have had them both as parents. I got an appointment to the Naval Academy, which I was excited to go to. I also got into Cornell, but we couldn’t afford that.
A local gentleman in Cape Vincent, who I worked for growing up, literally from the time that I was 10 years old, offered to pay my tuition. So I went to Cornell.
The gentleman’s name was Robert Purcell. He had a farm in Cape Vincent. It was this beautiful stone home with horse barns and horses. When I was 10 years old, I wanted a new bike. (Laughs) I think my dad off-the-cuff said, well, you’ll have to earn it, or something equivalent to that.
This was the nicest house anywhere around Cape Vincent, but it had this picket fence where the paint was peeling off. So I got it in my head that I was going to paint his fence. I knocked on his door and this distinguished gentleman opened the door and said, May I help you?
And the way my mom remembers hearing him tell her, I said: I’d like to paint your fence for money. (Laughter)
He said: Does your dad know that you’re here?
And I’m like: No, he doesn’t.
And he goes: Well, let’s give him a call and let’s see what his thoughts are around this.
My dad rushed over and said: I’m so sorry Mr. Purcell, he didn’t mean to waste your time.
And he said: No, no, no, I think this might be a good thing.
So we negotiated a price, and I started working on his fence. After that I did more and more – painted barns, fixed fences, and things like that. I also got to meet Bob Purcell’s associates.
One of the cool things he did for people that worked for him was at lunchtime, everybody would sit together at a big wooden table like this (spreading his arms wide toward the Quadrant conference table). That included him and whatever guests he had at his farm. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a lot of very well healed people. So it was a fascinating experience.
Bob Purcell had gone to Cornell and Cornell Law School and then went to work for the Rockefeller brothers. He advanced in their organization and ran companies around the world for them. His main residence was a penthouse at Park Avenue and 72nd, and he owned a ski resort in Portillo, Chile, and he owned this farm at Cape Vincent.
When I graduated from Cornell, I had two job offers. One was working in a biology lab for $18,000 a year, and one was working in finance in New York for $32,000 a year. And 32 was a whole lot more than 18 because I had zero. So I ended up going to work in New York.
My job didn’t start till late August, and Bob Purcell kind of knew I had no place to stay. He said: Hey, would you mind watching my place (in New York) because I’m going to be in Chile most of the summer skiing.
I’m like: Well, sure! (Laughter)
I think he knew that I didn’t have money to even buy food, so his housekeeper and cook stayed on. Just to have walking around money, I asked the supervisor for the building: Does anybody need any jobs done? I can do just about anything – mechanic, carpenter, roofing.
He said: No, but we need a late-night doorman.
I’m like: OK, how much does that pay?
He said $15 an hour, which in 1988 was a ton of money.
So I said: I’m your man! (Laughter)
I was on from 11 at night till 7 in the morning. I’d go up to the penthouse in my doorman’s uniform. A couple times, some of the people that lived there said: Oh, the service elevator is over on the side.
And I said: Oh, I live in the penthouse, I’m a guest of Mr. Purcell. (Laughter)
So I ended up going to work in New York and was essentially raised at Goldman Sachs in fixed income.
Thanks for those stories. I’ll pivot to leadership. What advice would you give someone aspiring to take on leadership responsibilities or who wants to be a more effective leader?
The thing that has catapulted my career more than anything else – and I’m trying to find words to make this not sound trite – is empowering people to bring their best work to a project. The word empower is so overused, but what I’ve found consistently from the first time that I started managing people back in 1995 was rather than tell them what to do I would share the outcome that I’d like to see happen. In almost every instance, how they got to that outcome was so much smarter and better than anything that I could have come up with.
Being able to do that consistently is among the most powerful things that you can do as a leader. I see it every day here. I’m not expert at anything here. And I say that seriously. I’m keenly interested in everything we’re doing and I’m fascinated by the science behind it. But the people that we have here, they’re expert in these things.
It would be an egregious act of hubris if I were to somehow try to tell them how to do the things that they do.
I think most people have this notion that a CEO holds sword in hand and leads the charge and directs everybody what to do. It’s so important to empower people instead. My job really is to provide people with the tools and the capital and the support to be really successful at what they’re doing. I’ve got their back, and it’s letting their brilliance shine through. It’s their ability to work collaboratively with one another.
We’re not hierarchical at all. Because how do you bring out that creativity from everybody if you have to go through multiple layers of management to have an idea make it to being?
If I may share another small thing, I was asked to give a talk at an entrepreneurship group at Syracuse University during the pandemic. One of the questions that the students asked was about maximizing earnings for shareholders: How do you manage that as your primary goal?
I said that that’s not actually my primary goal and it shouldn’t be any corporation’s primary goal. Things seem to have evolved in that way, but this notion that corporations have a right to exist and all the rest is foolish. If you go back in history, why were corporations formed? It was for the benefit of the community that it served – to be able to pull capital together and limit downside risk.
It wasn’t done so that a certain group of people could make a ton of money. It was done for the benefit of the whole community, and that’s why the whole community got behind it and said, yeah, we can allow this sort of thing to exist.
A company has an important role to play in a community at large, but also with the people that work there, as well as the shareholders. Those three things, that balance, I think, is really important. It’s important that we find that balance to have healthy communities and companies and happy people going forward.
So, anyway, off my soapbox.
How do you build a team to create the kind of empowering culture you were describing?
In general, there are three things that I look for in people. I usually characterize one as horsepower – raw IQ.
The second is desire. How eager are they to actually do cool things? That oftentimes gets at their self-motivation and whether they driven by internal validation, which I think is super healthy, or are they driven by external validation? Is it somebody that needs a pat on the back all the time? We all need that every now and again. But the internally validating person usually knows when they’re doing quality work, and that’s part of who they are.
And then ethics.
Those three things are what we look for at Quadrant. The person that wants to do something because they can make a lot of money doing it? That’s not our person.
We want the person that wants to do something because it’ll fundamentally help people, and as a secondary result, we make money doing that in order for us to keep doing good things.
I think those are the three things that are most important. If you surround yourself with people like that, I think you’re going to be successful. If that last one, that ethics piece, is absent or is somehow flawed, the other two don’t matter. In fact, without ethics the other two may be dangerous.
I’m so privileged and so fortunate to work with the people here at Quadrant, a group of people that fit those three categories exceptionally. Every one of those people put their ego aside and work together because no one person can actually make this incredible thing happen. We have to do it together.
What qualities do you see in leaders that you admire?
Admirable leaders have humility. They do more listening than speaking. They have enough confidence to be able to empower others to do great things.
It’s having the ability to see your own limitations and being able to help people reach their full potential.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
The most common thing that I see is a dictatorial style. Everybody that I know takes great pride in their work and being told not only what to do, but how to do it is stifling. Nobody wants that – then it becomes a job.
Whereas if you’ve got the ability to be creative and bring new ideas and new processes into what you do every day, that’s pretty fun. It’s learning: What are these people tangentially doing over here? How does what I’m doing, interact with these other functions? It’s saying, boy, I should be talking to those people as well because maybe what I’m doing can be helpful to them.
I think that also kind of wraps back around to that notion of the work that we do, being in the service of others. It’s not just our patients; it’s an element of kindness to the people that you work with, too.
Give me a little more insight into research and science going on at Quadrant.
It’s really exciting science, and I learn so much from everybody that works with and around Quadrant every day. It’s an amazing group of people.
When I worked at Goldman and Morgan Stanley, there were very smart people there, and people at Quadrant are equally as brilliant. One thing, though – I’ve never seen another company like this – if you were to plot people on a spectrum of narcissism and altruism, nearly everyone at Quadrant is clustered around the concept of altruism. That’s a personality trait critical to teamwork, because you may be a brilliant person, but you also have to put your ego aside.
Every single one of us plays a small role in doing something that nobody else has ever done before. That’s really what we do at Quadrant almost every day. Nobody in the history of medicine has built a virtual care clinic for the early diagnosis of autism, but we did it. Nobody has built a saliva-based assay to detect concussions. But we did it. It’s not because we have one brilliant person here or there. It’s that aggregation of brilliant people that can put their own interests aside for that greater goal.
So, going back to saliva, we were doing clinical research studies with MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters, which is a great opportunity to observe concussion injuries because a lot of ‘em happen in the octagon. First, I want to say that every single mixed martial arts fighter that we interacted with really carried themselves in the best fashion, in the true nature of martial arts and self-discipline. It is a great group of people to work with.
We knew that master signaling molecules that are in humans are resident in the saliva. We had pilot evidence that those would help us differentiate people that had a concussion injury from those that didn’t. When we were working with the MMA fighters, there were two hypotheses around that.
The first hypothesis was that those molecules get there from perfusion from your blood. So, all the moisture in your mouth right now is really coming from circulation of your blood. Your whole oral cavity is filled with blood vessels and it’s wicking some of that moisture out into the oral cavity. That’s where your saliva is coming from. Other things come with that liquid – antibodies and certain master signaling molecules like micro-RNAs.
The second hypothesis was that it was following the same pathways that, say, the rabies virus takes. If you get bitten by a rabid animal, that virus, which is a single-stranded RNA virus, travels to your brain where it replicates and it actually travels via the five pairs of cranial nerves into the oral pharynx for transmission to the next host. It’s why we think of the rabid dog with a frothy mouth.
So if we were able to see micro-RNAs or other master signaling molecules in the saliva we thought it was going to be taking one of those two paths. Our MMA study was the first indication that what we were seeing was, in fact, brain-derived molecules related to that injury. It was very exciting.
We were taking blood serum specimens from fighters as well as saliva specimens, and we didn’t see evidence of the injury in blood until about two or three days after the fight. We think that was more indicative of recovery from the injury.
But the saliva was a very rich source immediately.
Earlier today I talked a lot about Dr. Frank Middleton, a brilliant neuroscientist at Upstate Medical University. Dr. Middleton led this research, and we’re convinced that what we’re seeing in the saliva are in fact brain-derived molecules that are traveling via those five pairs of cranial nerves.
That work has expanded pretty dramatically into a lot of different areas, and other poorly understood neurological conditions.
The initial work in concussion continues today. We were recently awarded a patent for a revolutionary tool to detect brain-derived molecules in saliva that give an accurate understanding if a person has had a concussion injury or not. That will likely be commercial by the end of this year. It’s the notion of building tools to help clinicians and families have a better understanding of when it’s appropriate for their child to return to play and return to school following a concussion.
So we’re really proud of what’s been at this point, geez, seven years of work, interrupted of course by the pandemic.
The consistent thread in everything that we do is to improve the lives of children and families. That’s the nature of our patent for the early detection of autism spectrum disorder.
The importance of early diagnosis can’t be overstated. Currently in the U.S., the time from first clinical suspicion of autism until that child gets diagnosed using traditional means is between 20 and 30 months. We’re collapsing that down to 20 to 30 days. That’s important because children who have access to early intensive behavioral interventions, which only comes following a diagnosis, fare much better than their peers who don’t have access to those programs.
There are decades of research on this. Essentially, children that have access to early intensive behavioral interventions starting in the second and third year of life, roughly half of those kids will be functionally indistinguishable from their peers by the time they get to first grade.
For those kids that don’t have access to that and get access much later, say in the fifth or sixth year of life, about 3 percent of those children have the same level of achievement. What we’re pointing out here is that timeframe, starting in the second or third year of life, is critically important for learning social communication skills, how to manage repetitive and restrictive behaviors, and some of the other core phenotypic characteristics of children on the auti
The neuroplasticity that exists during that timeframe really changes over time. So it’s important that we identify children that are on the spectrum at the earliest point and work with them in evidence-based ways to help them reach their full potential.
We also started to think just because this is a great test, it doesn’t mean it’s going to get used clinically. So we decided to develop the world’s first pediatric virtual care clinic, AsYouAre.com. Children and families can come to that site, and we have a significant number of pediatricians on staff that are licensed in multiple states.
Our goal is to be in 50 states plus D.C. by the end of the year. The uptake from that has been tremendous. For that particular service we partnered with Dr. Tom Frazier, who is the former Chief Science Officer at Autism Speaks, and world-renowned clinical researcher Steve Hicks, who’s a pediatrician at the Penn State College of Medicine, and several others.
In addition to that, so we would better understand the next phase for children that are on the spectrum, we acquired a business in Cleveland, Ohio, called Frazier Behavioral Health, run by a great clinician, Allison Frazier. Over the last 10 months that has become a major force in behavioral health in the Cleveland market. It has about 35 clinicians offering full wraparound services for their patients. So we’re really wrapping our arms around those families.
The last business that we’re involved with is Autism Analytica. We partnered with Tom Frazier and some of his colleagues at Stanford – Antonio Hardan and Mirko Uljarevic. Over the last decade, they have developed tools that can help both from the initial intake of a child on the spectrum and then over time as well to understand what types of services that child needs and the likely frequency of those services.
Those are tools that are under development.
And by the way, we have other pilot work that’s very promising relative to the early detection of Parkinson’s disease and also mild cognitive impairment. Particularly as people age, that’s a common thing.