A Slice on Heather Callender-Potters, Co-Founder, Vice Chairman and Chief Advocate & Shareholder Relations Officer of PharmaJet
Heather Callender-Potters started her career in private equity investing in Central Eastern Europe. She describes the scene post-Berlin Wall destruction to be “very entrepreneurial” with “hardly any private sector”. While she was around entrepreneurs consistently, Callender-Potters wouldn’t become one herself until her mother called her with an idea for a needleless vaccine. The two would go on to found PharmaJet in 2005. The company has raised over $50 million across multiple funding rounds.
The World Health Organization’s call to action for needle-free technology along with her parents’ volunteer work in medicine and dentistry, shed light on global immunization and how many issues arise with needles. The PharmaJet solution is a “really fast, fluid injection that under high-speed photography looks like a needle but is not.” While most vaccines are delivered “intramuscularly”, PharmaJet is able to inject “intradermally, which is a tiny little space about one and a half to three millimeters of space in your tissue.” With this injection method, they can use “60% less vaccine” and it’s actually “superior in immune response to a full dose.”
When starting out, Callender-Potters and her mother kept their family relationship a secret to avoid any misconceptions about two “unqualified ladies” addressing the global needle issue. Internally, though, this relationship was very beneficial for them when growing the company. They could trust each other and were comfortable being completely honest, which may not be the case with newly formed relationships.
Their different expertise also played a role in their success. Callender-Potters’ experience as a private equity investor gave her a leg up when fundraising for PharmaJet. Though some investors looked at the two with a “we know you won’t make it” smile, fundraising wasn’t too difficult for them. They also had invested a lot of their own money as a family before pulling anyone else in to get the company off the ground. Even though they may have been “unqualified”, they didn’t let that stop them from pursuing their mission. Instead, they put the time and effort into finding the right people to join the team who did have the expertise.
It’s worth noting that when PharmaJet was created, Callender-Potters was still living in Poland with no intention of working full-time there. But as time went on, it was clear that she needed to devote more time to the company, so she took the leap and moved to Colorado. This was an easy decision as PharmaJet was headquartered there, and her mom was living there as well. They started the company with clear intentions of it being international, so Callender-Potters’ international business experience was important in establishing that early on. The main reason for the company being headquartered in Colorado is her mother’s ties to the state, but they also found the “persevering” and “collaborative” nature of Colorado to be beneficial. While “most vaccinations are given outside of the U.S.” being in Colorado isn’t necessarily “conducive” to their international sales, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Looking back on risks they’ve taken with PharmaJet, Callender-Potters has learned a lot over her 16 years with the company. “We were going after a really big goal, changing the face of immunization is daunting. But I like to say, ‘Shoot high and you never know how far you’ll get…’ We take risks constantly because we have been creating a new technology and approach that’s world-class with lots of firsts.”
She learned that in a world where the “pace of technology” is everchanging, “you can’t be an expert in everything.” She certainly wasn’t an expert in vaccines but was able to learn along the way and find team members with that expertise. Callender-Potters would recommend having passion and the right skill base so you’re “prepared before you even start.” Once you’ve started, she emphasizes that it’s important to do what you say you’re going to, and always look not just in the “rearview mirror”, but also ahead of you.
While it certainly hasn’t been an easy journey, she’s been able to take a step back to celebrate her own and others’ successes along the way. “It’s like a slinky, some of them [successes] are little and some of them are big waves. But it’s also important as a leader to help other people celebrate [their successes].” The future of PharmaJet is to continue growing and eventually see an exit, whether through IPO or acquisition. Ultimately, Callender-Potters wants to see their technology deployed in places where it’s most necessary.
Heather Callender-Potters grew up in the U.S., attending Claremont McKenna College for a B.A. in International Management and The Wharton School for an MBA in Entrepreneurial Management and Marketing. She then moved to Central Eastern Europe where should take on multiple private equity investing roles, with firms such as BCEE Investors, Baring Communications Equity, and Enterprise Investors. She is now Co-Founder, Vice Chairman and Chief Advocate & Shareholder Relations Officer of PharmaJet based out of Golden, Colorado. Connect with Callender-Potters on LinkedIn.