LIfe Lessons: Ali Tehrani, Zymeworks

There are no shortcuts to success

Ali Tehrani, CEO, Zymeworks

Ali Tehrani, the CEO of a fast-growing Vancouver biotech, calls his company a “12-year overnight success story.” His biggest piece of advice?

“There are no shortcuts,” he said.

Tehrani first learned that lesson as a PhD candidate.

“You’re expected to do a lot,” he said. “You’re expected to work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day.

“So at some point you do try to look for a shortcut in a very complex experiment – or a very tedious experiment. Every single time where I looked for one, I ended up doing three times the work later.”

Tehrani said he’s observed other companies in the sector fall into the trap of rushing to get a drug to market too quickly.

“You have a lot of biotech companies that are no longer around because they did not put in the work,” he said.

“They developed some type of potential therapeutic that they rushed to the preclinical stage, and in the clinic they failed.”

Companies often feel pressure to please investors or deliver a payoff to shareholders. To keep that pressure from giving rise to bad long-term business decisions, it’s important to have a good relationship with investors and view them as business partners, not as a “pseudo-bank,” Tehrani said. 

Maintaining that relationship sometimes involves turning down a potential investor – something he has done.

“Your investors are as big a part of your team as your executive team,” he said. “If you find the right balance in that relationship it can be tremendously beneficial.

“Twelve years ago I knew nothing about business, but the original investors in Zymeworks took me under their wing and were patient with me and taught me a lot.”

On doing due diligence on potential investors |“The best research is word of mouth – doing your homework, [asking,] ‘How did the previous investments go?’ As much as investors can call other investors to ask about you, companies, entrepreneurs can call other entrepreneurs to ask, ‘How did that go for you? Would you do that again?’”

Has a work or life challenge taught you a key career lesson? Contact Jen St. Denis at