Brett Boghigian wears many hats at Indigo. Chemical engineer by training and current Head of Project Management, a position that puts him in charge of the stage-gate process from product inception through to final delivery, Brett also serves as Facilities and Operations Manager, and hence has been instrumental in the relocation and renovation of company headquarters in Boston. A few weeks back, during a brief lull in a day that had him running between strategy sessions with his project management team, meetings with building contractors, and phone calls with consultants, we met up for a chat. Despite his busy schedule, Brett still had enough left in the tank to talk in depth about his time at Indigo and the challenges of his job—one that demands equal attention to Indigo’s large-scale ambitions and the granular details that go into their achievement.
What were you up to before Indigo?
When I left graduate school, I was introduced to Geoff von Maltzahn, who was, at the time, starting his first company with Flagship Ventures, about six years ago. I joined that company, then called “Essentient,” now called “Axcella Health,” and worked pretty closely with him and the founding team for about three-and-a-half years. I grew from a bench scientist, to managing a technical team, to managing external alliances, to doing project management. I project managed our first clinical trial at that company, which was for a molecule that I discovered there; it was nice to see something I discovered taken through clinical validation.
I really enjoyed project management, and saw that I could provide a lot more value to the organization in that capacity than [in] being a bench scientist or engineer. So I reached back out to Geoff, and he was about six months into Indigo—or Symbiota [as it was called] at the time. The company was about 10 people at the time. I joined first as a consultant, and then after we had hired David Perry, I signed on as an employee, and have been running our project management group since. I’m the longest-running—or was, at least—the longest-running direct report to David.
What attracted you to project management?
I think what I realized, as I started doing this [project management] as part of my job [at Axcella], was that I wasn’t fully leveraging my organizational skills as a scientist. I mean, I was using my technical background, but I wasn’t really tapping my organizational skills and my communication skills in that capacity. Being a project manager actually allows me to leverage all three of those things. And I just really like working with people; I like bringing people with diverse backgrounds together, and getting them aligned, and working on important, challenging problems. Our cotton launch was a perfect example.
Chemical engineers are usually pretty process-oriented people, and that training in me, from a technical perspective, I think allowed me to be a better project manager. I didn’t even know what a project manager was five years ago, to be honest. Cross-functional management—I have a passion for that. Our job, at Indigo, is to make sure [that] everything’s really focused and people are spending their time on the most important things, and not spending their time on lower priorities. The thing I always like to say is, we’re the people in the organization who try to decrease the ‘entropy’ in the system and ensure transparency.
What do you find most rewarding about your responsibilities here?
I guess, for me, it’s [that] I get to work with a really talented set of people. Every day, we, on the management team, are pushing each other, and it gets me thinking about how to solve things differently—how to approach problems from other angles. And I like being able to tackle a wide breadth of activity, and I think I’m energetic enough to do so!
What are some of the biggest challenges that you and your team encounter in project management?
When you’re an entrepreneurial company like Indigo—even though we’re 120 people, we’re still very entrepreneurial—priorities are going to change, and we’re going to be opportunistic and aggressive with our product development timelines. Most 120-person companies don’t have five project managers, but David [Perry] is a chemical engineer, like me. He understands the value of good project management and organization to help ensure there’s clarity on deliverables, and when things need to happen. So, I think the biggest challenge is finding the right balance between process and pure execution. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of balancing the two, so far. Process is being put in place to achieve scalable outcomes as we grow. Our job is to take the lofty goals that we have, and operationalize them, and get the teams working on them. We can influence the success of the organization pretty significantly, which is awesome!
How do you personally, and your team as a whole, balance the “big picture” and long-term thinking with the minutiae—the day-to-day logistics—that are essential to successful project execution?
It definitely is one of the most challenging parts of the job, because you simultaneously have to understand and remember the really big picture goals and balance risks in making decisions—like, ‘we need to launch a product at this time, that has these criteria, and we only have this much money to spend’—with: ‘well, this one particular work stream, or this one particular task, needs to be done at April 27th.’ It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the job, and what it does is require people [who] understand the technical details pretty well, but can then roll all that up into a higher-level goal. For me, that’s one of the things I enjoy most about it [project management].
Would you say the pace of project management at Indigo is faster than what you might expect at another organization?
It’s just reflective of the pace of the company. We have to be ahead of the curve. Because the pace [at Indigo] is so fast, that’s what makes project management even more important—because you don’t have ten years to develop and get approval for a drug. We’ve got a two- to three-year product development cycle. And you have to plan things on certain dates or within very narrow windows, whereas, [if] you’re running a clinical trial, you can enroll patients for a year sometimes. So [Indigo’s] very different, in that sense. But that’s exciting! You can realize the commercial potential of the pipeline faster than you can working in a drug company.
What sorts of activities do you enjoy outside of work?
Spending quality time with family and friends is how I spend most of my free time. I usually keep my time outside of work as busy as the time at work, if you can believe that! I’m a big golfer, so I really enjoy doing that when the weather allows. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, so I’m a pretty big Boston sports fan and go to Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics games when I can. Lastly, I always enjoy trying new restaurants in and around the city!
Given that Indigo is a company committed to providing for the planet in a healthy and sustainable manner, it’s only natural that Indigo people are enthusiastic and conscientious eaters. Is there a food(s) you can’t do without?
I think, actually, the biggest thing is the noodle bowls, from SA PA [a Vietnamese restaurant featured regularly on the Indigo lunch menu]. That’s good stuff! That was something that was new for me. I really enjoy it.
What would you say your spirit vegetable is?
For some reason my mind went to cucumbers. I remember growing them in a garden with my family, and they always tasted better than what we bought at the store—much crisper, clean. Cucumbers can take on the flavor of the other ingredients in the pot, and I’d say that’s representative of me. I’d like to think that I have a strong ability to work with others—to understand their perspective and what they can bring to the table.