Rob Neville | Crain's Austin

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rob Neville


Savara Pharmaceuticals is an Austin-based emerging pharmaceutical development company with an affiliate site in Denmark. The company is focused on advancing a pipeline of novel inhalation therapies for the treatment of patients with rare pulmonary conditions. 

The Mistake:

Believing that being successful would be more fulfilling.

For the first few decades of my career I was climbing a ladder. When I finally got to the top, I realized I was climbing the wrong wall. So I had to put the ladder against another wall, and climbed that instead.

I was born in government housing in South Africa. My parents weren’t educated and I had a lot of obstacles to overcome, economic being the main one. My brother died when I was young and I became very motivated to overcome my situation.

At age 15 I wrote a book on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and that paid for my college. I was the first person in my extended family to attend college. While there, I started my first company and employed some of my college professors.

I started and successfully sold a couple of other companies after college. I had to go the military for a while, and then came to the U.S. at age 29 to consult for a while.

The day I got my green card, I started a company that was very successful and that I ultimately sold for a lot of money. I’d had a string of successes but I was miserable. I had achieved financially what many people set out to achieve, but I was asking myself, “What am I doing? Why am I not satisfied? Where do I get fulfillment?”

I had achieved financially what many people set out to achieve, but I was asking myself, 'What am I doing? Why am I not satisfied?'

The Lesson:

I then got a four-year seminary degree in Dallas. I volunteered at a number of places. I helped start and run a nonprofit in east Austin for inner city kids and went on the board and volunteered at my local church for many years. I was trying to figure out what exactly was the meaning of life. I had read all the books and so I basically realized I was on the wrong wall and I needed to figure out what wall I needed to climb.

I had a severe health issue that had me on life support for a while and left me completely unable to walk temporarily. As I was trying to recover, I was trying to walk on the beach while listening to a podcast of this lady in Rwanda upset about her children dying from tuberculosis. I found myself heartbroken and in tears. I was born and raised in Africa and now in such a privileged position.

I realized I had to do something to make a difference in the world. I started turning my attention to investing capital in companies focused on lung health. I came across Savara, a company targeting lung disease. Life now has a completely different meaning to me.

I ended up writing a vision statement for my life. Most business people are very good at doing that for their companies, but not for their own lives. I asked myself if I would be satisfied as an elderly man one day in a rocking chair. I knew I needed to invest my money in companies that ultimately make a difference in the world as it relates to lung disease.

I ended up being the lead investor in Savara, which at the time I discovered it was really just an idea. I ultimately became the CEO and now we are a public company and just secured $40 million in financing. Things are definitely headed in the right direction and unfolding as I would have hoped.


Follow Savara Pharmaceuticals on Twitter at @SavaraPharma.

Pictured: Rob Neville | Courtesy of Savara Pharmaceuticals.

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