Ailis Tweed Kent was inspired by her patients to take different course – and now her moonshot is to change healthcare itself. A graduate of Harvard Medical School with a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Ailis turned to entrepreneurship to found Cocoon. There she is innovating silk therapeutics to cure osteoarthritis. We talk about opportunities for women entrepreneurs in life sciences and how to raise capital.
Melinda Wittstock: Welcome to Wings Ailis Tweed-Kent.
Ailis Tweed-Kent: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me on the show.
Melinda Wittstock: Well it's great to have you. I'm intrigued by your journey from a doctor to an entrepreneur. These are two very different worlds. How do you reconcile these?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: They might seem quite different, but they're actually quite aligned in terms of the overall vision of each. I started my career, actually as a chemical engineer before I went to medical school. During training, I was seeing patients with everything from high blood pressure to diabetes to knee pain from osteoarthritis.
Ultimately, recognized there was a need for new technologies that could delay the release of drugs or provide better safety by administering these drugs locally rather than by an oral format. All of which required engineering, chemical engineering, in fact through the format of a new polymer silk.
As a clinician you're seeing the customer every day and you yourself as a clinician are the customer as well. You come to appreciate the many problems in medicine that could be solved with better technology. That inspired me to start Cocoon, because we had seen so many patients with knee pain and osteoarthritis and recognized a need for new treatment options and came across silk as a unique polymer that could stabilize and deliver drugs across a wide array of disease areas.
They might seem quite different in terms of career trajectories. However, every day clinicians are using pharmaceutical products and technologies. In fact, I think we have unique insight into what's necessary. It really felt natural to move into the space of creation and innovation to try to build the next generation of products.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that makes sense, because entrepreneurship is all about solving problems. Doctors are solving people's health problems. So that makes sense. I'm intrigued by this idea of silk as a polymer. How exactly does this work? Say if I have knee arthritis, which I do, what would it mean for me? How does it cure my knee?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: The way that Silk works is it's a bio polymer, which means it's actually naturally derived from the cocoon of the silk worm bombyx mori, hence the name of the company. We extract out one of the proteins within silk. In fact, this is the same material used in the textile industry and in the silk suture industry. With that silk fibroin protein that we extract, we can turn that into a number of different types of formats.
You can imagine there are liquid versions. There's sold versions. There are gels and other versions of silk. When we make those versions or those formats, we can load them with drugs and those drugs can be existing drugs, generic drugs like NSAIDS, or they can be new and novel drugs that are in the pipeline of development.
Silk has a couple of key properties, one is it's very biocompatible. It can be administered via an injection into the knee or into the eye or into the subcutaneous tissue. It's very inert. It doesn't cause any local inflammation. Once it's administered in those locations, it can then create a depot where it slowly releases that drug that's incorporated into the silk matrix. As silk gets degraded, it's slowly releasing that drug over a period of what can be weeks up to months, enabling this long acting treatment.
There are a couple of other key things that silk can do. But ultimately, it's being used by Cocoon as a unique polymer and a unique incipient [inaudible 00:03:45 that can help with the daily release of drugs.
Melinda Wittstock: I see. So it's really a delivery mechanism. I imagine, you're using it right now, the application is for osteoarthritis. But it could be used for other conditions?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: Yeah. We have programs in ophthalmology, arthritis. We actually have partnerships around other disease areas. It can be used expansively. And not only in human health. But we're actually starting to look at veterinary or animal health as well. There's a wide array of potential applications for this concept and this polymer.
Melinda Wittstock: I see so much innovation in this med tech space. And so much of it spearheaded by women. What is your thought about this ecosystem in terms of the opportunities in it for women who are coming from a medical background to really come into it and innovate?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: I think there's tremendous opportunity. If you look at graduates from either basic science degrees or medicine these days, it's about 50% female if not more. I think women have really taken up positions in certain areas of stem. Other areas there is not quite the same representation.
Given that customers are 50% women, 50% male, for the most part, this really enables women to play a key role in developing the next set of products. I don't think women have to only work on women's health products. In fact, as clinicians you are obviously exposed to a wide array of different types of diseases. The opportunity is ripe for women to take leadership positions within life sciences.
That being said, I think there's some hurdles that we still have to achieve within the ecosystem. If you look at the recent report by Babson College and the Diana Project, they found that of all VC funding, only 2.7% goes to female CEOs. I think as more and more women obtain degrees within stem, whether that's medicine or basic life sciences, I'd encourage them to take the opportunity to become an entrepreneur and to become a part of the ecosystem within med tech or biotech, because the opportunities are really there. Especially right now, where we've seen a tremendous growth both on the financial side but also on the product side for new and innovative technologies to come to market. It's really a great time, I think, to be a part of this industry.
Melinda Wittstock: It certainly is fast-moving. It's interesting you raise the issue of funding. Because there are some businesses that you can bootstrap. Or max out your credit cards for a little bit. If you're pretty confident you're going to get some revenue pretty quickly and be able to pay those off. Take friends and family money.
But in the case of med tech, you need a fair amount of capital. It's going to take you a little while to get the product to the point where it's … All the capital that's required to actually create the product. And then in a lot of cases, regulatory hurdles as well. Generally, in the life sciences area, you're in a situation where you have a lot more, the barriers to entry are greater in a sense, 'cause you have a lot more money you've got to raise right at the beginning.
Ailis Tweed-Kent: Yeah. Absolutely. It's a very capital-intensive process to bring a drug to market. I believe it's a tough institute that looks at how much it costs to get a drug to market including all of the failures and somewhere in the 2 billion dollar range. Clinical trials are expensive. As you mention, they take time. There's also a very regulated industry. So there are certain hurdles and steps you must go through before you place this into patients, broadly speaking. And I think that's the right thing to do obviously. We want to drugs to be safe or products to be safe and effective.
But with that being said, as you pointed out, it requires quite a bit more capital than some of the other fields like tech or IT. However, I will say there's a tremendous amount of investors who are looking at life sciences. The reason is there really is a great opportunity to build great products and to have financial return. That do good and do well is something that I think has really inspired more and more investors to look at life sciences.
With that, means there's access to capital and to investors who are willing to put the checks in that's going to be required to get to that proof of concept in humans. Although it may seem like a barrier, especially in Boston have a unique ecosystem and then community that is not only traditional investors, but also Pharma companies and non-traditional investors who are all participating in driving forward new innovation from smaller companies like Cocoon.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. So the strategics are going to be very important. They're potentially your customers as well as your investors. What has your path been? Has it been difficult to raise money for Cocoon?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: We've been fortunate to raise money to date, mostly from high net worth individuals and have a really supportive investor base. It's always challenging. I think to every entrepreneur will say that the big challenge is to raise capital. But we have a lot of interest at the moments in our gearing up to raise our series A in the coming years. Certainly, we've been fortunate to have quite a bit of good and productive conversations with investors from strategics to traditional VC's.
That transition from high net worth individuals to the VC backed funding will enable us to accelerate into the clinic and to get to that proof of concept timeline and milestone that will enable us to really derive value from this platform. Yes, we've been fortunate to have quite a bit of a community. I'll call it a community of people, investors, advisors, board members and others who have really supported Cocoon and helped us to really evolve into this company we are today.
Melinda Wittstock: That's awesome that you have that support. When you look back, you started the company in 2013. When you look back at what it took to just get it going. What were some of the things you learned along the way? What was difficult? How did you get around those hurdles? How did you attract those high net worth individuals to begin with?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: I think in retrospect, the most important thing at the outset for any company is to really take the time to define the vision and the mission of your company. I think oftentimes, the excitement and the hype of getting started and founding a company makes people run in one direction. I think we were fortunate because I was finishing my training and so therefore had a few years left to complete my residency training before we could launch full time to do just that.
To step back and ask ourselves: what are the needs in the pharmaceutical industry? How can silk play a role? What are the disease areas that we think are most important to go after and how do we want to set up a plan to execute on that vision? I would say, it is important to let the idea sit and to let it evolve and not to feel so inclined to rush to raise money and move forward.
At the same time, during that process I think it's also critical to attract talent that can align with that vision. That requires a real deep understanding of the culture that you're aiming to build as a company and taking that time to really get to know individuals before signing them onto your team so that they are truly aligned with the culture and the vision. We were fortunate again to have the time to do that, to really network and to build relationships across the ecosystem here in Boston.
And then to have the good fortune of having some of those individuals join us full time or as advisory board members to really elevate Cocoon to the next level. I think patience is one of the key lessons learned is you're excited to get going and to hit milestones but at the same time, taking that patient approach to staying focused and grounded and really making sure you have your vision to find is what will enable success in the future.
Melinda Wittstock: It's so true. It's hard to go anywhere without knowing where you're going. Without knowing that you can get blown around a lot in all the cross winds. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint hearted. Every day you go out there as you're creating a product or trying to find the right product market fit. There's so much beyond your control and there's so much that you don't know.
I suppose as a doctor and as a scientist, bringing this kind of testing of hypothesis attitude, when you think of the right mindset, any entrepreneur has to be in to succeed. Tell me a little bit about that, that internal thought process: The motivation, the mindset. How do you think about this as you go about your day?
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Ailis Tweed-Kent: The first thing to keep in mind is, again, what problem are you trying to solve or what type of patient are you trying to help? Really understand that customer and really understand what value your technology brings to the table. How do you differentiate from what's out there and how are you going to provide the added value?
Once you have that in place, it's working backwards to the execution plan of how are you going to get to proving that? I think with science, and life sciences in particular, it's very hypothesis driven. You should have a good working understanding of your technology and a good hypothesis that's feasible and technically achievable. And then you set out to go answer that in a step wise fashion.
It certainly takes a long time to get drugs to market. And the reason is you have to answer questions, key questions along the way that take time to evolve. Everything from efficacy does the drug work or not. To safety, is it going to cause side effects. And then lastly, manufacturing, can you actually manufacture this drug at scale, reproducibly such that every batch is going to be the same. Drugs have failed on each of those levers. There's also a whole other set of key deliverables on the business side as well.
But from a technical standpoint, you set your hypothesis and you work towards answering these key questions along the way. But it's really important to stay organized and have a clear path to getting to that ultimate vision of getting this into patients and on the market. My biggest piece of advice is to stay focused on again, what is your vision, who are you trying to treat and what is your product offering. And then work backwards to demonstrating that value and answering those key questions through experiments, both pre-clinically and in clinic.
Melinda Wittstock: I think as an entrepreneur you get to this point where you start to understand that if you don't have the passion for what you're doing and a clear vision, it's really difficult to weather the inherent ups and downs, setbacks, hurdles, things like that, that inevitably are part of this path.
Ailis how do you get through the day? When you have a roadblock or a setback or something like that, what's your mental or emotional attitude to those things and the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial journey?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: It's a great question. I think every entrepreneur has ups and downs and companies evolve and change and pivot. I think the key mantra I use is to not get to high with the highs or too low with the lows. That you're ultimately going to have ups and downs throughout the process that can be a bit like a roller coaster if you ride those waves.
The key is to stay focused on the long-term vision. Day to day, there'll be variations and you'll have experiments that are successful those that are not. You'll have investor meeting that are successful and those that are not. I think the key is not, to understand what you control and what you don't control. As an entrepreneur, you can control what you do every day. You can control setting up and executing on a plan, recruiting a team, etc.
But there are some things you can't control, like the market dynamics where investors are interested in investing. Or you can't control the outcome of a hypothesis when you set up an experiment, you have to wait and see what the results are and do it in such a way that you evaluate those results in rigorous scientific fashion.
I do think it's also important to understand what you can control and not control as an entrepreneur because if you think you can control everything, that's when the emotional stress can take place. I think it's also a critical importance, especially as an entrepreneur to have perspective. Finding something that keeps you grounded. For me, that's actually going to clinic. I still see patients as a clinician. That for me, is a place of being reminded why I do what I do at Cocoon and what we're trying to accomplish at Cocoon.
I also find outdoor activities really bring serenity to me. I think as an entrepreneur it's really important to … Be 100% you'll be always thinking about your company. Even when you're on vacation. Even when you're off on the weekends, etc. But if you don't create that balance and that perspective that's when you can get caught up in the ups and downs a little too much.
Part of this is finding a team of people around you, personal coaches and mentors that you can go to when you're struggling with a certain dilemma or question but also who can remind you of that balance and that ability to see clearly what the perspective is in the sight of imposition [inaudible 00:18:31 so I think it's three things.
One is, don't get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. The other is to find other items or activities throughout your week that can ground you and bring perspective to what you're doing. The third is to surround yourself with a team of mentors, coaches or family and friends who really understand and know you and can remind you at times where to take things next, how to analyze or consider a problem or dilemma. Probably most importantly also how to find that structure and perspective and balance when you're deep in the woods trying to sort through problems.
Melinda Wittstock: I found certainly for myself that in order to get out of my own way, I really do have to force myself to do other things or somehow find a way of release or some other way to turn off. In my case that's meditation and yoga and walking my golden retriever, playing with my kids, other things. What are some of those things, you mentioned [crosstalk 00:19:58
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Ailis Tweed-Kent: I was going to say, not to underestimate the fact that, that might be where your innovative moments come from. I think sometimes we forget that it's a little bit, in medicine we have our heart pumps. We have two phases of systole and diastole. Systole is when the heart is contracting and pushing blood forward. Diastole is when it's filling. I think they're both critical to life.
We have to have those moments where we're active and achieving and active in terms of being productive. But then there's also the moments of productivity that come from just being quiet with ourselves and listening and thinking and we can have innovation and insights come from those moments too. I think that's the other part of this. It's not just about balance. But it's about being reminded.
If you read books about most of the great entrepreneurs, they always talk about the importance of that time to think and to be with yourself and separate yourself from what you're doing day to day in order to really see the big picture and find those creative insights that are going to lead to the next breakthrough. It's a key part of productivity overall for the company. But making time for that can be hard when you have a to do list that gets longer and longer every day. That's the critical part of it is making sure you prioritize some of that time to yourself that could lead to the next creative insight.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, all of my best epiphanies and ideas and inspirations have come when I'm not working. And I have learned over the years that I absolutely have to put that time in my schedule. Because if it doesn't go in my schedule, it's so easily taken up by other things! So there are just these moments that are sacrosanct where I do … I think of it as working on my business instead of in it. And having those moments of doing nothing.
For a long time though, I felt really guilty. Honestly, I felt guilty about taking that time. You get little comments from people, like, “Oh, I see. Going for a massage, are you?” Or little digs like that. And actually, those are the times when I will end up having a thought that will create tremendous value for my business. What are some of the things that you do? Do you calendarize it? How do you make sure that you have that time that sacrosanct for yourself?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: I think I just listen to myself. It's important to be in tune with what you need as an individual. Everyone's different. For me, I really enjoy hiking and biking and rock climbing and doing different activities outside that are restorative. I can tell when I need that. ‘Cause I'm listening and in tune with who I am. I know when I've been pushing very hard at the company for a period of time that I need to take a day or two to step back. I don't have a set schedule or say I must do a certain number of hours per week of these other things.
But I just try to listen to where I'm at. And then take that time when I need it. I think the other important part is to try to recognize that before it's too late. You don't want to burn out either. It's always important for once you recognize it to act on that and to find that activity. Again, for each person is very different. And to know what that activity is and to build that into your life in such a way that it feels like it creates that balance.
Melinda Wittstock: So true. You mentioned also the people around you. Your networks, folks who are your mentors. This is so important too. I forget who said this, but if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room. Surrounding yourself with people who you're constantly learning from and networks. But also, people who really genuinely support you.
I think sometimes as female entrepreneurs, the folks around us, partner, spouses, friends, family, they can be very well meaning, but they can sometimes say things that blow us a little bit off course or make us feel like we have to do it all or make us feel guilty. When we're working we should be with our kids. Or when we're with our kids we should be working.
Sometimes just little comments like, “Are you sure you're okay? Are you sure this is the right thing? You don't have to.” Those little nickels can sometimes get in our way. Have you ever experienced that? And how do you get around people, friends, family, even if they're well meaning, can say things that can push you off course?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: It's interesting. I haven't experienced that from friends and family. It's quite the opposite. Sometimes you hear that from people professionally who may not believe that it's possible or who may challenge what you think you can accomplish. I actually find friends and family, to me, and personal, close mentors that have known me for some time, are exactly those people who inspire me. When I'm wondering, can I accomplish all of this? They're the ones who remind you that yes you can and you have it within you.
I think it's important to make sure that you cultivate relationships and friendships over time with not only family and friends, but mentors who really understand who you are and can help you in those moments when as an entrepreneur there are definitely moments when you step back and say, “Is this possible? Is it going to work?” How should we proceed to have a little cheer squad behind you to say, “Absolutely. Look at what you've done already.” You can accomplish that too.
That for me, throughout my life has always been a group of people that I really can count on and trust to be honest and authentic with me. They can also sometimes tell you when you're going astray. That's important too. My take is, find that group of individuals, mentors, colleagues through all walks of life. And importantly, at all stages of their life. I have mentors who are at retired to those who are close in age to me and stage of life.
That's important to have a variety of mentors that span also industries and know you from different time points in your life because I think that helps to connect the dots. ‘Cause then you get, the way I look at it is, you have this circle of individuals who are all connected through you in a way. But who can help piece together who you are in a full authentic way so who you are the whole person. Rather than just one sliver of your life. That to me is really critical as an entrepreneur because you are bringing all facets of your life to bear and the work that you do as entrepreneur.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that's such a key aspect of success. I'm so pleased to hear that you say that you have that. Some of the women we interview on the show at a certain point in their entrepreneurial career did not have that kind of supportive environment and had to go out and actively find and create it. But it is vital to your success. And to have people who yeah, as you say are honest and authentic to you and cheer you on.
When you look back, what were you like as a little kid? Were you entrepreneurial as a little kid? Or were you always setting up and treating people as a doctor? Where did these two impulses, this incredible career that you're having. What was the inspiration when you were a little kid? What were you like?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: I think most people would say I was involved in a lot of different things. I was a kid who enjoyed becoming a part of or trying many different types of activities. I played sports. I played music. I was in school council. I took on math club. I was very much eclectic in my interests and never really found any one thing that I wanted to dive deep on.
I think that maybe speaks to why I became as an entrepreneur. Because you wear many hats every day. And I love that part of this job where I'm learning about finance and business development and partnerships. But also talking finance and regulatory and marketing. For me, I think just that desire to always want to learn and challenge myself to learn something new is what led me I think, to where I am today.
I was also really eager to be adventurous. I think I was someone who always had this desire to travel around the globe and learn about new cultures and had the opportunity to do that during my training in medicine and beyond. That adventurous spirit and wanting to take things that other people would say might be risky career wise, to me has never felt that way.
For example, jumping off the treadmill of medicine, in a sense, to start this company to some would have been terrifying, but to me was actually quite exciting. Because it's this adventure into learning something new and being a part of an industry that I really wanted to learn about. I think it's a combination of those two things of being quite eclectic in my interests from a young age and being quite adventurous and not afraid to take risks as well, that have led me to the entrepreneurship career that I'm in at the moment.
Melinda Wittstock: That's awesome. Did you have any heroes? Or we call them sheroes as a kid? Any women that you looked up to as a role models?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: It's interesting, I don't think I had any particular role models. I think Dorothy Day. I think I always found her kind of spirit, her radical spirit of trying to create change was always inspiring. But there are many women and men who I think I looked up to. It was always those individuals who were quite adventurous and not afraid to take on risks and to put themselves out there because they believed in a cause that were most inspiring to me.
I wouldn't say I had any one in particular outside of perhaps learning more about Dorothy Day's work or Mother Teresa. Or even Paul Farmer, who he became a close mentor of mine. These are all people who really believed in a vision and then executed and acted on that vision.
I think it's easy to sit back and to comment on a problem. But it's a different story to take that and turn it into action to actually go build something tangibly that's going to make a difference. That can be used as what I hope to inspire in other people is not to be afraid to take a change in a career or take on risk. If it is the opportunity to make an impact and to go fix a problem that you're seeing. Without that, we wouldn't have all the new technologies we have today. I wouldn't say I have any one particular mentor but rather several that share that same property.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. You're mentioning really two critical things I think you do need to succeed as an entrepreneur. One is endless curiosity and love of learning. Maybe there are three because the other one is just the acceptance, not just of risk, but also of the fact that there's things beyond your control and it's constant change and really it's at the end of the day it's how you react to all of those things.
You sound like the type of person who is able to think in terms of moon shots. And one of the things, I see all these guys taking moon shots, whether it's Elon Musk or Naveen Jain. What about women? What's your moon shot Ailis Tweed-Kent? What's your big, big, big-
Ailis Tweed-Kent: My big moonshot is to, during my lifetime, to really change the way we deliver and think about healthcare. Moving the needle from the way we practice healthcare today, whether that's from the drugs that we're administering to devices to IT to just overall policy in healthcare. To say that we can make the world a healthier place, that's going to take innovation and technology. Not just here in Boston or in the United States, but also globally.
The moonshot I have is leveraging materials or technology to be a game changer in the way that we deliver drugs and the way that we deliver healthcare and the way that we think about applying medicine. We're starting to see some of those moon shots take place from gene therapy to others. But I think we can go even beyond that. I don't think it always has to be a drug substance is going to change the game.
I think we can also look at what's the intersection of behavior? Why do people take on certain changes to their health and others don't? How are these influenced by everything from poverty to social determinants of health to others.
Ailis Tweed-Kent: Yeah, I think we need to break down these silos and create intersections between med tech and biotech and IT and policy and direct delivery of care. For me, the shape of how this impact takes place will evolve over time. But Cocoon is one way to start making a change in the way that we deliver medicines and the way that patients experience medicines. And hopefully really transformed the way that drug products are formulated and developed to make them more effective and safer.
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. I have a couple of questions that I want to end the interview with. The first is what inspires you most, right now?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: Creating change. I think just waking up every day with the possibility of impacting millions of patients. There's nothing more inspiring than that to see that the hard work we're putting in day in and day out and the unknown of science and technology could translate into really changing the lives of people some day.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful. What's your biggest challenge right now?
Ailis Tweed-Kent: Biggest challenge is garnering the capital, both human capital, financial capital, personnel capital etc. to achieve that vision. They think it takes a village to build a company and so the challenges around getting all the right people at the table with the right resources to make that possible.
Melinda Wittstock: So true. And last but not least, your top three pieces of advice for entrepreneuring super sheroes out there.
Ailis Tweed-Kent: First is to just be authentic to who you are. Many people in this industry and in this world are going to want to influence you or change you based on who they think you should be. But at the end of the day, it's most important to just be who you are. I think that's especially true for women, to not change those parts about you that are authentic to who you are to fit into some mold. Break out of that mold and be an entrepreneur and just be authentic to yourself.
The second is to be fearless. I think have no fear in taking chances. If we knew everything was possible when we start out on a journey, it would be somewhat boring. So embrace that and instead of making it a barrier to progress, flip the coin and look at it as an opportunity for success. And really take that ability to tackle a problem as [inaudible 00:36:19 an opportunity rather than a fearful moment. Again, I think that's of critical importance to women to take chances and to not be afraid.
I guess the third is to surround yourself with people that you trust and believe in and who also trust and believe in you. Every project I've ever worked on has been much more fun when it's a committed group of team members and individuals who all believe in that vision. Know that no one has ever created anything great alone. Don't be afraid to ask for help. By surrounding yourself with people who are incredibly talented and committed and want to be a part of that journey, that culture that you build as a company and as an individual entrepreneur building that company is of critical importance.
We talk a lot about cultured organization which comes back to community and the team that we're building. Make the journey fun. Don't worry about the destination. Really make it about building a group of people around you such that the vision becomes more than one individual person. That, that vision transcends to the entire community and therefore the momentum that you build from that, it will carry you to the next level.
Melinda Wittstock: That is wonderful advice. Ailis Tweed-Kent, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us today.
Ailis Tweed-Kent: You're welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.