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What 8-year-old girl dreams about curing cancer? Dr. Elisabet de los Pinos, CEO and founder of Aura Biosciences, did. Her childhood dream has since turned into an “obsession” to change the course of cancer treatment and understand the underlying DNA of the disease.
One of her earliest role models was her father. Although he was just a “regular” doctor in a small town in Spain, he planted the seed that led his daughter to explore new possibilities and form her vision of what medicine can be.
“My father always said there was a revolution happening with molecular medicine and we'll have a whole new opportunity to treat patients in a way he couldn't do at that time,” she says. “He always felt like I could do something that could change the world. This resonated with me, and I felt like, yes, I could.”
Her innate curiosity spurred by her father’s empowering words were all the motivation the first-time CEO needed to capitalize on a golden opportunity with Aura Biosciences to achieve her life-long goal of making a difference for patients afflicted by rare cancers.
“The idea of creating a novel class of drugs and starting a biotech company was part of fulfilling that dream I had since I was a little girl,” she says.
The company’s technology platform uses virus-like particles, or VLPs, to target a broad range of solid tumors. The first target is a rare eye cancer with no approved drugs. The second might be a treatment for bladder cancer.
Her approach, which was unorthodox at the time, drew notice from the one and only Dr. Henri Termeer, the former CEO of Genzyme Corporation, who said that the courage to change patients’ lives would be rewarding.
In this week’s WoW podcast, the award-winning scientist shares her unique journey through the business of biotech, why dosing the first person in a clinical trial was a transformative moment in her life and how she balances being a CEO and a mother of two.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive.
In this podcast, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Dr. Elisabet de los Pinos, CEO and founder, Aura Biosciences.
Taren: Dr. de los Pinos thank you for being part of our WoW podcast program and welcome to the show.
Elisabet: It's great to have to be here. Thank you.
Taren: I have to ask what led you to found Aura Biosciences?
Elisabet: So I was very passionate since I was very young about making a difference for cancer in a way that it has become nearly an obsession. The idea of creating a novel class of drugs, of starting a biotech company was part of fulfilling that dream that I had since I was a little girl.
Taren: This obsession is not like most little girls have this dream of curing cancer. So what sparked that for you?
Elisabet: I think it was the fact that I really liked nature and science. And my father, who was a doctor, always said that there was this revolution with molecular medicine and that we know so much about the human body and the techniques that molecular biology bring to us. We'll have a whole opportunity to treat patients in a way we, my father, as a doctor couldn't do at that time. So, he was inspirational. He always felt like I could do something that will change the world. And you know, when you hear that, I guess when I was little, it just resonated and I felt like yes I could do it.
Taren: Wow, what an inspiration is right so you were buoyed as a child by your father, you can change the world. That's a lot of responsibility for a little kid.
Elisabet: That's so funny. It is a responsibility and I think that word is linked to the second most influential person in my life, who was Henri Termeer. I remember in the early days talking to him, he said, Ellie, you and I have a responsibility. So yes, it is an enduring responsibility.
Taren: I love that and thank you for bringing up Henri Termeer. I have to tell you, I have spoken to so many women whose careers he has influenced and who he has inspired. Tell me what you drew from him. I mean, he's such an influential member in that biotechnology community, but everybody has a different story connected to them. Do you mind sharing?
Elisabet: Of course. So when I met him it was in the early days of me moving to Boston and in starting the company. We met in a very serendipitous way. I had won an award from the World Economic Forum, The Technology Pioneer Award and in Davos, which to me at that time, was empowering me as I was taking the first steps to being an entrepreneur and a CEO. In that same year I won that award, he was at the exact same conference. There was an event later in Boston that connected the two of us, and it was me reaching out to him and saying you are so knowledgeable like a godfather in the industry and I'm just getting started; probably the only connection between you and I is that we both have an accent. And he said no, we have much more of a connection than that. And I'm excited with what you're doing. I heard your presentation, he was presenting before I did and stayed for my presentation. Anyway, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to get that acquaintance and we started meeting every month as a mentor. And he gave me the greatest, I would say probably comfort, that I was not crazy, and knowing that he at one point, had the courage to do what I was doing. And if you keep to the goal and have the courage to be transformational into making a difference for patients, it's going to be very, very rewarding. And no matter what happens, it will be very, very successful. So that was empowering when you really are an underdog. I was truly a first time CEO with an accent. I was a woman. In the US, although I was from Spain in Europe, here I was classified as a Hispanic, which was a surprise to me because I never had been classified like that in my country. But there was a lot of things that classified me as an underdog or that made me look like an underdog trying to make a business in the US. That empowerment, that early support from someone who was really at such a high level and who was so transformational, I carry that since that day.
Taren: Well, you just gave me chills. Well, certainly you are no longer an underdog. I will go through the number of awards, in addition to the one you just noted a little bit later in our conversation, so you are truly making a difference. Tell me about the vision for Aura and why did you name the company that and tell me about the types of cancer and the how you're approaching this?
Elisabet: When you are the founder of a company the name it is so exciting because it's like naming a newborn and you are the one who chooses, so it's a lot of responsibility. I'm also a mother of two kids, and they're both boys and they're adorable, but I always wanted a girl. And I said now that I have the opportunity to start something on my own, like nearly a newborn, this is going to have the name of a girl. And so it has to be feminine in some way. I always loved chemistry, so I wanted to choose a girl’s name but also related to chemistry. So I started thinking about, au for gold. And I thought about Aurelia or maybe aura. And so I was like, Aura is short and sounds musical and sounds like a girl and if it is a chemistry au and it's gold, so let's go for it. I love it.
Taren: I love it. This is your third child. This is great and it's golden. I love that. So tell me about the science.
Elisabet. This is also something that was very interesting from the beginning. As a scientist myself, I have always been fascinated with viruses and the simplicity and yet the biological flexibility of a virus. And I have also been very interested in the connection between virus and cancer. And in my initial thoughts about starting Aura, there were really no drugs that were based on viruses. There have been so many initial and some not very good reports about gene therapy and using viruses and I'm talking about now more than a few years ago. And some inceptions into what is now oncolytic viral therapy but there was nothing that was based on the viral structure as a normal flat drug. And I always thought that if we were able to use some of these viruses that could go to cancers, we may not need to use the entire virus we could make artificial viruses. And that was the idea. That was the foundation of the company and I then went to many different scientists, some of which were very renowned in Europe. I went to see Dr. Harald Zur Hausen who was you know, at that time nominated to receive the Nobel Prize, but he had not received it yet. And I went to talk to him and I said look, I have this idea of potentially creating a novel class of drugs which would be based on viruses but viruses inside and he said That's an excellent idea. And you should be talking with Dr. John Chiller at the NIH, because he’s done some of the early work to validate that idea and actually, there are some legs to it. And so that was the beginning of the technology. How can we use a virus or a part of a virus or a synthetic fibers to attach it to a drug and make a novel class of drugs that would more potency and more activation of the immune system? And that's what we carried on and that initial idea translated into many product families and a great drug that's now in phase two development.
Taren: That sounds very exciting. So what was it like to get to phase two? Obviously, this is your most advanced drugs in the pipeline. You get through that phase one, which is really the toughest phase, I think, and now you're in phase two. So what's your next step?
Elisabet: The next step really, which is going to be one of the biggest moments for the company, is to start the study for approval — the registrational trial, which we're planning to start this year. That study, that’s not only the design of the study that has a big regulatory focus because you want to make sure that every single little aspect of the study is aligned with the regulatory authorities globally, so that if the data is supportive, you can launch it globally, but also all of the manufacturing and quality controls that go into becoming truly a pre commercial company. So, it is a big moment for us. And one of the reasons why we took the company public is to be able to have the funds to run these pivotal studies.
Taren: Excellent, and we're going to talk about what was that IPO experience like for you?
Elisabet: It's something that I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to do and I had not only the opportunity to as a first time CEO, but the opportunity to do it with such an amazing team of people. And one of the key things that I want to highlight for you which is that I've always had diversity as a word of my commitment to the company that I would try not to be biased and try to be a have a diverse team. But one of the key things that was exciting was not only was my CFO a women and extraordinary, but the number of women who we worked with to make the IPO and these funds available who were incredible bankers was incredible. And on the legal side our partners at Goodwin, so smart, all women. I remember the day after the IPO when you're exhausted, and basically your nose is stuck to the screen to see how the stock is going to go up and down and I went to my CFO’s house, we were there having a cup of coffee and we're so tired. And say look how many women has have helped us succeed? And then we started seeing the stock go up and up and up. And we had this glorious moment where we said let's write it down. Let's write down all the names of all the women that have made this success. And then we would call all of them and it was just amazing. It was one of those … it's never easy to take a company public and it takes a village but it is just so nice when you also break barriers and we can acknowledge that and be part of a group of people that yes, increased diversity — fantastic women that have made it.
Taren: What a great story. Thank you for sharing that. I can just see you two sitting at the table right now rejoicing. I have to tell you, that's unusual because we don't always hear that there are women on the other side of the table. who are helping to make these deals happen. As you said, mostly it's a lot of men in the banking industry. And so I love that you had that support of women behind you. That's great.
Elisabet. Yeah, it's very exciting. Not only that, you also realize that you're probably another generation of understanding where to go with the IPO. At night, we could hear kids in the background. In the past, I would have been terrified to show that I was working from home or keep a kid from crying, it was kind of amazing because we were so accepting that, yes, that's what it takes. And you can be a top tier CEO, a super partner at Goodwin or a big, you know, banker. You still have kids and they still cry at night and so be it.
Taren: Right, that's what life is. So that's fantastic. Thank you again, what a great insight there. You know you've alluded a couple of times to being a first time CEO. What has been your greatest challenge in being a first time CEO and then I'm going to ask you what's been your biggest joy in this role?
Elisabet: The biggest challenge I would say is getting the credibility from investors. I think that now after a becoming successful company, raising capital again, it's much easier. But when you're a first time CEO, you're a woman and I did not study here I came to the US afterwards. I was missing that kind of belonging. There is a lot of that in the trust circle of investors that makes it difficult for the personal capital that you bring into the company. So that was that was challenging, but it also very rewarding because one of the key things is that I've had such supportive investors and I am usually the first CEO that they call to when they need to talk. They asked me to talk to one of their limited partners. And they put me as an example of one of the companies that they're proud of. So it was both difficult, but now it's actually a really nice thing.
Taren: Excellent. So is there anything that you would have done differently? Now that you if you have a chance to look back to something you might have just said, You know what, I wish we had done this this way instead of that way?
Elisabet: When I was reviewing the questions, because it's one of the most difficult questions because I usually think we never looked back. You deal with it, you make mistakes, but overall, you know, you never look back. Look at the opportunities in front. So my answer to you is no, I would not have done anything different. But I would probably wish I had not stressed so much that I was doing the right thing. I wish I had been a little bit more relaxed. It's easy to say now, right? I was stressed and I was raising the kids and raising capital and most of the times making a lot of decisions with very limited information. So, no nothing different. Just the probably hopefully, you know from now on you will think about the opportunities in front of us and that at the end of the day, it's all gonna be good.
Taren: I love that. You know, they often say this is why God put eyes in the front of your head so you can look forward and not look back. You know, you just it's so funny. You said you're raising the kids and you're raising the capital. What do your kids think about this, that there's mom on the stock market? I mean, do they have any realization of what you're doing?
Elisabet: Yes. Now, that I think back to the beginning it’s is really funny now. My little one heard so many stories about investors and they were usually asking me these difficult questions and I needed to come up with answers. And my son thought that investors were kind of like monsters. And then we we went to see Wonder Woman and he’s like Mom, I really think you’re like Wonder Woman. You take those two swords and get to the investors and smash them. I was like no, no, no, they're good people. The other funny story I have about the kids is the first time I raised an additional $20 million, and I'm so excited. I hear from one of the mom’s that my son is telling everyone at school that I have $20 million in our house. You should really tell him that it's not yours. My kids have been highly involved. And even in the pandemic, my younger one and I would sit at the dining table because we were tired of being in our rooms. So we decided that we would work together and I've had a lot of calls and I said like look, the only thing is that this is confidential. And we cannot say things. Yesterday we were talking about the IPO and I said so what do you remember? What he remembers are the breathing exercises that I used to do. There's no longer a big line between executives and families. It's like if you're a mother, you're an executive. You want to make sure that you know you're balanced all along, which means highly imbalanced, but on average, they look highly balanced.
Taren: That's a that's a great quote. And I love that your kids think you are Wonder. I thought when you were going there with the $20 million they were going to ask for an increase in their allowance …
Elisabet. I made it very clear that this was not at our money that I had that it was money that I was responsible for to invest in patients and clinical trials.
Taren: That's a wonderful thing. Those are great stories. So as you look forward to the rest of 2022 and I can't believe that we're already to the first quarter. You talked a little bit about one of the things that's top priority for you is moving into that phase two, what else is on your agenda in terms of your strategic objectives for this year?
Elisabet: It’s exciting year and one of the key things is that we started our clinical trials in an indication that's a rare cancer, and now, we're expanding into bladder cancer, which is a much more prevalent cancer with a high unmet need. To have that first patient in bladder cancer is a very important milestone for the company. So I'm looking forward to that.
Taren: Excellent you know, in looking at the trends, what are some of the things you're looking at? Are you thinking that maybe like what's the regulatory environment looking like now for your area science?
Elisabet: Yes, we have been very lucky because our first indication is a rare type of melanoma, melanoma of the eye. And the ophthalmology division of the FDA has been helping us in a really nice way to see how we can get the endpoints to get a drug to market for this very novel indication. Because we had orphan drug designation and fast track designation, we've had a lot of access to advice from the FDA and they’ve been very collaborative. For all of us, l I can say we're very thankful. Now of course, the drug needs to prove itself and show the value for patients. But the access to the regulators has been fantastic.
Taren: Well, congratulations. That's it's all good stuff. I'd love to hear when companies are addressing rare kinds of diseases and so many unmet needs and again, it's that groundbreaking, that's innovation. It's that entrepreneurial spirit that we see come shining through. Have you always thought of yourself as being an entrepreneur?
Elisabet: Yes. I've always said that I was different, or I felt a little different. I was born in a very small town in Spain. I was so excited about science and I was telling you about my father, but no one else was really and I always felt like I am different, but that's okay. And then I went through college and I was always thinking about how can create new medicines. I was doing chemistry and everyone was like, Well, why do you need to learn to synthesize medicines that are already here today? I was like, we have the moonshots of creating new medicine so I always though that I can be a little different — not fitting into the standards of what society would classify as a scientist entrepreneur this was something that I had never thought I would be but then I moved to the US and I thought, like, yes, that's exactly what I am. It's great.
Taren: I love that you describe yourself as a scientist, entrepreneur. And in fact, Goldman Sachs, among the many awards that you garnered named you one of the 100 most intriguing entrepreneurs in 2014. So I'm intrigued by that label of intriguing what did that mean? Intriguing entrepreneurs.
Elisabet: It was an amazing group of people. Goldman Sachs got together what they call builders and innovators. So it was an extraordinary group of people who were together at that mini conference. Some of the entrepreneurs who are not necessarily tech companies or biotech, but transformed industries in a way that we would have not anticipated, so it was a was phenomenal. I felt very privileged to not only to receive the award. But they're just a moment in time, the experience of being surrounded that few days by extraordinary people was the most rewarding.
Taren: You're very humble. And you know, and I'm just going to pile on here in terms of the award, you were also named by Boston Business Journal as a top 40 under 40, as a Mass High Tech Woman to Watch, and as you noted earlier, Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum. So you've got quite the bona fides here. So while it may be moment in time, you have racked up some serious hardware. And as such, I would think this position do you as a role model within the industry, for other women who are looking to achieve, you know, some sense of the success you've had? What does that mean to you to be a role model?
Elisabet: Well, it's an obligation to bring your best on your values and your commitment to the real goals that you have. It's not just because you have the ability you have that responsibility, I think to do your best and, and to try to tell others that in my case, I feel like it's okay to try to do things that no one else has done before, as long as the goals and your perseverance are there. That's how you define leadership. It's not just your word is what you do with your time and you go back to that kind of dreamy stage of a goal. You really want to make sure that you change things, that you don't accept the things as they are. We don't accept that patients don't have this type of medicine. We don't accept how difficult it is to develop in medicine. We don't accept the no of an investor as long as you keep working to change the things that we think deserve to be changed for the better. So that's, that's the guidance.
Taren: That's wonderful and that passion that you have for curiosity and for making a difference. And as you said, this was instilled on you is it a small child and growing up in a small town in Spain, but I just I'm still trying to understand what that spark? Can you define it for you as a kid as a child like, what really lit the fire for you?
Elisabet: I don't if it was a curiosity or the fact that the disease cancer was multifactorial and had a lot of things to be involved with DNA. It was probably that intellectual curiosity and that knowledge of DNA, that book that's coded into the DNA that had to be solved and that would open up lots of opportunity. You'll love this. I wanted a subscription to Nature Medicine. And my dad said, all right, we'll get you the subscription and then he was so disappointed because I couldn't understand anything. First of all, because my English was so poor and second because I couldn't understand the science it was too complex.
Taren: Well, how old were you?
Elisabet: 12 or 13..so it was very much my dad which was kind of like interesting because I always felt like he was kind of a renaissance man. Just being a normal regular doctor, an on the ground doctor, but he always had a nice view of medicine as something that could be transformational…
Taren: I love that. So it's really you know, you talked about DNA and it's, it's a little bit from your dad, and now it's up to you. Do you see do you see your sons following a similar path to you? Are they innately curious as well?
Elisabet: So it's interesting, I think that they will be probably following their own path. My eldest is into business but not at all into biology. My youngest a little bit more although he was saying you have to learn all these complex words and I said, yes, but it's like learning a different language, but it has so many less words than if you were to learn German, you need to learn a million words. If you learn biology, it's only a few 100. I think they will be empowered to do things that help other people. That's what I really hope in one way or the other, it doesn't have to be…
Taren: Wonderful. I like that perspective. German, a million words, you know, biology a couple of 100 everything in perspective, right. So I have to know what is some of the best leadership advice you ever received? That has helped guide you?
Elisabet: The very, most difficult moments where I thought, Oh my God, I don't feel like I'm going be able to do this anymore. I'm just tired and I have this big investor meeting and am I doing the right thing? So I remember Henri Termeer saying, you know, the most important things are the top things. When I would think why is it happening to me? Why is it so difficult? He would say be glad that they're happening early in your career. Because then you're prepared for that. I always felt like, when you go through a bad moment or downturn or someone saying what you're doing doesn't make any sense or they don't believe you. I always feel like that's preparing me for the future, to be better, to respond better to be better prepared to make sure that I always stand out.
Taren: I love that and at the same time, what is some of the best advice you give to others who are coming up the ranks? Is it the same advice?
Elisabet: If someone comes in and is feeling down I try to use that. If they are hesitant or want to start over… Should I do it that way? What about my family? Is it risky? Then the advice is — and I even have this on the fridge for my family — start today. Once you start you realize how much of a tool library you have available to you. When you try to just be prepared for every single thing before you start. It becomes a mountain. So just start and then, you know, just solve along the way.
Taren: It's great advice. You know, you notice something there when you know when people are kind of down and working in the biotech, especially in the area that you're working in. It's really It's difficult because you're going to have setbacks in terms of clinical successes. And it's can be challenging at times to keep the team bouyed and afloat because you have a clear vision. How do you communicate that vision to your team? How do you like instill that passion and that mission to the folks who are working alongside you?
Elisabet: You hire the best talent with a sense of purpose. That's absolutely an advantage that we have in this industry. Because at the end of the day, what we're doing would help patients who really needed it. When you think about you versus the patient is like, we're blessed, right? We're working to help them. We're not a patient. So we have an obligation to whatever the problem is. So keep that sense of purpose as the key motivation, and it works. It works amazingly well. It works much more than you know… the sense of purpose is the biggest retention and the biggest motivation.
Taren: Excellent. And because this is our WoW, podcast program, I'm going to conclude our conversation unfortunately, because I'd love to talk to you for another hour. But what is that WoW moment that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you?
Elisabet: I had been a scientist and working through the preclinical process of a company I was treating animals and cells and when you move into clinical translation, and dose your first patient, that is the most transformational moment. I feel so blessed to have that opportunity. I am so appreciative of that person, who is allowing you to test something so new and hopefully transformational. This has guided me ever since and hopefully, you know, it will guide me forever.
Taren: If I may call you, Ellie, I have to say it this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself about the important work you're doing and letting us into your family a little bit and I look forward to seeing what your phase 2 results turnout, and I am wishing you all the best as you pursue some of these really tough cancers. Thank you for being part of our wild podcast program.
Elisabet: Thank you so much for having me and for the discussion. It was wonderful to talk to you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW — the woman of the week podcast. For more while episodes visit pharmavoice.com. This 2022 program is copyrighted by Industry Dive.