Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
After more than 20 years of working on drug discovery at Big Pharma, biotech and CRO companies, Amy Ripka, CEO and founder of Lucy Therapeutics, was motivated to find a new way to address unmet needs in CNS conditions like Parkinson’s and orphan diseases such as Rett syndrome.
Her approach was a bit unorthodox, but her insatiable curiosity led her down an interesting, and little traveled path. She spent 18 months of “down time” reading more than 3,000 papers centered around mitochondrial biology. The result? Finding an answer that was “hiding in plain sight” and then launching Lucy Therapeutics.
“I let myself go down productive and unproductive pathways,” Ripka, whose career had been particularly focused on genetic diseases, said. “A lot of work had been done with animal models that looked at genetic connections or genetic knockouts to ascertain how this potentially affects disease. But DNA is not the only thing in our cells. In fact, there are multiple mitochondria in every cell. (But) in large part, mitochondria has been ignored for decades. Mitochondria is a metabolic driver. Most people know it as the powerhouse of the cell, but it does more than that. Turns out that metabolics can control what genes are turned on or what genes are turned off. This complex relationship is especially important for diseases that involve organs like the brain, the heart and muscular diseases.”
It also turns out all mitochondrial DNA are inherited from one’s mother. As a female-founded biotech, Ripka was inspired by Lucy, one of the first early-human fossils found.
“(I thought) Lucy (would) be a great name for the company. It’s a feminine name, but the real impetus was that it was connected to mitochondria, which is at the heart of what the company is focused on,” she added.
Armed with that piece of data uncovered by combing through thousands of pages of research, Ripka found a potential answer to a G-protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) associated with Rett syndrome — one of Lucy’s initial targets — that had a safety problem.
“This GPCR data has been out for 40 years. No one’s solved this problem. We got the idea of how to solve the problem from the literature. We had an insight, and the insight was ours at Lucy,” Ripka said.
Today, Lucy’s approach to drug discovery is to be technology agnostic so it can tap into the best modalities available.
“The approach we’re taking is a little different,” she said. “We’re not putting our bets on any one technology. That is innovation in my mind. Invention is the technology. Lucy is interested in getting innovations to patients. And that might be technology A. It might be technology B. It might come from invention A or invention B. We don’t want to be picky, because ultimately, we want to solve the problem no matter what tool we need to use.”
In this episode of the Woman of the Week podcast, Ripka discusses lessons learned as a first-time CEO, why it’s important to not shy away from the “killer experiment,” and how giant Post-Its could be the key to organizational innovation.
Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive. In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Amy Ripka, CEO and founder, Lucy Therapeutics.
Taren: Amy, welcome to our Woman of the Week podcast program.
Amy: I’m really excited to be here. Thanks so much for the invitation to come speak with you.
Taren: I’m excited to dig in. First of all, I love that Lucy Therapeutics is a private female-founded biotech company. Hurrah for you all. Tell me what led you to founding the company just about five years ago?
Amy: That’s a great question. Every founder story is different. I think mine is no exception to being different. Really the initiating impulse was just that we were really, I thought, missing a huge opportunity to target some of these complex diseases. I’ve worked in drug discovery for almost 24 years now and it seems like there are trends. There are certain things that gain traction in the industry. Their biases and dogma. And one of the things that had been really absent for many diseases was a focus on how mitochondria might be involved in those diseases and how mitochondria might actually be a major driver, though overlooked, as important as a lot of the genetic connections that people talk about. You hear about gene therapy or genetically validated models, but you haven’t heard a lot about mitochondria.
So that was really the impetus was to dig in a little deeper into that science and try to see. Can we come up with some of the major breakthroughs that we’ve seen in areas like cancer or heart attacks where we have drugs that treat a wide variety of patients? Not necessarily a narrow genetic subset. Is that possible for complex diseases of the brain like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or even orphan diseases like Rett syndrome. And we are focused on two of those, Parkinson’s and Rett. So that was really the impetus.
Taren: Amazing, and mitochondria comes in later when we talk about the name of the company. But how’s the journey been for you so far? Anything you would have done differently?
Amy: They say hindsight is 20/20. But I think my career has probably been an exercise in what not to do. Many points in my career, people have said, oh, terrible decision. You’re leaving big pharma too early. You can’t possibly be consulting this young in your career. You shouldn’t go to a contract research organization. But what I have actually found is I don’t think I would have done anything differently. In the moment, you don’t know. I mean, life is full of change and you’re not always sure whether that change is going to be productive or scary or a misstep or a step forward. And for me, I think I’ve tried to embrace all these changes as ways to empower my learning and to increase my ability to understand all aspects of drug discovery. So, working at big pharma, working at biotech, working at different contract research organizations, taking a year and a half off after that, reading about 3,000 papers on mitochondrial biology and letting myself go down productive and unproductive pathways.
For me, I don’t think I would have changed anything. That really led me to an interesting place where I kind of understood what big pharma, how they approach drug discovery. I saw what a lot of biotechs were doing by working in a CRO. So got really a sense of what was in vogue or what was being funded versus maybe some really unmet needs or areas that should be looked into. And even working at the CROs, I think understanding how in this very kind of networked world you have to engage both external and internal resources effectively especially as funding goes up and down as we’re in a kind of difficult financing situation right now, the industry is. So, I think it’s easy in hindsight to say, oh, I could have done this or that differently. But all these experiences really put me in a place I think to be able from an organizational and idea formation and just a kind of technical confidence area to be able to address the formation of a company in this difficult area of CNS in a successful way.
Taren: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much. As a founder, has there been anything that has been a real aha moment for you? Like wow, this was amazing, or this has been really challenging. Being a founder, you have to wear a lot of hats.
Amy: That’s a great question too. As a founder, you’re constantly managing these different streams. You have business streams, financial streams, scientific streams, organizational streams, and sometimes they’re not totally aligned. You can have an interest in investors in areas that really aren’t coincident with your science. You can be hiring people who have certain expertise but maybe not all the expertise you need. You have limited funds. I think it’s very challenging to figure out at each stage, right? When you’re a seed stage, you’re trying to get that initial funding. What exactly do you need accomplished to get to the next stage? And it’s funny because I think different people have different perspectives. People that come from big pharma have one idea of what needs to be accomplished. I think people who are in different industries even outside biotech might build the company a little bit differently.
But I think as Dostoevsky said, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. Whereas all happy families are the same.” I think as a start-up, that’s a little bit what it’s like. You have to figure out okay, what are my particular challenges? And how are they different maybe than how someone did it before? Because one thing I think that is absolutely true in a start-up is, you’re going to hear a lot of no. I certainly have spoken about this before in other venues, but you really have to have a tough skin. You just have to realize that some of the most profound ideas that have actually made it out into the world whether it’s evolution or the transistor or the iPhone, a lot of these were – there was no guarantee this was going to happen. And many people really pooh-poohed these ideas when they first came out. And you just have to persevere. If you want something to succeed, you just have to keep hammering at the data, hammering at the biases, hammering at the entrenched ideas that may be out there in the world.
And if you keep doing that, I think you stand a good chance of being successful if your data turns out to be correct. And so, that’s the journey that we’re on especially at Lucy Therapeutics looking at mitochondria, looking at how it applies to complex diseases. Initially, central nervous system diseases. Looking at both orphan and diseases that affect a much wider range of patients like Parkinson’s and hopefully eventually Alzheimer’s.
Taren: It’s an amazing story. Thank you so much. You’re right, you have to be resilient. You have to be tough skinned because it’s not for the faint of heart doing what you’re doing. So, let’s talk about the science. What piqued your interest in mitochondria? Why that?
Amy: Well, it’s interesting. Every cell has mitochondria.
Taren: Sorry, I know you read 3,000 papers but still.
Amy: Well, that certainly piqued my interest. That’s for sure. But I think I had worked on many, many projects that had a genetic focus. There was a genetic risk factor that patients had that connected to the disease. A lot of work had been done with animal models that had looked at genetic connections or genetic knockouts and trying to ascertain how taking a gene out affected potentially the disease of interest. But DNA is not the only thing in your cells, mitochondria. In fact, there are multiple mitochondria in every cell. And there has just been a real lack until I would say recently interest has really – there’s been an uptake. But in a large part, mitochondria has been ignored for decades even though it’s more present in your cell than DNA. I mean your cells also have other components like RNA, tRNA. But mitochondria is a metabolic driver.
Most people know it as the powerhouse of the cell generating a lot of the energy for the cell. But it does more than that. It actually acts as a central integrator of multiple signaling systems that come from all different aspects of your cell from receptors, from enzymes. Mitochondria is involved in a direct connection back to your DNA and the nucleus in regulating epigenetics and regulating how genes are even transcribed. Turns out that metabolics can control what genes are turned on or what genes are turned off. So, this complex relationship to me is especially important and in diseases that involve certain organs like the brain, the heart, and muscular diseases. These have an outsized importance in regard to mitochondrial function because these organs that are affected by these diseases, these organs are highly reliant on mitochondria.
So, when you think of a lot of the diseases that we don’t have good treatments for, many CNS, even some cardiovascular, it maybe makes sense that we were not necessarily looking in the right area. So, the more I looked into mitochondrial function, I also realized that another blockade was simply that many people had studied mitochondrial function but in different therapeutic areas. And as much as I think we like to say that we’re very diverse and that at companies we’re cross functional, to some degree we are but in a lot of cases we’re not. An expert in neuroscience or cardiovascular disease maybe knows very little about kidney disease or a skeletomuscular disease and yet there are a lot of papers out there where if you could actually integrate that data together, you could come up with new ideas. And so, that’s really what we wanted to do and are continuing to do at Lucy Therapeutics.
And that approach led to our first two targets where we were able to synthesize data that was out there in large part for the first two targets and synthesize it together in a new way. And I think this really maybe gets to another point that I love to discuss which is the idea of how invention can or doesn’t drive innovation. And you may say, what does that mean? And for me, it’s this idea that a lot of companies are founded around a foundational technology. You have CRISPR or in the old days you had high-throughput screening or molecular modeling, gene therapy, AI, and these are amazing new technologies that have a lot of promise. But they can’t do everything. And I think what we find happening over and over – maybe I’ve just been in industry too long.
Amy: But what we find happening over and over is these technologies promised the world and then they eventually settle into a limited applicability which is still great, right? I mean, they’re still opening up new avenues. But they can’t be applied to everything. And so, the approach we’re taking is a little different. We’re not putting our bets on any one technology. We’re saying we’re utilizing a lot of these technologies that already exist or are currently being created in a new way to tackle problems that we don’t have answers to. So that is innovation in my mind. Invention is the technology. And what Lucy is interested in is getting innovations to patients. And that might be technology A that we need to use. It might be technology B. It might come from invention A or invention B, and we don’t want to be picky because ultimately, we want to solve the problem no matter what tool we need to use.
Taren: It’s such a great story and it really does illustrate the difference between the two of invention versus innovation. And I am so drawn in by the fact that you are as you said, synthesizing all these different pieces together. You’re creating a new tapestry without any boundaries because you don’t have any preconceived notions going in. Is that a fair assessment?
Amy: I think that is a fair assessment. And I think this is something that I’m really hoping that the industry can get its head around a little better. I think right now we often look for markers about what to fund or what’s going to succeed. That’s not always based on the data. It’s often based on where the data comes from like whose lab is it from or what awards has this person gotten. We use these as surrogate markers to the quality of the idea. And I think at Lucy, what we’re trying to do is turn that on its head. And so, part of our tapestry is also for instance, taking the idea that if 10 different researchers using 10 different experiments are pointing to one answer in different ways, that that is more important and more likely to be what we would consider a seminal kind of aha that we should pay attention to than if let’s say just one or two labs even if they’re well-known publish extensively on finding X or finding Y.
And again, that sounds maybe simplistic, but you would be shocked at how often that is really applied. And I think we have certainly found at Lucy ideas – I mean, our first two targets, F-ATPase for Parkinson’s and we have an undisclosed GPCR for Rett syndrome. Even after we started working on these, data started coming out continuing to point even harder towards the diseases we had picked for these targets. So again, I think the tapestry we’re trying to create is really trying to take away these barriers. It’s to go back to the fundamental data that’s already out there. And then on the flipside, also to make sure that in a given field or in a given data set, that the more we read and the more we get a handle on the experimental techniques, are these the right techniques, because on the flipside, there’s also a lot in the literature that I think maybe people take at face value that they shouldn’t.
I mean, you’ve probably heard there have been a number of papers that have come out, especially in the cancer field, showing that many of the primary targets that had been looked at by a number of biotechs and pharma. Those initial results actually couldn’t be repeated which is unfortunate. But I think again, it goes to this idea that we have to be very mindful of the details of what’s being published in the literature. How we interpret that. But I think there’s still a lot to learn and I think using the new technologies, not reinventing the wheel, making sure we really do understand the literature, has allowed us – for instance, as a very concrete example, the GPCR we’re looking at for Rett syndrome had a safety problem. Well-known in literature.
This GPCR has been out there for 40 years. No one’s solved this problem. We got the idea of how to solve the problem from the literature. So, it was out there. We had an insight, and the insight was ours at Lucy. But it was out there. So sometimes things are hiding in plain sight. One of the things I get as the founder is, well, why can’t someone else do what you’re doing? And my attitude is, well, they could have but they didn’t. And so, you never know.
Taren: I love that because that happened a lot during those investor meetings I would imagine that conversation occurs. There is a lot to unpack there, and I would say yes to the very beginning when you said a lot of funding goes to those with the name recognition or what have you. Are you finding your story to resonate with investors or is it a struggle for you?
Amy: I think it does resonate and it’s a struggle altogether. I think a lot of times in these podcasts, everyone wants to act like everything’s great and it’s amazing. I have no struggles or my struggles I’ve overcome. Of course, that’s a great message and we want to – I certainly want to let people know that fortitude is going to pay off hopefully in success. You just got to keep at it. So that’s I think the first thing to know. I mean, the second thing to note is repetition, repetition, repetition. In real estate they say, you only need to know three things, location, location, location. And I think with investors or really with any new topic, repetition, repetition, repetition. The more people hear your idea, the more they can get comfortable with it even if it’s new. When Darwin first talked about evolution – I think many new technologies are first talked about people, well they’re not familiar with them, and we don’t like what’s not familiar.
So, I think one of the key things with investors is just continuing to communicate with them, getting your idea out there. And even if it meets with initial resistance, as you get more data, oh, well look, we now have this data and we now have this data. And we’ve now shown that concern X or Y or Z is less of a concern. And I think you get a lot of credibility, right? I mean, ultimately, the drug is only going to be effective if it really works. So, it’s premised on basic scientific data, right? No matter how well you sell something, ultimately, the human body will tell you whether it’s going to work or not. And so, I think it’s really important that you’re patient. You can’t be too patient because all start-ups need money and need to progress. But also that you spend your money wisely. We’ve spent a lot of time at Lucy trying to do the killer experiments. We’ve been very capitally efficient.
A lot of times people shy away from doing the killer experiment because they don’t want to kill it. And so, I think it’s important. And I’ve been in the drug discovery business – the industry side of it for over 20 years and you really need to do those killer experiments even when you don’t want to do them. You’ve got to say, all right, this is really going to show whether we can progress this project because if you can’t, maybe there’s another avenue where maybe you’ll find something out or maybe you have another idea. And so, we’ve been I think very fortunate that – and I think also, not just fortunate but we’ve worked very hard to make sure that we had a very concrete plan of what we needed to accomplish. We’ve raised I would say the right amount of money to be incredibly capitally efficient and that’s really helped us not only get a lot done but also be I think a good company for investors to look at because we have shown and demonstrated the ability to get to those key milestones without spending a lot of money which is important both for speed and for attracting investment.
Taren: Well, congratulations. It sounds like you’ve done an incredible amount of work in the last five years. And to already have two targets identified in that short amount of time, raise the capital, you have to be efficient and so smart to have those killer experiments because you’re right. I mean, why pussyfoot around on the outskirts if what you need to get to is that one thing and do it or don’t do it, right?
Taren: Really smart.
Taren: Incredible. Obviously, we’ll talk about Lucy. And Lucy is that 3.2-million-year-old fossil and you have said, it’s known as one of the mothers of humankind. So, talk to me about Lucy and why Lucy.
Amy: I love telling this part of the story. Probably one of my favorite things to comment on. I really wanted the company to have a name that was meaningful both to what we were doing, to the spirit that there are not a lot of female CEOs or female heavy management teams out there. And so, I did a lot of thinking about how can we connect what we’re doing to the name of the company. And so, it turns out that all your mitochondrial DNA is inherited from your mother, which is very interesting which has all kinds of interesting biological consequences. But when I realized that and I realized that Lucy, Australopithecus, this hominid that you just mentioned, was kind of considered the mother of humankind, I’m like, wouldn’t that be a great name for the company. So, it’s also a more feminine name but the real impetus was that it was connected to mitochondria and that really was at the heart of what the company is focused on. So that’s where the name came from.
Taren: Very clever, very, very clever. So, tell me about building out an all-female founded company, purposeful, coincidental.
Amy: So, I am the sole founder which is already I think somewhat unusual. That was a challenge in and of itself, I think. If I were to go back and do it, I probably would drag some people. That might be the one thing I would change. I might drag some people along with me because it’s a very heavy burden to lift by yourself. So, building out the management team from being a sole founder is also a challenge because I think when you found a company together with a larger number of founders, people want to hear about the founding team. So, I had to put a management to build a company after really the foundation was laid from that initial kind of founder perspective. I think you just need to make people feel – I mean, one of the things that’s important is to make people truly feel engaged.
I might be going out in a little bit of limb here, but I’ve worked at a lot of biotechs. I’ve worked in pharma and there’s a lot of lip service paid to everybody’s important. But when we look at how people are compensated, it’s a very clear hierarchy. Not just from the salary perspective and the equity perspective, but even from the bonus perspective. And all of this wildly increases not just income equality but I think it does make a statement on the differential between, “how valuable the CEO is versus maybe more essential but junior members of the team.” I mean, Lucy could not do what we do without cell culture. We have a wonderful woman, Vera, who does a lot of our cell culture who’s just amazing. That’s seminal. Lucy literally would not exist. And so, building these teams, I took this to heart, and this was I think a little bit of a danger point for me because I wanted to do something fundamentally different with the structure of the company.
And being a first time CEO, working in a challenging area like CNS, working in a challenging area like mitochondria, I had one investor say, Amy, why do you pick all the most challenging things at once? But I think that’s part of my ethos. And so, go big or go home. So, one of the things we’ve done at Lucy is we’ve instituted an unusual bonus program that actually tries to reward people equally. So, I won’t go into all the specifics but the idea is basically, I as the CEO get the same bonus as a research associate. Not percentage but actually dollar amount. We have different ways that we calculate that but it’s really trying to say, if you do it that way, despite the salary difference, we’re not increasing that salary difference if a bonus is paid out. We keep it the same. So, we’re trying to address income inequality. I’m trying to truly show the junior folks that they are important.
Now, what does this mean? This means my bonus is smaller and some of the other senior team member’s bonuses are smaller. It’s been a challenge to message that. My attitude is there are going to be people that that resonates with and those are the people that we want at Lucy and for other people. Not every company is for everybody. So, they’ll be people that maybe that resonate less with and there will be other opportunities. So, I think part of hiring the team and trying to get the team to move together for me is also just being really transparent. I have worked at many companies where the CEO has kept a lot of information private that legally did not necessarily have to remain private. And I understand there are many reasons for doing that. You don’t want to scare people. Sometimes people don’t really want to know how the sausage is made. Sometimes people have different levels of comfort with kind of detailed information.
But I try to take maybe a more tailored approach like there are definitely – I have town halls regularly where I let people ask a lot of questions, but I remember people asking at town halls at other companies I’ve been at and they didn’t always get answers. It’s a push-pull. There’s a trust but I feel like these people, they want to be able to do their job and feel comfortable and feel like they have not just the stake in what we’re doing but they really understand. Is this a scientific decision or a business decision or how is the current financial environment affecting what we’re doing or how we’re doing it? These people aren’t dumb. I don’t know why in general; we hide or try to keep that information so tightly held. I’ll be honest, I have found that at least in the early stages, things can be crazy. Biotech is constantly changing when you’re a start-up. Transparency really seems to go a long way. I think that this is a decision I’ve made. Not everybody would probably make the same decision, but I think it’s been working out quite well. At least from the engagement we’re seeing, we feel like people are feeling very engaged.
Taren: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I didn’t mean to infer that you weren’t the founder, so I apologize. I phrased my question incorrectly there.
Amy: No, no, that’s fine.
Taren: You’ve been quoted as saying that the company’s scientific journey is based on relentless curiosity and that’s quite evident. You already noted how many thousands of papers you’ve read. But tell me about this. I will also preface this by saying that through all the course of all the interviews I’ve done, curiosity is one of the hallmarks of a great leader. So, tell me about this relentless pursuit of curiosity?
Amy: I love that phrase. I think curiosity is something that’s just so important in life. If you don’t understand – I mean, from everything as basic as when we deal with folks in China or India that come from a very different culture, we can’t put our own Western viewpoint on that. Why is that? Why is their culture different? Why is our culture different? A lot of these why questions, I think. It’s not just scientific curiosity. I agree with you. I think curiosity about how the world works, about how people work, about how science works, about how do we get science done in constrained environments when you have a limited number of dollars? How do you incentivize people? Are people motivated by needs or emotions or behaviors? A lot of times, I find people are interested in – let’s say there are narrow areas of interest that they really like and then there are other things they’re like, I don’t want to deal with that or I’m going to have another function of my organization deal with that.
And so, I think relentless is just chasing down all those aspects of curiosity, right? The financial, the business, the organizational, the scientific, the human and I think that’s really what that’s meant to be. I mean, everybody at the company that really is a core value and kind of mission for us is that you want to uncover all these stones. Uncovering a stone in any of those areas is going to be helpful. It may not be helpful initially but learning something like that, something so fundamental about one of those areas is going to be helpful to the company and to the people at the company. I think that’s something relentlessly curious. I have picked up all these random pieces of knowledge by asking people about themselves, by asking them about how they do things. What have they learned? What was their path? What’s their thought on concept X or Y or Z?
And at the time, sometimes I go, wow, that’s really interesting. But there’s no immediate utilization for that in my world. So, I just kind of file it away in my mental file cabinet. And then what I’m amazed is often, years later, I’ll be reading something or talking to someone else and one of these little file cabinet mementos pops up again. And then maybe now there’s some connection. Curiosity in my mind is best directed in many directions. And so, you do have to kind of be relentless in filing this information and hunting it down and opening yourself up to beyond the dogma of whatever might seem very certain or short any given moment might not be. So that was the genesis of that.
Taren: I love that, and I’ll tell you, it’s a talent to be able to retrieve that information from that file cabinet.
Amy: Well, I’ll tell you a funny story. My partner Caroline laughs at this. I have these huge post-its that someday we probably should put up at the company once the information maybe isn’t as proprietary. When I started the company, I went to Staples and bought these 3 foot by 2 foot Post-its and I would put them up on the walls and I would put all the different information for the different targets or ideas that I had and sometimes they didn’t really go anywhere. But I found on a screen or even if you have multiple screens, you can’t really look at that much information all at once but with large post-its on a living room wall, you actually can look at quite a bit of information. So, I think that also helps with my recall.
Taren: It’s quite decorating tip there, Amy. I’ll tell you. That’s funny. Let’s talk about what initially drew you to the biotech life sciences industry initially. And then we’ll talk a little bit about your career journey, if you don’t mind. So obviously, you’re a very talented, very passionate person. Why the life sciences?
Amy: Well, I think I was destined to have some kind of role in life sciences. Both my parents were chemists. They both worked at DuPont. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. And I always swore I would never be a chemist. Never be a chemist. I always do well in chemistry. I became a violin performance major at Northwestern and then I ended up in chemistry. I went to University of Wisconsin Medicine, got a PhD and then from then on worked in industry as a medicinal chemist. I think I was always drawn – I really liked stories of – kind of origin stories, creative stories, how things work. I’ve always been intrigued. So, I think I’ve always had a scientific bent. And with my father in particular working at DuPont in the medical products division, I heard a lot about Teflon or nylon. How these were developed or some of the early work that they were doing with various cardiovascular other diseases.
And I was just fascinated by that. Fascinated that you could go into a lab and make some molecules and these molecules would get into your body and do something very specific hopefully with not a lot of side effects. But the fact that drugs work at all is truly, I think, just amazing once you understand what has to happen from the moment you take a pill and swallow it, to it getting from the site of action. So I think I’ve always been a child who as I said, I always liked to do things that people tell me not to do. And so, I love complex problems that just don’t have solutions. I think that’s one of my superpowers is looking at wildly different aspects of the world and trying to maybe take a complex solution from a different place and apply it. And the life sciences really seem to offer that opportunity. I mean, just one quick example as a connection that I love.
In ecology, there’s a concept called trophic cascade and this is this idea that you have certain kind of keystone predators or prey that are really central to the balance of an ecosystem. And so, you remove them and you have all kinds of effects. Not just at their level but at many different levels. And I see drug discovery as a very similar problem. You try to interact with one gene or one protein and you’re trying to have this effect on this incredibly complex organism. So how is that going to work? So I think my wide-ranging interest kind of led me to life science because it seemed like a great place to apply this problem solving and be able to use, I think in an effective fun way a lot of these learnings in fields that people would say are completely unrelated but amazingly, I think there’s a lot to learn and apply maybe in really new ways to how we do drug discovery and life science.
Taren: I love that. That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that. So you’re a virtuoso at chemistry, is that what I’m hearing? Between the violin and your studies. Your chemical proficiency.
Amy: I don’t know about that but I was fortunate enough to work with a man that’s now won the Nobel prize twice and I also worked with some amazing folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was fortunate to have that training and fortunate to work with some wonderful medicinal chemists through the American Chemical Society and then at the division of medicinal chemistry there in particular.
Taren: Well, go Badgers. We started off by talking about your various experiences through big pharma, biotech, CROs. You’ve had a very prolific career. Aside from your wow moment, are there any moments that stand out for you?
Amy: There have been a lot of learning moments. I think the moments that stand out most for me relate to a statement that I think was attributed to Joshua Boger from Vertex. He said something like, I think biotech is 98 percent about people but I might be wrong. It might be 99 percent. One of the learnings is that, humans are really human and we are filled with biases and dreams and power struggles and the desire to make a difference and all kinds of different desires, emotions, behaviors. And I think the thing – weirdly, out of all the things I’ve done is that that is probably often the least understood by most people. Self-knowledge about how can I really impact an organization whether it’s scientifically or from a leadership perspective in a way that other people can hear me. Not just in the way I want to do it but in a way that’s going to actually garner momentum.
To me, I’ve learned that lesson over and over. And I think there are a lot of people frankly who never really learn that lesson and I’m continuing to learn it. I think it’s really amazing how much that drives what happens in the world. Even science, right? I mean, we think of science as kind of being above that, but it’s not. There are theories in science that have gotten traction and momentum. Maybe it starts to look like that’s not a fruitful path. People double down because – well, I built my career around this. Again, it’s an emotional or it’s a very human reaction to that. And I think just being very mindful of that. My coach often says, everybody has an avatar of you. When they look at you, they’re really seeing this avatar. This is how they view you. And in order for you to function in the world, whether it’s expressing your scientific ideas, getting people to follow you, building a company, whatever it is, you have to manage those avatars.
And so, while this isn’t some big science kind of related aha moment. I think this is an aha moment that is really, really important. If people take nothing away from this podcast, I would love it if when you think about your influence on the world, whether you’re a man, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re early in your career or late in your career, this is something that is essential and the better we can all learn to do this, the better functioning companies will have. The more treatments we’ll bring to patients. This is a key, key learning, I think that’s just not taught. There’s no class you can take in this. This is something that I think you either kind of bump into on your own or if you’re lucky maybe you have mentors that help you with this. But I think it’s essential and key for anyone in this industry.
Taren: What a great insight. Thank you so much. Over the course of your career, have you had any mentors who have provided you with some professional career advice or guidance?
Amy: I’ve had many. Probably too many to count. I’ve had a lot of informal mentors. I love going to people and asking them their opinion on things and everybody loves to give you their opinion. So I’ve gotten a lot of opinions and I think what I found really helpful is to take those opinions in context with where that person is coming from and then look at where I’m coming from and try to apply the lesson or the idea or concept that they maybe talked about in conjunction with their own journey in my journey. One person who recently was super helpful with Lucy Therapeutics was Jennifer Petter. She’s the founder of Arrakis Therapeutics. And she gave me some great advice which was, when you go and talk to someone, there’s a question you have or a problem you’re trying to solve, ask them for three other people that you should talk to. And then you call those people up and then you have conversations with them. And then you should ask them for three other people that you should talk to. Maybe the conversation’s now gone in a different direction and you have a new question. But I find that’s a wonderful way to increase your network.
It’s a wonderful way to find people who can offer insights that you might not have bumped into otherwise. And it’s just essential that the more opinions you can get, you can help yourself kind of coalesce around what’s right for you because what you also have to realize is, what’s right for someone else may not actually be right for you depending on your particular journey. So I always caution people, I think mentors – the best mentors, and I think Jennifer has been great with me. The best mentors are very cognizant of the fact of this is my experience and I’m going to tell you my experience but you need to kind of integrate how much that either does or doesn’t resonate with your particular environment. And I find great mentors are wonderful at doing that. They seem to be able to go back and forth between their own stories, listening to you and adjusting to what you’re telling them. So I would say for anybody out there looking for a mentor, it’s great when someone will just give you their experience but I think the extra superpower going to 11 on the spinal tap scale of mentorship involves kind of this ability to really listen to the person with the question and to try and put themselves in their shoes and to give it kind of prospective not just retrospective advice.
Taren: That’s great insight there and I love that piece of advice – Call somebody and ask them for three more people. It’s that old rep commercial, right?
Taren: Those of us of a certain age will remember that. That’s great advice. Over the years, you’ve built a lot of high performing teams. Can you name one or two of the best pieces – two of the pieces to your success?
Amy: That’s tough. I find my successes have probably been more a lot of little tiny things that have added up to something that looks like success. For me, it’s not just been – I’m not trying to not answer the question but I think for some people they might have some breakthrough moment or some kind of big event. I think when it comes to building teams or being successful, a lot of it is listening. A lot of it is adjusting. It’s all the not sexy stuff. It sounds like World War I trench warfare. You’re listening. You’re adjusting. You’re making changes. You’re on the 150th version of your non-confidential deck. Sometimes you listen to someone and then you say, after a couple of years, you’re like, wow, I’m not sure that was great advice. And so, then pivoting.
I think a lot of times – I do think our society makes it difficult. Our society makes it difficult to double down or sorry… our society makes it easy to kind of double down on your opinion. This is my opinion and this is going to be my opinion forever. And I think in building teams, there will be things that work in one environment and maybe that’s successful. But then you try to apply those same metrics in a different environment and it’s horribly unsuccessful.
I mean, a great example is the way teams function in big pharma and the way big pharma is set-up is very different than the way teams need to function in a start-up. So if you take someone who is like, well, this is how I work my teams in big pharma. And you put them in a start-up, may not work so well. And again, I think adaptability is key but not in that Pollyanna sense. It’s really hard to – when your experience is one way, if your experience is predominantly in let’s say one sector of the industry or one therapeutic area, to really take a step back and say, okay, what is fundamentally different about this new situation I’m in? How do I really get the best out of this which might be diametrically opposite to everything I’ve done before. So I think that level of sophistication and thinking is hard and it’s tiring.
And sometimes it doesn’t always work. But I think to really be – the most successful people I know frankly, are the ones who are able to make these kinds of transitions relatively gracefully. I think it’s not really one or two things because every situation is different. I think I would be remiss if I just try to boil it down to one or two things but curiosity, patience, listening and the ability to really pivot from something you were very sure about to something else that you’re now equally sure about because it’s a different situation.
Taren: Absolutely and that requires this certain amount of maturity too to be able to recognize maybe that wasn’t – that maybe was right then but it’s not right for now. So you have to kind of roll with the tide too a little bit. Amy, this has been a fascinating conversation and I could talk to you for another. However, our time is sadly coming to an end. So I’m going to end as we always do with our wow moment. So can you identify a wow moment that either changed your trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you?
Amy: Yeah. I think when I left – for me, it really was, I had been in big pharma. I had been in biotech. I had been working at a variety of contract research organizations. I’ve seen a lot of science. I had seen a lot of failures. And I had gotten to the point where I felt there was this whole body of biology and work that was just not happening. And I had tried at certain companies I had been at it just wasn’t necessarily never a good fit. Some of the ideas I had either weren’t on point for that company or we’re in a different therapeutic area or not a fit. And so, for me, a big moment in my life that really did change the trajectory of my life was leaving the CRO and having no job for a year and a half, where I just read papers and thought and gave myself permission and the time to think about what if. What if we could find a new way to target mitochondria. I mean, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to do that. I mean, a lot of people can’t do that.
But I do think our society in general were so metric-driven. There are metrics. You need to show progress. And I could spend weeks thinking about something that turned out to be a dead-end. But that wasn’t useless time. People often say, you need to spend 20 percent of your time thinking. Well, the problem is, it’s usually not that. It’s 100 percent. If you really get derailed, you can spend a whole day doing something many people might say is not productive like staring out the window or thinking or reading a paper and then reading the four papers that paper references and then going back and then looking up something else. But I really believe that is how we’re going to make these big steps forward. So that was really the aha moment was, we have to give ourselves permission. Companies, myself, I mean, I gave myself permission to do this and that’s where Lucy came from. And now my life is in a completely different place.
I mean, I never imagined I would be CEO of a company. I wasn’t one of these women that grew up getting higher and higher titles in pharma working at it in the executive suite and then moving out. Mine was very chaotic. I worked in all these different areas. I worked at wildly different company phenotypes. And then basically quit my job and started a company. I want to get it out there that for me, my aha moment was kind of wow, I want to do this. I’m going to try to do this. Worst thing that happens, it doesn’t work but giving myself the permission to say, I’m getting older. I have all these ideas. I really want to see if I can bring these ideas to fruition and garner people around me who are equally as excited and want to build something together that we can push over the goal line. This is probably something I shouldn’t say but I truly am not motivated by power and fame. I’m just not.
Maybe I’ve been a violinist and a chemist too long where most of our lives are spent in dark corners practicing or reading. So there isn’t that kind of limelight focus. And I think when you can be very mindful and for me, this is another aha moment. Very mindful of why am I doing this? I know people that have Parkinson’s. I know people that have Rett syndrome. It’s great and if a drug is successful, everyone’s going to make a lot of money. But ultimately, we want to get that drug to patients and trying to navigate the whole complex system that is built to do that or to prevent you from doing that or both. It’s tough. And so you have to be mindful of trying to appease stakeholders with opposite needs. And I think that was another aha moment in the company. But really, the central thing was, I want to give myself permission to try to do something that I don’t – I’m not sure I can do but could change the world if we can make it happen. That’s where Lucy came from. So now, we’re super excited that it’s still moving forward.
Taren: I love that and what if, right? That is fantastic. I love that you used that, to give yourself permission because I don’t think most of us do that. So kudos to you and I want to wish you great success with Lucy. I love your story. I love your journey and we’ll be watching to see what happens. Go get them. Thank you so much, Amy.
Amy: Thank you, Taren. It was so lovely to be here today and thanks again for the opportunity to speak with you.
Taren: My absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.