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Beatrice McQueen is no stranger to scrappy startups with a worthwhile mission. As an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz she thought she had found the perfect fellowship program: diving for sea sponges in Fiji. This was an assignment that required knowledge of both chemistry and scuba diving and McQueen checked both those boxes. “After I was awarded the fellowship, there was an orientation day and that’s when I found out that I wasn’t just doing chemistry … on the dive boat, I would be the student responsible for setting up a lab,” McQueen said. “There is obviously no lab space. They carved out one in the head, which in marine speak is a toilet on the boat.”
So, she got to work and set up an organic chemistry lab to extract chemicals from the sponges that would eventually be evaluated by the program’s underwriters — a pharma company and the university — for anti-cancer properties. It was a learning experience that taught her agility, ingenuity and creativity.
“This was my first experience realizing there’s a way to do something as long as there’s a will,” she said.
Armed with a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacokinetics and drug metabolism from the University of California, McQueen could have stayed in academia, but her Fiji experience and the “idea of being able to bring a product that can really benefit patients to the finish line” is what led her to join the pharma industry.
After successful roles at a leading CRO, Big Pharma companies and through her own consultancy, she was ready to jump back into the deep end of guiding a startup and joined Simcha Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biotechnology company focused on developing immunotherapies for cancer based on cytokines, at its inception in 2018. As chief operating officer, McQueen’s role is wide ranging, and she’s excited by the opportunity to create something new and watch it grow. The company’s lead compound, ST-067, is the first in a new class of IL-18-based immunotherapies being developed by the company.
“This is fun; it’s like cooking or any kind of creation, it’s about creating something from scratch and seeing how it takes form and becomes mature,” she said. “It’s about bringing a concept to reality — finding a candidate and developing that candidate so that it can go through regulatory milestones and at the end, bringing it to patients. Our lead product right now is in (a) phase 1 dose escalation phase. The next step is to complete the dose escalation program and go to dose expansion. And with that, we hope to be able to see strong signals that will lead us going into our pivotal registrational study.”
In this episode of our Woman of the Week series, McQueen talks about Simcha’s revolutionary technology, why it’s important to be prepared for leadership opportunities before they appear and how her international background has given her a unique perspective on team building and leadership.
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 Beatrice McQueen, chief operating officer, Simcha Therapeutics.
Taren: Dr. McQueen, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Beatrice: Well, thank you. I’m very delighted to be speaking with you.
Taren: Beatrice, your team shared with me a fascinating story about how you entered into the world of science. Would you kindly share with our audience, how a fellowship collecting sponges from the deep seas of Fiji led to setting up an organic chemistry lab in one of the toilets on the research boat? I can’t even imagine.
Beatrice: I think that’s a great experience when I was a young scientist in college and it was all about being enthusiastic and saying yes to new situation and challenges and be creative and adaptive at the time.
I was a certified scuba diver as a teenager, and I’ve always done deep-sea diving, looking at specimens and things like that, even back in high school. But when I was an undergraduate sophomore, there was a fellowship program from UC Santa Cruz and it requires you to be a chemist, a chemistry student and also know how to scuba dive. And all it describes was that you would be doing scuba diving collecting sea sponges from Fiji and doing some chemistry. So that sounds great. That sounds so fun, and of course, I applied.
After I was awarded the fellowship, there was an orientation day and that’s when I found out that I wasn’t just doing chemistry; I also have to – there was no setup, we will be on a dive boat and I would be the student responsible for setting up a lab. There is obviously no lab space. There is only one, they carve out one head in the marine speak, which is a toilet on the boat, and I will have to set up an organic chemistry lab in order to extract chemicals right away.
The whole idea was that you will collect the sea sponges from the sea fresh and you extract the chemicals from it immediately. That way you can transport these extracts back to the laboratory, back to the US later on. And when I got to the boat in Fiji there was a box of clamps and stands and glasswares and things like that, and my job was to figure it out. Obviously, it has to be done, there’s really no other way. I used everything I knew from being chem student and set up something up like an O-chem lab, so that you can actually carry out organics extractions and make sure it’s safe and actually functional. It all worked out great and we accomplished the project.
I think that really was my first experience realizing how there’s a way to do something as long as there’s a will. And I wasn’t just good as a chemistry student, but also, being able to be creative and adaptive and make things work and deliver at the end. And so, that was my kind of first brush with chemistry and the industry.
Taren: Well, talk about also some key leadership like lessons early on, talk about you said creative and adaptive and making it work. That was a make it work moment – wow. I can’t even imagine what those days were like. Stories you could probably tell and we won’t ask you to do that here and reveal all those secrets, but thank you for giving us a glimpse into that piece of your journey. You have a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacokinetics and drug metabolism from the University of California. You could have stayed in academia, but what led you to join the industry?
Beatrice: I think the idea of being able to bring a product that can really benefit patients to the finish line is really what let me join the industry. So let’s go back to that story in Fiji.
The research program was run by a professor at UC Santa Cruz. The program was, however, sponsored by a drug company and there was a research collaboration between the university and the drug company. The extract set we brought back to the laboratory and do further work on would mean we would identify new compounds that have anti-cancer properties. All those new chemicals that were discovered would be pursued by the drug sponsor for testing and for drug development.
So, here again, while there is great work being done in a university setting in order to really make it — bring it to patients at the end it requires the drug company to do the drug development. That was what really attracted me. And so, I have therefore chose to go into industry instead of research at the academic setting.
Taren: Excellent. Well thank you so much for sharing that. Talking about going into industry, you’ve been with Simcha since its inception in 2018. What’s the best part of being part of a start-up?
Beatrice: Yeah. It is exciting and it’s fun. And I would describe what the fun is. Fun is like it’s like you’re cooking or any kind of creation; it’s about creating something from scratch, from nothing and see how it takes form and becomes mature. And in this case, it’s bringing a concept into and actually, find a candidate and developed that candidate so that it can go through regulatory milestones and at the end, bring it to patients. All these value-adding steps just make it so exciting. And just seeing the end result at each stage is very, very gratifying. So I would say the most exciting part, the best part of being at a start-up is to create and make things grow.
Taren: In terms of being a part of a start-up, you also have to wear a lot of hats and as such, your role has a wide range of responsibilities. What’s the most interesting part of your job?
Beatrice: Yeah, being the glue. That’s what I feel and that’s what everybody tells me as well. I am being the glue in the company to make everything fit together. There’s obviously many functions and a lot of different timelines and being able to make sure that the right pieces come together at the right time, so that we can deliver is my key role.
Taren: How do you orchestrate all of that? I mean, being the glue is hard. So how do you balance all those responsibilities?
Beatrice: A gray part of it is really prioritizing, really understanding, what is most important for the company in the short term and in the long term. There’s a lot of, I guess, as with everyday life as well, there’s always something that is urgent that needs to be done right away. And there’s something that’s really important that needs to be done because it’s important. And just really knowing that things that must happen now in order for it to happen in the future. And those of things that really create long term value for the customer, I mean for the investors, for the company, and for the patients they need to happen. And really, a lot of it is kind of like the 20-80 law rule. And 20 percent of the things that are done probably create 80 percent of value. So really find out what those are and do those first. There are oftentimes a lot of busy work, but got to do what’s the most important for the company at any given time.
Taren: Sure. When you’re dealing with that 20 percent that creates that 80 percent, at the same time, I would imagine there are some times when people are running down the halls with their hair on fire. How do you maintain equanimity under those kinds of pressures? Do you have some tricks that you use to stay calm and focused?
Beatrice: I think my trick is, if there are other people involved in the scenario you painted, I think it’s very important to be the one person in the company that could stay calm and be helpful. So I will stop what I’m doing to help the other person or a function or whatever the project might be and provide guidance. It’s really part of being a team and the other team members know that somebody’s always supporting them and have their backs. A lot of times things can always wait and so, especially for the long-term projects, I think, if its long term, it means it’s not today. While it’s important to keep an eye on them and make sure that those are being taken care of, perhaps, an extra hour of delay isn’t going to make a huge difference. So it’s really important to support your people and make sure that their projects are working as well.
Taren: Great. And it goes right back to what you said earlier about the priority, maintaining that focus on what are the most important priorities of the day and of the time. The company’s science is focused on cytokines as therapeutics and moving beyond what you all say is nature’s solution and designing them for enhance therapeutic capabilities. Can you share a bit about your lead candidate ST-067?
Beatrice: Yeah, for sure. Maybe we can talk just a little bit about what cytokines are and then talk about one cytokines in particularly, interleukin-18 or what we called IL-18, in its natural state does not provide a good solution to fight cancer. And therefore, why we develop ST-067 and why it’s so special.
Taren: Love it.
Beatrice: So let me start by saying that cytokines are hormone-like proteins that control nearly all aspects of immune function. The immune system is a very powerful resource in the fight against cancer because cytokines can in fact, activate very potent anti-cancer programs within a diverse range of immune cells. Now IL-18, this particular cytokine strongly stimulates activities of several innate immune cells and adaptive immune cells. And so, you would think that if these are anti-tumor immune cells, so if we could do that, you think that it should work. But as it turned out, when many years ago, when recombinant wild-type IL-18 was given to patients, it didn’t have any anti-tumor activities. And the reason is that, in nature the IL-18 not only binds to a receptor that stimulates all these anti-tumor activities, but it also binds to another protein that actually would block, that binds it and that proteins upregulated in the tumor microenvironment.
So because there are two receptors, one, it kind of takes the IL-18 out from doing its job. So when that was discovered, Simcha’s lead candidate, ST-067 was engineered. And it is an IL-18 that can bind to the IL-18 receptor, so that it can do its job and it does not bind to the other receptor and thereby, it can really function well as an anti-tumor agent. ST-067 is the first in a new class of IL-18-based immunotherapies and it’s the furthest along in this drug development stage.
Taren: That’s exciting. So tell me, obviously this is drug development and is a very long process. How do you keep the teams buoyed and keep them energized through this long cycle?
Beatrice: I think it’s very important to have milestone set up so that the team knows what’s the next thing they need to achieve, and it’s not just one at a time if we lay it out, lay out the road map, people like to see exactly where it leads to. But by having the incremental milestones in the development program, we can focus our energy in getting that step done. And then the next step and the next step. And I think that’s what has happened in Simcha, we’re every day working hard to achieve the next milestone and we celebrate the successes.
Taren: So tell me a little bit more to about, if you don’t mind, about what’s next steps for the product, for the lead candidate?
Beatrice: Our lead product right now is in phase 1 dose escalation phase. And so naturally, the next step is to complete the dose escalation program and going to dose expansion. And with that, we hope to be able to see strong signals that will lead us to go into our pivotal registrational study.
Taren: Excellent. And you have experience in this part of the area as well, don’t you, in terms of the development phase?
Beatrice: Yes, yes. My experience is a lot in the early drug development stage. So that would go through phase 1 and early phase 2.
Taren: Gotcha. And some of this experience you gained while at PPD as well as in big pharma and you also ran your own consultancy. So how have all of these experiences influenced your current C-suite role? We talked about how big your remit is in terms of your responsibilities.
Beatrice: Right, I think having been in the shoes of I should say, not in the shoes, but just being in the different environments allow me to know what’s important in those environments. Like what’s considered good, what’s considered valuable, what’s considered bad, what’s considered not so desirable through their lenses. So being at Simcha it allows me to set meaningful expectations for the company as to what we should achieve and how we should progress. So we know how it would be viewed by others.
Taren: Being in the C-suite, you are a role model to other women. How does this mantle responsibility feel to you?
Beatrice: I think I take this responsibility seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. I think that I consider other leaders and role models and observe their behaviors and so, I think that others will do the same. So every day I simply try to be the best version of myself and stay authentic to myself and hope that inspires others, men or women, to be the best version of themselves as well.
Taren: Excellent. Did you ever have a mentor coming up through the ranks?
Beatrice: I’ve had many mentors where I could go to and simply talk about development and just people who have more experience and like to provide insights in the career.
Taren: I was just going to ask you, is there anybody you can point to who’s had a significant influence on you or your career?
Beatrice: There have been various people who have spoken things that I felt were important and that I kind of took and made them my own. They’re numerous of things that I’ve incorporated from other people, but I didn’t think that I was just following them, but really try to kind of take the best out of what they’ve said and make it work for me.
Taren: Any examples. I was going to say, what are some of those examples? What is that some of that leadership advice?
Beatrice: One of them was always prepare yourself for opportunities before the opportunities come to you, because otherwise you’ll never be ready. That was one of them. Another is people always follow and work with people that they like and I think that’s very important. So I think about who I like to work with and why I like to work with them. And what I’ve discovered is, people who really care and really think about what you do and I think that you are really capable and perhaps have so much faith in you, think that you’re better than who you think you are or that you believe you can be, are the people that are most motivating.
So I take the same approach when I work with my team members, I always really think that they are capable, and otherwise we wouldn’t be working together and I encourage them. I think that really motivates people to stay. They know that you trust them. And that’s the one thing I think is very important.
Taren: Fantastic. Interestingly, I also understand you speak Chinese. How does this play into your journey? Was there a call from a professional standpoint or was it just a personal interest?
Beatrice: It was actually a very natural journey for me with maybe just a very slight twist. I was born in Hong Kong and Cantonese Chinese was actually spoken at home. But I didn’t know Mandarin Chinese. So Mandarin Chinese, of course, is kind of more the official language. So when I was a teenager, I asked my mother to hire me a tutor to teach me some Mandarin Chinese. And so, I was able to read and write and as an adult I would watch Mandarin TV and try to memorize phrases. So, I am comfortable speaking and writing Chinese, particularly if it’s a live conversation, and I think it is helpful, especially when I had a consultancy, I would go to China and be able to interact with people in China and feel very comfortable about that.
Taren: Having grown up there. How does that global perspective, it’s kind of shaped some of who you are and how you approach things? Can you share a little bit about that with us?
Beatrice: Yeah, yeah. So I lived in Hong Kong where it’s obviously very cosmopolitan and really knowing how there’s so many kinds of viewpoints. And then as a teenager, I moved to… I had a scholarship and went to Canada for two years. And it was really there where I met students from all over the world and after that, I came to the US. Just knowing that there’s so much about people that you don’t learn from first interacting with them is important, it takes time. And it allows me to work with people and really being able to see beyond the surface and give people opportunity and give myself opportunities to develop relationship with people. And I think relationship is really important in any kind of work. Because with relationship, it comes trust. With trust it comes really good work product.
Taren: Right, that’s fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. As we noted earlier, you’ve had a really successful career across a wide range of the life sciences from PPD to big pharma and again, back to your own consultancy and now it’s Simcha. I’m going to challenge you to identify a wow, moment that is either change the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you. What is that one thing?
Beatrice: I think being a Simcha executive, building the company has been my wow moment. As you said, I had my consultancy for a long time, and it was a really great experience and I loved being subject matter expertise, adding value to the various programs that I was contributing to. But when I began building Simcha and build out all the functions and infrastructures and bring all the knowledge together to bring our lead candidate into the clinic, it was really so much more exciting because I was able to bring together all the expertise from the people I work with and really bring them to bear. And there were really never-ending challenges and uncertainties that kept everyday exciting. And there were a lot of moments to celebrate successes and being able to work with people and again, creating again was something that I have found at Simcha. And so, I think this is where how I find out that building a company is really for me in my career so far, the most exciting thing. And I’m here to continue to do that.
Taren: It’s fun, isn’t it? It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a lot of fun too.
Beatrice: Yes, it is.
Taren: Awesome. Well, I want to thank you so much for sharing your journey. I love how you’ve gone from the sponges of Fiji to now building a company that’s going to have an impact, potential impact for thousands, hundreds of thousands of patients around the world. So congratulations to you, and I look forward just hearing what comes out next and continued great success with your lead candidate. Thank you for being part for our WoW podcast program.
Beatrice: Thank you, Taren. Again, it’s a delight to talk with you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week Podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.