Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Svetlana Lucas, Scribe Therapeutics

May 22, 2024
23:03 minutes

On this episode of Women @ RopesTalk hosted by IP transactions partner Megan Baca, IP transactions counsel Georgina Suzuki returns for another engaging conversation, this time with Svetlana Lucas, PhD, the chief business officer at Scribe Therapeutics, a biotech company that develops and engineers advanced CRISPR-based therapies for a wide range of diseases. Svetlana shares her journey in the biotech industry, the challenges and opportunities she has encountered, and her insights on the future of CRISPR technology. She also discusses the importance of relationships, diversity, and mentorship in the industry, and embracing the concept of “being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”


Megan Baca: Welcome and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by the Women’s Forum at Ropes & Gray. I’m Megan Baca, a partner at Ropes with a practice focusing on intellectual property, life sciences licensing and collaborations, and other digital health transactions. I’m also co-head of the firm’s digital health initiative and based in Silicon Valley. On this episode, I’m once again joined by my colleague Georgina Suzuki, who’s also based in Silicon Valley. Georgina previously did an episode of Women @ RopesTalk with Christina Carlson from HI-Bio, which was a really great discussion, so I’m thrilled she’s returned for another podcast with us. Welcome back, Georgina. Why don’t we start by you reintroducing yourself to our listeners, and providing a brief overview of your practice?

Georgina Suzuki: Thanks, Megan. My name is Georgina, and I’m counsel with our IP transactions group here at Ropes & Gray in Silicon Valley. My practice focuses generally on life sciences, but also technology. I work with pharma companies, biotech companies, and various other types of clients on issues such as licensing agreements, collaboration agreements, advice on complex M&A and carveout transactions, data and AI, and various other types of commercial agreements.

Megan Baca: Who is the special guest that you’ll be interviewing on our episode today?

Georgina Suzuki: I’m very excited to have Svetlana Lucas here today—she’s the chief business officer of Scribe Therapeutics. Svetlana holds a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from Caltech, and she’s had an incredible career. She began her career as a strategy consultant with the life sciences practice at McKinsey. Then, after that, she joined Amgen, and she’s worked at various biotech companies, including Onyx and Tizona, where she has had senior business development positions.

Megan Baca: Sounds incredible. How did you meet and get to know each other?

Georgina Suzuki: I met Svetlana actually at a dinner. We were hosting a dinner for life sciences professionals who are women, including business development professionals and legal professionals, and she was the person that I sat next to at that dinner. I remember having a really engaging conversation with her, and many of the things that she talked about stuck with me after that conversation. So, she definitely came to mind as a really good person to interview for this podcast. I’ve since run into her as part of our Bay Area Life Sciences Quarterly, a great initiative that we’re doing here at Ropes & Gray, where once a quarter, we do dinners, social events, or presentations about things in the life sciences industry, and it brings together our clients and others who are with biotech companies or pharma companies on this common issue area. If you’re interested in joining our Bay Area Life Sciences Quarterly, definitely reach out to us and we can include you on the mailing list.

Megan Baca: What would you say is most notable about Svetlana as a person?

Georgina Suzuki: I chose to interview her for this podcast because she’s an example of a woman with an accomplished career, yet who still recognizes the challenges that women face in their professional lives. And what’s really impressive is that she still actively seeks to help others who are coming up behind her. She has overcome a lot to get where she is, she has unique insights, and she’s also a positive force in her community.

Megan Baca: Sounds fantastic. So, with that, I am happy to turn it over to you and Svetlana.

Georgina Suzuki: Hi, Svetlana—I’m really excited to have you here today. I’m looking forward to just diving right in and hearing more about your career trajectory.

Svetlana Lucas: Thank you very much, Georgina. It’s a pleasure to be talking to you again.

Georgina Suzuki: I would love to start off just understanding at a high level what do you do at Scribe Therapeutics, and what’s your role there?

Svetlana Lucas: I’m the chief business officer at Scribe Therapeutics. I joined the company almost five years ago when it was basically a tiny lab of about a dozen people at the Innovative Genomics Institute at UC Berkeley. Since then, my role has been continuously evolving. I’ve been involved in everything from HR and operations to working on our collaborations with external partners and financing the company—I participated in the Series B fundraising. So, a little bit of everything. Currently, my team is responsible for strategy, business development, and program management.

Georgina Suzuki: Got it—sounds like you do a lot there. What did you do before joining Scribe Therapeutics?

Svetlana Lucas: I’m a scientist by training. I got my PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from Caltech. Right after graduating, I joined McKinsey & Company and became a consultant in their life sciences practice. That’s where I learned about the business world and the business of drug development—I got fascinated by that and never looked back. Since then, I worked over the last 20 years in very large biotech companies, like Amgen and Onyx, and also mid-size and much smaller biotech startups, like Scribe Therapeutics.

Georgina Suzuki: What’s keeping you up at night these days?

Svetlana Lucas: CRISPR has the potential to transform how we approach medicine and human health. The tools we’ve built at Scribe, in particular, have the potential to target any gene in your genome, so it’s mind-boggling to think about the different diseases, targets, and opportunities that we can go after. At the same time, we’re a small biotech company growing up in a constrained financing environment, so focus is paramount. We have decided to focus on a select few opportunities, and it’s really important in these stages of the company to be very disciplined with how many things we’re pursuing, because if you’re doing everything, you do nothing. I’m very excited about what we are currently building, and we recently unveiled that we’re focusing on cardiometabolic diseases. However, there are so many more opportunities out there, and I’m always thinking about, “How can we do more, and how can we partner perhaps with others to make our technologies available and apply them in other areas where we can’t go ourselves.” So, that’s one thing.

The other thing, CRISPR—being such a novel tool in our armamentarium and its potential to be just a one-and-done approach—really requires exquisite specificity and safety. And that’s why at Scribe, we spent the last several years using our “CRISPR by Design” approach to really engineer what CRISPR used to be—a bacterial immune system—into a very precise genetic scalpel, that can edit your genes with very high activity and specificity. That’s really going to be required to allow this paradigm shift in medicine, where we approach a lot of these chronic diseases in millions and millions of patients with potentially a one-and-done curative approach. In our space, you can think about it as, say, vaccination for cardiometabolic diseases.

What keeps me up at night is the possibility that any misstep of any companies out there working in this space that generates a safety signal can set the field back many years, as we’ve seen happen with gene therapy at the dawn of that technology. So, we’re really focused on engineering the right tools, really looking at potential off-targets, and making sure we have the safest and most efficacious CRISPR therapy as possible.

Georgina Suzuki: That makes a lot of sense. We hear a lot about the successes of CRISPR, for example, there was the FDA’s most recent announcement about sickle cell disease and how a gene editing tool was approved for it, which is incredible. But you’re right—not all cases and uses of CRISPR might be safe or effective, and if you do have one safety signal come out, it can certainly have adverse, widespread consequences for others in the industry.

Now, you mentioned that you’ve been focused on things like new partnerships and collaborations. Are there any in your recent business developments that are particularly interesting or challenging for Scribe recently?

Svetlana Lucas: To me, the most interesting process was building the company almost from scratch. Since I joined, we’ve grown basically tenfold, and it required a constant process of revisiting how we do things and revisiting how we communicate things. It’s kind of the normal process of growing pains—that could be really challenging, but also, really rewarding, and communication becomes key. There’s this concept that was introduced by Google employees, “giving up your Legos,” where you build up a function, then you hire people and you give that away, and you move on to build the next part of the company. So, for me, that’s been a challenging and fascinating process. Along the way, of course, working with the amazing partners that we have, Sanofi and Prevail Therapeutics (which is a subsidiary of Eli Lilly), is also incredibly interesting and rewarding, and really propels the company to the next level in terms of where we can apply our technologies.

Georgina Suzuki: Interesting. Yes, I would say it’s rewarding, but also terrifying, that is building a company from scratch. What would you say that you’re most proud of in your career to date?

Svetlana Lucas: Early on in my career, when I was just a couple of years out of grad school, my PhD advisor was spinning a company out of Caltech—I had an opportunity to join, but I got cold feet. Since then, I think I’ve learned a ton—I developed a lot of confidence and expertise. For me, what I’m proud of now is being able to just take a leap of faith to join Scribe when it was such a small lab of young scientists. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish to date. And, for me, personally, the partnerships that we inked over the last two years, each potentially worth more than $1 billion, are really transformational for the company, and I’m very proud of that.

Georgina Suzuki: What advice would you give them in order to help them grow and help their company be successful, just like you did with Scribe?

Svetlana Lucas: The advice I would give is to invest in relationships. For me, relationships are everything in your career. It’s from people along the way that mentor you, help you grow, challenge you, and push you—it’s the people that give you the opportunities. I’ve had many people that, in my career, took a chance on me, gave me the job, and the opportunity to learn. For me, people are what brings me joy in what I do—it’s the team that I’ve built here at Scribe, the people that I work with, and the people that make or break how you feel about your role in the company. Of course, being on the business development side, my job is working with people, talking to people, establishing collaborations, and negotiating deals—it’s a very outward-oriented role. So, for me, this is the key to your success, the key to your career enjoyment, and the key to you learning and getting better at what you do.

Georgina Suzuki: I’d like to explore that a little bit further if that’s okay. You mentioned the importance of relationships. We know that, especially at the top levels of the life sciences and biotechnology field, women really are underrepresented. So, what do you think companies can do to encourage and build those relationships with women, with the goal of helping to solve this systemic problem in the industry?

Svetlana Lucas: I think we’re pretty good at getting women hired into biotech companies. We have probably slightly more women at the company than men. But you’re very right, that as we get higher and higher up the career ladder, there’s definitely an attrition that happens. It’s a really good question why that’s happening, and it’s probably not just one reason but multifactorial. But, for me, I focus on what I can do to remedy the problem. Nowadays, I get a lot of outreach from recruiters about potential CEO roles and board roles, and I make sure to recommend a woman. I have a network of such amazing women that I used to work with that there’s no shortage of talent. On the board at the company that I serve—I’m a member of the nomination and governance committee—we look to expand the board, recruiting not just women but diverse individuals in many other ways, to really make sure we have diversity of thoughts and diversity of ideas. If everybody puts it at the top of their mind and prioritizes diversity of opinions to get to the best decisions and solutions, I think we’ll be in a much better situation.

Then, another factor is women, especially young women, developing their voice and having a seat at the table. I spend time with junior women at the company—I can relate to a lot of the struggles that they’re going after. Being myself introverted and soft-spoken by nature, it took me a while to develop the confidence and develop my voice. There are many techniques to also elicit opinions of others and notice in meetings who’s quiet and who’s not speaking up and draw those people out. I encourage our leadership team and just everybody in the company to practice that because that’s how we get the best ideas out on the table, that’s how we get more voices heard, and ultimately, I think that’s only in the best interest of the company.

Georgina Suzuki: That is very important, and I’m very happy to hear that you’re advocating for that because the world does not necessarily only consist of extroverts—there are important voices, even with introverts or people who are quieter. So, thank you for being a champion for women and other introverts in that regard.

Svetlana Lucas: Unfortunately, we do live in a very extroverted world, and the business side of things really favors extroverted behaviors. In the scientific world, there are so many scientists that are introverted that it’s a particularly acutely felt issue, in my mind, for young scientists and scientists who are switching to the business side to get their voice.

Georgina Suzuki: Are there any specific examples that you can give our listeners where you encourage someone to speak at a meeting or encourage your colleagues to reach out to someone who’s been quiet?

Svetlana Lucas: Yes, with my team, I do a lot of coaching, mentoring, and really pushing people to have a voice, and especially give them opportunities to present in executive team meetings or at the board meetings, in front of the whole company. The more you do it, the more comfortable one becomes with that. I also encourage people’s peers to notice who’s not speaking up. Sometimes, I look at people’s faces—I see that they’re thinking something, that they want to say something, and I say, “What do you think? We haven’t heard from you.” Or when somebody else tries to speak up and aborts, I make an effort to say, “I think Chris wanted to say something. Tell us, Chris,” and kind of draw those people out. I think if we do that to each other, that really facilitates a broader dialogue and allows quieter people the space to express themselves versus having meetings dominated by the loudest talkers.

Georgina Suzuki: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for providing more specific examples—I will definitely take that back. Tell me a little bit about how you recharge from work. I imagine your job is incredibly stressful, so what are you looking forward to the most in the coming months just on a personal level to recharge?

Svetlana Lucas: My teenage daughter and I are about to embark on a trip to Nicaragua to build a school there. My roots come from a dynasty of women that are breadwinners in their family, and, for me, personally, education really propelled me to where I am today. I’m really passionate about advancing education for everybody but particularly girls. I think we’re doing pretty well in this country, but it’s not the case in many parts of the world. So, when we learned about an opportunity to work with an organization called buildOn that partners with governments in the poorest areas of the world and organizes teams to fundraise for building schools in those areas, we jumped on the opportunity to join a team. Getting off the grid, being in the village in the mountains with no electricity or Wi-Fi, and just working side by side with the community there to build a school and having the community commit to send at least 50% of the girls to that school, I think, it’s really important for our generation, especially in the bubble that we live here, to really get exposed to the issues that the rest of the world is facing and do something that’s bigger than ourselves.

Georgina Suzuki: Wow, that really is amazing to hear. I’d like to think that 50 years from now, Ropes & Gray will interview one of the students that you’re meeting in Nicaragua, as they’ll become a future scientist and business leader—you never know how these things might work out.

To wrap up, if I could ask a final question: What would you say is the best advice you’ve received with respect to your career that you’d like to offer up to others?

Svetlana Lucas: I have a few thoughts on that that I can share. In particular, I’m an avid reader, and I love to read books on psychology and philosophy. One particular author I enjoyed reading recently is Oliver Burkeman, who wrote Four Thousand Weeks. He has a really interesting take on just work and life—he talks about this concept of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I think personal growth, career, and jumping at the opportunity is frequently very uncomfortable when you’re doing something for the first time. I know at McKinsey, we had a saying, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning anything.” So, that’s something that I think is important, to really get comfortable with that discomfort of doing something new or not feeling like you’re particularly skilled at what you’re doing when you’re taking that next-level opportunity or getting into uncomfortable situations and having those conversations or negotiations. There are just so many things that require one to push yourselves out of your comfort zone, and, to me, that was a very powerful reminder of what makes us better and what makes us stronger.

Georgina Suzuki: That’s definitely persuasive and perceptive. I agree with that, even though I am personally terrified at times to try new things even in my own career.

Svetlana Lucas: Me too, and that’s why that really spoke to me and made it okay to be uncomfortable. As my daughter and I are embarking on this trip to Nicaragua, we had to do a lot of vaccinations, and she’s terrified of needles. I spoke to her about how she can just get comfortable with just being a little bit uncomfortable and do the right thing—and she did, and I was very proud of her. That was just a tiny example of the impact that that mindset can have on somebody’s behavior.

Georgina Suzuki: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time today, Svetlana. I learned a lot just hearing about your career trajectory, as well as your thoughts about what it takes to be successful in this industry. I look forward to hearing about your Nicaragua trip when you’re back.

Svetlana Lucas: Thank you very much, Georgina. It was a pleasure speaking to you.

Megan Baca: Georgina and Svetlana—thank you both so much. And as always, thank you to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray and our Women’s Forum, please visit ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you typically listen to podcasts, including on Apple and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.

Svetlana Lucas
Chief Business Officer, Scribe Therapeutics
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