Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Cris Rothfuss, Sarepta Therapeutics
In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, hosted by IP transactions partner Megan Baca, life sciences partner Hannah Freeman interviews Cris Rothfuss, senior vice president of corporate transactions and deputy general counsel at Sarepta Therapeutics, a global biotechnology company focusing on rare diseases. An engaging storyteller, Cris talks about her unusual career trajectory, involving stops in private practice, academia and the biotech industry. She also shares her approach to mentoring—in her mind, a two-way street. And in thinking about leading teams, Cris reflects on a time in her life when her leadership skills were truly tested: when she orchestrated a 5,000-mile, three-month cross-country bike ride called The REAL Ride with four other riders to raise money for local schools.
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. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and are also making a positive impact in their workplaces and in their communities. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others, about their careers and what's led to their successes, the challenges they’ve faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired. I’m Megan Baca, a partner at Ropes & Gray with a practice focusing on intellectual property and technology transactions, and I’m also co-head of the firm’s digital health initiative. I’m based in Silicon Valley. On this episode, I’m joined by my colleague, Hannah Freeman, who’s based in Boston. Hi Hannah, can you introduce yourself and provide an overview of your practice for our listeners?
Megan Baca: So who’s the special guest you’ll be interviewing on this episode today, and how did you start working together?
Hannah Freeman: Cris Rothfuss is the senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Sarepta. I started working with Cris several years ago when she joined Sarepta, although she has had worked with Ropes & Gray for a long time. But we’ve been working together closely since she’s been at Sarepta in her role as head of transactions there.
Megan Baca: You said you do a lot of licensing and collaboration work—I assume you’ve done that kind of work for them, but can you tell us just a little bit about the types of matters you’ve worked on with Cris?
Hannah Freeman: So we’ve worked with Sarepta, and not only with Cris, on all types of licensing and collaboration agreements for products across their portfolio. Most notably, we worked with Sarepta at the end of 2019 as they entered into a large collaboration with Roche for their lead DMD product, which was over a billion dollar up-front transaction, so it was very transformative for Sarepta.
Megan Baca: Yes, I definitely saw that one in the headlines—congrats to them for that. What would you say is most interesting or noteworthy about Cris’s career that our listeners are going to be excited to hear about?
Hannah Freeman: Sure. I think probably the most interesting thing about Cris’s career is the way that she has seen the industry from all sides. She started in private practice and then has also worked on part of the IP legal team, then she went to Harvard seeing the academic side, and now is back in industry at Sarepta, so she has a really unique perspective from all different areas.
Megan Baca: Sounds great. So with that, I will turn it over to you and Cris for the interview.
Hannah Freeman: Morning, Cris. Should we start by having you introduce yourself to our listeners?
Hannah Freeman: It sounds like you wear a lot of hats at Sarepta. Can you tell us a little bit about Sarepta, as a company, and what you do there on the day-to-day?
Cris Rothfuss: Sarepta is a biopharmaceutical company focused primarily on rare diseases, neuromuscular rare diseases, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, amongst other indications. And while we have a few RNA products on the market directed to Duchenne, we are really looking forward to becoming a precision genetic medicine company. So our future really lays in gene therapies and potentially gene editing. I'm the legal lead for material transactions at the company, so more complex with business development agreements, in-licensing, out-licensing, strategic partnerships, clinical development agreements, and manufacturing and supply arrangements. I have a team of attorneys, and we work closely with outside counsel, including yourself.
Hannah Freeman: When did you join Sarepta?
Cris Rothfuss: It's been a little over two and a half years now. I should also say, because you asked me about the various hats, I've recently been appointed deputy general counsel, which is really a nice opportunity to start broadening my wings into different aspects of the business, which is exciting.
Hannah Freeman: Congratulations. Can you tell us a little bit about your career trajectory before you got to Sarepta? I know that you spent a lot of time both in the private practice side and in academics, but if you could just walk us through how you ended up at Sarepta?
Cris Rothfuss: In my opinion, my career trajectory's a little unusual, or at least a little different, but it's really been a path that has led me to a number of steps along the way that were right for me, including the steps that I'm standing on now, if you will. I'm hopeful that this might be of interest to some of your listeners, including folks who are younger in their career, as an object lesson in your path needn't always be a straight one. It might be a straight one, and that can be admirable and just right for you. If it wavers, that might be just right for you as well. My path is definitely a combination of intention, but also serendipity and opportunity. And I've been lucky to have opportunity, and serendipitous opportunity. I began my career as a litigator, which isn't at all what I do right now. General civil litigation, spent the better part of six, almost seven years doing a broad range of trial work, alternative dispute work, and all the other things that a litigator does, at a private firm in Connecticut. And after doing that for a while, and enjoying it, enjoying the intellectual aspect of it more than the raw adversarial-ness of it, I decided that if you weren't rawly adversarial, then maybe you shouldn't be a litigator. And that's about the same time that I was thinking about, for me, personally, being in a private law firm was no longer the right place to be.
So I started exploring in-house counsel opportunities, and landed a role at a small biotech in Massachusetts as a corporate counsel. And on paper, it wasn't a job that I was at all qualified for, so this was one of those moments of serendipity. The woman who had recently been appointed general counsel at this company, which used to be called Control Delivery Systems before it went public, was a woman you know, Lori Freedman, and she had recently been appointed general counsel, and met me. I've never learned what inspired her to look at my resume, but once we met in person, she told me after the fact that she knew that I'd be able to figure the job out, and more importantly, that we would work well. And so she gave me the opportunity, which was really a game changer for me professionally, and that moment is seared in my memory as one of the most important moments professionally, because someone took a chance on me and evaluated me for more than was in the four corners of my resume. I've tried, as I've grown in my career, to remember that lesson, to remember that you need to evaluate someone's full potential in deciding whether you're going to hire them or work with them or give them an opportunity. So I joined the company, and while there, learned an awful lot about intellectual property, patents, intellectual property-based transactions. I did that through a close partnership, again, with your firm, Hannah, Ropes & Gray.
By the time that stint was over, which was a little over four years, I was well positioned to do what I do now, which is focus on intellectual property-based material transactions. And so the next step was another unusual one, which was going to Harvard. At that point in my career, I knew what was important to me—it was working somewhere where I truly believed in the mission and the organization was doing work that felt good, and then I had the opportunity to work with people that I enjoyed personally and professionally. So it was more about the place. I was interested in working at Harvard University, in the Office of Technology Development, and it just so happens I had the skillset to do so. And so I entered academic life doing IP-based licenses and research for the most part for a long time, for almost eight years. It was a fabulous place to work, but kind of hit a ceiling with what I could accomplish within that organization, but I liked being at Harvard quite a bit.
Then I took a really strange next step in my career, which was I decided that, as I was also growing older as a professional, I realized I liked leading a team and being in a leadership position. And so I applied to be the executive director of a research institute within Harvard, which had nothing to do with anything I had done professionally to that point in life. I distinctly remember my father saying, "You're not going to use your lawyer skills anymore?" And my response to him was, "I'm going to use all of my lawyer skills every day,” because law school uniquely positions us to do many things in life—to resolve disputes, to mediate, to think strategically, to think analytically, and in fact, I applied all of those skills immediately and consistently for a couple of years in that position. It was interesting, and I eventually circled back to law, obviously, but I don't regret having spread my wings in that way.
So then something happened—I actually took a sabbatical from Harvard for three months, seemed like a longer time, but it was just three months, to undertake a charitable project that I started, which entailed riding my bike across the country. I founded a charitable event—did that, came back to Harvard, and spent a little bit of time there with both Harvard and I knowing that I was looking for the right next position. And then in another moment of serendipity and opportunity came along, that brought me to Sarepta, which is the end of the story, I guess—and that was the general counsel of Sarepta. I kind of did the same thing Lori had done many years ago. At that point, I had been in academia for 13+ years, and trying to get back into the industry, folks were looking at my resume saying, " You’re in a tech transfer licensing office," which was vastly understating what I had done at Harvard, but weren't really thinking that I was well suited for industry anymore, I guess. Ty met me, and I suppose knew better, and gave me the opportunity I have now, and it's been a fantastic one, in which I flourished.
Hannah Freeman: Excellent. It sounds like quite an interesting path along the way. I definitely want to touch on the bike ride, not only because I'm an avid cyclist, but because I suspect that the things that you learned while taking that sabbatical have been instrumental in your work at Sarepta and building your career from there. Before we get there, I do want to just ask a couple questions following up on a theme that you mentioned with relationships. As we know, so many of our careers are built on the relationships, even more than what you're doing, or where you're doing it. Can you talk a little bit about how you build and maintain those relationships you touched on—the relationship with Lori and with Ty? But as you think about traveling through your career path, how have you stayed in touch with people and maintained and built those relationships historically, and how have you done it in the time of COVID, when everyone is remote?
Cris Rothfuss: To begin with, you're right—I'm a firm believer in bringing your full and authentic self to your job and the relationships in your job. I’ve found that being mindful of bringing your full self to the table, and seeking to understand and get to know who you're working with or perhaps sitting across the table from, and being open-minded and respectful and human, if you will, really can go a long way in the most complicated and complex situations. Some of the most satisfying experiences I've had negotiating difficult deals has been where, at the end of the deal, both sides lift their head and realize they respect and admire each other. And then the obvious advantages of a network, connecting with and staying in touch with the people you work with. So, Lori, in addition to giving me that tremendous break in my career, also played a hand 14 years later in helping me find Sarepta. When I put it out to the world that I was looking for an opportunity, she connected me with the right legal recruiter, who knew that I'd be the right match for Ty. So that's all about relationships and less about what's on your resume. Your resume matters, but I've found that relationships and connections and who you are as a person matter more.
Hannah Freeman: How do you stay in touch historically? And with COVID, how have you maintained that network?
Cris Rothfuss: I find and I hear other people say, we seem to have all found more time in the day, and that's a two-edged sword. But that more time in the day leaves more time for emailing and texting, and LinkedIn, and all of those ways that make it easy to stay in touch with your network these days, as opposed to, let's grab a coffee or lunch. So I guess probably the best bottom line answer, in COVID, or not in COVID, is just being intentional about it. It's easy to let the days go by, and forget that you have to be intentional, you have to be proactive about nurturing relationships.
Hannah Freeman: Just a quick touch, even if it's over text, you make a good point, that a quick touch point is a good way to connect. I know that you and I some days can't find time to get on the phone, but even an exchange of messages, we can accomplish what we need to get done, but also have a quick check-in, and making sure that things are going well. So I've appreciated your ability to get in touch and be responsive quickly. Then following up on the relationships, in terms of mentoring, you mentioned some mentors that you've had. As you've transitioned into a more senior role in your career, how have you thought about mentoring people on your team? You've been a tremendous mentor to me, I've learned a lot from working with you. And I suspect that there are people on your team that you've worked with, both at Sarepta and I know you've worked with at Harvard—how have you gone about mentoring your team members?
Cris Rothfuss: So mentoring's interesting. First of all, it's a two-way street. You just said something that you feel like I've mentored you—I feel equally the same in reverse. I've worked with you and your team, your associates, for a couple of years now. And sure, I'm the putative legal lead at the table when we're negotiating, but I have learned enormous amounts from you and from everyone on your team, even the most junior associates. As we grow older in our careers, it's not about conferring the so-called “vast wisdom” we've learned upon others, but always being receiving—that’s what keeps it interesting. But in the role of mentor, I think it's important and necessary to mentor more junior people, in particular, more junior women, in their careers. But I will also admit to you that I find it not only rewarding, but intimidating. Mentoring and coaching isn't about dictating or telling, it's about helping your mentee figure out their own path. My inner nature is to be a fixer, and mentoring isn't about fixing, it isn't about telling, it isn't about instructing. So I find it a little intimidating, because I have to constantly be working on it, and hoping that the other person's getting something out of it. But I felt it important to at least say that I find it intimidating, but equally rewarding and intimidating, because I suspect there might be others out there who are apprehensive or shy away from mentoring because of that feeling, and I don't think it's uncommon.
Hannah Freeman: Right, the desire to help, but not knowing how. One thing that also comes up is the formal mentoring versus an informal mentoring program, and figuring out which is best—that's something that we talk a lot about as well. And I think what I'm hearing you say, and I agree with, is that mentoring comes in all shapes and sizes and flavors and it goes both directions. I think being open to understanding that you can learn from everyone, and it's not just a one-way street. I certainly have learned a lot from the people that I maybe was "mentoring," and were much more junior than I, but keeping an open mind and knowing that as we go along in our careers, we can learn from everyone that we interact with.
So let's talk about your bike ride, because I know that this is something that had an enormous impact on your career, and has been very important to you. I think it would be really interesting for the listeners to see how you decided to do this, how it benefited your career after you came back. So can you tell me a little bit more about the ride—how you did it, how you chose the cause, and give us just a little bit of a sense of, when you say you rode your bike across the country, what did that mean?
Cris Rothfuss: The name of the ride, we called it The REAL Ride. It was in 2017, so it was only a couple years ago. It was myself and four other people, a team of five, and I put together the team, and we rode from Seattle to Boston on gravel roads and trails. And so it was a 5,000 mile ride—4,882 miles, to be exact. It took us 82 days, which is why I needed a three month sabbatical. We camped along the way. We thought we would self support, carry everything we needed across the country, and then we realized, as insane as this was, that made it even more insane. So we suckered a family member into coming along in a van. So we would break camp in the morning, leave the van, and then we'd be on our own during the day, and reconvene in the evening to camp. It was in support of a local school in Boston called Boston Day and Evening Academy, which is, in my opinion, an exceptional institution, unheralded institution that is part of the Boston Public School system, but also a Horace Mann Charter School. It focuses specifically on Boston student population that's off track, generally a little older, and reengages them in their education through a combination of competency-based learning, and importantly, social and emotional learning. So when I was looking for the cause, I was particularly interested in organizations that were teaching young people social and emotional competencies, the soft skills. Soft skills obviously play into relationships, and I found, over my career, that soft skills, including dispute resolution, importantly, have been the key in my career to success. The thought I had was, there’s so much going on in the world, if more young people at a younger age learned social and emotional competencies, the world would be a better place. And then I found that this particular school, BDEA, was doing exactly that, so I wanted to do something to support them. It turns out they have a network of sister schools across the country, so we, the riding team, stopped at five schools, including BDEA along the way, and did promotional events to raise a modest amount of money and some awareness for this particular cause.
So that's what it was, but it's the why did I do it, is a bigger, more complicated story. I was fortunate enough to work at a Harvard institution, where I had established a personal track record and I had relationships with the administration, and they had faith in me that I could go away and come back and do this. But away from everything else in life, too, and planned it for a year and a half—an immense logistical undertaking to pull this off. The few years before we did the ride, in 2014, my family went through a string of really bad things. I lost both of my parents and my uncle in the span of five months, two unexpectedly. My uncle was killed by a drunk driver, and my father died unexpectedly two weeks later, all a couple of months after my mom had passed away from cancer. I used to say to people it was one of those moments in life where you step back and question what you're doing in life, and whether your life has enough meaning, but that explanation actually gives it too much intention. I think what really happened at the time was my life was so upside down that I needed to do something that kind of made me feel like myself. And like you, Hannah, I'm a lifelong athlete, and a bike rider, and so riding my bike seemed like probably an escape, if I'm being honest. So I had got this thought that I wanted to ride across the country, and at least shortly after that, got the thought that maybe I should make it about something more than myself, and then got onto the thought of social and emotional learning at BDEA. So that's why I did it, and that's what we did. And it's funny, we were riding in support of this school and its efforts in social and emotional learning, and the ride turned out to be a master class in social and emotional learning.
Hannah Freeman: Seeing five people for three months?
Cris Rothfuss: That's exactly right. We were a very well-equipped team to do this—all of us had very serious athletic backgrounds and experience with riding. But nothing prepares you for riding through deserts, and across the Rockies, and on dirt roads—75 to 100 miles a day for 82 straight days—and then through heatwaves, and wildfires, and all sorts of craziness. Then on the flipside of all of that duress, it was equally magnificent and soul affirming, and an exceptional experience that one can't expect to have in life. But in that cauldron, you put five people, you put a team, and you have your moments, or you have a lot of moments. And what I found out shortly getting into the ride was they all turned to look to me, this was my idea, I was the leader, and so to the extent I thought I knew something about leadership, I learned a lot more in 82 days. I think the thing I'm proudest about, for all of us, is that we all finished uninjured, as a team, still getting along, all marked positively for the rest of our lives by this experience.
Hannah Freeman: Wow, that's quite an accomplishment. One thing you said earlier was how much you liked leading a team, and how over the course of your career trajectory, how that has become something that is a goal and a piece of your career path. I certainly found that the things that I do outside of work are sometimes the things that have the biggest impact on my professional conduct, and how I go about my career. How did the ride and leading the ride impact your career, and what skills did you build from the ride that you were able to then take on as you moved into the next phase of your career, in moving from Harvard to Sarepta?
Cris Rothfuss: Being part of a team and teamwork, and even leadership has been part of the mix for me for a long time, in part because of the experience of athletics—I was a high school and college athlete, as well. But the cauldron of being the leader of a small team in this exceptional circumstance of this ride really honed some of those skills in a way that I didn't appreciate while we were going through it. While we were going through it, it sort of felt like survival mode at times. And after the fact, I reflected quite a bit and thought I did an okay job getting us across, but I could've done a lot better. I understand how and why now, and so, for example, not just giving lip service, but really, truly, deeply appreciating each of your team members' skills, capabilities, personal experience, where they are, what they're bringing to the table, and then working with that. Not superimposing your expectations or your story or your perspective on what a person might be going through or capable of in a moment. I think I stumbled through that adequately on the ride, and I've thought about that intentionally in professional and other team situations since. It's situational leadership—sizing up the member of your team or your direct report and understanding what they've got, in terms of skills and motivation, and working with that.
Hannah Freeman: You've had a very impressive career that, as you said, has not been linear at all, including having the confidence and the courage to take a pause, and go on the bike ride, which was incredibly important to you. And it sounds like during the ride, you actually, in some ways, learned more than you ever would staying at one particular job or another. Looking back, knowing what you know now, because of course, hindsight is always 20/20, what advice would you offer younger women as they enter their legal career in the first few years, and as they progress?
Cris Rothfuss: First of all, recognize that law school, and the tools that we learn in law school, and then the tools we continue to receive and hone in our career, are exceptionally versatile, and really poise you to do quite anything you want, and do it well. And so as you start off on your career, keep your mind open, understand that opportunities or ways of utilizing your degree, or ways of being a lawyer are really manifold. Some of them you might not even foresee—opportunities that you may not have contemplated may pop-up, and be open-minded to evolution, if that's right for you. Evolution was right for me, and it's led me to a number of interesting places for me. Alternatively, someone else may start at the beginning, and know exactly where they want to be, and head on a linear path with dogged determination, and that could be exactly the right path for them. So I guess the advice is that—be flexible, be open-minded, be intentional, but be open to serendipity and opportunity as well.
Hannah Freeman: Well, I think that's an excellent place for us to end. Thank you so much for taking some time to talk to us all. I've always found your career, and the things that I've learned from you to be incredibly valuable, and I suspect that everyone listening to this will, as well.
Cris Rothfuss: Thanks, Hannah. And I'm looking forward to that bike ride you've promised me.
Megan Baca: Hannah and Cris—thank you both. That was a wonderful discussion. And always, thanks to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you typically listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.
For more information or to contact Cris Rothfuss, please visit her LinkedIn profile.