Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Christina Carlson, HI-Bio
In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, hosted by IP transactions partner Megan Baca, IP transactions attorney Georgina Suzuki interviews Christina Carlson, general counsel of HI-Bio, a biotechnology company focused on discovering and developing precision medicines for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Christina talks about her move from Gilead Sciences, where she oversaw corporate legal, to HI-Bio, where she has a more legal generalist role. In thinking about her 15-plus-year career, which includes roles at a law firm and in-house, she dispels misconceptions she once had about networking and gives advice for those who wish to follow in her footsteps. For lawyers or others considering careers in biotech, Christina reflects on the exciting and inspiring work she’s contributed to in the areas of HIV and COVID.
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, 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 our firm’s digital health initiative. I’m based in Silicon Valley. On this episode, I’m pleased to be joined by my colleague, Georgina Suzuki, who’s also based in Silicon Valley. Georgina, thank you so much for joining us. So, let’s get started—first, why don’t you introduce yourself, and give us an overview of your practice?
Megan Baca Who’s the special guest you’ll be interviewing on this episode today?
Georgina Suzuki: I’m really excited to have Christina Carlson here today. She is the general counsel of HI-Bio, which is a biotechnology company here in Silicon Valley focused on discovering and developing precision medicines for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Prior to joining as general counsel at HI-Bio, she led the corporate development legal team at Gilead Sciences, including during the recent COVID pandemic. Christina is a leader in the biotechnology space here in the San Francisco Bay area, and we’re excited to have her here today.
Megan Baca Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Christina: How do you know her and how have you worked together in the past?
Georgina Suzuki: I had the opportunity to work as external counsel with Christina while she was at Gilead Sciences. I worked on licensing and collaboration deals with her, including a $2.3 billion deal between Gilead and Nurix in the cancer therapy space. Since then, she ended up bringing me internally to Gilead Sciences as a secondee, and I had a chance to work directly with Christina while serving in a secondment role at Gilead Sciences.
Megan Baca Having worked with Christina and now interviewing her, what’s most noteworthy to you about Christina and her career?
Georgina Suzuki: I would say Christina is a very accomplished legal professional in the biotechnology space. The fact that she went from running a large legal development team, especially in deals like licensing and collaborations, and M&A at a large pharmaceutical company, and then jumped to do a very different role at a smaller biotech company being the GC, that takes an incredible amount of skill and flexibility in order to develop your career in such a fashion. But besides being an accomplished professional, I think on a day-to-day basis, she’s incredible to watch when she works. When I was at Gilead in-house, I was impressed how she’s able to navigate many of the issues which are challenging for women. Many women find that if they’re too aggressive, people view them negatively, and if they’re too passive, they’re not viewed as leaders—but that was never an issue for Christina. She’s able to command a room, direct people, and steer people in the correct direction, while still maintaining positive relationships, for example, by smiling and laughing with people—people love her. So I think that really encapsulates the great work that Christina does.
Megan Baca That’s fantastic. So, why don’t I turn it over to you and Christina for your interview?
Georgina Suzuki: Sounds good. Hi, Christina—welcome to our podcast today. We’re so happy to have you. So, you’re currently the GC of HI-Bio. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do there as general counsel?
Christina Carlson: Absolutely. I joined Human Immunology Biosciences—we go by HI-Bio—back in April, so I’ve only been there for a few months. I joined there as general counsel. The company is now about 30 employees strong. I am the only lawyer in-house, but I basically oversee the entire legal function. So that means having opinions about matters involving IP, employment, employment policies, how to engage with our board, how to maintain our corporate governance structure as well as being really involved in all of our contracting, contracting policies and process, and involved in other strategic collaborations. And those strategic collaborations and contracting, that’s my bread and butter—that’s where I’ve had the most experience and training, so really comfortable there. It’s really more about being a bit of a generalist, at this point.
Georgina Suzuki: Got it. Other than shifting from a specialist role to a more generalist role, what has the transition been like moving from a large pharma company to a recently launched biotech?
Christina Carlson: It’s a lot different. I came from a decently sized window office at Gilead with lots of expertise at my fingertips in-house to a room maybe it’s 10x20 with about four rows of desks. You walk in in the morning and hope there’s space for you—so just the physical environment has been a lot different. It’s just really open space, and it’s first come, first serve in the office in terms of having a desk and monitor to sit at, and so just getting your work done in that type of environment is a little bit shocking at first. But I have come to really—I can’t say I enjoy it, but I’ve definitely gotten used to it, and I can be productive in that environment. In addition, being a generalist, I sit on the leadership team at HI-Bio, so having a broader focus across the company as a whole allows me just to have more strategic insights into the next steps, what’s needed generally, plans for the future across all different types of subjects, like, “What are the therapeutic areas of interest for a particular product? What is our budget? What are the budgetary impacts? What should our future hiring look like? What should our fundraising plan look like?” So, a lot of very strategic types of issues and questions that I get to be involved in. Versus being at Gilead, overseeing corporate legal there was a huge job and fairly broad in and of itself, but it was very focused on just corporate legal matters. And so the broader company matters were not something in my purview, given just the size and scope of Gilead versus the size and scope of HI-Bio.
Georgina Suzuki: That’s really interesting. What is keeping you up at night these days with all the issues you’re dealing with at HI-Bio?
Christina Carlson: Honestly, I think the things that keep me up are more personal in nature. I have kids that have just started school—and middle school to be more precise, which I think might be the worst time in almost everybody’s life, and so I feel like I am reliving it with them. And somehow, in a way, it feels almost worse reliving it with them than going through it myself. So, I do tend to worry a bit about how things are going, and, “Hopefully they’re getting along with their friends.” If they’re stressed about an assignment, I feel that stress, and I’m stressed about that assignment. I tend to get very nervous and anxious sometimes about my kids and what’s going on in their lives. And then I would say, second to that, I tend to get a bit nervous about—and I don’t want to get too political on this podcast, but—just some of the toxic politics that are going on, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and health care options for women, and what that means for women not only in the workforce but just culturally, generally, and how they’re seen in our country. That tends to get me a bit worked up sometimes.
Then when it comes to our industry and my work, in particular, I have to say that it’s taken a while, and it’s taken having learned to develop a bit of perspective on things, but work generally doesn’t tend to keep me up too much at night unless it’s just volume of work that’s keeping me up. The general industry as a whole right now is a little bit nerve-racking—there isn’t as much money going into private companies, so I kind of wish I made this move a year earlier versus just a few months ago. It might have been a little bit easier. But overall, I am really happy with the change I made. I really enjoy the people I work with at HI-Bio. Our CEO, I think, is very easy to work with, really smart, really engaging, and has a very good view and perspective on where the company should be going. I work really closely with our chief business officer, who I know from Gilead really well, and we always have worked really, really well together. I’m actually really fortunate to be on a leadership team with many other women, so having those connections and creating those types of relationships in a new environment has been really rewarding.
Georgina Suzuki: Thanks for that, Christina. The one thing that I take from that is not only are you an awesome lawyer, but also an awesome mother to your children as well as a phenomenal citizen to be caring about these issues which are affecting our country these days.
Christina Carlson: It just takes time, maybe, to get there. It’s very nice of you to say. I’ve worked full time ever since I’ve had my children, and so did my husband, so I was in the camp of my kids being—or my babies, at that time—being four, five, six months old and having to drop them off at daycare full time starting at that age. I did have that motherly guilt associated with having to leave my kids full time in these, at the time, strange environments. And so I do have to say, it’s a lot to overcome, that inner critic—at any given point in time, you’re feeling like you’re at work too much, and, “I’m not being a good mom.” Or, you’ve got to leave work early, or you’ve got to miss a call for an appointment, and then suddenly you feel like, “I’m not a good enough lawyer, or I’m not a good enough employee, because I have to go deal with my family life.” And so, I’m not immune to that—I’ve definitely had those feelings a lot over the years. It really does just take time, and experience, and I think, maybe, some meditative thinking sometimes, and deep breaths just to overcome that inner critic. Life’s too short. You get to that, I think, age where you can suddenly realize that and rationalize all the things in your life and in your schedule and find peace with that.
Georgina Suzuki: You’re totally right. We tend to be our own biggest critics, and we tend to be pretty harsh on ourselves, even though, to the outside world, we’re total rock stars. So, I totally hear what you’re saying. I think that’s a good segue into my next question, which is: What is the thing that you’re most proud of in your career or otherwise to date?
Christina Carlson: When I think of my career, my early career, I started out working at a law firm. I worked at Wilson Sonsini—I was your typical junior associate, I billed a lot of hours, and I always wanted to be on the big, complicated deals. And I found that to be very rewarding—I was just really into that type of work. I found it really interesting, and I enjoyed every aspect of that. So, it was really learning and being involved in these complicated transactions that gave me that adrenaline rush and made me feel just really proud of myself as a lawyer. As I look back, though, more holistically, I would say that it is the setting up of Gilead’s Access program for HIV and hepatitis medicines when I actually initially joined that company. I initially joined Gilead to support their international Access program, which was focused on delivering HIV medicines into the developing world—so Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. As part of that, we set up some generic licensing arrangements, and that enabled manufacturers in India to manufacturer a cheap drug to sell into the developing world. In addition, we set up several offices in different countries of the developing world as well as distribution arrangements. And so really it took several years to get everything all set up, interconnected, and working in a way that was really successful and really ramped up the availability of life-saving medicines for people in these areas. Given the nature of HIV and what that disease does to people, and being able to provide or be a part of a system of providing a medicine that literally saves their lives, in hindsight, is very rewarding. I just can’t imagine being involved in anything that is that impactful ever again, to be honest.
Georgina Suzuki: Wow—that’s pretty cool. I’m also thinking of Gilead’s role in the recent COVID crisis. It seems that Gilead played a pretty important role there, too. What was it like to help lead that?
Christina Carlson: That was a very intense time. In February of 2020, we closed a pretty large M&A deal at Gilead that I was leading on the legal side. Two days later, my boss at the time announced that he was leaving Gilead. I want to say a week after that, I was announced as his replacement. And a day after that, we were all sent home to work from home for the next what we thought was probably going to be two or three weeks, but ended up being a year and a half. So there was a lot going on. In addition, we had started working through remdesivir and its, at the time, possibility in helping shorten and treat COVID. I think the label ultimately was it shortens time in the hospital, and I think it’s maybe been expanded since then. But there was a lot of work going on, just even on the corporate legal side, with respect to getting agreements in place with governments for trials, working with our clinical teams and our clinical legal teams to set up different types of distributions of remdesivir to different parts of the country on a compassionate use basis, and working with our regulatory teams, answering questions about contracts. We were also really involved with our research team and getting involved in different types of consortiums for the treatment of COVID. I want to say during that time, when we first were sent home, for the first few months, my life pretty much revolved around remdesivir. And that was also just a very exciting time—it was really fulfilling to see so many different parts of Gilead’s organization come together, and work so closely despite being so physically far apart from one another, and just be able to adapt to and make sacrifices to get this medicine to patients as quickly as possible, again, to save lives. People at that time were working across the company, really late hours and just really pushing to move things quickly just to make the therapy available to patients as quickly as possible. Just seeing the company come together like that and work so closely together was inspiring to me.
Georgina Suzuki: That’s incredible. The common theme that I’m hearing in your response is the importance of relationships. How do you think you build and maintain important relationships, either your personal network or within companies?
Christina Carlson: I have always thought that I was the person who was too busy to network, and I was just going to get my job done, do a good job, get home, and be with my family, but there was no time to go to this happy hour or that happy hour because it just wasn’t important. I think I was pretty wrong about that. I think having a network is very important. And I don’t think that you necessarily do have to go to a lot of conferences, happy hours, or dinners in order to build that network—I think that you can build the network just in your day-to-day work and your day-to-day interactions with people. So, just maintaining relationships through law firms, like Wilson, where I worked, or you, for example, working with you. You were a secondee at Gilead, and you were amazing, and we started working with Ropes a lot. Now I feel like I have different contacts within the Ropes family—and actually, now a Ropes attorney is working at Gilead. So, having those connections really play out in ways that you sometimes don’t see in the moment. I mentioned earlier, our CBO at HI-Bio, Carl, worked at Gilead, and he’s ultimately the reason why I ended up at HI-Bio in the end. Even now, I still maintain very close contact with my former colleagues at Gilead, former colleagues that I knew from Gilead that are now at other companies. And so what I thought was mainly an internal network at Gilead has turned into an external network. I have found that when you develop those close relationships, you don’t even necessarily need to have frequent discussions with those people. As I was thinking through the pros and cons of leaving Gilead to go to HI-Bio, I reached out to a former mentor from my law firm days that I hadn’t talked to in maybe close to ten years, and he was so readily available to talk, talk out the different opportunities and what might make sense, and help provide me with guidance. So, I’ve found it’s easier to maintain a network than I thought. I thought that you really had to go out of your way and go to all these social events in order to have a network, and I’ve really found that it’s possible and important to have a network and not actually have to do too much outside of your normal day-to-day work.
Georgina Suzuki: That’s good to hear. I’m going to ask you a final question. You’re a female GC of a biotech, which is rarity in this industry. What advice would you give to other women or diverse candidates who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
Christina Carlson: I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of strong mentors, bosses, and managers in my career every step of the way, who have given me a lot of confidence and reassurance in myself, in my capabilities, overcoming that inner critic that we talked about before. So, I think it’s just important to have that confidence, to know you can do it. As I moved into the GC role, there’s a lot, as I mentioned, that is not my bread and butter of work that I’m used to—not in my background and training—but just knowing I can learn, I can figure it out. And I think anyone in my position or a similar position, realizing you don’t have to be the expert in everything in order to move to that GC role, or move to the next step, or move to the next higher role with a broader scope. Because the learning will come, the experience will come, and, like I said, just having confidence in what you do know, how you approach the world, and how you approach situations and problems is good enough to get you through it.
I think another piece that’s important or that I’ve realized has come to be important, and maybe it’s kind of passé at this point, but really is that EQ: being able to read people. You want to be confident. And I know, in a legal professional, you need to be strong to guide your clients on the best path, a compliant path and a legal path, but sometimes, you can read people in a way to know how to approach that issue or maybe take a pause and come back to an issue. Because at the end of the day, I do like to be a business partner type of lawyer, not a slap your wrist type of lawyer. I think the more you can be a business partner, the better you can serve your clients, whether you’re in-house or external, because I do think that creates a relationship and an environment where your colleagues are more likely to come to you in advance of an issue, keep you updated, or want to talk to you about things. So, I don’t know if that’s necessarily advice, but that’s just how I’ve approached this job and being a GC.
Georgina Suzuki: Those are some great pearls of wisdom, but what I really like about it is that it’s really positive and encouraging for people looking to go into this field in the future. A lot of times, it feels like you can’t move from being a specialist to a generalist, but to know that someone was able to navigate that transition well gives a lot of hope for the rest of us.
Christina Carlson: Yes, absolutely. I was just going to say, and I don’t know if it is being a woman, but a lot of times I think, “I couldn’t possibly do that. I’m not the expert in this field.” Or, “I didn’t do corporate law. How could I possibly be a GC?” But I do think that’s not a good mindset to have. I think that the skills we have as lawyers translate well to whichever area of problem-solving and any type of issue that comes our way. To me, it seems like all the GCs out there—there’s always some area where you’re not an expert. Not every lawyer can be an expert in every area, so whether you’re relying on some external help for corporate, contract, or compliance, you’re not the only one—you’re not the only GC in that position. As I became GC, I did start reaching out to other GCs and having those types of conversations, and that has also been very reassuring. So I would say, to tie your last question with your second-to-last question in terms of networking, that becomes an avenue to provide some peace of mind, as well.
Georgina Suzuki: Wonderful. I think that wraps it up for today. Just wanted to thank you again, Christina, for coming on our podcast today to talk about your job and your career.
Christina Carlson: Thanks, Georgina. It’s been so great to be here and talk about this. And if there’s anything else you have a follow-up question on, let me know. I’m really happy to get a chance to speak with you again—it’s been a while.
Georgina Suzuki: Same, as well. Thanks, Christina.
Christina Carlson: Thank you.
Megan Baca Georgina and Christina—thank you so much. As 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 Christina Carlson, please visit her LinkedIn profile.