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Adaptability and diversity - talking R&D BioTech hiring with Dr. Chris Winrow

Lucy Therapeutics' CSO appeared on the Venari Podcast to discuss developments in the space

‘I think an appreciation for translational research has really started to emerge over the past few years,’ says Dr Chris Winrow. He’s certainly had an excellent vantage point from which to observe how approaches to translational research have changed in recent years, having recently joined Lucy Therapeutics as CSO after years of stellar work in the field. I was delighted to chat to Chris for the Venari Podcast’s R&D Hiring Strategy series, where I heard his thoughts on team building, what he looks for in new hires, what the future holds for translational research – and more!


 


 

Background and journey to role at Lucy

Chris is an expert in neurodegenerative disease, with over 20 years’ experience in pharma and biotech in a variety of research, translational, and clinical roles. After his postdoc at the Salk Institute, Chris joined Merck, where he stayed for some 15 years working primarily in the early discovery space. At Merck’s West Point campus, he had the chance to follow and then lead some programmes before he was ‘engaged in some early clinical moving into late clinical and ultimately commercial launch’, which afforded him a ‘nice view across the industry.’


His next role, at the mid-sized Ironwood Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, saw him involved in spinning out a smaller company, Cyclerion, ‘and that was where I had the opportunity to advance therapies and moved into a number of clinical studies, including one which was in a mitochondrial disease called melas,’ Chris tells me. ‘So that was my first experience working closely, looking at mitochondrial targeting and working there.’


Chris has built on this experience at Lucy, which he joined in March 2023. This mid-sized, early-stage company is located in Waltham, MA, and is also focused primarily on ‘mitochondrial dysfunction and how that plays a role in a range of different diseases. So, it’s a really exciting opportunity to pioneer some work and develop therapies in ways that haven’t been done before.’


The importance of translational scientists

I believe that we’re seeing much more translational research in biotech than ever before, and Chris agrees. Linking preclinical and clinical stages is something that he has worked hard on across his career – and that’s exactly how Lucy approaches drug development and discovery. ‘We really look for aspects of how you measure the endpoints in non-clinical studies, how you can then follow that through as you think about Phase I healthy volunteer studies moving into patient studies.’


The original meaning of the word translation means ‘to carry across’ – and this is exactly how Chris sees this area of research. ‘First the bridge from bench work and the non-clinical studies and biomarkers or endpoints that you can engage there. Then, as you think about going into the clinic, what can you carry through, and are you looking at the exact same sort of endpoints as you move along?’ For Chris, the second bridge comes between those Phase I studies and healthy humans when patient outcomes have been taken into account, ‘but I think it’s really important to look at measuring the same endpoints, carrying along the same sort of biomarker strategies to really get value from evaluating the new approaches for your target.’


This is certainly an interesting area to consider. With mitochondrial disease still an emerging space for biotech generally – not to mention CNS drug research – hiring in this field brings both challenges and opportunities. Lucy Therapeutics approach this in a singular fashion, ‘finding those nexus points, we call them, where you have multiple symptoms of disease, multiple aspects of dysfunction in mitochondria, and then finding those targets that are at that intersection.’ This strategy has worked well for the company, permitting them to surge forward on their programmes for Parkinson’s disease as well as Rett Syndrome.


Hiring strategies

When it comes to talent acquisition, Chris also has a number of things in mind. He always wants to see adaptability and a willingness for new hires to take ‘some calculated risks’, as well as their being open to trying new technology. In the end, he wants to find ‘individuals who have that focus on drug discovery and development’ as the ‘ultimate goal’, and academia contains plenty of great work being done in this space.


A focus on the end goal is just as important for building out leadership teams, in Chris’s view. Thinking about the kind of unit you wish to create, the gaps you wish to fill, is crucial. ‘I’m a very big proponent of building teams with members that have complementary skill sets and diverse backgrounds as well,’ he notes. ‘I think that adds a lot of value.’ Diverse thought processes add so much to senior teams and go a long way not only in solving problems but also in long-term thinking about the company’s strategy and vision.


Chris is drawn to working with people from different disciplines, and cites Lucy’s CEO, Amy Ripka – a medicinal chemist by training – as an example. For him, a proclivity for working with other people is essential for any senior biotech role – as he puts it, ‘collaboration is key’. Chris also cites the importance of balancing technical and business acumen for biotech leaders. Scientific rigour is not enough by itself – you must complement it with strategic thinking and an appreciation for, and understanding of, the business’ operations. Finally, Chris highlights the importance of identifying and working with ‘connectors’ – that is, people who not only have strong professional and scientific networks, ‘but really enjoy seeing where there’s differences in approaches and bringing those together to synergise.’ This combination of factors, personality traits, and professional experience, is Chris’s recipe for excellent leadership teams.


Looking to the future

When it comes to hiring in the translational research space, a lot has changed already in just the last few years, Chris notes. ‘For biotech, I think there’s a lot of value that gets back to an earlier question of identifying team members that have a diversity of experiences,’ which can entail looking at candidates from disparate areas like academia, large pharma, smaller companies, and even tech. Chris believes this pluralistic outlook to hiring will only increase in the future, as ‘diversity really adds value to companies.’


Separately, Chris predicts that collaborations and partnerships in industry will also become more common as businesses realise that ‘finding experts on the outside to help us with our problems that we’re trying to face is key’, while also having internal expertise available in-house to liaise with outside collaborators. Finally, Chris believes that with the rise of remote work, integrating and identifying talent will become increasingly less dependent on location. ‘Really building that mindset, that it doesn’t matter where the talent is or where the opportunities are [...] at Lucy, we’ve really taken this spirit towards the future as well.’ They are always looking to build connections with experts inside and outside the business – ‘and really, we’re always looking to find passionate team members, whether locally or globally, to join our mission to address mitochondrial dysfunction.’


If you need help with your biotech talent solutions, just reach out – we’d love to hear from you.



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