Discouraged by the lack of support networks for women in the industry, she co-founded the CGT circle - a collaborative global hub for women across the cell and gene therapy industry. BioPharma Reporter caught up with Kate at Advanced Therapies Europe 2023 to discuss her recent move into consulting, career milestones and what inspired her to set up the network.
BPR: Could you give me an overview of the work you’re doing at eXmoor Pharma?
I joined eXmoor at the start of the year as a CMC consultant. What this means is I support academic groups and SMEs to translate their exciting scientific research into viable clinical therapies that will hopefully benefit the patients. An area of focus can be developing the CMC strategy for a client, aligning with business and commercial requirements. Here we typically establish a process that is sufficient for phase 1 proof of concept studies as well as plan how that process will be further optimised and scaled to meet future pivotal and commercial requirements. Proactive planning at this early stage for the business lifecycle minimises complex and expensive comparability studies later in development. Complementing these activities, another focus I enjoy is in establishing a cost of goods framework for the client that highlights key cost drivers within the process and demonstrates how different scenarios could be favourable from a business perspective.
I enjoy a varied role, working with clients on specific pieces of CMC consulting work, as well as taking on interim positions in some of our client companies. I’m currently very much enjoying the role of interim head of CMC in an exciting biotech where I get the opportunity to help build the team and input into their novel platform process. I also get to work closely with the eXmoor process development team to develop our in-house platforms and ensure that we’re evaluating the latest technologies which is very cool! In this way we can ensure we are offering the most up-do-date and relevant advice to clients.
BPR: Earlier this year, Exmoor received a £35 million investment to support cell and gene therapy production, helping you launch a new facility in Bristol. How beneficial has this funding been and what is in the pipeline?
Absolutely! That injection of money was transformative for eXmoor as a business and for our clients too. Clients had previously worked with us in the consultancy team to develop the CMC strategy, or with the in-house scientists to develop their process. Ahead of clinical trial manufacturing they would then be faced with the decision to build their own facility or identify a CDMO to manufacture for them. We can now offer support right across the board from consultancy through to early-stage clinical manufacture. The cost-saving and streamlining this can afford the client brings a lot of value. It is also awesome for the Southwest in general, eXmoor is attracting talent and helping foster an ecosystem within the ATMP space outside of the golden triangle. The hope is that, by setting up the manufacturing facility, it will attract other companies to the area and help to keep developing this area as a hot spot for CGT therapy development.
We’ve got a pipeline of customers that are hoping to manufacturer in the facility – so having our license to manufacture approved and releasing the first product will be a tremendous milestone to reach.
In parallel the recent news that we are partnering with Kincell bio is another exciting one for eXmoor and will ensure we can support more clients in the US as well as our European clients looking to run clinical trials over there.
BPR: When did your interest in science develop and can you tell us a little bit about your journey to where you are now?
My dad is a scientist, so I was always playing with test tubes and various random bits of kit at home! My interest in cell and gene therapy specifically started during my BSc at the University of Sheffield where I studied Biomedical Science. Induced pluripotent stem cells had just been derived and a stem cell module piqued my interest. I went on to do a MSc there in Stem cell & Regenerative Medicine with Marcelo Rivolta, who has excitingly gone on to spin out Rinri Therapeutics. It involved growing sensory neurons and auditory hair cells from embryonic stem cells and was incredible to see these cell types growing in the dish! Next, I headed down to London to tackle a PhD in Stem Cell Bioprocessing, within the Biochemical engineering group at UCL under Farlan Veraitch who has gone on to found Ori Biotech. This gave me an appreciation for the challenges affecting translation of bench research into development of viable therapies. From there, I wouldn’t say I’ve had an exact plan – more just – if it’s exciting and I’m learning more then I’ll give it a go!
Probably the achievement I’m most proud of was during my postdoc working with Pete Coffey and the London Project to Cure Blindness team. Here we developed an embryonic-stem cell derived therapy to treat age-related macular degeneration, manufactured the medicine ourselves in GMP, and then passed it across to surgeons to dose the patients as part of a first time in human clinical trial. Seeing this process through from bench to bedside, as it were, was an incredible experience and made even better with the news that 5 years on the patient who had been almost blind ahead of dosing, could still see!
It was at this point that I decided to make the move into industry, joining the cell and gene therapy department at GSK. This was a brilliant time in my career, learning lots from experienced team members and inspiring leaders who motivated me and were influential in shaping my own leadership style. Here I further honed my technical skillset - automating, closing and scaling-up cell therapies. I became very interested in establishment of robust control strategies, using a Quality by Design (QbD) framework to ensure a comprehensive and systematic approach to medicine development. Finally, I made the difficult decision to leave GSK and joined an exciting biotech, Enara Bio, as the head of cell process. Here it was great to apply the knowledge I had built in a different setting and get a chance to lead and motivate my own team!
BPR: Could you tell me a little bit about your work with the CGT circle?
Yes sure! I think I’d encountered various decision points in my career, personally and professionally, and often didn't know who to turn to for advice or even just to hear of others’ experiences in a similar sphere. I’m happy to reach out and start talking to people, so I did just that. There were peers and senior leaders, men and women, that were happy to be a sounding board, and either mentor or coach me through some of those decision-making processes.
It was really whilst I chatting to some junior staff and asking – who are you speaking to outside of our team? What network are you building? Who are you inspired by? I often found that they didn’t have access to the support networks that I feel lucky to have built. I was also getting a little disheartened that I no longer had visible female leaders that I aspired to be or was inspired by. So, I started speaking to other women outside of the company, Lindsay Clarke, VP commercial at MicrofluidX, and Nicola Ambler, director of Olmec Connections. Between us we were hearing this feedback from women across the sector saying – I’m the only women in the room! Confidence was being eroded and many were expressing a want to connect with more women that they could chat to and identify with. That’s how the CGT circle was born, at the start of 2023.
BPR: What does the CGT circle offer?
We build different networks for the different areas of our lives, but here the aim was to reimagine the networking experience for women, and to harness their collective power and experience within the sector. We aim to be accessible and inclusive to all levels of experience and to connect and empower women to build their own local networks. It’s not just about careers and professional development, but also having conversations about complex topics as we navigate life.
We have built a central support hub of resources for advice on how to host an event. We then connect hosts with some of our many supporters – usually companies that are keen to provide financial help to events, perhaps money behind the bar or hire of a space. The aim is that it is the women who join the community that set up their own local events and build their networks – with our support. It’s been awesome – we’ve just reached 1,000 members and have had members stepping up to host events in in London, Cambridge, Nottingham, Zurich, Paris, the Bay Area, Boston and next is the turn of Leiden in The Netherlands. We’re quite astounded by the interest but it's very encouraging. When I joined an event in Zurich, the hosts had set up a fantastic evening – it was great to see! As this initiative is run on a purely voluntary basis by the 3 of us with busy day jobs and lives, we are now exploring options of ways to better support our members as we scale-out, as it were!
Do you find events like Advanced Therapies a good opportunity to nurture those networks and build relationships?
I held a roundtable at the Women in Advanced Therapies (WiAT) pre-event ahead of this conference. My table discussed the role of community in achieving your potential and we had some inspiring discussion. One of the questions posed was – how does one make time to network? It does take effort but once you've built those networks, in this industry particularly, everyone is very happy to help and support each other. There is a mistaken perception, sadly often with women, that you connect with someone to form an enduring and lasting friendship. The reality is, you don’t have to be best friends, you can leverage a particular relationship to help you in that moment and that is okay. Coming to events like Advanced Therapies is brilliant – you recognise so many faces and strengthen your network further. You feel supported, and when you feel supported and empowered, that’s when you can be your best self and do your best work. It’s a win for you personally, and for your company too.
Connecting with women is one element in building your support network. I’m certainly not saying it’s all about women, I have many male allies that I work closely with and feel very supported by – this is just one area. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive – women come to the circle events and leave feeling more confident and with a sense of belonging. When they next see a friendly face at a conference, or even in the boardroom it can make all the difference, and in fact provides opportunities.
Prior to this conference I had not held a roundtable before, but it was an opportunity that presented itself through my network and Phacilitate’s head of WiAT Becky Johnson Kent asked me to take part. It was certainly a stretch objective for me, but I grew in confidence as a result, and next time I want to ensure it is even better! As we discussed at the roundtable, a feeling of inadequacy or imposter-syndrome often presents when you expand your surroundings. When you decide you want to grow in your role, it can be uncomfortable but simply acknowledge the discomfort, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there! I am taking this one away with me!
BPR: What do you feel most passionate about in your current role?
It’s been nourishing to work with and engage junior scientists at the beginning of their career as well as learn from and be inspired by senior individuals and their systematic approach to therapy development. Now sitting in a consulting role, I’ve had the chance to reflect on the work I’ve done previously and can use it to help others troubleshoot their own medicine development.
As always, my passion is rooted in improving patient access to life-changing medicines. The fact that I’m now able to work with a portfolio of exciting clients and help streamline their path to clinic, making these therapies clinically and commercially viable – that’s always rewarding!