I am the Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary of Sestina Bio, LLC. Sestina is an early-stage life sciences company that aims to revolutionize synthetic biology by marrying biology with machine learning. The company is building a technology platform with an ambitious goal to make products powered by novel ingredients that are good for the planet and the people who use them.
Sestina approached me via a recruiter I respect, having worked with this person in the past. At the time, I did not know much about the company. However, as I got to know the team, my interest was piqued. I became very excited about the company’s technology. Sestina’s efforts to find a synergy of different scientific disciplines and to create a technology platform that promotes sustainability spoke to me both as an engineer and as a global citizen. I was impressed by the company’s culture, and even more so by its commitment to intellectual property. It is not too often that a company at such an early stage pays so much attention to its legal position, even as it prioritizes the development of a cool technology platform. I had such a good time getting to know the team and the company during the interview process and found myself wanting to be part of the action.
It is important to note that “life sciences” is not a monolithic industry. Synthetic biology, CRISPR, genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, therapeutics, cosmetics, informatics, and many more are all in the life sciences industry, but each of these often faces its own unique set of legal challenges.
That being said, companies in the life sciences industry do share one feature in common: The legal issues they have to grapple with tend to be multifaceted and touch on different sets of laws. A life sciences company often deals with issues that implicate multiple aspects of laws concurrently, sequentially, or both. It is not uncommon for a primarily commercial transaction to also involve issues related to regulatory, compliance, intellectual property, labor, and employment law, for example. What makes it even more challenging is that, because the technology of the company involved is so new, often these issues are the first of its kind, and there is not a “how-to” playbook to consult. As a result, each issue requires a laser-sharp focus on the details, as well as the ability to examine the big picture holistically, in order to not only confront the issue head on but also address preemptively what may be hidden beneath the surface.
What has been fascinating about the life sciences industry, and particularly companies like Sestina that have been making tremendous headway in scientific discovery, is that the companies’ technology is often well ahead of the laws. Taking intellectual property as an example, the U.S. courts, agencies, and congress have been struggling to come up with a cohesive set of laws to handle legal issues related to patent eligibility. By the time these lawmakers and regulators have made some progress, the technology itself has advanced by leaps and bounds, rendering the newly made laws already inadequate. As a result, while the legal framework plays catch-up, the companies not only have to work within the current framework, which itself is confusing enough, but also have to anticipate what is to come because the laws continue to evolve. The need for a company to have a legal strategy that is simultaneously holistic and agile is certainly challenging, but also fun!
I started my legal career as an intellectual property (IP) strategist, and that is how I approach leading a Legal department. Many of my GC/CLO friends who are trained as litigation or commercial transactional attorneys spend their days putting out fires around the company. I approach my role a little differently. Instead of reacting to a lawsuit or transaction, my background leads me to create a holistic strategy up front, a roadmap designed to anticipate fires and prevent them before they start.
Legal plays a unique role among the different departments of a company. We have just talked about how a life sciences company tends to deal with external legal challenges that are multifaceted. In the same way, a company in the life sciences industry is also not a monolith internally. The different departments have different goals: R&D aims to come up with the company’s next technological crown jewel, while Product Development’s mission is to meet the target product launch deadline, and the commercial teams want to sign as many deals and make as many sales as possible, fast. Each of these processes involves legal risks.
Pictorially, Legal reminds me of a neural network. Each of the departments is like a node, and Legal bridges all of these nodes together in a network. Different nodes contain different pieces of information, which may result in miscommunication and competing priorities. My strategy is to recognize the unique needs of each stakeholder and group and then highlight the diverse data so that we, as a team, can assess the situation and the risks comprehensively and come up with a game plan. Just like any effective network, the connector is an equal partner to the nodes it connects. Tipping the scale by putting more weight in either the nodes or the connector could result in the breakdown of the network. In other words, to be effective, Legal cannot just cater blindly to the needs of any person or organization, nor can it turn itself into a purist “Party of No” with zero tolerance of risk. Doing either could compromise its own credibility.
A Chief Legal Officer is like a lawyer, a therapist, and a data analyst all folded into one. With Legal’s role in a company being so nuanced, my “client” is both the company and the different departments within the company. I lead an organization that is supposed to be above the fray and to make objective recommendations based on a risk analysis of the situation, which in turn is based on the laws. In reality, at every gating event of this process there are emotions and human beings involved. I have to remind myself that I am dealing with not only the black letters of the law but also the individual human beings who are impacted by the law. No meaningful evaluation of risks can be done in a vacuum devoid of human context.
I find the tool that helps me the most is transparency, backed by actual data. A lot of what we do is risk assessment and mitigation. While we are trained to look for the worst-case scenario, I am reminded of a lesson from my engineering training: What I do should also be practical. I believe in data and in being receptive to different opinions. The more data you get, the more confident you are when you make a decision, but we should also recognize that there are always going to be unpredictable results. In these cases, once we have the data, we should share it with the different team members to objectively evaluate the situation and mitigate the risks as a team.
As the connector of the company's neural network, Legal is uniquely positioned to influence the company’s culture, which if done right can have a positive impact on business growth. As one example, everyone wants the company to succeed. However, often the commercial folks, the scientists, the engineers, and the executives have different goals and deliverables, and they might disagree because they operate with different sets of data. In order to fully assess the risks of the situation, Legal is in a unique position to promote sharing of information and frank discussions. I see it as an opportunity to foster transparency, to promote collaboration, and to create a space for people to feel safe speaking up. The goal is not necessarily to arrive at a unanimous decision. However, it is with such transparency and honest sharing of information that the company can move forward as one to confront an issue.
I have been on a remarkable journey getting to where I am. It has been a series of self-discoveries of what excites me and what I value. My mother is a scientist and my father an engineer, and I grew up loving to tinker with objects and learn new things. Being a lawyer never crossed my mind; I would much rather be taking apart a clock and putting the pieces back together than having intellectual debates about the law. It was not until I was completing my Ph.D. at MIT that I realized I enjoyed the human interaction aspect as much as the scientific discovery process. Case in point: I enjoyed writing an advice column for MIT’s student newspaper as much as (if not more than) working in the lab. It was a coincidence, or simply happy fortune, that I discovered that IP law would allow me to combine my own scientific training with opportunities to work with others as their strategic advisors. IP was my doorway into the legal field, and even now as a CLO, I still take an IP-centric approach to creating legal strategies. It helps that for a technology company, IP is often one of the most valuable assets of the company, since all issues tend to implicate IP one way or another. By using IP as a framework, I approach all legal issues both with the precision of a lawyer and with the practicality of an engineer. The precision and practicality in combination help me stay agile and adjust as the situation evolves. This comes in handy particularly when a lot of the issues the company is encountering are the first of its kind.
The question of what non-legal role I can envision myself transitioning into is interesting. I truly love what I do and cannot see myself doing something else at this stage of my life. However, if I must pick one, I could picture myself being a chef. I tend to like a platform to be creative. In this case, instead of crafting a legal strategy, I would be working to combine different ingredients in a way that makes sense, and hopefully presenting a final dish that is optically, orofecally, and aesthetically pleasing in a way that has never been done before.
Everyone’s career path is unique, and I hesitate to provide a blanket recommendation. However, wherever your journey might be taking you, I would say to let your intellectual curiosity be your North Star.
A lot of what we do, be it in a law firm or in a company, requires us to ask the right questions, to stay engaged, and to remain agile. Staying intellectually curious can open doors to so many opportunities to find creative solutions and to learn about yourself. The moment we decide that we “know it all,” we risk foreclosing ourselves to opportunities to notice issues that we might have missed and to learn from others.