Celia Economides ’97: A Biotech Executive Persists in Life and Work

Celia Economides ’97 is well acquainted with persistence. As an executive at a biotech company in San Francisco, persistence is a trait that comes in handy. Fostering the development of new drugs for rare diseases often requires soliciting millions of dollars in investments, decades of trial and error in the labs, and lots and lots of patience.
Economides said she learned about persistence early on. When preparing for college while at Hutchison, she applied to her dream school, McGill University in Montreal. After she didn’t get accepted, her mother told her to reapply. “I thought she was crazy,” Economides remembers thinking.
 
She talked with Leonard Frey, who was associate headmaster and college counselor at Hutchison, and set up a conference call with the admissions office at McGill. She resubmitted her application with a new essay and an additional letter of recommendation from Glenda Pera, her English teacher. She recalled getting a phone call from Mr. Frey after exams and assumed the worst. “Instead he told me he had just received a fax from McGill (yes, a fax!) that I had been accepted! From that moment on, I learned to be persistent, steadfast, and tenacious—qualities that I attribute to my success.”
 
You might think that would only happen once in a person’s life, but it didn’t. Later, when Economides was working at Columbia University in New York on an Alzheimer’s research study, she applied to study for a Master’s of Public Health. Like her previous experience, she wasn’t admitted. She persisted though, meeting with the dean of admissions and resubmitting her application for a different discipline. Three days later, she was accepted to Columbia.
 
Economides doesn’t hide these experiences. In fact, they are almost a mark of pride. “It’s a story I continue to tell in my professional life and when I mentor people,” Economides explained. “I learned at a young age that persistence pays off, and you have to be your own advocate. You will never get what you don’t ask for, and there’s no downside to trying.”
 
Putting a Wide Range of Experience to Use
Economides works for Kezar Life Sciences, a clinical-stage biotech company researching treatments for patients with autoimmune diseases. The diseases the company is focused on usually affect about 200,000 people or fewer, so they are rare, but not ultra rare. Kezar currently has a drug candidate in Phase 2 trials across five separate autoimmune diseases, including lupus nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys caused by lupus), dermatomyositis/polymyositis (types of muscle weaknesses and inflammation), and autoimmune hemolytic anemia/immune thrombocytopenia (premature destruction of red blood cells/low levels of platelets). They are also doing research in cancer, but it is still in the early stages.
 
Just pronouncing some of those disease areas requires in-depth reading, studying, and practice, Economides admits. Even though she’s not a scientist by training, she’s had experience across the board, working in research at Columbia, at a life sciences-focused hedge fund, at a biotechnology innovation organization in Washington, D.C., and for several biotech companies before landing at Kezar. By working in different capacities, she’s gained valuable knowledge and experience in areas like clinical trials, medical affairs, and competitive intelligence, to name a few.
 
She eventually relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2015, the heart of the biotech industry, and started working at Kezar about a year ago. “I’m basically an extension of the CEO,” she said. “As the senior vice president of strategy and external affairs, I oversee public affairs, corporate strategy, business development, and investor relations.”
 
In practical terms, that means one day Economides might be pitching Kezar to a group of investors in New York City and another day she might be visiting clinical trial sites in Memphis and talking with patients. She may spend a day in the company’s lab in South San Francisco talking to scientists or out at doctors’ offices hearing about their needs or their latest research findings.
 
“I love getting people excited about what I’m doing. I get to do that with investors, doctors, patients, and people within the company,” she said. “I’m a relationship person, and I love to build relationships, bring people together, and figure out how different people can work together.”
 
Leaning Toward Science from the Beginning
Both of Economides’ parents are physicians, and her mom once asked Celia if she remembered what she had said she wanted to be when she grew up. Her mom showed her a paper where she had written: “I want to be a scientist so I can find cures for diseases.”
 
“I thought, ‘Whoa, I’m not a scientist, but I’m doing that in a very different way than I would have ever imagined.’
 
She thought she’d follow her parents’ footsteps and become an MD, but at some point, while in college, she said, she felt herself leaning toward being more entrepreneurial and business focused. “When I started working clinical trials, I loved it and didn’t realize that existed. I also did not realize the corporate and investment side existed. My job is a great marriage of the two. Ultimately, my work is impacting a much larger population.”
 
She is proud of the expertise she’s built, her work ethic, and her ability to navigate the corporate ladder. “I work in very male-dominated environments, and I think having been at Hutchison and always having a voice made me stronger. We were encouraged from early ages to be leaders and have a voice, and we never were competing with men, so I never viewed them as competition.”
 
Economides said some of her best memories of Hutchison include being on the track team. “Whitney McNeill ’82 was an excellent coach and being a part of the team provided structure and discipline that built my confidence on and off the track. It carried through to college and beyond.”
 
She believes there’s room for improvement in gender diversity in the biotech industry. “When you look at the executive teams and boards of the majority of biotech companies, they are made up of men,” she said. Until Kezar added a female board member recently, Economides was often the only female executive in the room for executive team and board meetings.
 
Before she took the position at Kezar, Economides said she had an honest conversation with the CEO about wanting to contribute daily. “I need to feel like I’m effecting change within the organization. I’m making sure I have a hand in the strategic vision of the company and that we’re adhering to our core values and our ultimate mission, which is to develop treatments for high unmet medical needs.”
 
Staying Focused, Staying Positive, and Looking Toward the Future
The hurdles to bring a drug to market would discourage most people. According to Economides, it takes, on average, about 10 years to go from discovery to being able to bring a drug to market. In Phase 1, she added, the chances of getting a drug all the way to FDA approval are less than 10 percent. If a drug has been through all stages of development and performed well, chances improve to seventy percent. How does she stay positive and hopeful?
 
“It’s a challenging space to be in, but incredibly rewarding,” she admitted. “It is the small, incremental wins.
Otherwise, you would get overwhelmed. Meeting with physicians and patient groups always reinvigorates me because you realize they’re so happy that there are people working on finding treatments for their diseases.
 
“It helps when you’re working on a variety of things,” Economides added. “My job is fun because I get to float between different parts of what we’re doing. I’m always meeting with new investors, and we’re always talking to potential partners down the line.”
 
Ultimately, Economides has a goal to start her own biotech company and possibly even bring her work back to Memphis. “At some point I would love to be able to foster a more burgeoning biotech industry in Memphis, because St. Jude has spun off assets to some companies that have become very successful. They don’t stay in Memphis, though, and I think it’s partially because there hasn’t been a lot of people with the ability to do that. That is something I would love to be able to do at some point and help partner with St. Jude down the line.”
 
Her advice to Hutchison girls? “Follow your interests and find something that you are passionate about and make a career of it. It’s very important—and incredibly rewarding—to believe in what you choose as your profession.”
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