PODCAST EPISODE 311
Click here to watch the video version of this podcast.
A college detour from medical school and into scientific research worked to Lori-Ann Christie’s advantage. Her career has evolved from academic researcher to pharmaceutical industry scientist and director to venture capital fund principal, with each role building on the one before.
Christie recently joined Visionary Venture Fund, a capital firm that focuses on ophthalmology devices and pharmaceuticals. She assumed her investment-based role after seven years at Allergan, now part of AbbVie. Through all Allergan’s internal developments, Christie stepped up, asked questions, and learned from her mistakes. When Allergan integrated into AbbVie, she moved into a director role and got to experience all that comes after her work in the lab.
With host Ehsan Sadri, MD, Christie talks about her career trajectory, what she’s learned along the way, and what’s on the horizon.
Listen to the podcast to discover:
• The difference between academic and pharmaceutical industry research and why scientific rigor matters.
• Her experience as part of Allergan’s diligence team.
• Why the eye is a great vehicle for experiments.
• Her take on emerging scientific and technologic advances that have the most potential.
Click “play” to listen now.
Ehsan Sadri: All right, everybody. This is Ehsan Sadri. I’m an Ophthalmologist, Board Certified here, Newport Beach, California. Today’s a special day for me because I get to have Dr. Lori-Ann Christie, who is a friend and New Principal at Visionary Ventures right down the street and Newport Beach. She lives in Newport Beach works in Newport Beach is very tough job, but someone’s doing it. So I’m delighted to have her join us today. But for those who don’t know, I don’t want to steal your thunder. Lori-Ann, I want you to kind of go through your background, we just really delighted to have you on and kind of guide us through your career path and what you’re doing now. We’re all very excited about that. So without further ado, Lori-Ann. Welcome to the show.
Lori-Ann Christie: Thank you very much. Really a pleasure to be here.
Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, I just saw you. We got to spend some time at a nice dinner at AAO. So good to see you in person and all our colleagues. It was I missed? I don’t know. Did you miss it? I missed it for the last two years. It was tough for me.
Lori-Ann Christie: Yeah. I mean, that’s a fun part of our jobs, right is getting together and connecting and all the information sharing that happens and the great food and company. So yeah, I was happy to be back in person.
Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, we had a great dinner, it’s hard to have a healthy good dinner, in New Orleans. So we managed it.
Lori-Ann Christie: I mean, I don’t know how healthy it was, but it was.
Ehsan Sadri: You’re right, it was probably it was a little bit healthier than the rest of stuff I had there. But, you know, I, it was just so great to spend some time with you. And for those of you who don’t know, you, Lori, give us a little bit about your, you know, way back in your beginning and your personal background, you know, Canada and be all that, really just what really influenced you? And really what made you jump into life-sciences?
Lori-Ann Christie: Yeah, sure. So, I grew up in a really small town in Rural Ontario, very close to Ottawa, which is the capital of Canada. So sort of Eastern Ontario. And, you know, the sciences, when I was a kid, were always fun chemistry, physics, biology, in high school, always really had more of an affinity to biology. And, you know, from a young age, recognized that I wanted to know what life was like, beyond my small town. And that, you know, staying in school and getting as much education as possible was a way to facilitate that. So I knew I wanted to go to university, from when I was pretty young and first in my immediate family to do so. And applied like normal high school kids do to a bunch of different schools and was really proud to be accepted at McGill University in Montreal. So that was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down and you know, was kind of just far enough away from home that I could go and feel what life was like outside of my town and kind of on my own, but close enough that I could still easily go back on the weekends and in the summer for the holidays to be with my family. Montreal was a wonderful place to be an undergraduate student. Turns out there’s a lot of other things to do other than study in Montreal as an 18-year-old. And so I was in the biology department at first thinking about going to medical school. It’s competitive, it’s a top-notch Canadian school recognized internationally. And you know, to be frank, I probably didn’t study hard enough to be competitive in that path. So I left biology and went to psychology, and took some social psych, took some cognitive psych found all of those to be interesting. But really what ended up happening is that a really great prof offer a course called physiological psychology, which was just kind of the sort of precursor way to say neuroscience. And I fell in love with the biology of the brain. So I, you know, I came back to biology through this roundabout path, and ended up volunteering in that professor’s lab, doing cognition and learning and memory in vivo experiments, and thought that it was really cool that you know, before our eyes, we could see very kind of low mammalian species learning and remembering new information and map the different parts of the brain that serve those functions. And so that’s really a theme then that I continued on for graduate school and even postdoctoral work.
Ehsan Sadri: That’s wonderful because you know, to find a passion, you know, part of what we do on the podcast is really for people who, you know, are entrepreneurs, startup entrepreneurs, maybe their venture maybe they’re in a big strategic but really, even students and medical students that listen to this and a lot ophthalmologists and for those of you listening, you know what I loved about Lori-Ann story is, you know, she went to, she pivoted right, she went to now something she really fell in love with passion about, and actually went and pursued it. And you know, a lot of times, it takes courage, that takes courage to be able to do that, in my opinion, to do something that, you know, you thought maybe you were going to do something else for many, many years. And then all of a sudden, this other thing that comes up you’re very passionate about, and you pursue it because a lot of times people are just too scared to do that. They can’t believe that they’re really like they Oh my god, neuroscience. How cool is that? I remember my neuroscience provides a fascinating stuff. I mean, I to this day, I love, love, love that. So how do you actually see, like, you know, the process, the neuroscience of, for many, for me sites, for instance, just still, like gives me goosebumps talking about so it’s just, we’ll talk about that off topic. And then, so I noticed you on your background, you went to NIH, you did a little hustle path and then went to UCI right, so you ended up I actually did a fellowship year there too. But you were there as a post doc. Is that right?
Lori-Ann Christie: Yeah. I was there as a post doc, and then transitioned into like a project scientist role. So the non-tenure track position, and I worked in Two Labs, did research in Two Labs while I was there, both of them focused on neuroscience still, but the first one focused on what happens to our brains as we age. And again, you know, what kind of interventions could we consider everything from things like lifestyle choices, exercise diet, to pharmaceuticals, and you know, how to sort of preserve those really important functions of learning and remembering for as late in life as possible. So that was the focus of the first lab. And then, through a collaboration with a different professor in the School of Medicine in the Department of Radiation Oncology, Charlie Limoli, he was, his lab was looking at the effects of radiation and chemotherapy on the brain and on these structures of the brain, like the hippocampus and Toronto cortex, and effects on neurogenesis. Right. And he was doing that for a couple of different purposes. Really cool question was, you know, what happens to people who go live in the space station for long periods of time and are exposed to sort of chronic low dose radiation, and then also, people who have cancer that, you know, have brain radiation, or chemotherapy for any kind of cancer, you know, sometimes, although thankfully may have recovered from the cancer, they have these lifelong issues with learning and memory. And so, again, I brought the background that I had with in vivo models, and how to look in lower species to understand the brain regions that are involved, that are impacted, and then what we could do to intervene. And that was, those were the themes really, of what I did when I was at UCI.
Ehsan Sadri: So you’re at UCI, and you’re, you know, you’re I mean, you could it’s one of those things as a kid that cancer just so much fascinating science being worked on. And in the last, for those of you who don’t know, the last 10 years, UCI really become a major player in health sciences research, globally, is probably one of their head fundraiser, sort of leads is a friend of mine, and I think they’re on track. He was telling me some crazy number, I think they’re on track, and you correct me to raise a billion dollars for Health Sciences. And it’s this incredible amount of capital and resources. They’re investing in research, which is awesome, which is just absolutely awesome. It’s just fascinating stuff. So you’re there. Okay, so now you’re there. You’re there long time. You’re okay. You’re like, Listen, I got paid some bills now. What? What made you jump over to Allergan? What how did I connect there? And would you, was it a big transition to go to industry?
Lori-Ann Christie: Yeah, it was. It was a good one and one that I never looked back from, but it’s funny that you said, you know, got to pay the bills, because it really, I mean, it wasn’t a very kind of romantic decision. Or maybe it was really romantic, depending on how you look at it. So to backtrack, while I was at McGill, I met a man who’s now my husband. And you know, when we when I got my postdoc position at UCI, he very kindly agreed to move with me from Toronto. He’s a software engineer, so it was easy for him to find a career path here as well. And at about the six-year mark at UC Irvine, he said, you know, I want to, he wanted to quit his day job and start his own company. And I wanted to support him to do that. But the problem was that I was getting paid a postdoc salary, you know, which for those who’ve done that know what that means. And we had two young children in daycare, which is expensive, as you know, in Orange County, and so I needed to pay the bills, I needed to find a job where I was going to make significantly more money quickly. And, you know, luckily Allergan is, you know, well known in this area, right in UCI’s backyard. And I had observed a couple of postdoctoral students finish their research at UCI and move on to successful roles at Allergan, and I thought, well, you know, if they can do it, I can do it too. And I saw this position advertised on the retina disease team, and they needed someone who had a strong background in vivo sciences and statistics, experimental design, all the things that I had been doing in the brain. And I just thought, well, I’m pretty sure I can convince them that I can do retina, if I can do brain, I mean, it really is just a piece of neural tissue, just not install, right? I mean, in the eyeball instead. So I did. And, like I said, I mean, it was the company went underwent enormous changes over the nine years that I was there. And, you know, it was not always easy. But every time there was a big change, there was an opportunity to step up and embrace that change and help the company and help my colleagues and the teams and the programs sort of get to the next stage. And it really, I mean, that’s really what kept me there for nine years was that was there was just a multiple learning opportunities and really great colleagues too. Allergan as you know, a really rich history in ophthalmology. And I learned so much from the people that I worked with while I was there.
Ehsan Sadri: Who are some of your mentors when you were there?
Lori-Ann Christie: Oh, gosh, I’m gonna miss people if I start naming names. So I worked with John Dinallo a lot. I worked with Dan Gill, and they were both and still are wonderful mentors to me. Don Fraile came on us the head of research a little bit, probably about midway through my tenure there. Also a great mentor, Larry Wheeler, I worked with, he interviewed me, you can imagine how nervous I was getting interviewed by the head of the research, you know, just coming straight out of academia, right? But very kind, very supportive. And really, you know, I sure I’ve missed people, but the sort of M.O. of all of those leaders that I worked with, they really got what their legacy was, which you know, was to bring up the next generation of scientists and drug hunters, and train them well and give them opportunities, stretch opportunities, and I was very fortunate to have had a lot of really unique opportunities to kind of show what I could do while I was there. And because of those people.
Ehsan Sadri: That’s incredible. What I love about your history is like, you know, you’re I think you’re like me, you put your head down your work, and you grind and you’re there for a long time. You know, I’ve had so many people that I’ve interviewed that this kind of, you know, every year so they just kind of hop around a little bit, but I’m certainly like that I once I fault, like, you know, my place, I just kind of go and sometimes that’s a great thing. I think it leads to a lot of great things. Sometimes, you know, I stay a little longer than I should have. You know, you know, if I were going back a couple years earlier would have probably been okay to, but you know, so there’s lessons now, for those people listening, you know, they want to know, like, okay, so you were a postdoc, that’s academia, now your industry, you’ve got certain, obviously, you’re getting paid more, but there’s a lot more challenges. You have to work wear different hats. Did someone mentor you for that you kind of get thrown in and have to take us through that. How was that transition during the years of Allergan?
Lori-Ann Christie: Well, I started, you know, in terms of like, the day to day of what I was doing, I started in a way, doing things in as similar to what I had done as a postdoc, right. So, you know, it was kind of funny, because I knew so little about the eye, the direct report that I inherited when I started was actually training me, right. So, you know, we’re down in the vivarium. And we’ve got I mean, this the wonderful clinical instrumentation, you know, to image mouse and rat and rabbit eyes and all the different species that we use. And so, you know, I had to learn from him, which was an interesting dynamic, and it was my also my first kind of official managerial role. And so yeah, I mean, I needed to ask for advice all the time, and I made mistakes, and I learned from them, I hope. And just sort of continue to get better. You know, the currency is different in industry than academia, of course, right in academia, you know, very competitive, you got to publish, you got to get the publications in the high impact journals so that you can get the grant funding to continue. And that’s it, you know, somebody described it to me one time as being almost like a small business owner, right? Like you care about these people that are in your lab, and you, you know, their families, and you want to make sure that you can still fund their salaries and really keep moving the research forward. So the pressure is there, it’s different in industry, you know, the thing is we need to be sure about the data packages that we’re generating. So, the goal is not to hopefully have an outcome that you can publish, right? A quick kill in industry is worth as much or maybe even more, as finding out if something is going to work. So that’s kind of you know, any of the direct reports that I’ve had over the years or anybody that I’ve had an opportunity to mentor over the years that asks what the difference is almost like, we have to be so honest with ourselves and so rigorous about how we design the experiments, because these are data that are going to feed into a decision-making process to spend, you know, $100 million to do a clinical development program, right. So, we can’t be wrong, it didn’t work. Did it not work doesn’t really matter; we need to be sure about what the answer is?
Ehsan Sadri: The validity of the data is very important compared to like, just a share number of publications. Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. For those of you don’t know that, and then, okay, so, obviously, you’ve gotten to know each other, and you’ve got, you know, I love your background, because you know, you’ve got the science, you’ve got now a formal pan, you know, multinational pan, you know, national pharmaceutical giant that was overtaken, you know, but AbbVie, became AbbVie, so you stay there, you became a director, and then now investing. So now you’re relatively new ER. But is this something you always wanted to do? Tell us through that. And then we taking did you have to sort of read up on stuff? If so, how was that currently doing like?
Lori-Ann Christie: Right? So that’s a really good question. So you know, you mentioned AbbVie’s acquisition of Allergan. But before that, obviously, Actavis had acquired us. And that’s really when my role changed from doing, sort of leading this team of people that was developing these preclinical proof of concept packages, which we still did a bit, but probably only about 50% of my time, because really, the focus shifted this shifted to this open science, this external innovation model right under Mr. Saunders. So in that role, we went through a lot of downsizing, which was difficult because it was a closely knit team. And, you know, we saw some programs that we’d love to go away, because they weren’t part of the sort of new business model. And, you know, so you get past the emotion of all of those losses. It’s like, okay, this is our new reality, and how do we reset? And how do we deliver it for the company. And so the way to do that, in that context for me, was to go pretty deep on diligence of external opportunities. So looking at the science, looking at the preclinical data packages, deciding if there is a reason to believe, and then interacting, and this was really the great learning opportunity for me, you know, being part of this diligence team, right. So now, it’s not just discovery research. It’s the non-clinical. So the toxicologist, the pathologists, the clinical pharmacologist, clinical development, regulatory commercial, and hearing the input about the opportunity from all of those different perspectives, right, because ultimately, what we need to do is deliver a product that is commercializable, and that’s going to make money for the company. And so, you know, that, to me, was a great exposure to all the different puzzle pieces that need to come together other than a science to deliver on that promise. And that’s really, you know, it felt hard at the time to let go and to switch mindsets and do that. But that’s really what gave me all of the experience that I needed to do the role that I’m doing now at Visionary. And, you know, for me, I always wanted to learn more about the business and finance side. So that was something you know, because of course, there’s confidentiality and all those kinds of other things. So like, once this big cross functional team kind of put their opinions together and said, Yes, you know, business development commercial scientific assessment, we want to move forward with this opportunity? Then those then I wasn’t part of those discussions anymore, just because that wasn’t my function and role. But I always had this longing, well, you know, how are they going to value this, right? And then you know, you would see the press release, and it’s like, oh, they bought this company or this asset for X number of dollars. I’m like, how did they, you know, is it the 10 million? 100 million 500 million? Like, how do you how do you come to that number, right, and put value on something, taking into account all the risk, organizational risk, asset risk, science, risk, whatever. So that’s what is really exciting to me about the opportunity that I have at Visionary. I think everybody that I’ve spoken to, you know, Jeff Weinhuff and Garrett Hamontree are top notch at what they do on the finance side. And, you know, at this point, actually know a lot about the ophthalmology space, obviously, having done it now for many years. And so yeah, I’m really looking forward to just absorbing all of it, and it’s going to be really on the job training for me to get all of that information.
Ehsan Sadri: Well, you know, you’re, it’s amazing, because you’re a very powerful force, because you’ve got the science. And now, you know, you’re so you had the industry, and now you have the investments, almost like a trifecta. I think it’s awesome. You have, you know, tremendous tools in the tools box. And it’s rare for people normally people are siloed, that’s, you know, and that’s what makes you just special. I think it’s really good that you know, Visionary just been really blessed to have you and just, I personally look forward to spending more time with you over the next few years. And then so now, obviously, I have my picks, but what are some technologies you like companies that you are saying, Hey, this is kind of neat. This is kind of intriguing. I know, you know, visually, it looks like a lot of different off camera companies. But are there any that you are sort of more excited about and curious about?
Lori-Ann Christie: Yeah, so I mean, I think big picture wise, creative ways to accomplish sustained delivery, for the eye is huge, right? I mean, whether you’re talking about patients not having to use eyedrops or not having to go for intravitreal injections every month. I mean, these are burdensome asks, especially in the elderly populations for those disease indications. So I think that is a big focus in the field. And I think it should be a big focus. And it’s really exciting for me to think about, you know, who’s got the most differentiated one, the most flexible one that can accommodate small molecules, large molecules can be injected, you know, subcon, interatrial, super choroidal. So that’s a big one, I think, you know, in the future, I’m hoping that some of the potential that could be realized for things like gene therapy and Regenerative Medicine, cell therapy, that we’re going to get to a point where those are tractable. And for gene therapy, we’ve already seen it with Lou externa. But I think there’s a lot more opportunity there. And eye is such a special place to try some of those novel modalities because it’s compartmentalized. The volumes of materials, the cost of goods that you need is lower, you know, you can visualize the eye, you can see these changes happening with all of these great imaging technologies that we have. So those are really, really interesting to me. And then, you know, I mean, digital health is applicable to the eye, artificial intelligence, better ways of diagnosing people, you know, maybe even being able to have some sort of situation where people can monitor their own visual health from home and report to their doctors that way. Those are, I think, the kind of big pictures like without naming names, those are the sort of big picture opportunities that I’m following really closely right now.
Ehsan Sadri: Good, that’s good lot more to unpack next time. I would love to have you here, hopefully next time, next, next year, this time and see your trajectory, which is I know, it’s gonna be like this. Lori-Ann if people want to reach you, what’s the best way? Would it be through LinkedIn or email? What?
Lori-Ann Christie: LinkedIn is great email, email, as well. Yeah.
Ehsan Sadri: Very good. Very good. Well, we’re super excited to showcase you on the OIS Podcast and me personally spend some more time with you. I look forward to having you teach me more about neuroscience. And I wish you and your family a wonderful one. Wonderful, happy holidays.
Lori-Ann Christie: Thank you. Thanks very much. Appreciate it. Thanks, Ehsan. Nice, great speaking with you.
Ehsan Sadri: Absolutely, absolutely, you look great.