Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 24)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Clark Cahoon, the life science industry director at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Tina Larson, president and COO of Recursion
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Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Clark Cahoon (0:19): Hi, my name is Clark Cahoon, I’m the life science industry director here at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. And I’m here with Tina Larson, president and COO of Recursion. Tina, how’s it going?
Tina Larson (0:31): Doing well, Clark. Really happy to be here today.
Clark Cahoon (0:33): Thanks for taking time. I know things are really busy at Recursion. There’s a lot of fun and exciting things that you guys have planned for 2020. Before we start talking about Recursion, I know that you have some ties to Utah, I just want to kind of get to know what those connections are and what brought you here to Utah.
Tina Larson (0:49): Yeah, absolutely. I actually moved to Utah permanently in 2018 to join Recursion. So I’ve been here for almost two years now, but before that I was born in Colorado and I spent my whole career in the San Francisco Bay Area. But both of my parents are from Utah as is my family going back many generations to the pioneers.
I’m actually the first person in my family to have been raised outside of Utah. So it’s been interesting. I spent my summers in Utah growing up, my parents met here at the University of Utah before they moved to Colorado. So it’s been really interesting actually moving to Utah. So it’s a place that feels both new but also pretty familiar.
Clark Cahoon (1:24): That’s really interesting that you had a connection growing up and having, I imagine family here that you’d come visit in the summers. How was that making the transition to being here full-time?
Tina Larson (1:34): It’s been really interesting. So I think some things, as I said, felt very natural and normal. For the first time ever, I live in the same state as my extended family, which has been really fun. Holidays are really exciting, so it’s actually good to have some family around and culturally there’s some things here that actually feel much more normal to me and in the way that I grew up then living in San Francisco.
And I think, for example, the values here, how charitable and caring, giving people are not the people in the Bay Area aren’t that way, but I just think it’s just something so just amazing and unique about Utah. There honestly were some other things that were a little bit more of a culture shock, if you will, coming in. I think gender equity is one, being a female engineer, a female executive, it’s a topic I spent a lot of time on even in the Bay Area, really trying to push the envelope there to bring more women into these areas. And I think Utah even maybe has a little bit farther to go and in some of these. And so I think that’s something I’ve become quite passionate about living here.
Clark Cahoon (2:30): Well, that’s great. I appreciate you bringing up that focus on gender equity and we hope to continue to make progress in that. So thanks for coming to Utah and helping us work on that. There’s always more that we can do. So thanks for that focus.
Tina Larson (2:44): And I’d be remiss to say that I just love the skiing, as does my family.
Clark Cahoon (2:48): You can’t forget about that.
Tina Larson (2:49): That was pretty easy to get you.
Clark Cahoon (2:50): There’s some unique features like that that make it really great. Now, tell us a little about Recursion and how that connection came about to bring you to Utah.
Tina Larson (2:58): Yeah, and so the real reason I came here was to work for Recursion. Living in Utah has been a bonus and an upside, but that was not the reason that I came here. I’m really excited about Recursion. So my background is in biochemical engineering. I’ve been in the biotechnology industry for over 20 years now and I had the kind of extreme fortune of working for many years at the company that essentially defined the biotechnology industry by taking recombinant DNA technology and using it to develop new treatments for diseases like cancer.
So I have had one opportunity in my career to see medicine revolutionized by technology. I believe what we’re doing at Recursion is going to be my next chance to see the practice of medicine revolutionized with technology. So I’m incredibly excited to be here and I think it’s pretty amazing that it’s happening right here in Salt Lake City.
Clark Cahoon (3:43): Excellent. So the mission of Recursion and focusing on those things was the hook that kind of maybe brought you in a little bit?
Tina Larson (3:52): Yeah, absolutely. I’ve dedicated my career at least to this point, to using innovative technology to change the practice of medicine. And it’s hard. That’s a really, really hard thing to do. And it takes a very special company to have the patience, the scientific expertise and the boldness to go after that type of mission. And Recursion is that company. And I recognize that immediately when I started talking to Chris Gibson, the founder and CEO of the company.
Clark Cahoon (4:21): That’s really interesting. Now, Recursion is one of the fastest growing companies in Utah. They moved into The Gateway, took over the old Dick’s Sporting Goods building, moved down from Research Park near the University of Utah. Tell us a little bit about the mission of Recursion and really what you’re doing there at the company.
Tina Larson (4:38): Yeah. The mission of Recursion is decoding biology to radically improve lives and what that really means is that we’re using a convergence of multiple technologies, things like machine learning, artificial intelligence, laboratory automation, where essentially we are a digital biology company that’s looking to industrialize the way that drug discovery is done.
And that’s really important because discovering new drugs is expensive. It takes a long time. A lot of drugs fail when they are in human clinical trials when we’re trying to understand the safety and efficacy of the drugs. And so we want to find a better way and particularly have started our work targeting genetic rare diseases in small patient populations where it’s really important to be efficient in the way that you discover drugs because these are very targeted patient populations that have been really underserved by the way we discover drugs today.
Clark Cahoon (5:34): One of the things that stood out to me other than the mission focus of these rare diseases in the populations is you mentioned it’s expensive to do drug discovery. And life sciences in general just takes more funding to move things forward. One of the things that’s unique about Recursion is you’ve raised a lot of money, there’s a lot of momentum in the last couple of years. Can you tell us what sets you apart from some of the other life science companies that are more traditionally put in that category I guess to say?
Tina Larson (6:03): Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot of things that set us apart from life science companies and I’ll focus on two things. First is kind of talking about, to your point that discovering drugs has become prohibitively expensive and drug pricing is a really important issue for us as a society.
And so the question is why is it so expensive to bring a new drug to market? It takes billions of dollars and more than a decade to bring one drug to market. And just the cost of that is just becoming prohibitive, particularly as we go into more and more underserved areas. And so one reason that it’s so expensive is because about 90% of drugs that are discovered, developed, go into human clinical trials and are actually tested in people, about 90% of those drugs fail to ever make it to market. And so a lot of the reason it’s so expensive to discover drugs is the cost of failure.
And so what sets Recursion apart is that we actually are not just a life science company, not just a drug company, we are a tech company, meets a life science company and we are equally both of those things. And so we are applying some of these principles of technology in terms of trying to understand before we get to humans, understand in the laboratory using, very, very high through laboratory automation, using robots, using a really complex computational tools to develop a huge dataset in the laboratory with the belief that we’re going to put drugs into the clinic and into the people that have a much higher chance of working.
And when you do that, if you can increase that success rate or if you can do better than a 90% failure rate, that is an amazing way to make drug discovery cheaper and that’s what we’re going after.
Clark Cahoon (7:45): That’s really interesting. I like learning about the confluence of you’re not solely a life science company, not solely just traditional software tech company, you’re really kind of bringing those two aspects together. What’s the most exciting part of your business in those terms?
Tina Larson (8:01): Well, our company is very exciting every day.
Clark Cahoon (8:05): All of it.
Tina Larson (8:07): It’s nonstop. I think what’s most exciting about it is I truly believe that this kind of company can solve an important problem. I really believe the next revolution in treating medicine is applying technology tools. And I don’t think that traditional pharmaceutical companies can do it and I don’t think traditional tech companies can do it.
I think you absolutely have to build something from the ground up. I think you need an equal number of software engineers and data scientists and machine learning experts to your research biologists, your chemists, and you need to kind of have a balance between that pharmaceutical or biological way of thinking, life science way of thinking and that tech way of thinking and both of those groups need to learn how to speak each other’s language.
They need to learn to respect the disciplines of each other and they need to learn what each other’s doing. And I just think if you have grown up as one or other of those two things, you just can’t really effectively do it in the way that Recursion’s doing it. And so, and there are a small number of other companies out there in the United States, in the world that are also trying to do kind of build this company from the ground up and very happy to see that Recursion is definitely one of the leaders in this space of digital biology.
Clark Cahoon (9:20): Yeah, that’s a great point. One of the things that I look to… So excited to have Recursion to be a part of the robust community in life sciences in Utah is really the trailblazing aspect of what you’re doing. And it’s interesting too, looking back at, okay, trailblazers, where did that come from? Where’s the origin? I understand that it’s a technology, it was spun out of the University of Utah. Can you talk a little bit about the origins of Recursion and kind of how it came about?
Tina Larson (9:44): Yeah, absolutely. So our co-founder and CEO, Chris Gibson, was actually a student at medical school at the University of Utah. One of our co-founders was his advisor, Dean Li. And then they brought in Blake Borgeson who had just come out of founding a company in Austin, Texas. And had sold that company and he’s an expert in artificial intelligence.
So it was like this perfect convergence of bringing together a technology that really resulted out of research at the University of Utah and Chris and his co-founders immediately saw this opportunity to really change the way that biology was interrogated and to translate that into doing something meaningful, like discovering drugs. And so Chris, who is incredibly smart and an incredible risk taker, actually left before receiving his medical degree to found this company and to drive this vision forward. And he’s been relentlessly doing that for the last six years.
Clark Cahoon (10:43): So knowing that Chris had that connection with school, he took that risk, he dropped out and he just full fledge was raising money and building the team at Recursion. What is it about starting the company or having it in Utah that makes it unique? Because you could have easily just gone to the Bay Area.
Tina Larson (10:59): Right. And so, to be completely honest, the reason we’re in Utah is because Chris is supporting the career of his partner. His wife is a physician here in Utah. Her family’s from here. Her opportunity was here. And so that’s actually… I don’t think he ever questioned that this company would be founded in Utah. So it’s also the reason he was able to do that though.
If he would have been in the middle of the country, somewhere, I don’t know, like not that the opportunity might not have been available to lead regardless of whether he wanted to be a great partner to his spouse. And so we can take advantage of the Silicon Slopes, which is the Utah tech community. It’s gotten amazing traction in the last several years and we’re coming up on the Silicon Slopes Tech Conference, which is going to be over 20,000 people right here in Salt Lake City.
And so that’s great for a company like Recursion that is half tech company. And when we’ve been able to make some great hires locally, having the University of Utah, a very well-renowned medical school, a small and growing life science community here in the state of Utah. All of those things kind of gave the raw materials that are necessary to grow a company.
But the reason we’ve relocated so many people here is that there are still skills that we have not been able to hire locally. 60% of Recursion we have hired here in the state of Utah, but 40% of our company, we’ve relocated to Utah specifically to work at Recursion, particularly to get access to folks like myself that are experienced in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry since we don’t have a rich ecosystem here yet of those types of companies. We’ve had to, some of us have had to relocate here to help Recursion be successful.
Clark Cahoon (12:38): Yeah. That backfill of finding the right talent, bringing them in, incorporating them into the culture that’s kind of already here in Utah and bringing in some fresh talent is really unique to Recursion. Even the proximity from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, has been a benefit whether it’s raising funding or bringing talent in. Can you speak to that?
Tina Larson (12:56): Yeah, absolutely. Salt Lake City is such an easy city to travel to whether you’re going skiing or going and traveling for business, the airport’s incredible. I take TRAX right from work to the airport. I’m there in 12 minutes. I can go into work in the morning, take a brief meeting, get on a flight to San Jose or Oakland or San Francisco, be there in an hour and 10 minutes, take meetings and I can be back and tuck my daughter in for bed.
Clark Cahoon (13:19): That’s incredible.
Tina Larson (13:20): It’s really, really incredible. The only problem is the delays in San Francisco.
Clark Cahoon (13:24): What can you do?
Tina Larson (13:24): I don’t know how to fix that. And similar, we have just launched a company in New York, which we can talk about if we have a minute. And that that CEO is establishing that Recursion subsidiary in New York City. It could be in New York City and just over three hours. And we’ve relocated people from Seattle, from San Francisco, from San Diego, from Boston, from Chicago, from Indianapolis. And I think all of those places are incredibly convenient. And so we do have a mix of employees who do go back and forth to places they came from. And as you mentioned, it allows those of us that are out raising money, talking to potential partners, we can very easily operate actually on both coasts. It’s accessing the San Francisco Bay Area as well as places like New York and Boston. And if you look at where our investors are and our partners are, they really come from all over the country and actually all over the world.
Clark Cahoon (14:18): It’s really interesting. It’s funny when people do come to Salt Lake and they experience how easy it is to get from the airport to downtown or even if they’re traveling down to Lehi, it really is pretty simple. And then you throw in the whole aspect of recreation if they want to come here and throw skiing into their trip as well. Just heading up to Park City is so simple and so there are some really unique features that make it nice to kind of blend kind of work and maybe recreation into it as well.
Tina Larson (14:41): Oh yeah. It’s no coincidence that our next board meeting is coming up and it’s during the Sundance Film Festival, so…
Clark Cahoon (14:46): There you go. Another great asset here in Utah that we have to kind of leverage. To kind of change pace a little bit, what’s on the horizon with drug discovery? Because I know Recursion’s doing a pretty unorthodox kind of confluence of life sciences and traditional technology to find new solutions in healthcare. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Tina Larson (15:03): Yeah, so I think a lot of people are looking at ways to improve drug discovery. It is the cost of capital, the amount of money it takes to discover a drug is just no longer worth the return on drugs and no industry can successfully operate in that and which can be a challenge. But it’s also an incredible opportunity for us as an industry to find a new way.
What are better ways to get these drugs to market? What are better ways to think about treating disease and what are better ways to just not accept failure? So I think there’s a lot of different approaches and of course Recursion is taking one approach. But one thing that I’m really excited to see is that even 18 months ago when I arrived at Recursion, we were spending a lot of time going out to the big pharma companies and others in the industry and trying to convince them that applying things like artificial intelligence to drug discovery was going to be really important to revolutionize the way things were done.
We were seeing some reluctance to that message not surprisingly across the board. One thing that’s been interesting in the last year is that it’s totally transitioned where now there’s a complete acknowledgment that things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital biology are going to change the way that drug discovery is happening.
We saw incredible partnerships announced between, for example, Novartis and Microsoft, a major tech company, a major pharma company just before the break GSK, which is another large pharma company announced they were going to hire a hundred machine learning experts in the Bay Area. I wish them good luck on that, by the way, that’s a hard skill set to get anywhere in the world.
Clark Cahoon (16:37): Truly.
Tina Larson (16:37): But I think all of these things and the several companies have launched in this kind of artificial intelligence for drug discovery type of space in the last months. And Recursion is well recognized as a leader in this space. And so I think that’s just really exciting for Recursion, but also just really exciting that we’re no longer trying to convince ourselves that this is a technology we should try to pursue. Now, we’re just trying to figure out what’s the best way to do it.
Clark Cahoon (17:02): Yeah, that’s really great. I’m going to kind of change the pace a little bit and ask you a question. What’s your favorite thing to do in Utah?
Tina Larson (17:09): Yeah, that’s a great question. So I spend a lot of time at the ski slopes and I’ll be totally honest, that’s my favorite thing for my husband and my 11 year-old daughter to do. My 11 year-old daughter joined a ski team. My husband grew up on a ski team and he’s also from Colorado. And we’ve had her on a ski team since she was four years old.
It was a pretty big commitment when you live in San Francisco. We drove four to five hours to get her to the slopes. Now, it’s about 25 minutes and so I love being in the mountains and I think that’s been just kind of my favorite thing. People are really focused on living a healthy lifestyle here, living their lives. And I think the other thing that I really point to that is just the most heartwarming part of me of living here has been just seeing the kind of the kindness and caring of the people that I’ve been surrounded with.
And I see it just out in the community. People really care about each other. People are just friendly. Even going to a store like people talk to you, it’s a very humanistic place to be. I think that’s a message that actually doesn’t get out. I’d actually like to get out more broadly because I think it’s not the first thing that comes up when you Google, what is it like to live in Salt Lake City?
Clark Cahoon (18:18): Right. Well, thanks for touching on that, I just want to make sure if there’s anything that I missed, say there was a question I didn’t ask you, what would you want to touch on as we wrap things up?
Tina Larson (18:27): The one thing I would just like to touch on that I’m just, I’m so excited about because we just started talking about it in the last few weeks because we’ve just launched our first Recursion subsidiary and this is part of the strategy. Recursion is a research and development company, a tech company, and we want to keep boldly going to decoding biology, driving the field of digital biology forward.
And so we have several programs now that have come to the human clinical trial stage and that’s a little bit of a different type of activity actually having products out there in human clinical trials. And so we’ve made the decision to actually create subsidiary companies to drive these programs forward. And so we have a potential drug for a disease called Neurofibromatosis 2 and we’ve just launched a new subsidiary company in New York and found a fantastic CEO to lead that company. And so I would just say, look for more on that coming up. It’s something we’re really excited about to kick off the year.
Clark Cahoon (19:21): Awesome. That’s a really unique feature and looking forward to hearing more on that and other developments that come through in 2020. Tina, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for taking your time to come and be on this podcast and share a little bit about Recursion. And we wish you the best in the new year.
Tina Larson (19:36): Thanks so much, Clark. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Clark Cahoon (19:39): Thank you.
Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.