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WATT Podcast – Episode 4: Interview with Celine Halioua

“Women need to be resilient when interacting in male-dominated spaces. I
recommend surrounding yourself with women mentors who will back you up
and offer advice from past experiences, strategically and emotionally.
This is one of the most invaluable steps I’ve taken as a founder.”

For the fourth episode of the WATT Podcast, our guest is Celine Halioua – founder
and CEO of Loyal, a San Francisco-based biotech developing drugs to extend the
lifespan and improve the healthspan of dogs. Celine studied neuroscience and
nanobiotechnology at UT Austin and at Uppsala University, and then went on to
study for a PhD in health economics of gene therapy at the University of Oxford in
order to better understand healthcare access, particularly when it comes to
expensive therapies such as gene therapies. She also has experience working in the
venture capital world, both as a founder raising for her start-up and as Chief of Staff
to Laura Deming at The Longevity Fund. Celine is a strong advocate of female-led
companies and she is passionate about developing better medicines, as well as
improving access to better medicines.

Dogs and ageing

  • Celine’s experience of working in a neuro-oncology clinic kindled in her an interest in ageing as she learned that the body’s own ageing mechanisms are involved in many difficult-to-treat diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and some cancers. This sparked the idea to develop drugs against ageing mechanisms in order to delay, dampen or prevent the development of age-related diseases, rather than attempting to treat a disease once it was already established in the body.
  • It is very difficult to develop drugs for ageing and lifespan extension in humans, not only because of the biological challenges, but also because of the logistical and ethical challenges. One of the reasons why studying ageing is more feasible in dogs than it is in humans, is because dogs have a shorter lifespan than humans; the average lifespan of a dog is about 10 years and it varies between breeds. This difference in lifespan means that it is more practical to test a new drug in, for example, a healthy mature Great Dane at age three or four, where it can be determined whether the drug has successfully delayed the onset of age-related disease within a timeframe that is customary for clinical trials, palatable to venture funders and conducive to sustaining a start-up.
  • In the US, both human and dog drug development are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In order to receive regulatory approval for use in humans or dogs, a drug must demonstrate safety, efficacy and amenability to large-scale manufacture in clinical trial studies. The key difference in the drug development process between these two species is that it takes on average four years for a drug to be approved for use in dogs (because one or two trials in dogs may be sufficient to achieve market approval), versus taking on average 10 years for humans, where typically three clinical trial studies must be performed.
  • The larger a dog breed is by body mass, the shorter its median lifespan. For example, Chihuahuas live on average 16 to 18 years, whereas Great Danes live on average seven to nine years. The predominant explanation for this is inbreeding, whereby dogs were selectively bred to perpetuate specific phenotypes, whether they be certain traits, aesthetics or behaviours. Inbreeding led to the emergence of genetic mistakes and many dog breeds have genetic issues as a result of such practices (e.g. German Shepherds develop hip dysplasia, while flat-faced breeds develop breathing disorders). By studying the difference in lifespan between dog breeds, it may be possible to discover the regulators of this process that can be targeted pharmacologically to improve the lifespan and healthspan of dogs.

Building Loyal and fundraising as a female founder

  • When it comes to gender barriers in building a start-up and fundraising, Celine explained that she has experienced little overt sexism, but that unconscious gender bias is more common. As a result, it can often feel like women have to prove that they are 10 times more competent than their male counterparts in order to receive equal treatment and opportunities.
  • Celine discovered that being a woman is a great advantage when it comes to building and managing a company. Loyal’s workforce is 70% female and many of the women shared similar experiences of bias or harassment at previous workplaces. Celine acknowledged that, like most workplaces, Loyal may have its cultural flaws and mistakes, but at least it is a safer and calmer space where the employees can focus on solving ambitious problems.
  • Celine did not know that her journey would lead her to start a company; she initially wanted to continue working at The Longevity Fund. However, through the encouragement of Laura Deming and following multiple conversations with contacts in Silicon Valley, the vision of Loyal became clearer. It became obvious to Celine that she was the right person to run the company and that her approach to solving this problem had a place in the world. Loyal’s ethos and objectives lie at the intersection of Celine’s strengths in animals, longevity, consumer focus and communication, and she felt a strong conviction to pursue the goal of developing better medicines for age-related diseases.
  • People often argue that a start-up should be led by the science, but when building a consumer-facing technology, it can be difficult to reconcile a science-first philosophy with a consumer product-first philosophy. Celine believes that the right balance needs to be struck between these two philosophies, but a company’s strategy also needs to play to its strengths and skillset. For example, Loyal is consumer-focused because: (i) their goal is to educate the public on ageing and age-related disease drugs, and (ii) their customers will primarily be dog owners. Therefore, it made sense to adopt a consumer-focused strategy because of the nature of the technology, but more importantly, this also played to Celine’s strength in communicating the science behind Loyal and her interest in building a consumer-focused technology with a strong brand.

Advice to women in STEM treading a similar path

  • Don’t be afraid to work with and learn from ambitious men; this will help you to understand the differences in how men interact, how they support and push each other to achieve bigger things than they could ever have achieved on their own.
  • As you progress further into your career, there will be less women at the top. Be aware that the behaviours and experiences may become more intense at that level and you have to be prepared for that, meet such experiences with resilience and be cognizant of the hard boundary between what is acceptable and what is not.
  • In building Loyal, Celine has had the good fortune of working with many supportive male colleagues, and she has observed that the best allies are often fathers of daughters!

July 13, 2021
Written by Iva Trenevska

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