Carving her own path
With more than 20 years experience in the life science industry, alumnus Tracy Lawhon, BS’88, JD’94, left her work with large pharmaceutical firms to join two seed-stage biotech companies in California. How did she end up in the entrepreneurial world of biotech startup companies? She credits IU for helping prepare her for her current career.
College wasn’t a given for Lawhon. She came from a single-parent household of modest means, and financing a college education seemed a daunting challenge. In stepped her grandfather with a proposition. Her grandparents would loan Lawhon the funds necessary to attend Indiana University so that she didn’t have to work, could concentrate on her studies, and find some time to enjoy her college experience. Her grandfather did not finish college, and he wanted more for his granddaughter.
Lawhon would annually draft a budget detailing her expenses. They would negotiate the details, agree upon a figure and payback plan, and only then would her grandfather write her a check. She would deposit the money in a savings account and had to make it last. “Sometimes I ate popcorn and ramen noodles the last few days of the school year,” Lawhon ruefully admits, “but I never had to ask him for additional funds.”
Unfortunately, Lawhon’s grandfather didn’t live to see her complete her BS in microbiology; he lost his battle with cancer on the day she returned to school for her senior year. Her grandmother was there on graduation day, however, arriving with a very special gift: four years worth of shredded loan contracts. “My grandparents had agreed from the beginning that they would pay for my school, but wanted me to learn how to create a budget, live according to that budget and really want to work for my college degree, not feel it was handed to me,” she explains, adding, “These are life lessons that are still with me.”
Lawhon made the most of the opportunity provided by her grandparents. She enjoyed many of her classes, but her favorite was the independent research project she did with Professor George Hegeman during her senior year. He had a grant to investigate genetically-modified bacteria that could be used to clean up oil spills. She says of the experience, “It gave me the opportunity to put into practice the science I was learning in the classroom and the skills I was developing in the labs. But most importantly, the project showed me the practical use of science to help others and the environment.” She says that her degree was a great base for starting and developing her career, “In addition to the actual scientific knowledge that has been directly applicable to all of my positions,” she says, “science teaches a way of thinking beyond memorization. A well-designed experiment includes good controls and appropriate experimental arms so the results can be supported with cause and effect . . . In job settings, it has been invaluable for identifying issues and developing appropriate resolution strategies.”
Lawhon worked with Abbott Diagnostics for a year after graduating in 1988, and then spent the next seven years at Eli Lilly. She took advantage of Lilly’s tuition reimbursement program to earn her JD from the IU School of Law-Indianapolis. Lawhon spent another 10 years working in regulatory affairs and project management for life science companies such as Warner Lambert, Schering-Plough, and Novartis. It was in 2006 that she left the world of large industrial companies to join the management team of Cabrellis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, a startup company developing cancer treatment therapies. The firm was bought out by Pharmion six weeks later for $104 million.
Lawhon and three others from the Cabrellis management team founded Tragara, a privately held biopharmaceutical company based in San Diego, which develops and markets oncology therapeutics. She is the vice president of regulatory affairs and development operations for the three-year-old firm, which is a functional virtual company. There is an office for the eleven full-time employees, but they do not have any laboratory or manufacturing facilities. Instead, Tragara contracts with organizations to carry out the development activities for their two compounds, including drug manufacture, clinical trial conduct and toxicology studies. Lawhon enjoys the accountability and flexibility of being an entrepreneur.
When she isn’t working, Lawhon serves on the Steering Committee of Better Education for Women in Science and Engineering (BE WiSE) within the San Diego Science Alliance. The program is designed to keep junior high and high school aged girls interested in science and technology fields. She also belongs to ATHENA, an organization for executive women in the sciences, serving as a mentor and organizing career planning workshops. Lawhon enjoys San Diego, spending time hiking and running on nearby trails and beaches. She is training for an August trip to Peru, where she will hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Lawhon says that both planning and fate have played a role in where she is today. She sought out some positions while others came to her unexpectedly. “I am not a big believer in planning out your career or life path for the next five, 10, or 20 years,” Lawhon explains. “If you are too focused on a destination, you can miss some great paths along the way. I certainly had ideas of what I wanted to do when I graduated from college and what I would achieve in my career. But I could never have imagined the path I actually took.” And to think it all started with a proposal, a budget, and a loan that was really a gift!