A Gene-uine Talent for Deals
Robin A. Walker is behind some of the most cutting-edge gene-editing deals in biotech.
Robin A. Walker (’99) was happy in her job as associate general counsel at Biogen when a recruiter for Casebia Therapeutics, a new gene-editing company, came calling. And emailing. And calling again.
She was delayed in answering the queries because she was traveling for work and the open position at Casebia was for a patent attorney, an area outside her expertise. Then the recruiter sent one more email, leading off with: “I know you’re not a patent attorney.”
By the end of that day in May 2017, Walker was the top general counsel candidate for Casebia, a joint venture between CRISPR Therapeutics and Bayer that launched in 2016 to develop cures for blood disorders, blindness, and congenital heart disease using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9. When Ellen Ridge, Casebia’s senior vice president of operations and a former colleague of Walker’s at Biogen, heard that Walker’s name had surfaced, she reached out that same morning and asked Walker to at least meet the company’s president and chief executive officer, Jim Burns. Noticing a cancellation on her calendar for that evening, Walker agreed. She didn’t even bring her résumé.
“I typed up a list of all the things I’d learned over the years doing deals with smaller companies—mistakes they’d made by thinking too narrowly,” she recalls. “That’s what I brought with me.”
It was enough. By June, Walker had been named Casebia’s vice president, head of legal.
“She came prepared and said, ‘Here’s what you probably need and might not know,’” Burns says. “She was very convincing.”
Gene editing, which allows for changes to a living organism’s DNA, is at the cutting edge of biotechnology; it’s so cutting edge, in fact, that the regulatory framework isn’t settled and ownership of the underlying patents is still in dispute. In November, the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on the potential impact and ethical concerns of gene-editing technologies and the US Food and Drug Administration announced expedited approval processes for regenerative medicines, including gene therapies. As the product of a well-funded joint venture between CRISPR Therapeutics, founded by one of the CRISPR/Cas9 patent holders, and Bayer, a global life sciences company, Casebia is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the moment.
Casebia is also a good fit for Walker’s biotech expertise. (In September, she was named one of Boston’s 50 most influential people of color in life sciences and healthcare.) After graduating from BU School of Law, Walker went to the firm now known as K&L Gates, where she was first introduced to biotech matters, including work for Novartis and smaller start-up companies. She then spent five years in-house at Staples before joining Biogen, where gene-editing transactions, including a licensing agreement worth $60 million up front and up to $484 million in milestone payments to Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corporation, were part of her specialty.
“I did a lot of deals,” she recalls. “If you just make products that treat symptoms and someone else comes in and cures the disease, your market share goes to zero. So all the big companies are looking at gene editing and gene therapies.”
Susan M. Galli, a partner at Ropes & Gray who worked with Walker as outside counsel on several deals, says she and Walker pulled a few all-nighters on the Mitsubishi transaction. “At the end of it, Robin said, ‘What could be better than working on an interesting, international deal with significant companies on a product that could potentially provide lifesaving therapy?’” Galli recalls. “I just feel like that really encapsulates her passion and dedication for the work and also her enjoyment of it.” Walker, who grew up in Marshfield, Mass., didn’t focus on IP or healthcare-related courses at BU Law. Instead, she took the Criminal Law Clinical Program and “every one” of Professor Tracey Maclin’s courses. She says that after taking one of Maclin’s classes her first year, he asked her on the first day of a class the next year if she still had the same position on an issue that she had held the year before. She credits Maclin and Professor Mark Pettit, Jr., with whom she took Contracts, with helping her “think and hone” her arguments. In her deal making, however, she strives to find common ground.
“Some people focus on places they disagree,” she says. “But I say, ‘Okay, do we agree that we want to bring a product to market to cure patients?’ I like to take care of the things we agree on before dealing with things that may be issues.”
Colleagues and friends say Walker is extremely committed to all aspects of her life, including her family, her career, her volunteer work as president of the Women’s Bar Foundation in Boston—which ensures access to justice for low-income women—and her beloved New England Patriots (Walker rarely misses work calls, but she did block her calendar to attend the 2015 and 2017 Super Bowls, which the Patriots won).
Aras Lapinskas, a friend and former colleague who has been a guest at Walker’s famous Patriots tailgate parties, says he thinks Walker approaches work the same way she approaches her family and friendships.
“If there’s a common theme, it is a kind of advocacy for someone or something,” he says, adding that, in the deal-making process, “you’d want to pump your fist after you saw her in action.”
Lapinskas says Walker has found the perfect position at Casebia; and Walker agrees, saying the potential to “do good on a daily basis” was impossible to pass up. She says the field is exciting to work in professionally as well: the deals are complex and companies and institutions are clamoring to participate. In September, Walker guided Casebia in a Collaboration and Exclusive License Agreement with Seattle Children’s Research Institute to explore new methods to prevent autoimmune disease using CRISPR/Cas9 gene-edited white blood cells.
“It’s fun; it’s energizing,” she says. “These deals are not easy to ink. Who gets to publish? Who gets paid at what point? Who owns the IP?”
Walker says companies like Casebia have an obligation—and an opportunity—to address ethical concerns (an omnipresent question in discussions about gene editing is whether the technology will be used ethically and responsibly) and to help shape existing and eventual regulations.
“We’re all in the same regulatory boat,” she says, adding that she meets with her counterparts at other biotech companies to facilitate that process. “We have a responsibility to educate the public, Congress, and other regulators around the world so people won’t be afraid of it.”
For Walker, the risks are worth managing to unlock the technology’s potential benefits. “A really good friend of mine went blind as an adult,” she says. “Some of the work we’re doing may be able to correct that. Can you imagine being able to help your friend see again?”
This feature originally appeared in The Record, BU Law’s alumni magazine. Read the full issue here.
Reported by Rebecca Beyer