Tina M. Larson is the President and COO of Recursion, a digital biology company industrializing drug discovery by combining automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning to decode human cellular biology. Ms. Larson is a 20+ year veteran of the biopharmaceutical industry; prior to joining Recursion she held senior leadership roles at Genentech, Roche and Achaogen. She has built a career at the intersection of bioengineering and mission-driven businesses seeking to improve lives. Ms. Larson serves on the advisory board of Colorado State University’s College of Engineering and was recognized in 2019 as a CSU Distinguished Alumni. She is an advocate for advancing women in engineering and business, and has been named a Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Rising Star, Women Tech Awards winner and Utah Business 30 Women to Watch honoree.
For those that are not familiar with Recursion, tell us about the company?
Recursion is a digital biology company industrializing drug discovery. Recursion does this by combining automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, in vivo validation capabilities and a highly cross-functional team to discover novel medicines that expand our collective understanding of biology. Recursion’s rich, relatable database of 4 petabytes of biological images generated in-house on the company’s robotics platform enables advanced machine learning approaches to reveal drug candidates, mechanisms of action, novel chemistry, and potential toxicity, with the eventual goal of decoding biology and advancing new therapeutics that radically improve people’s lives. Recursion is proudly headquartered in Salt Lake City. Learn more at www.recursionpharma.com, or connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.
What has been the most rewarding thing about your role and
the most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my role is watching the next generation of drug hunters - technology savvy biologists, data scientists, software engineers, computational chemists, medical doctors, robotics experts - figure out how to create a truly new type of company to discover treatments for terrible diseases. I was a young biochemical engineer at the forefront of the first biotechnology revolution in the mid-90's. Now I get to watch the next wave of scientists and engineers create the future of medicine. The most challenging part is trying to keep up with the pace of technology; the advances in high throughput biology and machine learning are happening at a stunning pace.
We hear a lot about women in tech in general, but not necessarily women in biotech. Probably the most well-known woman in the space is Anne Wojcicki from 23andMe. Who are some other notable women in the space? How do we encourage more women and/or girls to get into the biotech space?
Anne Wojcicki is a great example. Emma Walmsley is another woman leading at the intersection of medicine and technology; she is the CEO of GSK and board member of Microsoft. Sue Desmond-Hellmann was President at Genentech, Chancellor of UCSF and CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Pearl Huang, Sandra Horning, Bahija Jallal, Daphne Koller, Jennifer Cook, and more - there are so many talented women shaping biotech, but there is still a huge gender gap. The most important thing we can do to get girls into biotechnology is make sure they have exposure to the field and female role models working in it. Biotechnology is about helping people and improving lives - many girls are inspired to pursue mission-driven careers in biotech when they understand what it is all about and know how to get there.
As of last year, Utah ranked 49th for the wage gap and 46th for percentage of women in executive roles. What are your thoughts on changing Utah's trajectory in both areas?
Ugh, just ugh. Those statistics are daunting and frustrating and speak to a big challenge here in Utah. My parents were both born and raised in Utah, but I moved here for the first time in my 40s. So despite being a transplant I have a deep appreciation for the cultural roots of Utah. Even so, the gender gap has been a shock. At the same time I have also met an amazing community of strong, creative and resilient women. And men that are open and curious about how to better support female professionals.
CEOs need to make a meaningful commitment to grow women into management and leadership roles at all levels of companies, and corporate boards need more gender diversity. If we do not have women represented at the top then our workplaces will never be female-friendly. There are several local CEOs that are doing a great job (and others that most certainly are not). Given the diversity and expectations of the modern workforce I put my money on the companies that can get this right. Another thing we need in Utah is far better options for childcare that serves working parents. Recursion is opening on-site childcare this year and in researching that project, I was deeply disappointed to learn how few good options are available even in Salt Lake City. That needs to get better to support working parents of all genders, and especially women.
What do you love most about living in Salt Lake City? What are some of your favorite things to do?
Salt Lake City is amazing. I love to walk everywhere and visit our local neighborhood businesses in Sugarhouse, 9th & 9th and 15th & 15th. Shopping, yoga, coffee, doggie spa - all within walking distance! My husband and daughter love skiing (I do my best to keep up but always fail) so we spend winters at the ski resorts. And I am an avid gardener so I head up to Red Butte Garden every chance I get. Hiking, biking, swimming, tennis, museums, movies, restaurants, bars, and the list goes on. SLC has it all, but without all the traffic of other hot spots.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Morning coffee on the front porch in springtime with nowhere to be all day long.
What is your greatest fear?
Boredom. And more seriously, I fear not being productive and having an impact. I am working on being more comfortable just being and not always needing to produce, but I have a long ways to go.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I try not to deplore myself too much. Life is too short.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
I deplore others that deplore others. I do my best to avoid the recursive loop of deploring (that's a little Recursion humor folks!).
Which living person do you most admire?
My mom. Especially now that I live in Utah and have a better appreciation of everything she overcame to be the first person in her family to graduate from college, as well as the amount of sexism she faced along the way. Plus the commitment she made to raise me in a way I could become anything I wanted. It has taken me a long time to appreciate her strength and sacrifices. Better late than never I guess.
How you are managing during this time, what changes have you made to make sure your business is set up to work from home?
We have made changes to allow most of Recursion to work from home, and to keep a small team in our laboratories screening compounds in response to the pandemic. We were already set up to work over Slack and Zoom and other software tools. One of our biggest challenges has been figuring out how to support working parents that are now trying to balance work with home school. Asynchronous team work, flexible work assignments and a whole lot of commiseration have been key to navigating through this time as a team.