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Script change from destined life in research to wild pace of biotech pays off.
Not many of us can say that we are currently living our childhood aspirations. However, among the fortunate few that are, Kirsten Kester, vice president, business development at Obsidian Therapeutics, knew exactly what she was cut out to do at an early age. “I was one of those kids who was always fascinated by the natural world and loved nature and science,” she says. “[I] always knew I wanted to be a scientist.”
For Kester, her dreams manifested as she grew up and entered college as a biology major at Harvard University. However, the script changed a bit as she found a different way to be involved in science. “It actually wasn’t until I came closer to graduating that I realized that there was another track that would enable me to stay close to the industry, and that was through business,” she explains.
After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in biology and realizing her passion for business, Kester returned to Harvard to earn her MBA and attended the business school through a program that was specifically designed for students in the life sciences and other “non-traditional” industries. “That [Harvard Business School program] made me realize there was this whole other part of my personality; I like working in a fast-paced environment [and] I like being on a team,” she says.
It was a change of pace from research, which she felt was isolating and slower moving. After all, Kester was a member of the women’s ice hockey team during her years at Harvard.
Post-business school, Kester spent six years working in life sciences strategy business consulting for the Frankel Group (acquired by Huron Consulting Group). “It was never my intent to go into consulting,” she tells Pharm Exec. “But I recognized that it would be an incredible way to learn the industry and see it from many different vantage points.” Kester quickly progressed to being named senior director, a role she kept through the end of her tenure at Huron.
Following her early career in consulting, Kester found herself with her current company, Obsidian; she was introduced to the early stage biotech by a former colleague. Starting in April 2019, Kester needed just months to be promoted to her current title of vice president, business development. Looking back on those first months she says, “I have a lot of executive support, including from our CEO, Paul [Wotton]. I think that’s a big part of the reason I’m even sitting here today: He’s always thinking about growing that next generation of talent for the industry.”
Kester’s title in business development does not even begin to describe what she is responsible for in her day-to-day role.
“As with any company our size, everyone wears different hats,” she says.
In her traditional business development role, Kester identifies and reaches out to prospective partners. She also works on alliance management for existing partnerships. Outside of business development, Kester works in strategy, leading projects in competitive intelligence and new product planning, for example. Last, but certainly not least, she has a hand in investor and public relations and how Obsidian presents its story to different audiences.
With so much responsibility on her plate, Kester relies on decision-making and prioritization to aid in her leadership roles. “You have to make those hard decisions, [like choosing] path ‘x’ for our strategy, which we know means giving up path ‘y’ for now,” she says. “Having the courage to make those decisions and keep the company focused is actually a lot easier said than done.”
Kester also relies on her ability to speak to different audiences. She uses the example of having a technical conversation with a scientist first, then having a pitch call with an investor, and finally, being able to summarize it all and present it to the company board.
One of Kester’s accomplishments with Obsidian is the sourcing and successful execution of the company’s collaboration with MD Anderson Cancer Center, which was officially announced in November 2020. The partnership will aid in accelerating the advancement of novel engineered tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) for solid tumors. “It’s going really well,” she says. “We’ve successfully completed our tech transfer with MD Anderson, and our collaboration is on track.”
Another recent accomplishment of Kester’s is her role in Obsidian’s newest collaboration with Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., which was announced on April 22. Once again responsible for the sourcing and execution of the deal, she says, “The collaboration with Vertex is a major milestone for Obsidian. Not only are they a world-class partner, but this collaboration allows us to expand our platform into an exciting new application—gene-editing therapy.”
The partnership leverages Obsidian’s cytoDRiVE platform technology to discover gene-editing medicines along with Vertex’s clinical capabilities in small molecule, cell, and genetic therapies. Kester began working with the Vertex team shortly after starting at Obsidian. After a few initial in-person meetings, most of the deal was constructed virtually over Zoom. “This flexibility demonstrated by both teams enabled us to remain committed to realizing the potential of this exciting partnership,” she says.
Outside of her job, one of Kester’s passions is being involved in the community. She currently serves as treasurer and is a member of the board of trustees at her alma mater, Nashoba Brooks School in Concord, Mass. Nashoba is an independent pre-K to 8 all-girls school focused on developing leadership, including in the STEAM fields. “I really admire their educational philosophy, and in particular, their commitment to developing strong female leaders and independent thinkers,” says Kester.
In her downtime, Kester enjoys being active by cycling, running, and golfing. She is also an avid Boston sports fan, following the Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots. Unfortunately put on pause the past year due to COVID, fine dining and traveling are activities Kester looks forward to resuming. One of her favorite diversions is finding the best local spots for donuts, her favorite food.
Looking forward, Kester hopes to one day reach the C-suite, but she still has a lot on her list to accomplish in the more immediate future. One task is taking Obsidian public and being part of an IPO process. Kester would also like to see the company enter the clinic; and even more than that, transition from a preclinical-stage company all the way to commercial. “I’ve been a part of those life cycles through my work as a consultant but not yet on the industry side,” she says. “So that’s something I’m looking forward to.”
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Andy Studna is an Assistant Editor for Pharm Exec. He can be reached at email@example.com.