As a part of our new “Meet the Team” series, we hear from Ken Takeoka, Antheia’s very first employee and a Scientist III. Read on to learn about Ken’s path to Antheia and what he’s looking forward to over the next few years.
Tell us a little about your background and the path that led you to Antheia.
I got my start in the biopharma world at Neugenesis, where I worked as an associate for a year before moving to Amyris. It was there that I met one of Antheia’s co-founders and our current CSO, Dr. Kristy Hawkins. Kristy was one of the incredible scientists I worked with at Amyris who mentored me and showed me how to apply some of the concepts that I learned during my undergrad at UC Berkeley to real applications in the lab.
Fast forward a few years to when Kristy founded Antheia with our CEO, Dr. Christina Smolke. Kristy hired me as a scientist and the very first employee at the company. This was an exciting endeavor for obvious reasons, but particularly because it’s unusual – or at least very challenging – for people to come into a scientist role without a PhD. I’ve noticed that compared to the pharma industry, synthetic biology is ahead of the curve when it comes to hiring people with non-traditional academic or career paths – perhaps because it is such a cutting-edge field and people are realizing a degree isn’t everything. Nonetheless, it was still an immense show of confidence from Kristy and Christina that I hope can inspire other companies to consider diversity of experience when it comes to hiring in the life sciences space.
What does your typical day like?
I’m a scientist, which means I have my hands in a few different projects. Right now, I’m leading a project to engineer yeast to produce a cough medicine that is historically sourced from plants. When I’m not in the lab, I also help Kristy and Christina with some higher-level team management efforts and keeping a pulse on the company culture. Since I’ve been at Antheia since its inception, I have a more established relationship with the leadership team and feel comfortable starting the conversation if there are any cultural concerns.
As for my typical day, we are lucky in that Antheia is a dog-friendly office, so I get to start off the day with some puppy playdates! When I get in, I bring my dog, Ember, over to where the other office dogs hang out throughout the day. Once everyone is acquainted, I head into the lab to go over the results of past experiments – I like to tackle this in the morning so I can spend the day processing the data and thinking about next steps and how to evolve our experiments. From there, I head to a couple meetings, then back to the lab for more experiments. I normally wrap up the day by checking in with my team to see if there is anything I can take off their plate so we can all get out the door on-time.
What’s your high-level impact at Antheia?
At Antheia, I’ve been given new responsibilities as a project lead and managing research associates. I’ve had challenging managers and amazing managers and I’ve learned a lot from both, so I try to implement what I’ve learned into my own management style to make sure my teams feel supported and also empowered to carve out their own professional paths. So I guess I would say that my impact is creating a more harmonious workplace – somewhere where people can collaborate and help each other, all while progressing ground-breaking science.
What’s the best part of your job?
There’s so much I love here, but what really sticks out is the science. I think it’s so interesting that you can essentially take an entire plant pathway, stick it into yeast, and create life-saving medicines. I feel like we’re in a renaissance period where we are discovering that biology can make the seemingly impossible, possible and that just blows my mind.
I also love the workplace culture here. My coworkers are empathetic, supportive, and smart – it feels like a big family and having people you can rely on is so important, especially in the era of COVID. I’m a big fan of the dog-friendly office and the free snacks don’t hurt either.
What do you think is the most exciting or impactful thing Antheia is doing?
Definitely our work creating plant-based medicines on-demand in a lab. Traditional plant-based medicines are subject to so many variables, like weather and shipping, which can impact the supply and quality of these drugs. People are realizing how important this is now more than ever before with the continuous COVID-related supply chain disruptions. Reducing the time it takes to produce medicines from months to weeks can truly transform our medicinal manufacturing systems and reimagine what doctors, healthcare providers, and patients can come to expect from the pharma industry.
How has working at Antheia been different than your previous jobs?
My past jobs have been at really large, established companies. I learned a lot and had access to amazing scientists, but given the size of these businesses, we had to work within stricter parameters and narrower scopes. At Antheia, I feel like I have more creativity and a bigger impact on both the work culture and the science. The company is more horizontally structured so I feel empowered to think outside the box and share ideas that push the envelope. It’s also nice to have access to people at all levels – I can always pop in to ask a director at Antheia a question, which makes such a difference in terms of collaboration and ultimately, improves the work we do.
Another unique aspect of Antheia is that the founders are both women, which brings a new perspective to an industry historically led by men. Christina and Kristy are exceptional scientists and co-founders, and they’ve built a company that ensures diversity and inclusion are a cornerstone.
What advice do you have for people who want to get into biopharma or synthetic biology?
It’s so important to maintain relationships in this industry – you don’t get anywhere by yourself. Having someone like Kristy as a mentor vouch for me helped propel my career trajectory and inspired me to work harder if anything.
This industry is all about collaboration and working together to achieve a common (and often ambitious) goal, but also come up with your own ideas and execute them. If there is an opportunity, don’t be afraid to take it or even ask for more!
If you’re interested in working with Ken and the rest of the Antheia team, take a look at our current open positions.