As a young girl growing up in Ohio, Rachel King owned a dissecting kit and microscope. She used those to examine creatures, leaves and other things she collected in the woods.
“I loved biology,” said King, who has gone on to make that subject the focus of her career, which includes being the first woman to lead a major biotechnology company in Maryland.
The latest feather in the cap for the head of Gaithersburg biotech GlycoMimetics was being named board chair of the Biotechnology Industry Association, or BIO, the industry’s leading national trade group.
King has long worked on various boards for the national group, including chairing its emerging companies governing board and being vice chair of the health governing board. She’s worked on issues such as making the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s drug approval process less cumbersome.
“Rachel brings a depth of industry experience and passion for advocacy that will serve BIO and its members well,” said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., organization.
As leader of the national trade group, King said she will continue to advocate for a more “flexible” FDA. A landmark law passed by the U.S. Congress last year implemented regulatory changes such as relaxing certain requirements to allow shorter clinical studies that would speed approval of drugs that tackle life-threatening diseases.
“The overarching challenge is to protect and enhance the climate for innovation,” King said.
She wants to work on better highlighting the value of biotech to the public and lawmakers. Providing more long-term investment tax credits and other incentives is important, she said.
“Developing biotech drugs takes so much time and money,” King said. “It’s risky since many programs fail. … Montgomery County and the state of Maryland do a good job of providing incentives, but I’d like to see more on the federal level.”
After completing a bachelor’s degree in French at Dartmouth, King considered enrolling in medical school but pursued an MBA at Harvard. While working for consulting firm Bain and Co. in Boston, she worked on a project with a biotech company. That started the bio-ball rolling.
In 1989, King joined Genetic Therapy, a Gaithersburg biotech that was purchased in 1995 for $295 million by then-Sandoz Laboratories, which merged with another company in 1996 to become Swiss pharma giant Novartis Corp.
King started as manager of laboratory operations at Genetic Therapy, working under M. James Barrett, known in some circles as the “Father of Biotechnology in Maryland.” Barrett co-founded Genetic Therapy in 1987 to develop a method to genetically alter human cells outside the body, providing therapies for cystic fibrosis, certain cancers and other diseases.
King became vice president for product planning, and in 1996, succeeded Barrett as CEO of Genetic Therapy. She not only was the first woman to head a major biotech in the state but one of the youngest at age 36.
“I was something like the 10th employee of Genetic Therapy,” King said. “It was an exciting time.”
After almost three years, King joined Novartis as a senior vice president for two years and was entrepreneur in residence at New Enterprise Associates for another two years. Along the way, she joined the boards of BIO and MdBio, part of the Rockville-based Tech Council of Maryland and was appointed to the state Life Sciences Advisory Board.
In 2003, King co-founded GlycoMimetics, which focuses on developing small-molecule drugs for rare diseases such as sickle cell.
“There have been no new drugs for sickle cell in decades,” she said. “We’ve had some positive data with clinical trials for our sickle cell therapies, including an encouraging Phase 2 study.”
The company has grown to 28 employees and works with giants such as Pfizer.
“The partnership with Pfizer has been wonderful,” King said. “I envision Pfizer taking forward the sickle cell drug and doing Phase 3 studies to develop the drug from here.”
The progress in developing new treatments for diseases in the past two decades has been amazing, she said.
“I really can’t think of anything else I would rather do,” King said. “The promise of helping patients makes this field incredibly meaningful. If we are successful in developing a new treatment, we will really have an impact on people’s lives.”