At the early stages of her career, Catherine Farrell, PhD’89, made the decision to ignore the well-travelled path and live out her own version of success.
Instead of following the academic route like many of her colleagues did, Farrell applied for an industry position at Amgen, a biopharmaceutical company located miles away in sunny California. It was this career move, and others similar to it, that would eventually lead Farrell to start her own company.
“Once I graduated with my PhD, my assumption was that I would find an academic position somewhere like everyone else,” she said. “The good news is, there are other things you can do outside of academia that are just as interesting, fun and exciting — sometimes even more exciting, depending on your personality type and interests.”
In January 2014, Farrell and her colleague Teresa Burgess launched Paradigm Shift Therapeutics (PSTx) — an early-stage drug discovery company with a mission to develop transformational and affordable cancer therapies. Since then, Thomas Miller, PhD, has become a partner, and the three of them are working with advisors and collaborators from the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences with the National Institutes of Health.
“Our overarching mission is to develop affordable therapeutics,” Farrell said. “Although we’re a for-profit company, we have a commitment to social benefit and we can achieve that by sharing the value of our discoveries more equitably amongst all stakeholders — especially patients.”
The company’s current work revolves around developing CD47-targeting inhibitors — a novel immune-checkpoint target with the potential to radically change treatment for a variety of different cancers. They recently received funding from the Avon Foundation for Women to focus this research on breast cancer specifically.
Farrell is passionate about the company's research as it combines many of her interest areas, such as product development and oncology. She admitted that the role of CEO was never something she imagined herself doing or enjoying, but the team’s drive and passion for the work has helped her overcome the challenges.
The trait of being persistent that she adopted while completing her PhD in Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s Department of Medical Biophysics has also helped her in tough times.
“I think the technical skills you earn while completing your PhD in the sciences are obvious — you know that you should be able to do those things when you graduate,” she said. “But soft skills like persistence and perseverance are equally as important, and something that you learn through trial and error in your research.”
Farrell has had the opportunity to mentor several trainees throughout her career, and has offered them the same advice she would offer current graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry — to look up from the lab bench.
“It’s so easy to keep your head down and to focus solely on your current research, but you also have to put some thought into where you want to be in five years,” she said. “It’s a competitive world out there, but there are also a lot of different opportunities you can take on — you just need to use your resources wisely and think outside of the box a little bit.”