Female-Founded and Funded Capsida Taps Swati Tole as Chief Medical Officer

Swati Tole

Capsida Chief Medical Officer, Swati Tole, M.D./Photo Courtesy of Capsida Biotherapeutics. 

Capsida Biotherapeutics was born of the pioneering research of co-founder Dr. Viviana Gradinaru, partly launched by female venture capitalists, Clare Ozawa of Versant Ventures and Beth Seidenberg of Westlake Village BioPartners, and possesses a gender-balanced C-suite. Now, it has chosen its first chief medical officer, a woman with a wealth of clinical and developmental knowledge by the name of Swati Tole, M.D.

Tole arrives at Capsida with extensive expertise in rheumatology, gastroenterology, hepatology and infectious diseases, most recently serving as vice president of clinical development at Genentech. This experience will be invaluable as Capsida launches its initial programs in neurodegenerative disease and advances its recently announced partnership with AbbVie.

“In a lot of these areas, and especially in the gene therapy space, the pathway is not clear. For certain diseases, you've got these regulatory documents that are like 100 pages long and tell you what to do. In the gene therapy space, you’ve got a six-page document where the FDA says ‘call me’,” Tole told BioSpace. 

Capsida is a fully integrated adeno-associated viruses (AAV) engineering and gene therapy company creating a new class of targeted gene therapies for genetic disorders in both central nervous system (CNS) and non-CNS indications.

Newly entrenched in a leadership role within one of the most complex therapeutic spaces, Tole discussed the complexities of being both a woman and a woman of color in the biotech industry. 

“I think, for female diversity, or gender diversity, we could be at a tipping point, because we have a gender balance in a lot of medical and other science fields,” Tole said. “We just have to make sure we elevate people.”

She shared that the amplification of women’s voices is a key path the industry can take toward finally make it tip:

“Often, it is women’s voices that are underheard. I have noticed times where that happened to me or happened even more so to other women in the room, and we made an agreement to just amplify one another’s voices. Meaning, if somebody has come up with the idea, make sure you acknowledge that idea, coming from that person.”

Tole also visualizes the industry through a different lens as a woman of color. 

“I think it just sensitizes me to places where we have not caught up on racial and ethnic diversity. I think race and ethnicity requires an additional step, and additional commitment to pull people in,” she said. 

Tole, who is Indian-American, pointed out the term “people of color” refers to a diverse group of individuals who encounter a varied set of opportunities and stereotypes. 

“It's a different experience for different people of color, and I would say that certain communities are certainly more represented in our industry than others. So, I may not be in that group where I would be as underrepresented as another person of color,” she said. 

This is all a large part of the reason why Tole was drawn to Capsida.  

The new biotech’s origins stem from the pioneering work of Gradinaru, Director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at Caltech, whose team devised a novel system for engineering billions of AAVs, enabling the discovery of new versions with an affinity for a particular cell type. The approach could lead to a whole new level of specificity and safety in gene therapy by staving off immune reactions. 

Capsida’s platform quickly drew the attention of Versant Ventures and Westlake Village BioPartners, which is led by founding managing director, Beth Seidenberg, who was named to the 2019 Midas List as one of the world’s top 100 technology venture capitalists.

In addition to all of that, Tole said that Capsida chief executive officer, Robert Cuddihy, M.D., has a “big, big commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Of course, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a company poised to make a significant contribution in a field exploding with promise didn’t hurt either.

“I think Capsida is really unique in that it is a fully integrated gene therapy company. That includes having the science, the preclinical development, the engineering, now the clinical development forthcoming, and the manufacturing,” Tole said. “It’s a really unique set of skills in one company, and I really do think that gene therapy is on the cusp of making a big impact for patients. The science and the techniques have kind of coalesced. It's the right time.”

Tole’s instincts just were not going to allow her to pass up the opportunity.

“No matter what kinds of opportunities I looked at, it was like an intrusive thought, like this is a great place for me to go,” she said. 

Tole, who spent 13 years in ascending positions of responsibility at Genentech, will bring that experience to bear on Capsida’s developing pipeline.

“One thing that was very helpful at Genentech is the breadth of what we worked on there. At Capsida, we are going into CNS first and foremost – that is the prioritized space – but we do have an interest in going broader to other organ systems. So I think that breadth of experience is really important,” she shared.

As Tole sets out to play a leading role in developing Capsida’s strategy and clinical pipeline, she offers the following advice to other women starting out in the biotech industry:

“Identify allies and speak up. I think those two things are really critical, and that's also the way that you can maximize the value you add.” 

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