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Executive Q&A: Charles Legg, CEO of Zea Biosciences, on Leading the Future of Biopharmaceuticals

Charles Legg stands as a pioneering figure in the biopharmaceutical realm, blending a passion for science with a strategic vision for innovation and accessibility. As the CEO of Zea Biosciences, Charles brings a wealth of experience from his extensive career in biotech, where he has been instrumental in the development of cutting-edge therapeutics and platforms, including gene therapy. His journey from a curious child fascinated by marine biology to a leader in biopharmaceuticals is a testament to his enduring commitment to advancing healthcare solutions.

With a robust background that includes leadership roles in various biotech firms, Charles has been pivotal in steering Zea Biosciences towards its core mission of scaling up therapies and vaccines to meet global health needs. Under his guidance, Zea is not only pushing the boundaries of biologic drug development but also embracing emerging technologies like AI to enhance data-driven insights and innovation. His approach as CEO is informed by his previous role as COO, where he laid the groundwork for many of the company's current initiatives.

In this exclusive interview, Charles Legg shares insights into his journey, the mission and innovations of Zea Biosciences, and his vision for the future of the biopharmaceutical industry.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in the biopharmaceutical industry, and how has your journey led you to the position of CEO at Zea Biosciences?

I was always that kid turning over rocks looking for salamanders or hunting for crabs under the seaweed. In maybe the 5th grade we got to take a career assessment test that suggested I either become a marine biologist at $20K per year or open a scuba diving shop at $50K per year. Fortunately the whole biotech industry got going and by the time I was in college, Genzyme was using transgenic goats to produce therapeutics and there were perhaps a thousand different biotech companies. In my career, I have been fortunate and purposeful in seeking out cutting-edge therapeutics and new platforms like gene therapy. Zea is the latest and perhaps the best new manufacturing platform that we are using to work on some pretty important indications and even a little work for NASA.

Q: Can you discuss Zea Biosciences' core mission and how you plan to further these objectives during your tenure as CEO?

Our core mission is to bring forward and scale-up as many therapies and vaccines as possible for patients. It’s a simple thing to say, but the importance to individuals, their families, and communities is unfathomable. Close your eyes, remember your worst emotional pain and then multiply it by the tens or hundreds of thousands of people in need of the therapy we are working on today. We can’t dwell on it all the time, we should celebrate life, but every once in a while, we need to remember that pain and do what we can to push forward.

Q: With your extensive background in various biotech firms, what unique perspectives do you bring to Zea Biosciences?

I don’t know about unique, but I have seen a lot. I’ve learned to respect the difficulty of biologic drug development and to seek out the best advice, help, and collaborations. It takes a village.

Q: How does your previous role as COO at Zea inform your approach as the incoming CEO, and what initiatives are you planning to continue or implement?

A common phrase to describe a lot of early-stage companies, “we’re building the plane while flying it,” is pretty apt. The shift to CEO was a natural one and is a great opportunity to continue to build out our pipeline and initiatives. 

Q: Zea Biosciences has been recognized for its innovative platform in biologics and vaccine development. What do you see as the next big innovation in this space?

At this point I think everyone has started to realize that AI will change everything. For decades we as an industry have generated and collected enormous amounts of data without really being able to sift through all of it or truly understand how many different variables influence each other in real time. The ability to crunch data and use those insights to improve everything we do will be amazing.

Q: You've emphasized the importance of accessibility and affordability in healthcare. How will Zea Biosciences address these challenges under your leadership?

We are still a young company and our business strategy is designed to ensure we take flight. That being said, we have a platform with many advantages in regard to capital cost, running cost, scalability, placement, and cold chain. We are hopeful that we can leverage these advantages to expand access and even possibly enable developing countries to manufacture their own therapeutics and vaccines.

Q: The collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania was a significant milestone for Zea. Are there plans to expand partnerships with other institutions or companies?

Yes, absolutely. We intend to have many collaborations with academic institutions. In fact, we have installed mini-versions of our platform at a couple of academic centers already. With real-time cloud data sharing we are able to track and review progress and minimize any tech transfer in the future.

Q: As someone with a passion for both science and community service, how do you see Zea contributing to the broader community beyond biopharmaceuticals?

If you smile in a genuine way at someone, it usually brightens their day. If you ask for a little bit of help, people generally try to be helpful. If you share your positive hopes for the future, people will often want to get involved. Create a positive environment and see what people will be inspired to do. That is my hope for Zea’s community involvement, simply be a positive force and see the amazing things that can inspire.

Q: The biotech industry is rapidly evolving with advancements in AI and personalized medicine. How is Zea adapting to these technological changes?

Ah, there is only one answer - we embrace it! Of course we are conscious of what is real vs. aspirational vs. marketing, but we love the fact that these technologies and approaches are taking flight here at the perfect time for Zea to take advantage. Even our platform is a result of the junction of a number of technologies all maturing at the same time. It simply would not have been possible a decade ago.

Q: What are some of the hurdles you anticipate in bringing new biologic therapies from the lab to the market, and how do you plan to overcome them?

Regulatory compliance with the FDA for a new platform is a big focus area for us. It will also be validated once we work through it the first time and that makes it exciting. We will be working across multiple disease areas and therefore we will engage a lot of external experts and consultants to ensure we have the right expertise at the right time.

Q: With your commitment to sustainability, can you elaborate on Zea's approach to environmental responsibility within the biopharmaceutical industry?

The biotech/pharma industry faces a few major challenges including environmental responsibility. The overall carbon footprint is actually bigger than the automotive industry. Many companies have invested a lot to be greener like LEED-certified buildings, but Zea’s platform enables us to go a big step further. It’s not surprising that the first systems were designed to overcome cutting-edge challenges. Now we need to push for new technologies to address these other societal challenges.

Q: In terms of team building, what qualities do you look for in your team at Zea, and how do you foster innovation within your workforce?

The first is expertise, we want the best. A positive attitude, “Pessimism is not a survival trait.” And a little grit.

Q: Could you share an experience from your career that has significantly shaped your leadership style today?

I’ve had the opportunity to study a number of leadership styles throughout my career. Sometimes the best experiences are the simplest ones. We had a CEO move on and the CFO was promoted to CEO. When he spoke to all of us, he explained that he did not have a Science degree, and often would not understand exactly what we were doing, but it was his job to ensure we had the right talents and that everyone has what they need to execute on our plans. Now that was a much bigger company and I do have a more technical background, but the sentiment is correct. It’s not my job to be the smartest person in the room, it’s my job to make sure we have the smartest people in the room. 

Q: What role do you believe Zea Biosciences will play in the global health landscape over the next decade?

I am very hopeful that ten years from now we will see a variety of countries all over the globe using our platform, enabling their local population to become part of the industry and see a new level of access to their most critical health needs.

Q: As a leader with a broad array of interests, how do you balance your professional workload with your personal passions and philanthropic endeavors?

Balance… there’s that word again. I try to share my knowledge and passions with those who want and need it. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and sometimes it can be amazing but if we keep working together and are willing to fight the good fight then at the end of it all we can look back and say it was a life well spent. The purest joy for myself is the sea breeze on the coast of Maine with the sun in my face. Anyone can experience that and it requires very little.


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