In Conversation with Dr. Tia Lyles-Williams, The Very First Queer Black Woman To Lead A Large-Scale Biomanufacturing Company

15-16 Minutes

Today I want to introduce you to the phenomenal, award-winning Dr. Tia Lyles-Williams.D...

By Emily Davies

Senior Content Writer

Today I want to introduce you to the phenomenal, award-winning Dr. Tia Lyles-Williams.

Dr. Tia is a trailblazer in the Life Sciences world. As Founder and CEO of LucasPye BIO, a Contract Development Manufacturing Organisation, and sister company HelaPlex, a co-working space for Life Sciences startups and virtual biotechs, Dr. Tia is the very first Queer African American woman to own and lead a large scale biomanufacturing business.

But her work doesn’t stop there. Dr. Tia is a keynote speaker across America and beyond, advocating for inclusivity and diversity within Life Sciences. She’s dedicated in hiring a portion of her workforce from undeserved communities and committed to lowering the development and manufacturing costs for emerging Life Sciences companies.

I was fortunate to first meet Dr. Tia back in November, when we spotlighted her as a prominent Black leader within Life Sciences. Now, three months later, we sit down together to learn more about her journey in the industry, what Dr. Tia is up to today, the different experiences Black and White employees have within Life Sciences, and how the industry can better support those from marginalised backgrounds.

Buckle in, this one’s a good one!


Hey Dr. Tia! So, you’ve been in the Biotech/Biopharma industry for 22 years now, what first attracted you to the space?

When I was at Howard University, studying for my Bachelors in Biology, I was definitely on a pre-med track. However, when I was in the middle of those studies, I had the opportunity to go and work for NIH and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. From there, I ended up going to my first Biotech, which was Human Genome Sciences (now GSK).

It was there that I got exposed to manufacturing and how that works, but there was also a lot of programming going on, so I got some insight into clinical trials and the recruitment process. At that time, Human Genome was developing the drug for lupus, and I found out they had no African Americans involved in the clinical trial whatsoever.

Lupus highly targets African American women, so I asked them and said, ‘lupus heavily affects people in my community, so why wouldn’t you recruit African Americans to be in these clinical trials?’

Most people assume the answer is that community members simply didn’t volunteer, but that’s not the case. They didn’t even ask us. They chose to select women from India and Eastern Europe because it was, quite frankly, cheaper and easier to recruit them.

That bothered me a lot, so I took that and decided that this is the route I want to take to make a real difference, versus going to med school. I also figured that if I do go down this route, and develop and manufacture drugs that affect my community, I’ll have a lot more autonomy to make a real impact in changing our healthcare system, removing health disparities and hopefully level the playing field.


Can you give us a bit of background on what LucasPye BIO does?

Yeah, we manufacture biologic or intravenous drugs on contract.

We develop manufacturing processes, we develop the cell line and we produce the product to support our customers within their animal studies, clinical trials, and later, the commercial market.

At the moment, we’re working on building an 80,000 square foot cGMP facility in southwest Philadelphia. We’ve already raised $2.5 million via a grant from the State of Pennsylvania, and we’ve got some major endorsements, including some notable ones from Joanna McClintonAnthony H. WilliamsJamie Gauthier and Jabari K. Jones.


And HelaPlex?

Right now, we’re working to build a virtual accelerator program. We’ve partnered with a non-profit organisation, Launch Bio, a non-profit partner of Bio Labs and WorldUpstart.

On top of that, we’re also in the process of building a physical facility that will become a co-working space.

What makes our co-working space unique is that it’s not just a wet lab space. It’s actually a cGLP wet lab space, meaning we have capacity for small-scale manufacturing for biologics drugs and small-scale manufacturing for medical devices with a 3D print shop.

On that site we have some anchor tenants as well as housing and mixed retail. We’re introducing affordable housing to the LucasPye BIO campus as well, which will be a mix of retail, first time home ownership, and housing for workforce development.

We’re really building a full ecosystem for Life Sciences startups. Our target market will be minorities and members of underserved communities to really push for more diversity in the Biotech industry.


Previously you’ve worked for some big names in the industry. What motivated you to move out of Big Pharma and begin your own business?

I just got tired of the rat race.

I was tired of being taken advantage of, working above my pay grade without the compensation of title or pay, having my work stolen by my colleagues, and never being acknowledged or receiving any respect or regard for the value of my contributions.

You know, for the most part, my experience in corporate America was very much like the women that worked at NASA, as portrayed in the historical film, Hidden Figures. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is for most minorities – discrimination in the form of racism and sexism.

Octavia Spencer’s character, Dorothy, doesn’t have a supervisor title or pay but is expected to work at that level. Taraji P. Henson’s character, Catherine, is constantly having her work stolen from her because they don’t want to put her name on the documentation due to the fact that she’s not only a woman, but a Black woman.

Janelle Monet’s character, Mary, wanted to work in the engineering department, but they kept moving the mark for her. She had a Bachelor’s degree, then they changed their minds and told her she needed a Master’s. She had to go to court to get permission to go to a White school to obtain that degree. Then she had to attend school at night so she could maintain her employment at NASA. These are all things I have experienced.

The Hidden Figures movie is a perfect example of what happens, and still happens, to marginalised groups. And the similarities are so specific to what I’ve experienced in the Biotech industry. That continues to be the Black experience in America today.

What’s more, most minorities in the Biotech industry work ‘on contract’ for a minimum of six months. Every time you accept a contract role, you’re also accepting that you’ll receive no medical benefits and no PTO because you’re a Contractor. That means every time you or your child gets sick, you’re not getting paid, and each time you change employers, you’re working ‘at risk’ due to the lack of benefits.


That’s really eye-opening to hear. Can you speak more about the obstacles you’ve faced within Life Sciences that your White counterparts haven’t had to worry about?

I went to the illustrious Howard University in DC, which I think speaks for itself – I mean, you only have to look at our alumni.

At Howard, the way the curriculum is set up and the way they operate is very reflective of the real world. There are no shortcuts and there are no take-home tests. I’ve studied at USC and Full Sail University for my two Masters, and Howard is just in a different league.

Some people might think it’s harsh, but Howard prepares you for the real world. You learn how to manage your losses, overcome your deficiencies, and you learn how to negotiate.

All of these things are what allow us to survive corporate America, manage our mental health and persevere towards the American dream, so I don’t feel like I got the short end of the stick. There are definitely some obstacles, but it’s all about perspective and I feel like because of these experiences, I’m the most prepared person to go through this and build these types of companies.


How did you find being a Black employee in a predominantly and historically White industry?

I had to work within my means, right?

If you think about our ancestors, they had to pick cotton. If they wanted anything more it was on them, but they had to work within their schedule. So, say you pick cotton from sunup to sundown, when you get home, you have to eat, cook for your babies, maybe even fix food for the people in the ‘Big House’. You have to do your chores, you have to wash, you have to do all this stuff. If you wanted to get ahead by teaching yourself how to read or how to do maths, you only have a small window to do so – and that’s without getting caught and killed.

So fast forward to what I had to do. I had the same opportunities, but I sacrificed by doing things above my paygrade, or stepping up and coming into work during my free time to help troubleshoot problems. These are the things I sacrificed early in my career to get the experience required to be where I am today. That means today, I can choose what I do and what I don’t want to deal with in my career… at least to an extent.

I’d got my Master’s in Regulatory and a Master’s in Business, and at that time, I’d been working above my paygrade for the last 15-17 years. What else do I have to do to prove myself? Yet every time I sat down with a fellow employee to work on a project, I was interviewed about why I was qualified for the role and where I went to school instead of discussing the project content and requirements.


Do you think you were treated differently to your White colleagues by your superiors?

Yes – you only need to look at the difference in the employment trajectory of Black people and their White counterparts in the US.

I can only speak for the Biotech industry, but if you’re Caucasian and you graduate with a Master’s or PhD, you’re immediately put into an entry-level management position, if not a mid-level management position.

As an African American, with the same Master’s or PhD, you’ll be expected to work at an entry-level position for $40,000 a year. And the excuse is always the same: you don’t have any experience. Well, I probably outworked my White counterparts and I probably got way more internships and experience throughout my studies, thus causing me to be overqualified for any entry-level role.

It can take a White person 6-8 years to reach C-suite after graduating college. For my people, it takes us 15-20 years, and we’ve already been working above our paygrade for most of that time.


At LucasPye BIO, 85% of your C-suite are from ethnic minority backgrounds and half of them are women. Why is it so important to you to have that level of diversity at the top?

For me, it’s incredibly important that I build a cohesive team and one that reflects the real world, with diverse cultures, ethnicities, perspectives, professional experiences and personal experiences.

Based upon my experience as an entrepreneur, people of colour are more willing to take calculated risks. We think outside the box, and we have greater stamina to ride out operational turbulence.

You know, this is precisely why Black, Brown and other minorities are able to build their businesses from the ground up, without outside investment.

I’m doing that right now. At LucasPye BIO, we’ve got a $2.5 million grant, which is a construction engineering grant from the state of Pennsylvania. We have backing from all those notable names I mentioned earlier, yet we still can’t raise any venture capital and we’re still not looked at as a viable business, even though we’re already open and operating with customer contracts.

I have a partnership with the Jefferson Institute for BioProcessing to utilise their facilities, and we have a number of customers already committed and signed up, but that’s still not enough. People are happy to write cheques to those who have no experience in pharmaceuticals or Life Sciences and no customers, and you know, that’s fine, but why can’t have that same respect, with my +22 years of experience?

I even spoke at the White House in October when their bioeconomy team asked me how they should spend bioeconomy dollars. The White House is not going to call you if they don’t value your expertise, but venture capitalists still have excuses as to why they can’t invest. It doesn’t make any sense.


Wow, you can’t get more legit than the White House! How do you think big organisations can benefit from becoming more diverse?

I think they’ll see a lot more innovation.

When you have a diverse workforce, with different experiences and different perceptions of the world, you have people who think outside the box and bring new opportunities that you might not have necessarily thought of because you’re so used to doing things per the status quo and have no access to non-Caucasian experiences.


How can the Life Sciences industry better support those from marginalised backgrounds?

Companies need to start investing in solutions for DE&I and stop investing in consultants trying to figure out what the DE&I problem is – we already know.

Instead, companies need to execute a solution that will actually fix the problem, and there’s only one way to do this.

Ultimately, the diversity issue is a mental health problem. Racism is a mental health problem. Until executives sit down and go through some kind of therapy to change their perspectives on how they see and value us, the problem remains the same.

Somebody with a psychology background that has been formerly licensed alongside attaining a Master’s or PhD is the only person who can really provide a successful solution and infrastructure to mitigate this problem from a mental health perspective.

To truly make a difference, we need to address how we look at ourselves, why we look at others the way we do, and work through those thoughts and experiences with a licensed therapist to help us process our mindset and how we got there.

Because the easy part is recognising these perspectives. The hard part is processing it and having the toolbox to improve yourself, improve the situation of others, and ensure you continue to stay on the right track towards equity.


Do you feel any pressure being the very first Queer African American woman to lead a large-scale Biotech business?

It’s definitely a lot of pressure. Especially following in the footsteps of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, who is truly the grandfather of Biotech. He was the one that actually came up with the process to manufacture drugs at a large scale.

But with regard to the pressure, there’s this constant thing of everybody looking at you and questioning you like, ‘are you really going to do it?’

Then once you hit one milestone, it’s short-lived and everyone’s waiting to see if you’re going to hit the next one.


You’ve got to be so mentally strong to deal with that kind of pressure. How do you do it?

I’ve got my tribe; they keep me going. My family are very supportive, and I’ve got a great team of people that I work with, both as partners and internally at my companies.

I’m lucky I’ve got my people, but aside from that, I like to go hiking a lot. That’s my outlet where I can have time to myself, just getting some exercise, listening to music or reading books. I like to watch documentaries too. I watch a lot of documentaries! That’s how I relax and recharge.


One of your goals at LucasPye BIO is making biotherapeutic drugs more affordable. Why is that so important to you?

Because that’s the most important part.

You know, America is the only country with no price controls on their drugs, but a lot of the time, it’s the inputs into the manufacturing process that causes them to be so expensive.

If I can figure out a way to make them more affordable by creating novel manufacturing processes that can scale up a lot faster, use less material, and grow more biological cells within the process with less material, then I can bring the price down.

Now, I can’t control what the drug sponsors charge for the drug because I’m manufacturing on their behalf, but at least I can do my part to bring their manufacturing costs down, and they then have an opportunity to really reassess what they’re charging for the drug. This will allow the drug sponsors to base their profitability on quality that will lead to quantity versus maximising profitability from each patient, i.e. short-term treatment within a ‘lifetime standard of care’ program.

That’s also why working with startups is beneficial. They’re not so greedy, and if they’re thinking about how they can be more ethical within their business practices, they’re absolutely going to change the trajectory. Even if I don’t see it in my lifetime, I believe the drug prices will go down.


What makes LucasPye BIO different from its competitors?

We’re different because we’re targeting startups and I think that’s going to be a game changer. Once we lock down our cost-reduction process and fill out our customer pipeline, we’re going to be able to get a lot of those therapies to market much faster.

HelaPlex is also built to support that. Because LucasPye BIO is a straight CDMO, we don’t do R&D, but HelaPlex’s accelerator program is there to help Life Sciences companies develop their products and accelerate into preclinical studies.

This also gives me the opportunity to mentor those companies, help them understand the lay of the land as far as regulatory and commercial development goes, then feed them directly into LucasPye BIO.

The facility will be managed per FDA regulations, with secured data, validated equipment, and experiments designed to be repeated. That means instead of waiting the traditional 15-20 years for drugs to go to market, startups can become just as competitive as Big Pharma by getting their drugs to market in 5-6 years pending their ability to attract sufficient funding resources.

At HelaPlex, we’ll be supporting them in attracting those funds based upon our unique business model that purposely and intentionally de-risks investment.

Plus, having everything together on one site at their disposal means startups’ costs will be knocked down by millions throughout the development process, giving them more runway. Through the click of a button, we can easily transfer the process from HelaPlex to LucasPye BIO – which has the same quality and data systems – and begin manufacturing without interruption.


Do you have any advice for those hoping to follow in your footsteps and build their own Biotech business?

I would say make sure your patient. Make sure your perseverant. And make sure you maintain your confidence.

If you want to be successful and make a real difference in your community, then you need to be ready to do the work. You need to be ready to come in all day, stay late at night, research on your own, read books outside of what’s presented to you in your academic curriculum and outside of what you’re exposed to in your internships, graduate school, workplace and accelerator programs.

Just because you’ve become an MD or PhD does not mean you’ve arrived. Why? Because the system’s not set up for us as minorities. The US healthcare system doesn’t include us in clinical studies, clinical trials and the current ‘standards of care’ don’t even consider us regarding symptoms, pain, pharmacogenetics and disease characterisation.  

If you’re going to do something impactful, be ready to work hard and go outside of yourself to get what you need and get to where you want to go.


What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in over the last 20 years in Life Sciences that you didn’t expect?

Science is great and obviously it works, but the key to making it successful and impactful is strategy and collaboration.

You could have the greatest molecule, the greatest thing in the world, but without strategy and collaboration, you’ll have no way for people to actually use it and benefit from it.


What can we expect from you in the future?

We have a workforce development program that we’re going to be piloting this summer in partnership with one of the most prestigious, historically Black Civil Rights non-profit organisations, Philadelphia OIC, founded by Dr. Reverend Leon Sullivan, who was a civil rights leader.

He was not as popular and Malcolm X or Martin Luther King in his day, but what most people don’t know is that he’s the first African American to ever be elected as a board member, and his framework was utilised to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa.

Our other partners include the University City Science CenterJefferson Institute for Bioprocessing, and The Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise. We have an opportunity to partner with them and implement a biotech workforce development program. We already have partners ready to employ those graduates, and I’m really excited about that.

Another project is in stealth mode, and I don’t want to say too much just yet but be ready! I know I said I’m not involved in R&D, but I’m getting ready to make that transition to support what I’m already building.


What a way to end this chat! We’ll be on the edge of our seats, and I’ll be following your journey, as always.
Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me Dr. Tia – I know this conversation will reach many readers, raise questions, and create a lot of discussion. Thank you!


Dr. Tia is a Board Member at Philadelphia OIC, the Independence Business Alliance, and Mantua United, an Advisory Board Member at Prysm Institute, on the Board of Directors at LaunchBio Inc., a Co-Chair at the Philadelphia STEM Ecosystem, a member of the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ and DE, and a mentor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and Princeton University. Last year, Dr. Tia received an Honorary Doctorate from the Sidney Kimmel Medical School at Jefferson University and participated as a panellist discussing the Bioeconomy at The White House. Just this month (Feb 2023), she also became a Member of the Board of Directors at Sanare.

If you’d like to follow Dr. Tia, you can find her on LinkedIn. Alternatively, head over to LucasPye BIO for their latest updates.

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