Amy Ripka once swore she would never be a chemist. The founder and CEO of Lucy Therapeutics may have had a bit of a rebellious streak: “I think having both parents that were chemists made me determined to go my own way,” she says.
➤ Title: CEO, Lucy Therapeutics
➤ Funding: $3 million
➤ Investors: AS Franck Fund and the Engine
That sentiment has followed Ripka through her career, from earning a music degree in violin performance from Northwestern University to founding a biotech company that seeks treatments for central nervous system (CNS) diseases in an atypical way.
Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Lucy Therapeutics focuses on Rett syndrome, a debilitating rare CNS disease that affects girls almost exclusively. Ripka had worked on CNS diseases earlier in her career and suspected that the drug discovery techniques that scientists were using to tackle these diseases were ineffective. “Everybody had been taking this reductionist approach,” she says, which is the idea that to treat diseases like Rett, caused by mutations to a single gene, you should target the genetic mutations to be successful. But so far, there are no treatments for Rett syndrome. Ripka thought that instead of focusing so narrowly, she should take a broader view.
Amy Ripka grows up in Wilmington, Delaware.
She receives an undergraduate degree in violin performance at Northwestern University, fulfilling the requirements for a chemistry major as well. She later earns a PhD in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and carries out a postdoc at Scripps Research Institute in California.
Ripka jumps into the industrial world, first working at Bristol-Myers Squibb and then at multiple biotech companies. She works in areas including central nervous system diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and antibacterials.
She becomes a program manager at contract research organization (CRO) Sai Life Sciences, followed by WuXi AppTec. In these roles, she helps academics, foundations, venture capitalists, and small biotechs decide how best to use the CROs.
In 2017, Ripka founds Lucy Therapeutics to develop treatments for Rett syndrome and other diseases. Today, her job varies widely, including fundraising, networking, and strategy and company building. “I don’t think everybody would enjoy that,” she says. “But for me, it makes every day fun and exciting.”
Looking at Rett syndrome and other CNS diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, she noticed one thing uniting them was mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria produce most of the energy our body needs to function, and when they aren’t working properly in cells, a wide variety of symptoms, including cognitive issues, can arise. “The mitochondria represent a central point upon which all these different genetic and metabolic pathways converge” in the body, Ripka says. “If you can fix the dysfunction at that point, you have a better chance of changing the course of the disease for the patient.”
To try out this approach, in 2017 Ripka founded Lucy Therapeutics, named after the fossil found in Africa in the 1970s that is considered one of the oldest hominids ever found. Lucy “has been called the ‘mother of humankind,’ ” Ripka says. It made sense for the firm to take her name, Ripka explains, since most human mitochondria are inherited from our mothers. Currently, the company is exploring compounds for Rett that take aim at targets previously used in cardiovascular treatments.
Although Ripka was a music major as an undergraduate at Northwestern, she took enough chemistry classes to qualify for a degree in the central science. Eventually, she earned a PhD in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and later served as a postdoc with Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless at Scripps Research Institute in California. From there, her career path veered into industry and biotech, including stints at Bristol-Myers Squibb and EnVivo Pharmaceuticals.
This diversity of experience is part of Ripka’s strength, says Ann DeWitt, a partner at the Engine, which is a venture firm launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that invests in early-stage technology companies and is one of Lucy Therapeutics’ investors. “She is willing to pursue solutions from all angles, even those outside her formal domain of expertise,” DeWitt says. “Successful CEOs require such tenacity, particularly those at the helm of a dynamic, early-stage company.”
You have to have this willingness, Ripka says, because you hear a lot of no when you’re a CEO. “You hear no to financing. You hear no to your ideas. You hear no to your approach. And nobody ever got anywhere by listening to no,” she says. This doesn’t mean you should never listen to other people, she adds, but do a sanity check instead. And if your idea still makes sense, then you keep going. “I think being able to do that on a constant basis is a really good ego check.”
Today, Ripka plays violin professionally in addition to running a company of five. She embraces the complexity. Some days she works on strategy and company building. And some days she weighs compounds in the lab. This makes every day fun and exciting, she says. “You really feel like you’re growing something from a seedling that hopefully will become an oak tree one day.”
This profile was updated on March 13, 2020, to clarify the relationship between the Engine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Engine was launched by MIT. It is not an arm of MIT.