Esther Alegria is the founder and Chief Innovation Officer of APIE Therapeutics, a drug therapeutic development company focused on microvascular repair and regeneration therapies to prevent and cure certain chronic diseases such as systemic sclerosis. She founded APIE in 2020 after a 25+ year career in the biotech world, taking on high leadership positions in companies such as Wyeth (now Pfizer) and Biogen. Esther moved to the United States from Puerto Rico in the 1980s and has a PhD in chemistry. Outside of work, Esther finds great joy in dancing, especially with friends and family. She has been a member of C200 since December 2023.


Eva Glassman: Let’s start with a quick overview of your background and professional journey. What kind of roles did you take on before founding APIE Therapeutics?

Esther Alegria: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico but moved to the United States in the early 1980s and completed a doctorate degree in chemistry. I’ve spent my career mostly in the big biotech corporate world in drug therapeutics development, working at companies like Wyeth (now Pfizer), and was Senior VP of Global Manufacturing at Biogen until 2015.

At Wyeth, I was in the vaccine R&D division and worked on two blockbuster vaccines from early development all the way to market. It was a great experience going all over the world to speak with different regulatory agencies to get approval to market in those countries. Furthermore, I felt a sense of accomplishment seeing the benefit these vaccines brought around the world.

When I was with Biogen, I had similar experiences focusing on several rare diseases (e.g., Multiple Sclerosis, Hemophilia, Alzheimer’s) through every phase of the process. I moved to Denmark to lead the company’s biggest foreign investment project, starting up a brand-new large scale biologic manufacturing center and getting approval by both US and EU regulatory bodies. After Denmark, I moved to Boston to lead the entire global manufacturing network and began focusing on foot-print strategies and pushing the innovation envelope.

I like to keep pushing myself to new journeys and experiences, so that’s why I founded APIE Therapeutics in 2020. Our focus area is preventing certain diseases that impact women in particular, like systemic sclerosis. I’m all about dedication to those who need better therapeutic treatments; it brings a lot of joy and passion for me.

EG: What was the switch to an entrepreneurial route like? How is founding and running a startup different from your previous career experiences?

EA: It’s a completely different dynamic that’s extremely challenging, even stressful at times. You carry a lot of weight on your shoulders at the beginning. I think that it’s an experience for people who like to be challenged and eternal learners. I’ve learned so much and met so many new people through creating this startup.

When you work at a well-established biotech company, there’s a lot of infrastructure and procedures already in place for how to move a program from research to development to commercialization. When creating my startup, I knew all the steps to do good work on drug development, but a lot of the fundamentals that you take for granted at a big corporation are not there in a startup. Suddenly, I was involved with every little detail of the company, details I would never have considered previously. I had to wear so many hats in a given day; I was the CEO one day, the supply chain expert the next, the shipping and receiving expert the day after that!

Meanwhile, I was trying to be very mindful of how I spent the initial investors’ seed funding. The realization that only 3% of venture capital funding goes to female-founded life science startups was a shocker. Making sure my startup was successful became doubly important to me because of that. I wanted all the money to go toward the programs that would help real patients who are fighting these diseases.

Founding a drug therapeutic company is a tough road. We work on rare diseases in small markets where there’s little support. That’s why having that anchor and source of energy is important. You have to know where your passion and energy for what you do is coming from. At the start of my company, I went out and met a patient with systemic sclerosis. I wanted to learn from her about her experience and journey with the disease, and she was excited to hear about the work I was setting out to do with my company. I continued to keep up with her and met with more systemic sclerosis patients, and they are all a source of energy for me. Every time I feel overwhelmed and challenged by my business, I think of them and how much they need better treatment, and it re-centers me in my efforts.

EG: My next question is about your C200 journey. How did you get involved? What drew you to C200?

EA: A colleague of mine who sits on the Board at Steris with me was asked to sit on a panel at C200’s 2023 Annual Conference in San Diego, “Innovation Inside of Healthcare: Where the Puck is Going.” She then asked me if I would be willing to join her on the panel and share my experiences with the audience. It was no question that I’d participate; it’s my area of expertise, it’s something I’m passionate about, and it was an opportunity to participate in something I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. I decided, if I’m going to be a part of this panel, I should attend the whole Conference so that I get a strong sense of who the audience will be.

My first impression of the C200 women was extremely warm and welcoming. They are very inclusive and eager to learn. Every single table that I sat at, everyone was genuinely interested in learning more about me, what I do, and why I do it. After I did the panel, they asked me even more questions about being a female founder in the life sciences and, even though they weren’t in the same industry as me, they understood the challenges I shared. Many of the women asked me, “How can I help you?” It was clear to me that C200 women not only want to listen, but they’re also willing to get involved to make things happen.

EG: As you’ve said, women founders in the life sciences are extremely rare. I’m curious if, despite that, you had any female mentors going up in your career, or if your mentors were mostly men.

EA: The majority of my mentors were in fact men. During my time at school, I had two professors that really supported me. When I moved to the U.S., I didn’t know English, so I didn’t understand much at first in my studies. I copied everything on the blackboard to my notebook, and when I got home, I pulled out my dictionary to translate my notes. Even though I struggled against a language barrier, I always got A’s on my tests, and my professors would always give me a look like, “How did that happen?” It took two or three years for me to become comfortable talking back and forth in English.

These two professors went out of their way encouraging me to continue my studies beyond a bachelor’s degree. I didn’t believe I could, but they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. In my mind, it would be a miracle to get a bachelor’s degree; I had two little kids at the time. I couldn’t see beyond that point, but continually hearing the confidence my professors had in me made me think about going to get my doctorate—and I eventually did!

However, getting into PhD school was not without obstacles. Even though I was qualified and had the grades to get in, the department head recommended against going, that I should just be a high school chemistry teacher. When I asked why, he told me that graduate school was not designed for mothers. That was a punch to my face, because the doubt quickly set in; what if he was right? Nevertheless, I answered him: “I think it’s for me to decide whether graduate school is designed for mothers.” I knew it was important to push that envelope.

On the other side of it all, that same professor became my biggest fan. When I graduated from PhD school, I asked him if he remembered that conversation we had, and he started laughing. I told him that it turned out that while my male peers were talking all day and competing academically, I put my nose to the books and worked hard so that I was able to succeed in school and take care of my kids at night and on weekends. I don’t think that professor will ever tell a woman what she’s capable of again. When I went to do my postdoc at the University of Virginia, he wrote my reference letter that I was later told read more like a fan letter!

From that experience, I tell young people that, along your academic and professional journey, you’re going to find some people who will encourage you and others who will doubt you. You just have to believe in yourself and push through whatever roadblocks are in your way.

EG: What does being a “woman in business” mean to you and how do you apply that thinking to what you do?

EA: Every time I join a consortium of heads in global manufacturing or biotech, there’s the odd female here and there, but it’s mostly men. In those circumstances, it’s about concentrating on what you are. For example, in my mind, I’m a scientist and a great leader who makes things happen. Rather than focusing on why I’m different, I focus on what I can bring to the table.

As I went up in my professional career, I feel like I was extremely valuable to the teams I was a part of. Coming from Puerto Rico and going through many struggles to find my place in the U.S. gave me the belief that anything is possible. Now, as a woman in a high leadership role, I value what everyone brings to the table and have a bigger appreciation for diverse characteristics and perspectives that form a team. A diverse group thinks differently, and you have the ability to pull the best qualities of the entire group at the same time. If you have passion, believe in what you’re doing, and are diligent, you can and will make anything happen. It didn’t matter what the company challenge was; I always knew there was a solution, and that we could find it. I see challenges as opportunities to be creative.

I have a book that’s getting published very soon where I share many of my stories about coming from Puerto Rico to the U.S. and my academic and professional journey. In that book, I try to share with younger people and those who are trying to develop a career that, rather than focusing on the differences that you think may hinder you, use those experiences to leverage the value you bring.

EG: Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun? How do you spend your time?

EA: Dancing! I love to dance—the music and the rhythm. I enjoy the freedom it brings, especially when I’m dancing with family and friends. Every time I get together with them, we somehow always end up dancing!

EG: What’s your advice to aspiring female business leaders to advance their own careers?

EA: You need to look at what technical knowledge and leadership value you bring to the table. Those two aspects should be your only focus, no matter what industry you’re in. If nobody appreciates you at a company, that may not be the place you should be, and you need to move on. Don’t feel despair that you’re at a disadvantage as a woman in business; if you give that too much weight in your mind, you won’t succeed. If you come in and show your technical and leadership skills, you will eventually find a place that will value you and your expertise.

Some of the young people I mentor don’t last more than a year in their jobs. I think that sometimes you have to stick it out, because you really start to learn and see your impact at a place after two or three years. Surround yourself with good advisors outside of work who can help you navigate whether the time is really right to make a job transition. Your support system can listen to what your challenges are and help you with tools to overcome or cope with certain situations. You’ll learn more and develop a sense of resilience in a tough environment than if you pivot every time things become unideal.

EG: Why C200? What are you most excited about as a new C200 member?

EA: I’m actually excited that most of the C200 ladies aren’t in the life science or therapeutic drug development industries! That brings me an opportunity to expand my brain by learning about their businesses and careers, how they navigated and solved their own challenges. I’m already thinking about how I can reach out and gain some insights that will help me with APIE Therapeutics. There’s always something you can learn from experiences outside your industry.