The Journey of an Inspiring Biotech Leader Rika Tajima

Pioneering Precision Medicine at  Red Arrow Therapeutics 

Rika Tajima discusses her journey from epidemiology to co-founding Red Arrow Therapeutics, emphasizing strategic leadership and innovative nanotechnology in cancer treatment.

Rika Tajima stands at the intersection of cutting-edge nanotechnology and strategic leadership, guiding Red Arrow Therapeutics towards groundbreaking advancements in cancer treatment. Bilingual in English and Japanese, and an expert in corporate strategy and operations, Rika brings a wealth of experience from her diverse background in epidemiology, biostatistics, and global pharma environments. Her pivotal role in the successful M&A and post-merger integration projects showcases her strategic acumen and operational prowess.

Red Arrow Therapeutics, co-founded by Takuya Miyazaki and Horacio Cabral in 2021, aims to revolutionize cancer treatment through innovative drug delivery systems. Horacio’s pioneering work on pH-sensitive nanopolymers, designed to deliver potent cancer drugs directly to tumor sites while sparing healthy cells, serves as the foundation of Red Arrow’s mission. This vision of precision medicine inspired Takuya to translate this cutting-edge technology from the lab to patient care, forming the core mission of Red Arrow: delivering life-saving treatments with pinpoint accuracy.

Rika’s journey from health economics research to co-founding Red Arrow reflects her passion for applying scientific rigor to real-world challenges. Her experience in health technology assessment and real-world data utilization in Japan provided a robust foundation for her transition into the fast-paced world of entrepreneurship. The dynamic environment of startups, characterized by rapid decision-making and resource optimization, captivated her during her tenure at Astellas Pharma, where she witnessed firsthand the impact of nimble, innovative approaches in the biotech sector.

Joining Red Arrow in 2023, Rika’s multifaceted role encompasses fundraising, human resources, and clinical study design. Her leadership style emphasizes open communication, team collaboration, and maintaining a delicate balance between scientific innovation and business acumen. Rika fosters a culture of transparency and support, encouraging her team to voice their ideas and concerns, ensuring a cohesive and motivated workforce.

Rika’s insights for aspiring entrepreneurs in the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors highlight the importance of recognizing one’s strengths and seeking complementary partners. The intricate and highly regulated nature of these industries demands a collaborative approach, leveraging diverse expertise to navigate the complex journey from innovation to market.

In this exclusive interview with Entrepreneur Prime Magazine, Rika Tajima delves into the mission of Red Arrow Therapeutics, her transformative career path, and the leadership philosophies that drive her to shape the future of cancer treatment.

What is the mission of Red Arrow Therapeutics? What inspired its founding?

Many known substances have high potential as drugs for cancer which currently cannot be treated, however they often harm healthy cells as side effects while targeting cancer cells. Horacio Cabral, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a world-leading researcher in nanomedicine, invented pH-sensitive nanopolymers that encapsulate such powerful drugs. These polymers form a protective shell around the drug, creating a molecule akin to an egg. When systemically injected, these molecules travel through the body to the target cancer site. The shell protects the healthy organs from the drug’s effects. Once at the cancer site, where the pH is lower than the rest of the body, the shell breaks and releases the potent drug. The drug recruits immune cells to the cancer site, working together to destroy the cancer. These eggs act like a nano-sized Trojan horse within your body.

However, transforming cutting-edge technology into patient-ready treatments is a challenging journey. Takuya Miyazaki, who earned his PhD in Horacio’s lab, recognized this and was inspired to bridge this gap. He decided to start a company to nurture Horacio’s groundbreaking technology as swiftly and efficiently as possible, leveraging resources from around the world. And hence, Red Arrow Therapeutics was co-founded by Takuya and Horacio in 2021, with the mission to save lives by delivering drugs bulls-eye.

Can you share your journey from your early career in health economics research to co-founding Red Arrow Therapeutics? What motivated you to transition into entrepreneurship?

My background is in epidemiology and biostatistics. Applying scientific and strategic thinking to real-world practice and making a tangible difference has always been a driving force for me. I thrive on daily collaborations with dynamic people to tackle new challenges. This led me to explore uncharted territories, such as the initial adoption of Health Technology Assessment in Japan and the use of real-world data in Japanese regulator-required post-marketing safety studies. Through these experiences, I learned to manage stakeholder expectations, influence without authority, and keep teams motivated amid uncertainty.

I was introduced to entrepreneurship while part of the R&D collaboration team between Astellas Pharma and iota Biosciences, a MedTech startup in California. This collaboration eventually led to Astellas acquiring iota. Witnessing the speed and flexibility of the startup environment compared to big pharma was eye-opening. The process of prioritizing limited resources to find optimal solutions through speedy trial and error was exhilarating.

Around this time, I met Takuya and Horacio. Takuya’s quick thinking and enthusiasm, and Horacio’s sincerity and ardentness towards his research intrigued me. I admired the technology and felt that my problem-solving skills and a wide spectrum of experience in pharma would be a great addition to the team. Moreover, I wanted to challenge myself in a smaller organization to see if I could make a more significant impact. I now realize that, in a startup, you can, or inevitably end up doing everything, which feels more hands-on. I joined Red Arrow in 2023, contributing as a jack-of-all-trades in areas from fundraising, human resources, to clinical study design, and eventually became a co-founder.

As a co-founder and VP, what have been some of the most significant challenges you’ve faced in building and growing Red Arrow Therapeutics, and how have you overcome them? How would you describe your leadership style, and how do you foster a positive and productive culture within your team?

I’ve heard a saying that more than half of biotech failures are a result of operational challenges rather than scientific/technical challenges. One of the most significant challenges has been building and maintaining a strong team. The size and expertise level of the team must be necessary and sufficient at different points in time to remain nimble and financially prudent. The impact of each team member is vast compared to larger organizations. Additionally, startups are high-stress environments: volatile and demanding.

Above all, I try to be a good communicator, especially a good listener. Many leaders are adept at expressing their opinions, but not everyone feels comfortable speaking up towards them. What needs to be said in the best interest of the company may not be the most comfortable. I strive to create an environment where team members feel safe to straight-talk. I also value being open about what I don’t know and asking for help in a speedy manner. Having a diverse network of mentors has been invaluable through by startup journey. Additionally, timely communication is crucial.

As a leader, I value maintaining a balanced focus on both the science and the business. Ultimately, a sense of contributing to patients and making the world a better place get me up in the morning, and I aim to share this sense of purpose with the team, fostering pride in our work.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those looking to enter the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors?

Biotech and pharma are unique within the startup space. They are patent-driven, highly regulated, and require years to generate revenue, unlike consumer products. This niche demands a myriad of expertise. No one person can cover every necessary skill. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, find complementary partners, and let’s get started!