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Women in Biotech

Dec 14, 2016

Women have made and continue to make significant contributions in biotech and life sciences. According to a fall 2014 LSF Magazine article, “Women in Bio” by Ramya Rajagopalan, since 2005, women have outnumbered men in life science doctoral programs; since 2009, they have received more than 50% of Ph.D. degrees in the U.S.

However, there are still some questions as to female advancement to CEO, board member and venture capital positions in life sciences. One report by the Association for Women in Science showed that among 40 biotech companies completing an IPO, only one had a female CEO and 8% of their boards of directors were women.

Thanks to the assistance of Mary Howard, Program Manager at ELabNYC, Catalyst was able to speak with several women with varying backgrounds to find out what they are up to and get their take on the environment for women in the biotech sector. 

Miri Berger

Being a soldier in the Israeli army seeing friends injured in the line of duty, and later having a memorable professor who is an amputee, helped put Miri and her husband, Aryeh, on a path to founding 6Degrees LLC.

The company provides wearable technology that allows users to control a cursor on their phone, tablet or computer with upper arm motion. The slightest motion lets the user move a cursor, click and scroll, thereby replacing the use of a traditional mouse. It can be used by people who have suffered a stroke, amputations, Parkinson’s, MS and others.

Is now a good time to be a life sciences entrepreneur?

Yes, it’s always a good time. Smaller companies have access to technology and talent like never before.

What is your financing strategy?

We’ve had the most success with government grants earlier in the process and VC funding at the later stages.

Where are you seeing traction for your product?

Japan, Australia and Hong Kong come to mind. They have aging populations combined with government sensitivities to people with disabilities and support for start-ups.  

Do you perceive any roadblocks for women in biotech?

No. In fact there are a variety of grants and societies to help women in this field. The women I speak with are very goal- driven.

Where’s the greatest need for women in life sciences?

We could always use more female VCs and angel investors.

Linda Sharkus

Linda is the co-founder of AcquiSci Inc., a medical device company whose platform can help purify biological fluids and treat inflammatory diseases. This can widen the window for treatment after incidence of stroke from 4.5 hours up to 18 hours.

A veteran of the life science community, Linda was named a Top 25 NJ Leading Female Entrepreneur in 2011 and a Best 50 Women in Business in 2012. AcquiSci was recognized by the NJTC Venture Conference as a Best Life Sciences Company and a Most Capital Efficient Company.

Is now a good time to be a life sciences entrepreneur?

It’s a great time. There are a variety of programs for start-ups, and there’s more interest in training. Also, the pathway is much more developed than 5 years ago.

What is your financing strategy?

We’re working in a number of directions, but a partnering approach is ideal for us.

Where are you focusing your efforts geographically?

We’re doing our clinical trials in India. It’s a much less costly way and an easier regulatory path to move a product forward vs. the U.S. That’s particularly true for a stroke product, which is extremely difficult to bring to market.

Do you perceive any roadblocks for women in biotech?

No. With the help of incubators and mentoring programs, women are quite well-received in the marketplace. There are also stronger female peer groups and a better balance of those creating start-ups. However, I would like to see more women in the life science funding area.

How important is it for women who are seasoned in the life science sector to mentor other women?

It’s extremely important. Students often have difficulty integrating coursework into their jobs. As such, mentoring offers a bridge to young people—men and women—to help them hit the ground running when they graduate.

Jamie Strachota

Jamie Strachota is the Executive Director at Women in Bio, a national organization committed to promoting careers, leadership and entrepreneurship for women in the life sciences.

Do gender-based roadblocks exist for women in biotech?

Statistically speaking, and unfortunately, yes. In biotech, only about 10% of small companies and 20% of large companies have a female corporate member of the board of directors. Interestingly, companies with women in high-level management positions have an average ROI upwards of 35%.

Where is the greatest need for women in biotech: research, C-suite, funding, boards?

We’ve been focusing on women serving on boards. We learned the recurring reason for companies passing up women board candidates was due to “lack of experience.” As such, we created a Boardroom Ready program that teaches our candidates the commitments of serving on public and private company boards.

How is the biotech sector better today for women than 10 years ago?

It’s difficult to say because the sector is always evolving. But the support from women’s organizations, diversity initiatives and access to mentors is more available, which is a tremendous help.

Is now a good time to be a woman in the biotech sector?

It’s a great time. We’re standing on the shoulders of women before us who paved the way to endless career possibilities. The glass ceiling is definitely breakable.

Charlotte D’Hulst

Charlotte D’Hulst is a bio-engineering specialist and co-founder of MouSensor, LLC, a biotech start-up providing a genetic platform for smell pharmacology to assist in scent-detection tasks such as non-invasive cancer diagnosis and tuberculosis identification. MouSensor develops disease-specific “chemosignatures” that can identify ineffective therapies earlier in drug development, thereby improving drug attrition rates and decreasing research and development costs.

Is now a good time to be a life sciences entrepreneur?

Yes. There’s a lot brewing. I think we’ll look back in 10 years and say how now was an exciting time to be in biotech.

What is your financing strategy?

We’re currently pursuing non-diluted funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense as well as private foundations.

Do you perceive any roadblocks for women in biotech?

Not really. There are a variety of boot camps and programs for female entrepreneurs. In 20 years, hopefully you won’t need to differentiate programs for “Women in …” It’ll just be programs for people.  

Where’s the greatest need for women in life sciences?

At the board levels, both scientific and business advisory boards. I’ve also seen some statistics that for every VC dollar a man raises, a woman raises 33 cents.  

How important is it for women who are experienced in the life science sector to help younger women?

Everyone needs examples to look up to. Female entrepreneurs in life sciences can inspire those women coming up the ranks to achieve it all: a business, a family and a life.

Catalyst - Winter 2016/17

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