Monday, September 26, 2016

Focus on Women Innovators in Boston Biotech: Dr. Rosana Kapeller & Alison Silva

Last month we blogged about five women to watch in Boston biotech and got an incredible response. In a country where less than five percent of the CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are female it's good to know that women in leadership is such a popular topic. Or perhaps our blog was popular because the Boston area women we profiled are making international biotech news, regardless of their gender. This month - as we gear up for our first ever Biotech Week Boston where we celebrate biotech innovation in the Boston area and around the Globe - we'd like to take a look at two more women innovators in the Boston area. This time we posed the questions: "Why are there so many women innovators in the Boston area" and "Why do women-founded startups perform better than all male ones?"

Dr. Rosana Kapeller, CSO Nimbus Discovery and Scientific Advisor, Atlas Venture

Innovator is a very fitting way to describe Dr. Rosana Kapeller, the Chief Scientific Officer at Nimbus Discovery and scientific advisor to Atlas Venture. Why fitting? Well first of all the very work that her company Nimbus Discovery does is at the cutting edge of biotech. Luke Timmerman recently described Nimbus' work as "changing the fundamental mode of drug discovery".  Dr. Kapeller also has taken it upon herself to do a research study to draw attention to the small number of women executives represented in biotech. Kapeller reported the stats she uncovered in an article for Life Science VC last fall called Biotech Circa 2015 AD: Where Are the Women? Even in the most innovative small biotech companies, Kapeller found that just 8% of board members were female. Kapeller also uncovered the fact that only 10% of CEOs were women.

Alison Silva, President & Director, Critical Outcome Technologies and Co-Founder, The Orphan Group

Do a search for Critical Outcome Technologies (COTI) and you won't find local press buzzing about them just yet, but newly appointed Director of COTI and President of Synlogic Therapeutics Bharatt Chowrira made sure to let us know that is about to change: "Although COTI may not be a household name in the Boston Biotech area, it's just a matter of time with Alison Silva at the helm!" President and Director of COTI, Silva was a co-founder and COO of Chowrira's company Synlogic.

What Critical Outcome Technologies is doing is quite ground-breaking; they use computer science and machine learning to develop drugs. Their CEO Wayne Danter described what they do to Canada's Financial Post: "So that much of what the traditional drug discovery process would do occurs in a wet lab and is very expensive; most of our work initially is done in computer simulations so that we’re able to develop candidates very quickly."

Biotech Week Boston spoke with both Dr. Rosana Kapeller and Alison Silva to ask them what they thought about women and innovation, here's what transpired:

Biotech Week Boston: "Although women are only 5% of the Fortune 500 CEOs, there are a great deal of women leaders in Boston biotech. Do you have any thoughts on why that is the case?"

Alison Silva: "I believe innovation is fundamental to any successful biotech venture, and Metro Boston is an innovation hub. Biotech in Boston fosters merit based, gender neutral advancement, so women who are innate motivators and leaders tend to gravitate and thrive here. The combination provides a natural environment for women to be leaders in the biotech sector. On a personal level, as someone who has worked for both start-up and Fortune 100 companies, I feel more natural in a smaller, fast-paced growth environment where my passion for diversity and opportunity is most embraced.

In discussing this topic with colleagues, spurred on by the recent appointment of Emma Walmsley as GSK’s new Chief, some at the table wonder why these positions receive press focused on gender and not purely the merit that these women clearly possess being placed in such significant positions. It’s a point made in support of the growth of the meager 5%, when it’s clear by female leaders whose footsteps we are following in, that the path is becoming more defined, accepted and most importantly appreciated. I argue that is still comes down to balance and choice. Women may have the desire to take their careers to a certain professional level, however may not be willing to fully accept the lifestyle choices of, in the case of this question, a Fortune 500 CEO-ship. I believe and am hopefully optimistic that we are entering an era during which some of the extraneous and self-imposed demands are being pressure tested and companies are diligent in finding balance for all of their employees."

Dr. Rosana Kapeller: "I am not so sure this statement is completely correct. Although women CEOs in biotech comprise more than 5% as compared to Fortune 500 CEOs (About 10% +/- 4% depending on the year), they are still the minority. What you see in biotech though is an increase in women in leadership positions mostly as CSOs and CMOs, which I find quite interesting (could these be considered “soft areas”?)  According to my own research, which is supported by a broader and more robust research by Liftstream, here are the numbers: Women comprise about 26% of all leadership positions in Biotech; 17% CSOs, 24% CMOs as compared to 10% CEOs and COOs. CFOs and CBOs fall in between CSOs and CMOs numbers.

I think the higher number of women CMOs reflects what is happening in medicine overall, where more women and less men are enrolling into medical schools, since medicine is no longer a career of choice for men. On the positive side, I think the increase in the number of women in leadership positions in biotech is due to several factors. It reflects the overall increase in the numbers of women in the biotech workforce. There an increase in women role models: this is the first time in the industry that women can emulate other women who got there before them. Before this generation of women, they needed to emulate their male counterparts to “make it". I am part of the “transition” generation and have seen an increase in the number of women leaders that I can emulate towards the later part of my career.

Women are making it into leadership positions due to the support these women are receiving from trailblazers like Vicki Sato (former President of Vertex and currently a Professor at Harvard Business school), Deborah Dunsire (formerly CEO of Millennium and Forum), and Carol Gallagher (formerly CEO of Calistoga and now a partner at NEA), just to name a few. I firmly believe in ‘like hires like'.

Lastly, men are starting to appreciate what women bring to the table and feel less uncomfortable with the differences in leadership and management styles. I think in the next 5-10 years we will continue to see an increase in women in leadership positions in biotech, and we will eventually see it leveling off between 30-40%. You may ask, why not 50%, since women comprise 50% of the population? To be honest and this is my personal opinion, women may not be willing to put up with all the “pressure" required to be a CEO. And I am not talking about the hard work, innovation, team building, financing etc. I am talking about the amount of time one has to spend playing the politics of the job. And, whatever happens in the workforce women still do most of work/worrying on the home front. So when you put these two pieces together, you may find that it is a life choice, not a career choice and women may opt out of it." 

Biotech Week Boston: "Startups with at least one female founder perform better, do you know why that may be the case?"

Alison Silva: "I have seen many women, many friends, thrive in a start-up environment - a dynamic stage where strong organizational skills, adaptability and an ability to be fearless yet pragmatic are critical success factors. The intensity of this pace lends itself well to leaders with inherent multi-tasking skills, a collaborative nature and an instinctive drive to motivate others. These are common, foundational traits in many women and they are infinitely synergistic to a start-up environment. Additionally, I believe a fundamental success factor in the early days of a start-up is the corporate culture, which must be designed upfront and consistently nurtured to breed creativity, productivity, direction and camaraderie. Tying all of these aspects together within a small team is a challenging task, and I believe many of our female leaders in biotech have a unique understanding of what it takes to bring out the best in their team and make the endeavor successful."

Dr. Rosana Kapeller: "Yes, it is all about PEOPLE. This is what make companies succeed or fail. Women in principle are more collaborative and caring. They have a knack for recruiting and retaining talent as, most women, are willing to make the effort of understanding the different needs of the team members. They can be incredible motivators, and at the same time require a level of commitment and integrity that serves the company well. They are cheer leaders by nature. They are more willing to hire a “diverse” work force… find the best person for the job regardless of gender, race, etc. They are not afraid to make decisions, but consider all the angles before making a hasty decision. They can play the “contrarian” and will often have a different view of the needs of the company and elicit a conversation. A woman will not be another “yes man” and that is very beneficial in leadership teams. Of course this is a generalization and there are exceptions to the rules, but overall I find this to be the case.

Women are as good as men in innovation. Not sure why men are thought to be more innovative then women. I always worked on cutting edge science and so do most of my female counterparts. I think this is still an unconscious bias. Two of my favorite current innovators are Jennifer Doudna and Sangeeta Bhatia. Of course we can also go back to Marie Curie, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Rosalind Franklin..."

Interested in learning more about the experiences of women in biotech leadership? Join us at the Women's Executive Leadership Dinner which will feature Susan Windham-Bannister, President and CEO Biomedical Growth Strategies and Christina Bodurow, Ph.D., Senior Director, External Sourcing Medicines Development, Lilly.

Biotech Week Boston is a hub for life sciences, technology, and business and fosters cross-disciplinary interaction and collaboration to break down silos and spark change. Biotech Week Boston will showcase the most comprehensive science and innovative technologies while fostering partnerships to unlock the full potential of what science and business can achieve. Learn more by clicking the link below.

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