But the only women featured at the week’s most prominent events — keynote presentations and fireside chats — had nothing to do with the biotech industry itself; they came from the worlds of politics and academia.
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And at panel discussions and in private conversations, women attending the BIO International Convention identified a key problem that could take years to address: There simply aren’t enough women in life science venture capital.
That has a substantial trickle-down effect, because it’s the venture capitalists who make the earliest decisions on the way drug and device companies are formed: who sits in the boardroom, who gets C-suite titles, who calls the shots.
“Like hires like,” said Janis Naeve, managing partner at Amgen Ventures. “If you’ve got five old white male partners, that’s what it’s going to look like down the line — unless something changes.”
Just 10 percent of partners at independent biotech venture capital firms are female, according to a 2015 analysis by Liftstream that looked at both Europe and the US. Venture capital entities housed within corporations, like Amgen Ventures, did slightly better, but still, just 18 percent of their partners were women.
A separate analysis last year of 31 up-and-coming biotech startups found that women occupied just 8 percent of board seats and 26 percent of leadership roles. Only three women were CEOs, according to the analysis by Dr. Rosana Kapeller, the chief scientific officer of Nimbus Therapeutics.
With numbers like that, women at BIO said it’s high time to stop talking and start hiring.
“We’ve shined a light on the problem, and now we must focus on active solutions,” said Nina Kjellson, a general partner at Canaan Partners, a global venture firm based in Connecticut.
Women in Bio, a professional networking organization, tried to take a step in that direction by launching a new training course for female executives. Called “Boardroom Ready,” it’s meant to groom women in leadership skills to help them win seats on corporate boards.
But the program has already received a measure of criticism. At a panel discussion here this week, Carolyn Green, the executive director of worldwide R&D investments with Pfizer, asked this pointed question:
Why assume it’s the women who need the training?
“That’s the incorrect way to approach this,” Green asserted. It’s “the men who hold the power, not the women who are seeking it” who need educating, she said.
“It’s the wrong way to go about it, thinking you need to fix the women,” Green said. “It should really be about changing behaviors among the decision-makers.”
“It’s the wrong way to go about it, thinking you need to fix the women.”
Carolyn Green, Pfizer investment director
The National Venture Capital Association made a splashy announcement during White House Demo Day last August, committing to improving gender and minority diversity in the sector. Progress, however, has been slow:
NVCA promised a report last year that analyzed diversity among US startups and venture firms, but used faulty methodology — and is in the process of redoing it for this year, said NVCA president Bobby Franklin. It pledged to participate in programs that improve diversity in entrepreneurship — but has yet to launch any such programs on its own. And it’s seen how hard it can be to change mindsets.
“We’ve learned that we all have these unconscious biases — and not enough of us have learned how to overcome them,” said Franklin.
Franklin noted that many venture capital firms in the biotech space are small, and aren’t in position to hire or promote more partners, making it hard for them to diversify. Still, he said he’s optimistic: “I do believe the old boys network will continue to change. It’ll be a lot more difficult for venture firms to continue the same business model they have since the 1970s.”
Corporate venture arms tend to have more resources, and perhaps more incentive, than small firms to make gender diversity a priority.
“Our customers at J&J are a lot of women,” said Marian Nakada, vice president of venture investments at Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation. “So J&J can’t be sexist. It has to support diversity.”
Nakada began her career as a bench scientist, and never did get an MBA — but she has transitioned to the world of venture investment thanks to support, and more than a little nudging, from the company.
“They basically said, ‘You can do this,’ even though I didn’t think I could,” Nakada said. “They gave me the resources, the teaching, the mentoring and the support to make that transition.”
For all the frustration, women at BIO said they did see some signs of progress.
A few years ago, a “women in venture” dinner was launched at the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, which attracts biotech, pharma, and investment professionals from around the globe. Just a handful of women attended.
“Now we’ve got over 130,” Kjellson said.