MENLO PARK, Calif. — Health care is reckoning with the representation of women on its most prominent stages, where dark suits still dominate and all-male panels persist.
And yet here at the five-star Rosewood Sand Hill hotel, on venture capital’s Main Street, the conference panels this week looked different. Instead of men named Michael, there was Susan and Lynne and Stacey and Angela.
Most of the men present were serving refreshments or working the conference’s audio and visual systems.
The conference, known as MedtechVision, was familiar as far as health care conferences go — the topic on Tuesday was the impact of artificial intelligence on medicine — and so were the companies represented, including Google and Grail. But the event attracted many of the most prominent women in Silicon Valley health care circles. Over the years, it’s become a can’t-miss gathering; the roughly 200 tickets for this year’s conference sold out two weeks after going on sale earlier this summer.
The conference has two rules: The speakers must bring world-class discussion and expertise. And they can’t focus on issues like work-life balance that are traditionally the subject of events aimed at professional women.
“The gap in the market isn’t women talking about work-life balance. That’s covered. What we weren’t hearing was women’s expert voices about what was happening in health care,” said organizer and co-founder Amy Belt Raimundo, a VC at the venture arm of the health system Kaiser Permanente.
Since the conference started in 2011, every speaker has been a woman. Men are welcome to attend — in fact, the organizers say they’d like to see half the attendees in the room be male — but men just don’t show up. STAT spotted a couple of men seated in the crowd on Tuesday.
“Men don’t feel comfortable here, for interesting reasons,” Belt Raimundo said.
The MedtechVision conference isn’t the only gathering of its kind. In the Bay Area alone, there are similar events put on every year for women working in tech and in private equity, for example. But MedtechVision is a breath of fresh air, attendees said, in an industry where too often they’re the only woman in the room.
One recent example: In June, the BIO International Convention in Boston had 25 all-male panels on its agenda, while an after-hours party not affiliated with the official conference sparked outrage when it hired topless women with company logos painted on their bodies to dance for attendees.
Attendees of the MedtechVision conference also see a difference in tone.
“What they’ve been really good at is getting beyond the posturing and the chest-thumping that you often see at these meetings,” said longtime attendee Witney McKiernan, vice president of marketing and strategy at Channel Medsystems, a Bay Area company working on a device for women with heavy menstrual bleeding. “At other med-tech meetings, panelists’ viewpoints are just taken, and not responded to often, and not challenged — and I think it’s just the opposite here.”
The genesis of the MedtechVision gathering came in 2010, when Belt Raimundo found herself at a industry conference feeling frustrated about how few women she saw up on stage. So she picked up her BlackBerry and emailed an old friend and colleague, Deborah Kilpatrick, who was then chief commercial officer of a startup.
“We just refused to accept the possibility that half the experts in the world that understood med tech didn’t deserve to be heard,” said Kilpatrick, who’s now CEO of health data company Evidation Health and a co-founder and organizer of the MedtechVision conference.
Among the women who attend, the MedtechVision conference has gained a reputation as a prime spot for conversations that plant the seeds for dealmaking. Much of that networking took place over lunch and at the end of the day on the sunny outdoor terrace, where women exchanged hugs and swapped business cards over appetizers and wine.
Longtime attendees say that, as conferences go, this one has been unusually fertile territory for finding deals and career opportunities.
It was at the conference that Belt Raimundo first met the co-founders of Medina Medical, a company working on a device to threat the aneurysms that cause strokes. Her firm became the first to put institutional money into the company, and it became her most successful VC exit, after Medtronic (MDT) bought Medina in 2015.
And it’s been at MedtechVision, too, that health care VC Lisa Suennen has met women “that have led me directly to deal flow and advisory opportunities,” she said. During a period she spent as a consultant, Suennen said, “the contacts I made here led directly to some very lucrative opportunities.”
Then there’s Sarah Reilly, an expert in reimbursement and market access who attended this year’s conference for the fourth year in a row. When she attended for the first time in 2015, she was working at a startup but on the lookout for new career opportunities. During the afternoon wine reception, an old colleague introduced her to a woman who worked at Nevro, a Silicon Valley company working on a spinal cord stimulation device. That introduction led to a job offer — and “the rest is history,” Reilly said. She still works at Nevro today.