Women in biotech: Out on the frontline

For the first time in big pharma history, a woman is set to take the helm of an international pharmaceutical company. Earlier this year, UK pharma GlaxoSmithKline announced the appointment of Emma Walmsley to succeed Andrew Witty as CEO. Walmsley, who is currently the CEO of GSK Consumer Healthcare, will make the step across April 1, 2017 after Witty retires. 

Walmsley may be the first of her kind, but is far from the only woman leading a company in the industry. Heather Bresch has long been lauded for her role at generic drugmaker Mylan (despite the recent controversy over the pricing of EpiPen), while United Therapeutics was founded by CEO Martine Rothblatt. Overall, biotech has a much better record than its pharma counterparts. 

Women currently make up about 50% of the talent pool in biopharma and hold more than half of doctorates, but the numbers drop off precipitously once you move up the corporate ladder, with only about 18% of the highest-valued biotechs having females in senior management, according to a 2015 Liftstream report

While the U.S. still doesn't have its first female president and the biopharma industry is not yet known for its gender equality, there are plenty of strong females at the top in a number of emerging biotechs. 

Breaking down barriers

"In the years since I entered the industry, I have noticed an increase in the number of women playing major roles, and, in part, I think those numbers may be attributed to attempts across the board to increase gender diversity," says Karen Aiach, founder and CEO of Lysogene.

"Gender diversity is as important for small biotechs as big pharma, and it’s simply better for business — we should all be making efforts to foster it in our companies. Additionally, networking organizations such as W.I.T.H. (Women Innovating Together in Healthcare) and others, have increased the number of touchpoints among women in the industry, creating networking forums that are helpful to everyone," she said. 

Across emerging biotechs, there are women CEOs making strides. New York-based Neurotrope BioScience has CEO Susanne Wilke at the helm. She joined the company in September 2016, following her role as president, CEO and co-founder of the advisory company CrossBridge International.

"I was asked to become the CEO at Neurotrope BioScience after I had spent time working alongside the company as an advisor — they liked my understanding of the technology and my awareness and acceptance of the risks. I am naturally curious, and throughout my career I have made an effort to learn about the critical parts of the industry, including how to build a company, and what makes a drug a commercial as well as a scientific success," explained Wilke.

"Women can also make good managers, and take more of a team approach, integrating all the best perspectives and creating a consensus. Unfortunately, this can be seen as not being strong. In contrast, some people are not used to hearing women speak their mind. My advice is stand up for your own beliefs and don't be deterred," Wilke added.

Elsewhere, Katrine Bosley is a stand out amongst the industry. Bosley currently heads up Editas Medicines, one of the companies in the U.S. that is using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to correct disease causing genetic mutations. She led Editas through a $98 million IPO earlier this year and the company stands as a breakout in the field that is being closely watched by investors.

Yet, Editas wasn't her first C-suite role. She was previously the CEO at Avila Therapeutics until the company was acquired by Celgene in a $925 million buyout in 2012. She also chairs the board of Genocea Biosciences and sits on the board of Galapagos.


Like Bosley, Aya Jakobovits has experience at multiple biotechs and has been at the forefront of some of the companies doing exciting science. Jakobovits is now the founder, president and CEO at Adicet Bio, a startup biotech founded in 2015 focused on universal immune cell therapies for cancer and other diseases. Jakobovits started in the biotech industry straight from a PhD at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and a postdoc at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

"After my postdoc, I was supposed to head back to Israel, but I decided that I wanted a few months' experience in a molecular biology lab, and joined Genentech. I found that I loved it — the product focus and the energy, drive, and pace — and I stayed there for three years," says Jakobovits.

Before founding Adicet Bio, Jakobovits, who is also a venture partner at OrbiMed Advisors, worked for a number of California biotechs, including as president and founding CEO at CAR-T-focused biotech Kite Pharma.

"There aren't as many women as men at higher levels in biotech. I think what helped me get there is the drive to innovate, create breakthrough technologies and accomplish a big vision, as well as taking an interest in and gaining experience across all elements of the industry, such as science, business, IP and legal affairs," said Jakobovits.

"Women have critical skills that are important to the industry, such as vision, perseverance, dedication, and the ability to inspire and nurture. They also bring the confidence and toughness that they have developed through the challenges they have faced," she said. 

Anna Protopapas, president and CEO at Mersana Therapeutics, joined the company in 2015 after her role heading up Takeda Pharmaceutical's $1.3 billion oncology business.

"I was one of the very few girls in science growing up, but my parents encouraged me. I knew that this was going to be the reality going in, and I just got on with it. Things are changing — biotech at college is around 50-50 now, but this hasn't yet been reflected in management," says Protopapas.

"To change, it needs a concerted effort at board level, when C-suite people are selected. For me, mentorship has been very important, and I have worked with some great managers. My advice is to seek out mentors and networks, learn from peers, and don't get easily distracted!"

Facing continued challenges

The thing all of these successful female CEOs have in common is that they were driven and pursued smart, innovative science. 

Yet, many women struggle with climbing the corporate ladder in an industry that has historically been dominated by men. 

This may be because women lack senior level experience. But there are ways around this, according to Ursula Ney, previously the CEO at Genkyotex, and currently on the board of directors at Discuva. "I encourage women to take the opportunities to add to their CVs, for example take non-operational roles in small companies or not-for profits, gaining experience of working at a different level," she said. 

Networking and mentoring can also play a role here, and some pharma and biotech companies are trying to highlight the issue. Earlier in November, Novartis organized a TweetChat focused on women in science. This involved 60 participants, with 114 Twitter users sending 429 tweets using #WomenInScience before and during the discussion.

The Twitter community agreed that being mentored and networking, which both can be challenging, helped women to access opportunities, and gain the confidence to ask for what they wanted. Rising to the top came up, and it was suggested that women can undervalue their capabilities.

And finally — the elephant in the room of work-life balance. It's about planning cleverly, working flexibly, prioritizing and being aware that sometimes it’s a work in progress. Check out the TweetChat on Storify for more details.

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Filed Under: Corporate News
Top image credit: Editas Medicines