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Innovation economy

The 10 most influential women in biotech

Strong female leaders help the sector set the pace for other industries in Mass.

In my 15 years of writing about innovation-oriented industries in Massachusetts, I’ve heard steady complaints — mostly valid — about the paucity of women in key positions. In businesses like tech, energy, retail, or financial services, all of which regularly spawn big companies in our part of the world, it’s hard not to notice the dearth of women starting new ventures, making investments, running big public companies, or serving on boards.

And then there’s biotech: that lone sector of innovation where, though far from dominated by XX chromosomes, you can easily point to female power players in all the major roles related to starting and growing new businesses.

“Twenty years ago, you didn’t have women in these positions at all,” says Janice Bourque, a former head of the Massachusetts Biotech Council who now makes loans to life sciences companies at Hercules Technology Growth Capital in Boston. “Back then, you had a handful of women involved with running clinical trials or doing research at companies. You had women rising up the ranks in law firms and accounting firms, and they now serve as general counsels and chief financial officers at companies. It has been an evolution.”

In terms of female leadership, biotech sets the pace for other industries in Boston. But Bourque says women still face challenges. “When women entrepreneurs come and pitch to investors,” she says, “there’s still a subconscious thought that you need a guy with you to be credible.”

A 2012 paper published in the Academy of Management Journal found that male academics with comparable experience and similar research focus as female colleagues are still about twice as likely to be asked to serve on the scientific advisory boards of biotechs.

There’s still work to be done. But while talk of the old boys’ network persists in other fields, in biotech, there’s a notable new network that has taken shape over the past two decades. To produce this picture of its most influential members, I consulted with male and female venture capitalists, executive recruiters, big company executives, and entrepreneurs. They served up multiple nominees for each spot; I looked for consensus, and made some judgment calls as well.

Joe Tabacca for The Boston Globe

The public company founder: Mary Lynne Hedley

  • The biotech industry has seen a string of initial public offerings over the last year, and Hedley’s company, Watertown-based Tesaro, kickstarted things last summer. Hedley cofounded the company in 2010 and serves as its president. Tesaro has acquired the rights to continue developing a set of cancer drugs that other companies discovered but decided not to push forward. It nowhas four drugs in late-stage clinical trials.


Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

The private company CEO: Deborah Dunsire

  • Dunsire, a physician educated in South Africa, was named chief executive of EnVivo Pharmaceuticals in July, after negotiating the $8.8 billion sale of Cambridge-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals to Takeda, a Japanese firm. EnVivo, based in Watertown, is focusing on diseases of the central nervous system, like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. Dunsire is also a director of Allergan, the California company best known for marketing Botox.

Jakub Mosur for the Boston Globe

The venture capitalist: Jean George

  • George is having a busy fall: Her Back Bay venture capital firm, Lightstone Venture Partners, is in the home stretch of raising a $150 million investment fund, and two of her companies, Acceleron Pharma of Cambridge and Five Prime Therapeutics of San Francisco, are on the verge of initial public offerings. (Acceleron focuses on ailments including blood cancers and chronic kidney disease, Five Prime on rheumatoid arthritis.) George’s career included a stint as vice president of global sales and marketing at Genzyme.

Matthew Hakola

The public sector grant maker: Susan Windham-Bannister

  • In 2008, Windham-Bannister became the first head of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasipublic agency created to manage Governor Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life sciences initiative. Since then, the center has dispensed roughly $467 million in loans, grants, tax incentives, and internship funding, with the goal of spurring more life sciences research, education, and business growth throughout the state. Windham-Bannister likes to cite a recent Boston Foundation report that the life sciences industry is the state’s fastest growing.

PureTech Ventures

The company creator: Daphne Zohar

  • Founded in 2001, Zohar’s Back Bay firm is something of a start-up factory. PureTech prowls conferences and scours academic publications for the potential seeds of a new company. Then, it brings the scientific founders together with seasoned start-up executives, board members, and funding — sometimes from big pharma companies, sometimes from venture capital firms. Current PureTech projects focus on depression, obesity, and the therapeutic potential of specially designed video games.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The academic lab director: Sangeeta Bhatia

  • Educated at Brown, MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital, Bhatia now runs her own lab at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, overseeing about two dozen researchers. Among her lab’s projects are designing new kinds of nanoparticles that can accumulate around tumors, penetrate their tough exteriors, and essentially “open the door” so that targeted drugs can more completely destroy the tumors.

Robert Leslie

The nonprofiteer: Nina Dudnik

  • Dudnik’s Boston nonprofit collects used lab equipment like pH meters and beakers and ships it to scientists around the world. Seeding Labs also provides training on topics like grant writing, and runs a “Peace Corps for Scientists” that encourages US and European scientists to share their knowledge with peers in developing countries. The nonprofit celebrates its fifth anniversary this fall. Its latest shipment of laboratory gear arrived at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica late last month.

Biogen Idec

The big company exec: Susan Alexander

  • Alexander joined publicly traded Biogen Idec, one of the world’s biggest biotechs in terms of market value, as executive vice president and general counsel in 2006. The company develops drugs to treat diseases like multiple sclerosis and hemophilia, and Alexander supervises crucial legal activities, like securing patent protection for Biogen Idec’s new products around the world. Alexander also cochairs Biogen Idec’s council on diversity and inclusion, which advises the executive team on those issues.

Don Nelsen/MIT

The gatekeeper: Lita Nelsen

  • Want to start a company based on a scientific breakthrough from MIT? You’ll first have to negotiate a licensing deal with Nelsen, who runs the university’s Technology Licensing Office. Big companies seeking access to MIT discoveries also hash out terms with Nelsen’s team. Last year, the team helped 16 companies get started, filed 305 patents, and granted 81 licenses to intellectual property developed at MIT.

Stuart Cahill/Harvard Business School

The board member: Vicki Sato

  • Sato is a Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley-educated biologist who grew up with the biotech industry, serving as a top research exec at Biogen and then Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where she became the Cambridge company’s president in 2000. She now teaches at Harvard Business School, writes case studies about the life sciences business, and serves on half a dozen corporate boards, including those of start-ups like Nimbus Discovery and of large public companies like the Waltham lab equipment maker PerkinElmer.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @Scott.Kirsner.
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