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MIT scientists launch Future Founders Initiative to help solve biotech’s ‘missing women’ problem

MIT professor and entrepreneur Sangeeta Bhatia.Courtesy of MIT

A group of prominent MIT scientists that was formed to address gender inequities in the biotech industry released a report Tuesday that says male faculty at the school start companies at a higher rate than their female peers, and proposes a way to help close the gap.

The report, delivered after two years of research by the Boston Biotech Working Group, outlines a plan, called the Future Founders Initiative, that calls for collaboration between the university, venture capital firms, and faculty.

The findings, published in a special-edition Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty newsletter, come more than two decades after “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” a 1999 report championed by biologist Nancy Hopkins, which highlighted gender discrimination against female faculty. That study not only led to changes at the school, but it sparked a reckoning at other universities across the country.


The Boston Biotech Working Group was largely inspired by Hopkins’ work and the disparities that remain years later. In 2018, when Hopkins won a lifetime achievement award from the media company Xconomy, she gave her acceptance speech to a large but mostly male audience.

“It was a crowd of biotech folks, and she said there was so much work left to do,” said Sangeeta Bhatia, an MIT professor and biotech entrepreneur. “There was something about that night and all the people in the room that really made it land on us.”

Bhatia and Susan Hockfield, the former president of MIT, sat at the same table in the audience that night, and they wanted to understand why the industry was still so predominantly male. They hosted a series of dinners with industry stakeholders, including venture capitalists and university leaders, to define the problem, and then received a $175,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation in 2019 to study it.


Their report tracked 337 MIT faculty members across seven science and engineering departments, including biology and chemistry. It found that female faculty members participated in only 9 percent of commercialization events from 2000 to 2018, from founding or cofounding a company to serving on a board. It’s not a problem that can be attributed to the pipeline, the data show, since women make up nearly a quarter of the faculty.

The study also found, strikingly, that if women were starting companies at the same rate as male faculty, some 40 more companies would have been spun out of MIT since 2000. The barriers for women entrepreneurs are many, but they include not being asked by male colleagues to cofound companies and the statistical reality that more venture capital dollars go to men.

Maria Zuber, vice president for research at MIT, called the 40 missing companies a “gut punch.”

“MIT prides itself on being immersed in an innovation ecosystem that helps translate our ideas into action,” she wrote in an endorsement of the new initiative. “Yet we are clearly underachieving, because we’re not advancing all of the most promising results from our labs.”

Hockfield said that there is a “huge threat to our regional advantage” if a gender gap persists in biotech.

“If we can’t advance discoveries at the same rate for women and men, that means there are drugs, therapies, devices, and diagnostics that are not getting to where they can actually benefit people,” she said. “If as a region we want to continue to lead the world, the best thing to do is not squander our resources.”


The Future Founders Initiative translates the data into several tangible solutions, some of which are already underway.

The organization will soon launch a boot-camp series for female faculty members focused on entrepreneurship. The boot camp had about 500 virtual participants last fall, and the goal will be to select individuals whom the initiative will support throughout the process of founding a company, much like a startup accelerator program. Although the group is still working out the details, the participants will compete for a monetary prize through a program dubbed “Dolphin Tank,” a mentorship-driven version of “Shark Tank.”

Another key part of the Future Founders Initiative is a pledge being crafted and passed around to venture capital firms. It asks them to make a commitment to try to change the board makeup at biotechs they control to 25 percent women in two years, a pledge the New England Venture Capital Association will keep track of. Some firms will also launch a fellowship program in which they host a female faculty member for an extended period of time, aiming to provide them with investment experience.

Bhatia said an inaugural class of five fellows is likely to start this fall — MIT has agreed to provide a teaching release, and the VC firms will provide compensation. So far, the Boston venture firms F-Prime Capital, Pillar VC, and Polaris Partners have each committed to welcoming a fellow.


“If you look around the C-suites or on boards, there is an absence [of women]. This is a well-recognized problem,” said Steve Knight, president and managing partner at F-Prime. “There may be many complex reasons for this, but this is something that can be and should be addressed by providing exposure and experience.”

Although the group is still finalizing the list of venture firms that plan to sign the pledge, Knight said to expect “recognizable firms and a very strong number.”

Terry McGuire, a founding partner of Polaris Partners, said that “you don’t have to look very far to see [biotech] is a male-dominated endeavor.” He said the report released Tuesday is “classic, world-class MIT work” that he hopes will go a long way to inspire other universities and biotech hubs to be proactive about change, too.

In a way, that’s the plan. Bhatia said the long-term goal is to foster a large network of chapters, with MIT’s being the catalyst. She said the Future Founders Initiative will probably need to seek outside funding to sustain its programs, such as the incentive prize.

“We imagine creating a dedicated staff to run this [program], create the chapter model, and track the outcomes,” she said. “It’s still in its infancy, but we would love that to happen.”

Anissa Gardizy can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.