Opinion

Opinion | Harvey Lodish and Nancy Hopkins

Boston biotech has a woman problem

FILE — A researcher at Pharmacyclics, which developed the cancer drug ibrutinib, in Sunnyvale, Calif., April 1, 2013. The drug was sold for $21 billion. A new study suggests that biotech companies are spending far less than believed on research and development for approved drugs, despite rising prices. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Boston’s biotechnology industry is envied and emulated around the world, and is poised to grow explosively in coming decades. It should continue to develop treatments for diseases and conditions thought incurable just a few years ago, based on advancements that emerge from research in our universities and hospitals and that are developed in innovative startup companies. Biotechnology depends on a rare group of scientists who are highly educated, productive, creative, and motivated. But at the highest levels — faculty founders of biotechnology companies and partners at venture capital firms — women have been routinely excluded.

The problem is not the pipeline — 25 to 30 percent of biology faculty at Boston’s leading research universities are women and 50 percent of those who hold PhDs in biology are female, according to a review of the universities’ websites.

But at the level where biotech companies are launched — by entrepreneurial university faculty members and partners at VC firms — little has changed over the decades since Genzyme, Genentech, Biogen, and others were formed, in the late 1970s. Among current Harvard and MIT professors who have started biotech companies in the past six years, the overwhelming majority are male. It’s the same for those who serve on the boards of directors and advisory boards. On the current websites of four top VC firms that fund biotech companies, we found only two female partners.

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How startup biotechnology companies are founded is instructive. Genentech was among the first. It was founded by Herb Boyer of the University of California in San Francisco, which held patents on his recombinant DNA discoveries, and Bob Swanson, a graduate of MIT and its Sloan School of Management. Boyer described his first meeting with Swanson many years later:

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“I didn’t know what a venture capitalist was in those days. And he (Swanson) said he was interested in starting a company, he had some money to do so, and that’s when I got interested, because laboratories always needed money. . . . Other than the suit and tie, he looked like one of my students.”

Swanson and Boyer’s historic meeting remains a model of how many biotech companies are founded. A discovery is made in a university lab and patented by the university’s technology licensing office to create intellectual property. The professor who runs the lab, together with faculty colleagues, are often recruited by venture capitalists. The university licenses the intellectual property to the startup. The faculty and venture capitalists assemble a team of founders,a board of directors, and a scientific advisory board. Its drivers are university faculty and venture capitalists.

Our experience is that women faculty with greater expertise and stature are sometimes passed over for participation in biotech startups in favor of men who are part of the old boy network. This male-dominated culture needs to change for two reasons. First, in a highly competitive world, biotech will never reach its full potential as the number of men in the pipeline shrinks and while some of the most creative and innovative women scientists and entrepreneurs are systemically excluded. Second, unlike VC firms, universities have an obligation, moral and legal, to provide equal opportunities to the faculty they hire and the students they train. The exclusion of women from participation in the industry now precludes this.

We urge venture firms and related companies to institute programs to recruit talented women and prepare them for leadership positions in the firm. In addition, universities should institute formal programs to educate younger faculty members of both genders to become entrepreneurs. And faculty with experience in the industry should seek out women faculty with appropriate scientific expertise for inclusion as founders and members of boards of directors and scientific advisory boards.

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Technology licensing offices at universities should also monitor the gender composition of VC firms and their current mentoring programs as well as the startups to whom they license IP. Any one startup company might have a skewed gender ratio, but collectively they should reflect the gender composition of the faculty and trainees in the field.

Including more women in the pool of venture and biotech leaders will ensure the success of the Massachusetts biopharmaceutical ecosystem, enabling it to develop new biotherapeutics for the benefit of all.

Harvey Lodish is a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and a professor of biology at MIT. Nancy Hopkins is professor emerita of biology at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.