5 female-led biotech startups making waves

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women biotech leaders

International Women’s Day takes place on March 8, which celebrates the achievements of women, and also shines a light on gender discrimination and the need to accelerate gender parity. 

Although the percentage of women in the life sciences industry as a whole is almost equal to that of men, there is still work to be done on female representation in leadership roles, with only 34% of executives and 20% of CEOs in biotech reported to be women.

However, there has been a push for gender diversity within the industry and some of the top leaders in biotech are now women, who are paving the way and proving that breaking boundaries is possible. 

This has led to several female-led startups looking to establish themselves on the global biotech scene, developing exciting new therapies and technologies. In this article, we’ve listed five of those companies.

Table of contents

    Intergalactic Therapeutics

    Headquarters: Cambridge, U.S.
    Founded: 2020

    Intergalactic Therapeutics was founded in 2020 by ATP, a leading life sciences venture capital firm, to overcome the technical and clinical limitations of current viral-based therapies that use associated viral vectors (AAV) or other viral vectors to deliver genetic material. Instead, this female-led biotech company works on developing non-viral gene therapy alternatives using synthetic biology and engineered gene circuits to make C3DNA molecules. These are designed to provide a potentially safer and more effective solution for patients.

    Whereas AAV vectors can only deliver a certain amount of genetic material, C3DNA allows for large gene cargoes, as well as the expression of multiple genes. Another possible advantage is that, because C3DNA doesn’t have a protein coat, the body will not recognize it as a threat, meaning it can avoid triggering an immune response. 

    Intergalactic received $75 million in series A financing from ATP to develop its non-viral gene therapies in ophthalmology, hearing disorders and vaccines. The company recently appointed Theresa G.H. Heah as chief executive officer. With her extensive experience with gene therapies in ophthalmology, the company will enter its next phase of growth with an initial focus in this area. 

    Biomilq

    Headquarters: Durham, U.S.
    Founded: 2020

    Co-founded by Michelle Egger and Leila Strickland, Biomilq describes itself as “women-owned, science-led, and mother-centered.” Its mission is to create an infant nutrition alternative by developing technology that can re-create human breast milk in a lab, produced from mammary epithelial cells. 

    This alternative can mimic the nutritional value of breast milk and potentially reduce the global carbon footprint from the existing global infant formula market, where traditional bovine-based formulas are currently being used. 

    In 2021, this female-led biotech company secured $21 million in series A funding, which was led by Novo Holdings, a global life science investor. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’ climate-change investment firm, also participated in the funding, alongside Blue Horizon, Spero Ventures, Digitalis Ventures, Green Generation Fund and Gaingels. 

    ClostraBio

    Headquarters: Chicago, U.S.
    Founded: 2016

    ClostraBio is a University of Chicago spinout and was co-founded by Dr Cathryn Nagler, who is known for her research on the microbiome and its relationship to food allergy and other intestinal disorders. The female-led biotech aims to create new therapies to treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and food allergy. Its focus is around butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid derived from commensal bacteria that has the potential to be a promising therapeutic candidate but historically has presented delivery challenges. 

    ClostraBio has overcome these challenges by creating polymers that self-assemble into micelles that work to protect and stabilize the butyrate, which releases enzymatically. The polymers are known as CLB-004, and the company has completed several non-clinical studies for the CLB-004 program. 

    October 2022 saw the company close a $4 million series A-1 financing round led by Portal Innovations, so it can accelerate the development of the program. The funding will allow for the completion of the remaining preclinical studies to advance CLB-004 towards the enrollment of patients with mild-to-moderate ulcerative colitis (UC) in a phase 1a/b SAD-MAD clinical study. 

    Smart Immune

    Headquarters: Paris, France
    Founded: 2017

    Having been a cancer patient herself, CEO Karine Rossignol co-founded the clinical-stage biotechnology company Smart Immune with Dr. Marina Cavazzana and Dr. Isabelle André to help change the prognosis of patients with life-threatening cancers or infections. 

    Smart Immune is developing ProTcell, a thymus-empowered cell therapy platform designed to re-arm the immune system using allogeneic T-cell progenitors instead of mature effector T-cells. The patented ex-vivo lymphoid technology used by this female-led biotech company can transform hematopoietic stem cells into a potent pool of T-cell progenitors in only seven days. The aim is to reset the immune system in 100 days, instead of the usual 18 months needed in physiology. The progenitors can also be used to attack specific cancers, and the company is working on arming its cells with chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). 

    Smart Immune’s T-cell therapy is currently being studied, with several phase 1/2 trials taking place in Europe and the U.S. in collaboration with company partners, including Greater Paris University Hospitals (AP-HP) and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). The first adult leukemia patient was dosed with Smart Immune’s investigational product, SMART101, in December 2022, with no adverse reactions being reported so far. 

    Upstream Bio

    Headquarters: Waltham, U.S.
    Founded: 2021

    In 2022, Upstream Bio – led by CEO Samantha Truex – launched with a $200 million series A financing, allowing it to advance its lead program, UPB-101, which was acquired from Astellas after the successful completion of initial clinical and preclinical studies. 

    UPB-101 is a clinical-stage monoclonal antibody that inhibits the thymic stromal lymphopoietin (TSLP) receptor. TSLP sits at the top of the inflammatory cascade and is a key driver of inflammatory response in major allergic and inflammatory diseases. As the biotech company’s focus is around inflammatory and allergic diseases, it has selected asthma as the first indication for UPB-101.

    Upstream Bio’s pipeline strategy involves focusing on targets central to disease pathology, such as TSLP, to address the root cause of inflammation across a broad range of conditions, including both rare and common diseases.

    Explore other topics: Diversity and Inclusion

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