Although regarded as a booming industry, the number of women recruits in biotech, let alone in high-ranking positions, is low. Despite progress over the years, a recent report states that only 34% of executive teams and 20% of CEOs are reported to be women in the biotech industry, with even lower figures for women of color and LGBTQ+ women.
Owing to a gender disparity in pay, burnout, biases and a lack of funding for women-led biotech among other challenges, there is potentially a crisis with women more likely to not be retained within the sector.
Despite these challenges, women leaders in the biotech sector are emerging stronger and being regarded as role models for those who want to establish a career in biotech research and development.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, here are five women who are not only making a difference in research and innovation in the biotech industry, but also leading the way and proving that women can really do it all.
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Somer Baburek, co-founder & CEO of Hera Biotech
Having struggled with painful periods and what she describes as an arduous childbirth experience, Somer Baburek developed a passion for pursuing a career studying women’s health, and in particular, endometriosis, a condition where tissues similar to endometrial tissue grow outside the uterus, causing pain and lowering the fertility rate.
Now the co-founder and CEO of Hera Biotech, a biotech based in Texas, Baburek takes on the role of the “captain” of the team, where she raises money and awareness for endometriosis research, after recognizing a dearth of the disease-modifying therapeutics, which she traced back to a lack of knowledge about disease diagnosis.
Having developed a medical device in labor and delivery during her undergraduate studies, Baburek, who holds a master’s degree in data analytics, believes that showing that women’s health is an approachable field, even for those who aren’t formally educated in the sector, is crucial.
“I think being able to converse intelligently on the subjects related to our work, diligently researching alternate technologies and understanding how they are different from a scientific perspective and highlighting the value that a “non-technical” person can bring to the topic is an achievement I am proud of,” said Baburek.
Baburek, who helped raise $2 million to expand clinical research in endometriosis while aiding her company’s Breakthrough Designation Request with the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with her team, recounts that being in a male-dominated field such as biotech, has had an effect that is evidenced by “the lack of research being done in women’s health,” although she believes that the sector is improving.
“Continuing to collect and report the performance data for teams comprised of females versus their all-male counterparts will be critical in motivating the change. For example, in terms of startups, founding teams that have at least 1 female outperform their all-male counterparts by 63% in terms of ROI to investors. This means it’s bad business to fund all male teams, statistically speaking,” said Baburek, who additionally faces the challenge of being taken seriously by people, especially by those who hold an MD or PhD in the sector.
Despite the challenges, Baburek hopes to deliver a “definitive, molecular diagnostic tool that eliminates unnecessary surgical procedures,” and provide “patients and providers the ability to get stage-appropriate, specialized treatment immediately.”
Charlotte Guzzo, COO and co-founder of Sano Genetics
Due to the high cost of developing medicines, coupled with research in rare disease therapies taking around 10 to 15 years, today there are more than 6,000 diseases without treatments. Charlotte Guzzo, COO and co-founder of UK-based biotech Sano Genetics, is looking to change that.
“By accelerating the pace of research in precision medicine, our vision is for a world where every disease can be predicted through the use of genomics and other data, and prevented, treated, or cured with a personalized approach,” said Guzzo, who believes that medicines using biomarkers are more likely to succeed as potential treatments.
This woman in biotech, along with her team at Sano Genetics, has built a platform to recruit participants for precision medicine trials, a potential prevention and diagnosis method that uses the patient’s own genes in its study, as well as to offer at-home testing, leading to quicker and cost-effective clinical trials.
Guzzo’s fascination with brain development science led her to pursue a neuroscience degree at Cambridge University in England, one of the top universities to study biotechnology, after which she began her PhD in embryology, where she met two of her co-founders, and the idea of creating Sano Genetics sprouted.
“We quickly realized the existing infrastructure for recruiting patients into precision medicine research was inadequate, to the detriment of both patients and researchers. We built Sano with the goal of completely changing the field and building a world in which patients and researchers can find their matches on a much faster timescale, so new treatments can be discovered more quickly,” said Guzzo, whose company closed an $11 million funding round to expand their platform.
As the leader of the team that focuses on scaling their at-home DNA testing operations, her role is to identify gaps in delivery across the company and ensure the efficiency of the projects. As the COO of a biopharma, she believes that it is important for biotech companies to offer provisions for both working parents, including paid leave.
Guzzo said, “The gender gap in pay and career progression won’t be solved until there are equal expectations on both parents to take time off after the birth of a child,” adding that “inclusion is about culture and it needs to permeate every aspect of how you run a company, from hiring practices and onboarding to clear career maps and performance frameworks that are based on tangible outcomes and not personal bias.”
This woman in biotech believes that there is a promising future for precision medicine in targeting disease prevention.
“We have built a platform that enables thousands of individuals to access clinical trials and research opportunities they would otherwise not be able to access and have supported multiple research entities in fast-tracking crucial research projects that would have otherwise taken years to implement,” said Guzzo.
Tracy Radel, vice president of engineering at SHINE Technologies, Inc.
From being part of creating a launch safety report for Rover’s mission to Mars to building a large-scale fusion-driven medical isotope production facility, and not to mention being named as one of the honourees for In Business Magazine’s Forty Under 40, Tracy Radel has done it all.
As the vice president of engineering at U.S.-based biotech SHINE Technologies, Inc., Radel is responsible for ensuring that safety measures are in place, especially since she works in the production of medical isotopes for cancer diagnosis and therapies, which can pose risks to workers and the environment, if not monitored.
Radel, who is involved in the development of isotope facility The Chrysalis, is certain that diagnostic isotopes like molybdenum-99 have been a breakthrough in heart disease and cancer diagnosis.
“By applying the fusion neutrons generated to areas like nuclear medicine and nuclear waste recycling, we are addressing key challenges in the healthcare and energy sectors all while moving towards our ultimate goal of fusion energy,” said Radel, who played a pivotal role in the nuclear design of the facility.
“We progressed from back-of-the-napkin ideas to preliminary design to final design to fabrication to delivery on site. The design we ended up with will reduce waste in production of molybdenum-99 by approximately 20 times, which is something we’re all incredibly proud of,” said Radel.
Having faced challenges when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Radel and her team found it difficult to find vendors for the nuclear material that the company uses. To cope with this, the company started its own Commercial Grade Dedication (CGD) lab, which helped allow the testing of products to determine whether they could be source materials in-house.
As she aims to employ fusion technology in nuclear waste recycling, Radel is hopeful that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent approval of the final safety evaluation report of SHINE’s facility, can bolster the supply chain for medical isotopes, and push for an optimistic future in therapeutics and sustainability.
Emer Leahy, president and CEO of PsychoGenics
A career that spans more than 30 years in drug discovery and clinical and business development, Emer Leahy leads an organization that specializes in neuroscience research. As the president and CEO of U.S.-based biotech PsychoGenics, Leahy led the first company to apply machine learning to drug discovery efficacy prediction, resulting in several drug candidates currently participating in clinical trials.
Her passion for the complexity of the human brain motivated Leahy to take up a career studying mental illnesses and the nervous system.
“I had seen firsthand the impact that depression can have on a family. My Ph.D. is in neuropharmacology, a field that I have been passionate about, because I understood the devastating impact of mental illness not only on the person who is suffering but on the family unit,” said Leahy.
Over the years, Leahy, along with her team at PsychoGenics, has integrated artificial intelligence with their research in drug discovery to develop novel approaches for the treatment of central nervous system (CNS) disorders including therapies for schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
She believes that there is plenty of scope in polypharmacology, which is the use of pharmaceutical agents that act on multiple targets, and can be crucial in research in CNS disorders. Her goal for the company is to advance in ongoing clinical trials, which could prove to be beneficial for patients with mental health disorders.
Having faced challenges that many women in the biotech field face like maintaining a work-life balance, Leahy wants to see an increased support for women in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research.
“From the top down side, industry leaders can do more, providing strong guidelines for ethical conduct, building cultures of tolerance and respect, recognizing accomplishments and promoting based on a variety of merit based factors, and creating training and mentorship programs to guide women and minorities and ensure they do not quit,” said Leahy whose company constitutes 48% of women and 43% of women in executive positions.
Jennifer Stojkovic, activist and founder of Vegan Women Summit
Jennifer Stojkovic believes that the future of food is female. And her book of the same name which sheds light on women who have paved their way to the food tech industry is the first-ever book written about women changing the food system.
“My goal with this book was to create the representation that young female leaders do not currently have, that they and the rest of the world deserves,” said Stojkovic. “If we want women to believe that they can grow up to be scientists, CEOs, and investors, to be able to bring about and inflict real change, they need to see examples that model what that looks like.”
Having worked as a Silicon Valley tech executive, Stojkovic’s growing interest in food technology, and in particular, diversity and inclusion in the biotech industry, led her to found the Vegan Women Summit (VWS), an initiative that comprises more than 60,000 women and allies, and platforms women founders to receive investment and amplification of their work in the industry.
Stojkovic, who promotes advancements in the alternative protein sector, said that various biotechs are shifting focus on alternatives to animal-based products such as collagen and gelatin, many of which are pioneered by women founders.
Stojkovic recognizes that one of the biggest issues faced by the biotech industry is funding, especially for women-led businesses, a challenge that she strives to address by hosting conferences and pitch competitions at VWS.
“We have had over 1,300 women founders from over 31 countries apply to our pitch competition since launching just under three years ago, meaning that we truly have a global impact with the work that we do,” said Stojkovic.
Stojkovic, who recognizes that providing pathways for women in executive positions can ensure an easier transition into leadership positions in the budding industry of biotech and food, also hopes that her book The Future of Food is Female, which is the first of its kind, will not be the last.