Industry Perspectives: Women in Biotech 2019

Women are underrepresented in biotech leadership roles in Europe, but things are slowly improving. We spoke to five senior women from the industry who told us their stories.

At least half of life sciences and medical students across Europe are women. In the biotech and pharma industry, this statistic is similar in entry level jobs, but drops off dramatically in more senior positions. In 2018, less than 10% of CEOs in the industry were female. 

While things are getting better, there is still a long way to go before the C-level of biotech companies is truly gender diverse. I have asked many people why they think this is the case and the reasons given for this discrepancy are broad. They range from a belief that all-male networks largely appoint men; to there being a lack of working conditions that are flexible enough for women to have a family and still be promoted; to a shortage of senior female role models putting women off applying for similar positions. 

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As a biotech-focused publication, we talk to many people in the industry. To try and highlight the female talent that is out there, we started a series of interviews of women working in different roles across the European biotech industry. We found them very inspiring and we hope you do too.

Catherine Pickering iOnctura

After working for 12 years at Merck, Catherine Pickering decided to take a risk and create iOnctura, based in Geneva, Switzerland, a spin-out company exploring a new application in immuno-oncology for a drug candidate that had been shelved. 

“Our lead asset, which we’re about to bring into the clinic, was actually developed by Merck for lupus,” Pickering explained when we interviewed her in July. After a first study in humans, Merck decided to stop its development. “They shelved the molecule for strategic reasons and did nothing with it.” 

Read the full interviewTurning Shelved Drugs into a New Promise for Immuno-Oncology.

Renee Lucander - Calliditas

Many biotech founders and executives look to VC investors for advice and inspiration, but the attraction can go both ways. After more than a decade of investing in life science companies, Renée Aguiar-Lucander, now CEO of Calliditas Therapeutics, decided it was time to try sitting on the other side of the table.

After being approached by a number of different biotech companies, Aguiar-Lucander joined Calliditas in 2017. Based in Sweden, the company is developing a new formulation of an approved asthma drug to target the chronic autoimmune kidney disease IgA nephropathy. The company is now testing its theory that this condition can be treated by targeting the gut rather than the kidneys in a phase III trial.

Read the full interview – Why Communication is Key for Getting Ahead in Biotech.

Futura Medical Angela Hildreth

Having to let go of your flagship product after years of development is not easy. Nor is fundraising for another product after a major partner backs out — a challenge that Angela Hildreth had to confront when she joined the British company Futura Medical as Finance Director last year. 

Angela Hildreth had never worked in pharma until she became Finance Director of Shield Therapeutics in 2011. All her previous experience was focused on corporate finance. “In fact, when I first started working at Shield Therapeutics, I didn’t fully understand what pharma did,” she admitted when we spoke to her earlier in the year. 

Read the full interview – Taking Your Product Forward Against All Odds.

Kate Hilyard - Healx

Recent developments in AI and data mining has led to the founding of a number of companies trying to apply this technology to improving health. Healx is one such company and is seeking to make drug development quicker, easier, and more effective, all factors that attracted Kate Hilyard to join the UK-based company as COO last year.  

“I’ve done drug discovery for 25 years the traditional way. I knew about the massive failure rate,” Hilyard explained. “The AI approach sounded intriguing and the more I learned about it, the more clever I think it is because it uses information that’s already out there.”

Read the full interview – Channeling the Power of AI into Personalizing Medicine.

Jennie Ekbeck Umea Biotech Incubator

Jennie Ekbeck has taken on the challenge of building Europe’s best life science incubator. She became the CEO of the Umeå Biotech Incubator in Sweden in 2012. Before that she was the CEO of a probiotics startup called Probac. 

“The reason why I applied to be the CEO of the incubator was that we made a lot of mistakes when we were running our startup,” said Ekbeck. “My goal was to build an organization to help companies question their business idea, their techniques, their data — everything.”

Read the full interview – Building a Life Science Industry from Scratch in a Small Swedish Town.


We know there are many more interesting stories to be told and we plan to continue the series into 2020. If you know any inspirational women with a connection to European biotech you think we should feature please get in contact.


Images via E. Resko

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