It seems counterintuitive, given that only a handful of life sciences companies of any size have women at the helm, but the biotech startup world is a relatively good place to be a woman. A 2006 survey of New England biotech firms found that 21 percent were founded by women. By comparison, a nationwide study conducted in 2010 by the Kauffman Foundation found that only 19 percent of all companies started in 2004, and one percent of high tech-focused startups, were founded by women.
Still, the ratios in life sciences could certainly be better, given that 51 percent of the engineers and scientists employed by that industry in 2008 were women, according to the National Science Foundation.
That’s the belief of Suzanne Bruhn, the newly named president and CEO of Promedior. The six-year-old biotech is developing drugs for rare diseases involving fibrosis, a disease process that can cause excessive scarring on any number of organs, including the kidneys, heart, lung, and eyes. Bruhn, pictured top right, took the helm in May, at the same time as the company announced it was switching headquarters from Malvern, PA, to Lexington, MA, in order to be closer to the biotech action. That move was just completed this month, with a formal opening ceremony on Dec. 17th attended by representatives of Governor Deval Patrick who specifically heralded the arrival of a woman-helmed biotech firm.
That’s a rarefied group in Massachusetts, despite the promising statistics. One of the few prominent woman biotech CEOs in the state is Avaxia Therapeutics co-founder Barbara Fox. The two women CEOs can compare notes easily if they choose, as Avaxia is also in Lexington.
Surrounded by boxes in her own Lexington offices, Bruhn told me that the move up the ladder for women cannot be taken for granted. “You have to make it a conscious goal,” and that means instituting programs that will mentor women as they enter the biotech ranks, she says. Bruhn is already doing her part to champion more women in her field—in October she named Elizabeth Trehu as chief medical officer. Trehu was previously vice president of product development and medical affairs at Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INFI) in Cambridge, MA.
Bruhn has a PhD in chemistry from MIT and spent most of her career at another startup, Transkaryotic Therapies, in Cambridge, MA, until it was acquired by British-based Shire (NASDAQ: SHPG) in 2005. She stayed on at Shire, as senior vice president for planning and program management for the Human Genetic Therapies, also based in Lexington, until Promedior called.
She’s excited to be back at a startup, and says she took the job at Promedior because of its focus on rare diseases: “I think rare diseases are just inherently very, very interesting,” she says. “To me, the potential to really move things forward in an area of unmet need, where we can really make a difference, was an opportunity that could not be passed up.”
Promedior’s drugs are based on a naturally occurring protein called pentraxin-2 that works as a switch to halt and possibly reverse the formation of scar tissue. Fibrosis occurs when the body’s normal wound-healing process gets stuck, and scar tissue proliferates uncontrollably in a tissue or organ, to the point where it malfunctions. Fibrosis is implicated in a number of diseases, common and uncommon, but Promedior is focusing on some of the rarest conditions resulting from a scarring process run amok.
Promedior recently completed a Phase Ib clinical study of its lead drug candidate, PRM-151, for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a form of severe lung scarring that can only be treated with a lung transplant; the company expects to publish the results in 2013. Bruhn says Promedior also plans to start a trial of the drug in myelofibrosis, scarring in the bone marrow that leads to severe anemia, during the first half of next year.
Promedior is well set financially, she says, having raised $24.5 million in equity funding this year. In total Promedior has raised $65 million, and its investors include Shire, her former employer. Bruhn says that, with the move completed, she is eager to move forward with what she considers Promedior’s “disruptive innovation.” Almost as disruptive as being a woman at the top.