It would be hard to find a more challenging time for Michelle McMurry-Heath to join the Biotechnology Innovation Organization as its CEO given the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over racial inequality in the US. But the organization is trying to rise to the occasion on both fronts, with biotech companies pioneering new responses to the pandemic and a new push on diversity and inclusion.
BIO recently unveiled its BIOEquality Agenda, which outlines goals for reducing systemic inequality, injustice and unfair treatment of women and minority groups. The organization aims to address disparities in health care, economic development, nutrition and environmental quality in marginalized communities through biotechnology.
After the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody set off protests around the world, multiple speakers and panel discussions on racism and inequality in the life sciences industry were added to the agenda for BIO’s online version of its annual international conference in June. In a recent interview, McMurry-Heath said that BIO wants to continue those conversations and turn talk into action.
“I really see science as a social justice issue,” she said. “We spend a lot of time in this country talking about co-pays for certain drugs and bringing down the cost for an individual medication, but we don’t talk about how cutting edge medical research has the ability to unlock many of the things that keep communities in poverty – access to nutritious foods, access to clean air and water, medicines that actually work and free people from the symptoms that impact their ability to earn a living and take care of their children. Anything that blocks communities, vulnerable communities, from having access to that scientific research … perpetuates injustice.”
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Pink Sheet: What kind of things do you think that BIO specifically will be able to do to advance the goals outlined in the BIOEquality Agenda?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: A lot of what BIO does is galvanize and facilitate among industry. We’re also powerful conveners, so bringing attention to the conversations that are critical for moving equality and justice forward will continue to be part of what you see from BIO as you did at BIO Digital this year. But there’s also some other tools at our disposal that we think are very, very useful.
Because BIO represents both large and small companies in the life science space, we have the ability to look across, for example, the response to COVID. We’ve had a COVID Tracker since the start of the pandemic and we’ve now kept track of 700 product development programs that have started in that seven months designed to combat COVID, 181 one of which are just targeted at trying to develop a vaccine. We have outreach to those companies and those innovators and we really get to see what struggles they face in terms of trying to increase the diversity in clinical trials for vaccines, in trying to make sure that they have good outreach to communities of color as they are trying to raise awareness about what COVID vaccines and therapeutics may be coming online.
We see what questions are arising across the spectrum of large and small companies about how to ensure access to both COVID vaccines and therapeutics. We’re really ideally situated to have really frank conversations with all of the major stakeholders to ensure that there’s really equitable access and distribution of those much-needed solutions. Of those 700 projects, 70 percent of them are in small companies, so it’s not just the big company players that have to be involved in this conversation and BIO is the one place that brings that full spectrum together.
We also have a lot of practical tools that we can use. We have a program called BIO Business Solutions, which is a purchasing program that allows our small biotech companies to strike purchasing deals with vendors as though they were a large company. We are going to be working on featuring clinical research organizations that specialize in recruiting diverse patient populations in BIO Business Solutions, so that we can help companies find those clinical partners to help them increase diversity in their clinical trials.
We’re also working with our state affiliates, because we have the counsel of state biotech associations, to highlight the ones that have had a lot of success in working with patient communities for clinical trials. We really want to help facilitate our companies’ matchmaking with those local organizations so that they can more rapidly enroll diverse patient populations.
Another bucket is in the bucket of job opportunities, so we look across our 1,000 companies and we see many, many examples of companies that have invested in the training of minority scientists and entrepreneurs. I myself was a beneficiary of the United Negro College Fund/Merck & Co., Inc. joint program that was a STEM fellowship when I was in graduate school. We know that companies like Biogen, Inc. in Boston have trained over 250 African-American scientists in the Boston area over the last decade.
But often when individuals go through these company programs, they’re lost to follow-up. It’s not necessarily clear who’s an alumni of those programs, so we want to create a LinkedIn type of connection pool so that hiring managers throughout the BIO International ecosystem can have line of sight to all of that talent that’s been trained and has gone through those company programs to really help them identify great minority candidates for jobs when they do become available.
Our economic development piece is really going to focus on taking advantage of BIO Business Solutions to highlight … Next Page »