Q&A: BIO CEO Michelle McMurray-Heath Outlines Diversity Goals

Xconomy National — 

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 minority and women-owned businesses and unlock the vendors in BIO Business Solutions so companies can help patronize those businesses and contribute to their economic development of our communities.

PS: What is your assessment so far of how BIO’s initiatives in gender diversity have paid off and what work still needs to be done in that area?

M-H: Much work still needs to be done. We started our Workforce Diversity Development Initiative and that was specifically a board group. And they put a lot of effort and time and energy into setting up initiatives to try to increase gender diversity on boards. My first week at BIO, I was privileged to sit in on a meeting of that board committee and it was wonderful, because they did a really frank assessment of their progress to date and what was incredible was that [the had seen improvement] in terms of the percentage of women who were represented on biotechnology industry boards but had not quite hit the target that they had set for themselves several years earlier.

We really kind of decided to double down on those efforts and make sure that it’s not something that we lose sight of. Equity and inclusion at BIO is not just about African-Americans, it’s not just about women, it’s really about how to make more inclusive workplaces and have more representation in everything we do in the life science industry. Just this spring BIO hired its first equity and diversity officer, Elliott Francis, who we’re so glad to have on board and he’s really helping us up our game in terms of tackling this really important issue.

PS: How do you overcome some of the generations of distrust that there has been of the medical community for minority groups and encourage people to enroll in clinical trials?

M-H: It’s about having a two-way dialogue. And I know that sounds simplistic, but I’ve seen it work. I grew up in Oakland, CA, the daughter of a public health nurse who oversaw ambulatory care for Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. And I watched my mom tackled these issues as HIV was starting to come on the horizon and devastate the communities – and not just the gay and lesbian community, but also African American mothers, who were also very impacted by it as well.

I got to see how the old-fashioned route of public health – going out to communities, having conversations, sitting down with local community groups and talking about the goals of medical research and progress – could bear fruit.

I was also very privileged to be at the Food and Drug Administration and represent the Center for Devices when FDA was putting together its first report on diversity in clinical trials about 10 years ago now, so I got to hear from people across the country in terms of how they were trying to tackle this and how difficult it was. It’s definitely not something that’s easy, but there are things that show promise.

There are clinical research organizations that specialize in forming long-term relationships with minority communities, so that they’re not just going to talk to the community the first time they have a study. They’re talking about ongoing conversations about the importance of clinical research and how we really need the community if we’re going to have solutions that serve the community.

We also have member companies that have had a lot of luck with forming longstanding partnerships with minority-serving institutions, like historically black colleges and academic medical centers that are more oriented towards serving diverse patient populations, and turning to principal investigators at those sites when they are enrolling their clinical trials.

I also am a part of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, which has spent a lot of the last 10 years looking at how to improve diversity and patient engagement in clinical trials. And all of that has given me some glimmers of ideas, but it is an evolving field and no one has cracked the nut just yet. I think if there’s ever been a time to reignite the conversation about how much we need minority communities to participate in medical research to have really useful solutions, it’s the situation we face right now with COVID. So it’s ideal for us to be having these conversations, kicking off these conversations from BIO’s point of view in the current climate.

PS: What are some things that you’re hoping to do in the area of education in terms of STEM training and recruiting more people to the field?

M-H: We’ve got to grow the pie and grow our slice of the pie. I look at my daughter and her friends and think, what will be the impact years from now of kids losing one and a half years of STEM education in various age groups [while schools move online due to COVID-19]? We are not starting with a very high level of appreciation and understanding of science, so anything that sets us back could really put us in jeopardy.

You will see a commitment from BIO continuing to focus on education. We’ve got the BIO Genius program where we’ve supported high school students interested in STEM, many of them minority students. We’ve partnered for the last several years with the United Negro College Fund to bring minority scientists to be exposed to more entrepreneurship opportunities and teach them about starting companies.

But we have got to double down on our efforts and look everywhere we can for more partnerships, because we’ve got to make sure that overall our students are learning about the value and importance and fun of science, to be quite honest. And for those that are attracted to science, we have to tell them about the noble cause of the life sciences to improve the health and well-being of many populations, be it in agricultural sciences or environmental sciences or in life sciences. We need to do everything we can to attract those scientific minds to our field, because we really need them desperately.

Image: iStock/designer491

This article was first published in the Pink Sheet on August 16, 2020.