We Are the 51 Percent: Surveying Women Medtech Leaders


The organization called Medtech Women just held its second annual Medtech Vision Conference last week and it was another sold-out event. (You can see my story on the first year of the Medtech Vision conference here.) With a focus on the era of the “empowered patient” and how that is changing medicine, 200 women business leaders, physicians, policymakers, and investors gathered at the Rosewood Hotel in Menlo Park, CA to discuss the changing healthcare environment and how it is affecting their livelihoods.

What is notable about this conference, aside from the fact that it has solely female speakers and attendees, is the impact this makeup has on content. This is not because men and women are so different, though they can be, but because most medical technology conferences suffer from what I will call “Usual Suspects Syndrome.” The vast majority of speakers at these events are men and often the same men year after year. They are the many, the proud, and the successful in medtech, but they are who they are and their voice can be heard fairly frequently as one travels from one medtech event to the next.

In contrast, Medtech Vision features somewhat unusual suspects, women executives who have also succeeded in their fields despite somewhat daunting odds. What they have to say has nothing to do with the fact that they are women (there was not a single “women’s” topic), but because they are different people, their messages are fresh and their voices new to the discussion more often than not.

Having women’s voices in the mix could not be more important for a healthcare industry undergoing massive transformation. Amy Belt, a Medtech Women founder who is also a Director at Covidien Ventures, referring to the fact that a majority of earth’s inhabitants are women, said it well in her opening remarks, “We are the 51 percent.” In truth, when it comes to making healthcare decisions for the family, we are more like the 80 percent. If the medtech field, which has had its share of woes lately, is to thrive in the new world order, it must heed that old adage about listening to the customer.

While the content of the MedTech Vision 2012 conference was outstanding and different, particularly since I have yet to attend a conference that focused so directly on the dynamics between the healthcare patient and healthcare system, I am going to reserve that topic for a second post. Instead I want to focus here on a survey conducted among the conference attendees about women in the medical technology field.

First, some context: in the past few years venture capital funding for new medical technology companies has plummeted. The reasons are many and complex, but they include the following:

* A national economic downturn that has put intense pressure on venture funding for medical technology as well as other fields.

* A more assertive FDA and more complex FDA approval process that increases cost and time to market for new medical technologies.

* Reimbursement pressures from payers limiting new technology adoption.

* Savvy providers and payers demanding better value for what they spend on medical technologies, particularly those that haven’t demonstrated clinical improvements despite higher costs.

*Concerns about how the impending PPACA-created 2.3 percent medtech tax  will impact the field and increase the cost of operating within it. Already several large companies have begun laying off employees, citing this tax as the cause.

In other words, it seems to be getting harder and harder to bring new companies to the fore in the medical technology field and funding and job opportunities are contracting. To get a sense of how these challenges to the field are impacting women aspiring to medtech executive roles, I undertook to survey the participants at the MedTech Vision conference.  Each of the 200 attendees received a survey inquiring about her views about opportunities for women in medtech and 100 responses were received.  What I discovered was this: Despite the increasing pressure on the industry from internal and external sources, 53 percent of the 100 respondents believe that it is easier for women to succeed at executive levels in the medtech business than it was 10 years ago, when medtech funding was booming. Only 6 percent of respondents felt that it has become harder for women to succeed in the medtech field as compared to 10 years ago and 40 percent felt it was “about the same.” Similarly, 34 percent of respondents felt that venture capitalists are, by and large, more receptive to women CEOs in medtech than they were 10 years ago; only 4 percent felt that VCs are less receptive while 24 percent said it was about the same (38 percent had no opinion).

While there is a recognition that is harder than a decade ago to find new opportunity in a medtech world living on fewer resources, and while it is still “somewhat rare to see women in executive leadership team” roles, in the words of one survey respondent, many survey participants commented that it is also a time when women entering the field can benefit from the first generation of female leader success stories. In other words, while women CEOs and executives have been relatively few in the past, enough have demonstrated great success and to become the first generation of role models and mentors for those who aspire to follow in their pedicured footsteps.,

Among those cited as setting the course for the current crop of women aspiring to lead were Ginger Graham, former President and Chief Executive Officer of Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Maria Sainz, President and CEO of recently acquired Concentric Medical and Stacy Enxing Seng, President, Covidien Vascular, among others. While women are often first-time CEOs in the current marketplace, and while investors tend to prefer those who have had the title before, survey participants seemed to  believe that an emerging class of women medtech executives will have opportunities that may previously have been unavailable.

Interestingly, the number one cited impediment to women getting more medtech CEO roles and related venture funding is “lack of access to the network that fosters these opportunities.” A full 33 percent of survey respondents picked this answer, almost double those who felt that choices around parenting or the economy or even straight-up chauvinism were the biggest barriers to women’s advancement in the field.  Mentorship between and among women and the need to break through or just go around the “old boys’ club” were noted as essential to moving women in medtech further. It was precisely this challenge that the Medtech Women organization was designed to address, bringing together senior- and middle-executive level med tech women from around the country to develop new relationships and opportunities for cross-pollination.

One survey respondent commented that the women who populated the CEO panel at the conference—Kimberly J. Popovits, Chairman of the Board, CEO and President, Genomic Health; Lissa Goldstein, CEO, Auxogyn Inc; Patricia Scheller, CEO, Viveve; Lisa Elkins, CEO, ImmuneTech; and moderator Sandy Miller, Managing Director of New Ventures, Singularity University—never mentioned networking or mentorship as important to their success as CEOs but that men often cite these advantages. While it is clear that women think networking and mentorship are essential to career advancement, it is interesting that they are not issues women may think to mention; that in and of itself may be one of the reasons that such opportunities have not spread as fast as women would like.

When asked what the ONE thing women could and should do to improve their chances of achieving medtech CEO positions and/or receive venture capital funding for their women-led businesses, the answers were heavily focused on the importance of women increasing their level of self-confidence and sense of self-worth, and the related idea that women need to more actively advocate for their own advancement. In support of this thought, Patricia Scheller, speaking from the CEO panel, said, “You must believe in your self. I had many times where I was not viewed as the person who could speak with customers because I was an engineer. I set out to get customer-facing experience and taught J&J that you can take a backward facing engineer and turn them into a marketing person.” Lisa Elkins later added how important it is for women leaders to believe in themselves and not take adversity personally, saying, “I take a 2×4 upside of the head twice a week so I need to be able to tuck and roll.”

Survey respondents commented that women must seek out coaches and mentors who will also introduce them into the “network” that are held out as the gatekeeper to industry success. Many of the 100 survey respondents commented that men are more comfortable with their own skill sets and with promoting themselves for opportunities than are women, and that women too often sit back and wait to be recognized for their leadership skills. This oftentimes results in women being overlooked for opportunities since their more sedate brands get overshadowed by the brightly lit brands of their male counterparts.

Interestingly, when asked in which sectors of healthcare it is hardest and easiest for women to achieve success, the medical technology field was deemed the most difficult while the healthcare services sector was deemed the easiest. Of course the audience was skewed to medtech representatives, who are products of their own experience. But it is worth considering. 34 percent of survey respondents said that healthcare services was the easiest place for women to succeed while only 7 percent said medtech, about the same number (8 percent) that said biotechnology. Other choices were pharmaceuticals (13 percent), healthcare IT (1 percent), physicians (14 percent) public policy (13 percent) and academia/research (11 percent). In other words, while the opportunities seem to be looking up for women in medtech, one survey respondent said, “I think we are still light years behind Pharma in this regard” and another said that women are offered greater opportunity in the patient care-related and “caring” roles found in healthcare services.

Regardless of the field, I like this comment left in the “Anything else you want to add” section of the survey: “This group of women is the next generation of leaders. There is going to be a CEO shift in the next five years and funding methods are changing. Innovating new business models will be a way to leapfrog ahead.”  With a healthcare industry undergoing dramatic change, there is no doubt that new approaches to problem-solving will be the answer to our cost, quality and access challenges. And while those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it—a quote that suggests the importance of experience–there is another quote from Eric Hoffer that hints at the very real opportunity rising medtech women have to seize at least 51 percent of the power in a world of evolving business models. “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Note: The 100 women in medtech survey respondents break out as follows: 3 percent medtech CEOS and 47 percent medtech company senior management; 1 percent other healthcare CEOs and 3 percent other healthcare company senior management; 8 percent venture or private equity investors; 8 percent bankers, analysts, lawyers or recruiters; 3 percent academia or healthcare policy-makers; and 27 percent other healthcare system participants.

Lisa Suennen is a managing director with GE Ventures and former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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