“Voice for Everyone”—Life-Sci Women Talk Venture, Pharma Gender Gap

Xconomy San Francisco — 

By the numbers, the rare-disease drug developer Raptor Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: RPTP) recently upped its chances of better market performance.

That’s because biopharma veteran Julie Anne Smith (pictured) on Jan. 1 officially took the helm of the Novato, CA-based biotech firm from Christopher Starr, and time and again, studies show that companies with more women in top positions post better results. The most recent study, from investment bank Credit Suisse, came out last year.

But it’s no secret that companies of all stripes, not just in the life sciences, are slow to get the message. In a discussion Tuesday at the CalBio conference in San Francisco, Smith and three other women with decades of experience in the life science business talked about how to close the gender gap, while sharing some of their management styles and career frustrations.

One business that has actually regressed in its gender balance is venture capital. During the discussion yesterday, Wende Hutton, a general partner at Canaan Partners and 20-year life science venture veteran, called her industry “a bastion of male clubbiness.”

A Babson College study released last year showed just 6 percent of venture partners globally were women. (This is across all venture, not just life sciences.) That figure is worse than in 1999, when it hit 10 percent. “Times don’t change much,” said discussion moderator Lisa Suennen, who from 1998 until last year was a healthcare investor and partner at Bay Area firm Psilos Group.

One venture figure related to women has shown some improvement. About 15 percent of U.S. businesses receiving venture capital have at least one female executive, up from 5 percent in 1999, according to the Babson report. (But fewer than 3 percent of U.S. companies receiving venture dollars have a woman as chief executive.)

Hutton said one of her best mechanisms for coping with the men’s club was turning 40. “Maturity was a great thing for me,” she said, as she learned “to distance myself” from the frustrations as well as “to be really, really direct.”

Hutton said having more women on board—two of eight general partners in Canaan’s latest diversified fund are women—steers the firm’s culture toward inclusiveness. “When there’s a voice for everyone, better decisions are made,” she said, and she also made the case that it’s a competitive advantage.

Hutton: Be direct.

Hutton: Be direct.

With more female founders and CEOs in the life sciences, Canaan has won deals because they have walked into a meeting with Canaan “and they see different faces around the table, not just 45- to 60-year-old white men.”

(Hutton declined to give specific examples, but she did point out that Canaan has 13 current portfolio companies with women CEOs.)

Also on the panel was Magda Marquet, a biotech fixture in San Diego who cofounded diagnostics maker AltheaDx. Marquet seconded the notion that women in top roles can shift a company’s modus operandi, calling it “living with integrity.”

Raptor’s Smith told the room that simply being in the corner office or in a board seat isn’t enough. Women executives need to make it clear that corporate culture is changing. Smith, who was executive VP of strategy and chief commercial officer at Raptor for more than two years until her promotion, said she tries to be a mentor for younger women, but that men in junior positions have picked up the signal and also come to her for advice. (One man, however, called her a “socialist” for trying to instill a more egalitarian culture, she said.)

Prospective employees also get a signal that Raptor, which markets a drug to treat the rare nephropathic cystinosis and has several more in development, has a different culture. Smith said her favorite interview question for men is a two-parter: How would your wife or partner describe you? And what about you drives them nuts?

Coming up through the ranks of biopharmas such as Bristol-Myers Squibb (NASDAQ: BMY), Genzyme, and Jazz Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: JAZZ), Smith was unhappy about male colleagues being promoted when she felt equally or more qualified. “But you can’t demand to be recognized,” said Smith. “It sounds like whining.”

When Suennen asked if the panelists have had problems with men working for them, Smith said that “there are definitely men who just can’t deal,” as well as some who are looking to be mothered, “which gets old fast, especially when you already have kids at home.”

(Marquet recommended finding men who are “strong enough to express their feminine energy.”)

When it came to policy decisions, however, the panelists had a mixed reaction to a suggestion that the U.S. follow the lead of Europe, where rules are in place to have, by 2020, women in 40 percent of non-executive board seats at public companies.

Hutton said that when Canaan ends an investment in a public company and she leaves a board, she always encourages the search committee to look for a woman to replace her. Marquet said it should be encouraged, but not mandated.

Current numbers on the gender balance at the board and executive levels aren’t readily available for the life sciences; the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association is working on a study to be released later this year.

Meanwhile, we do know that at the end of 2013, only one healthcare company in the Fortune 1000 had a woman CEO (Heather Bresch of Mylan). Smith said she takes exception to women being singled out for being “ambitious”—while it’s simply expected of men—-so let’s just say that turning Raptor into a Fortune 1000 company and joining that very small list is just the sort of huge goal Smith might shoot for.