In 2009, Mara Aspinall, who had been running Genzyme's genetics division, launched a cancer diagnostics company, On-Q-ity. She raised $26 million in venture capital funds when cash was scarce. A little more than a year later, she has one product in clinical trials and another ready to go and has hired about 15 employees. In March, Thomson Reuters'Venture Capital Journal named the company the third-most-promising startup funded by U.S. investors.
The Harvard Business School graduate's inroad in biotech is unusual because she isn't a scientist. But it isn't as rare as one might expect, because women start biotechnology firms at higher rates than women in other areas of high-tech.
A study of biotech firms in New England found that about 20 percent had at least one female founder. Twelve percent of biotech founders overall were female. By comparison, women form only about 8 percent of all startups and only 1 percent of high-tech firms. (This is beginning to change.) A recent survey in India found that women there head 11 percent of biotech firms.
There has been a vigorous and passionate ongoing debate about the shortage of women in tech. What makes the biological and life sciences different than computer science and other high-tech sectors? Partly there are more women in biotech fields than there are in other technology sectors. Women hold 46 percent of all positions in the biological and life sciences. In 2008-09, women received about half of all Ph.D.s in the discipline, compared with about 20 percent in engineering and 27 percent in computer science. "Biology has a much greater representation of women than other areas of high-tech and so if the CEOS and founders are coming at least in part from a biology training then there are many more of them to participate," said Fiona Murray, a professor of technological innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management, in an e-mail.
While women and men still are not starting biotech firms at equal rates, women have done well compared to other fields in and out of the sciences. It's a relatively new industry without an entrenched boys' club. And women, researchers say, benefit from the biotech industry's less hierarchical, team-based structure. Women are nearly eight times more likely to run independent labs in biotech firms than in more traditional settings like universities and large pharmaceutical companies, according to Laurel Smith-Doerr. In her book Women's Work: Gender Equality vs. Hierarchy in the Life Sciences, Smith-Doerr found that biotech firms in the 1990s offered more collective rewards, greater transparency, and more flexibility of movement between projects. Women in biotech also patent at the same rate as men, and there are also more female mentors in the biological sciences than in computer science or engineering.
Research has shown that women have less access to venture capital than men. Aspinall, a Bain & Company alum, is unusual because she raised funds from Silicon Valley heavy hitter Mohr Davidow Ventures and Atlas Venture, among others. But when it comes to funding, many women in biotech, like those in other technology sectors, rely often on female venture networks, venture capital firms with female partners, friends and family, and federal grants. "Men are more likely to request money from VCs. Their path to financing often is different," said Susan Windham-Bannister, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public entity that funds early-stage biotech startups.
Biology may no longer be destiny, but the biggest challenge for female founders of tech firms is still the work-family conundrum. The overwhelming majority of women have children. Aspinall is unusual again because her husband took a sabbatical after her second child was born and stayed home with the kids while she advanced her career.
The higher rates of women-founded biotech firms are impressive only in comparison to other high-tech fields. They still comprise only 12 percent of all founders, even though they are about half of the Ph.D.s. But women-owned and women-run firms are a fast-growing venture sector, so it's hard to imagine that the numbers will stay this low for very long. Aspinall, like many female founders, prefers not to make pronouncements about gender. "Strong entrepreneurs are not afraid of complexity, not afraid to take on a challenge. Many of those are women and many of those are men," she said.