Female entrepreneurs have long been underrepresented in biotech. An MIT team decided to find out why
In the male-dominated world of biotech, it’s an unspoken fact that gender plays a big role in whose science eventually becomes a winner. But to what degree are male scientists favored in terms of entrepreneurial opportunity? An MIT-focused working group sought to find out.
At MIT alone, the lack of opportunities given to women has resulted in at least 40 fewer companies founded, a report published in the MIT Faculty Newsletter by the Boston Biotech Working Group found. The report’s biggest takeaway? This is not a pipeline problem. Women in the sciences are equally capable of launching their own companies given the same amount of opportunity, according to Sangeeta Bhatia, one of the report’s authors.
“We really looked hard at our data because one of the things that we always hear is that ‘it’s a matter of time,'” Bhatia told Endpoints News. “We really needed an intervention.”
The report studied tenure-track, full-time faculty in half of MIT’s 14 science and engineering departments — 337 people, 73 of which are women — and found a total of 263 companies spurred by MIT faculty. Women accounted for just 9% — 24 companies — of all startups.
The study also found that the percentage of men in the study who had founded at least one company is 40%, while just 22% of women have done the same. The narrative that there aren’t enough women in the space can be squashed, according to former MIT president and Pfizer board member Susan Hockfield. For years at MIT, the biology department has churned out more women with biology undergraduate degrees than men.
There have been many studies that have documented this underrepresentation of women faculty in these activities, but this report, which was funded by a $175,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation in 2019, looked to establish consistent methods and policies for gathering data that can be translated to other institutions wishing to do the same.
For Bhatia, the study was personal. About eight years ago, she was finishing up some work on a project that she planned to pitch to venture capitalists after talking to a mentor of hers. That mentor recommended that she bring along a male graduate student.
“His feeling was that would make the audience more comfortable,” she said. “When I tell that story to other female colleagues, the remarkable thing is that many women have a similar story like that of their own. Many women have a shocking story.”
Bhatia herself is no stranger to entrepreneurship. In 2018, Glympse Bio spun out of her MIT lab and raised $22 million in Series A financing and $46.7 million in a Series B. The company focuses on “activity sensors” that can both flag diseases as well as monitor a patient’s response to a drug. In November, the company presented its first in-human data at the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease annual meeting.
The MIT report closely follows a paper published by Deerfield director Christine Livoti and partner Leslie Henshaw, which revealed that less than one in five roles at privately backed healthcare company boards are held by women.
“Gender Disparity Among Venture-backed Healthcare Companies and Their Investor Base” found that 48.5% of those companies have no female board members, and of the six organizations surveyed that have at least half of its board membership positions held by women, just five of those are headed by female CEOs. In the investment space, just 20% of board members are women.
“Given the outsized role that investors play in board seat allocation and placement, the gender diversity of investment firms cannot be ignored in the context of gender diversity of private company boards,” Deerfield said in a statement. “Their findings aim to hold companies and investors accountable and encourage greater female representation.”
The faculty newsletter featured a report from professor Nancy Hopkins, who chaired the first MIT Committee on the Status of Women Faculty in Science in the mid-1990s, and found that only one of 99 people who had been funded to start biotech companies were women. Nearly 15 years later, in 2011, a woman from Harvard Business School reported to her that another list of 100 scientists received biotech funding from venture capitalists, and just one more woman had made that list as well. This happened despite 70% of students receiving an undergraduate degree and more than 50% of PhD students being women. Little had changed.
That is where the working group hopes things can change in the future. It hopes to connect more women to the innovation ecosystem by introducing them to venture capitalists and getting them into more roles on the company’s board of directors. The team is also working with the Future Founders Initiative — a nonprofit planning to hold a boot camp series for 500 female MIT faculty members looking for mentorship. MIT is also offering a sabbatical for female researchers to get to spend time in the VC world to understand the process of company-founding and meet the people who are involved.
“We’re impatient for change,” Bhatia said.