Sangeeta Bhatia (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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.

Su­san Hock­field

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.”

Chris­tine Liv­oti

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.

Leslie Hen­shaw

“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.

Nan­cy Hop­kins

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.

BY­OD Best Prac­tices: How Mo­bile De­vice Strat­e­gy Leads to More Pa­tient-Cen­tric Clin­i­cal Tri­als

Some of the most time- and cost-consuming components of clinical research center on gathering, analyzing, and reporting data. To improve efficiency, many clinical trial sponsors have shifted to electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA), including electronic patient-reported outcome (ePRO) tools.

In most cases, patients enter data using apps installed on provisioned devices. At a time when 81% of Americans own a smartphone, why not use the device they rely on every day?

Anand Shah (FDA)

For­mer head of FDA’s med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic af­fairs on Covid: ‘FDA has nev­er been test­ed like this’

Anand Shah has served the American public in a unique way, crisscrossing over the last two administrations between serving as an attending radiation oncologist focused on prostate cancer at NIH, serving as CMO at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, and most recently, leading the FDA’s operations on medical and scientific affairs from within the commissioner’s office.

Shah, who stepped down from the FDA in January, caught up with Endpoints News in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, offering his thoughts on the agency’s latest decision to pause the J&J vaccinations in the US, and reflecting on his time at an agency during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

Near­ly a year af­ter Au­den­tes' gene ther­a­py deaths, the tri­al con­tin­ues. What hap­pened re­mains a mys­tery

Natalie Holles was five months into her tenure as Audentes CEO and working to smooth out a $3 billion merger when the world crashed in.

Holles and her team received word on the morning of May 5 that, hours before, a patient died in a trial for their lead gene therapy. They went into triage mode, alerting the FDA, calling trial investigators to begin to understand what happened, and, the next day, writing a letter to alert the patient community so they would be the first to know. “We wanted to be as forthright and transparent as possible,” Holles told me late last month.

The brief letter noted two other patients also suffered severe reactions after receiving a high dose of the therapy and were undergoing treatment. One died a month and a half later, at which point news of the deaths became public, jolting an emergent gene therapy field and raising questions about the safety of the high doses Audentes and others were now using. The third patient died in August.

“It was deeply saddening,” Holles said. “But I was — we were — resolute and determined to understand what happened and learn from it and get back on track.”

Eleven months have now passed since the first death and the therapy, a potential cure for a rare and fatal muscle-wasting disease called X-linked myotubular myopathy, is back on track, the FDA having cleared the company to resume dosing at a lower level. Audentes itself is no more; last month, Japanese pharma giant Astellas announced it had completed working out the kinks of the $3 billion merger and had restructured and rebranded the subsidiary as Astellas Gene Therapies. Holles, having successfully steered both efforts, departed.

Still, questions about precisely what led to the deaths of the 3 boys still linger. Trial investigators released key details about the case last August and December, pointing to a biological landmine that Audentes could not have seen coming — a moment of profound medical misfortune. In an emerging field that’s promised cures for devastating diseases but also seen its share of safety setbacks, the cases provided a cautionary tale.

Audentes “contributed in a positive way by giving a painful but important example for others to look at and learn from,” Terry Flotte, dean of the UMass School of Medicine and editor of the journal Human Gene Therapy, told me. “I can’t see anything they did wrong.”

Yet some researchers say they’re still waiting on Astellas to release more data. The company has yet to publish a full paper detailing what happened, nor have they indicated that they will. In the meantime, it remains unclear what triggered the events and how to prevent them in the future.

“Since Audentes was the first one and we don’t have additional information, we’re kind of in a holding pattern, flying around, waiting to figure out how to land our vehicles,” said Jude Samulski, professor of pharmacology at UNC’s Gene Therapy Center and CSO of the gene therapy biotech AskBio, now a subsidiary of Bayer.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Barbara Weber, Tango Therapeutics CEO (Tango)

It takes two to Tan­go: The biotech us­ing CRISPR to dis­cov­er new can­cer gene tar­gets rides a $353M SPAC deal to Nas­daq

Editor’s note: Interested in following biopharma’s fast-paced IPO market? You can bookmark our IPO Tracker here.

The latest biotech-SPAC deal has arrived, and it’s dancing its way to Nasdaq to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Tango Therapeutics and its CRISPR-focused search for new cancer genes is reverse merging with Boxer Capital’s blank-check company, the biotech announced Wednesday morning. With a spotlight on three lead programs, Tango expects total proceeds to equal about $353 million in the deal, which includes the roughly $167 million held in the SPAC and an additional $186 million in PIPE financing.

Patrizia Cavazzoni, new CDER director

Pa­trizia Cavaz­zoni named per­ma­nent di­rec­tor of CDER, adding to ques­tions around where Wood­cock will end up

Patrizia Cavazzoni on Monday became the permanent director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, which puts to rest the idea that Janet Woodcock, Cavazzoni’s predecessor, might return to lead CDER if she isn’t made permanent commissioner.

Woodcock, who’s currently serving as acting commissioner and principal medical advisor to the commissioner, a position she was detailed to last year, may not make the move to permanent commissioner because of lingering questions from Senate Democrats. She previously served as director of CDER since 1994. Cavazzoni took over as acting director of CDER when Woodcock moved over to Operation Warp Speed to run the therapeutics side of the Trump-era program.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Pascal Soriot (AstraZeneca via YouTube)

Af­ter be­ing goad­ed to sell the com­pa­ny, Alex­ion's CEO set some am­bi­tious new goals for in­vestors. Then Pas­cal So­ri­ot came call­ing

Back in the spring of 2020, Alexion $ALXN CEO Ludwig Hantson was under considerable pressure to perform and had been for months. Elliott Advisers had been applying some high public heat on the biotech’s numbers. And in reaching out to some major stockholders, one thread of advice came through loud and clear: Sell the company or do something dramatic to change the narrative.

In the words of the rather dry SEC filing that offers a detailed backgrounder on the buyout deal, Alexion stated: ‘During the summer and fall of 2020, Alexion also continued to engage with its stockholders, and in these interactions, several stockholders encouraged the company to explore strategic alternatives.’

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 106,500+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Launched by MIT grads, a small start­up gets $20M to back a ro­bot­ics rev­o­lu­tion in cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing

As co-director of an experimental cellular therapy process development and manufacturing group at UCSF specializing in T cell therapies for autoimmune conditions, Jonathan Esensten has learned a lot about the challenges involved when his group hand-fashions a cell therapy. Esensten — who was a postdoc in Wendell Lim’s lab and counts the legendary Jeffrey Bluestone as a mentor — gives them all high marks at being great at what they do, but time and again there are variations in the treatments they construct.

UP­DAT­ED: J&J paus­es vac­cine roll­out as feds probe rare cas­es of blood clots

The FDA and CDC have jointly decided to stop administering J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine after reviewing data involving six reported US cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot in individuals after receiving the vaccine.

CDC will convene a meeting of its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Wednesday to further review these cases and assess their potential significance. “FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these cases. Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research and Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the CDC, said in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

Pankaj Bhargava, MPM executive partner

Pankaj Bhar­ga­va was a cen­tral fig­ure in the group fash­ion­ing Gilead’s on­col­o­gy strat­e­gy. Now he’s jumped to the VC side and the next-gen game at Dana-Far­ber

Over the past 3 years, Pankaj Bhargava played a key role at Gilead as therapeutics area head of oncology, which put him in the dead center of one of the busiest pipeline makeovers in the industry.

“When I joined (the big biotech), there was a clear realization that Gilead had missed the first boat with immuno-oncology,” he tells me. “We hadn’t gone into the PD-1s, the checkpoints, etc. They had just bought Kite and the question was how do we get into oncology.”

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 106,500+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.