ON THEIR OWN TERMS
Under-represented at the executive level, women in biotech are starting their own companies and creating their own destinies
By Julia Teeluck
Inspiration for Jessica Ching’s thesis project at the Ontario College of Art and Design came to her while having lunch with her friends in the school cafeteria. One of her friends packed up her bags and said she had to leave for a Pap test. The group of girls ewwed and awwed and gave their condolences. Ching thought they should be celebrating that their friend was taking the initiative to care for her health.
The embarrassment of Ching’s friend and the awkward unpleasantness of the procedure prompted Ching to think of a way to make it a little more user-friendly. Ching, who studied industrial design, says, “One of the things I really like about design is that you basically can impact people’s lives pretty directly.”
Eve Medical, of which Ching is CEO and her husband, Evan Moses is COO, is the extension of the thesis project. The company creates “female-friendly” devices and is currently developing a device called HerSwab. It would provide an alternative to the doctor’s office Pap test and allow women to collect a sample at home and drop it off at a lab. The product will be easy to use and less invasive. “Products are things you interact with everyday and I think well-designed products can make life a lot better,” says Ching.
Ching joins a small but strong group of female executives working in Canada’s male-dominated life sciences sector. These women are innovators. Entrepreneurs. Leaders. They raise capital and they manage manufacturing and logistics. And while the belief that there are few women in business because they can’t simultaneously be bosses and have babies still lingers, women like Lisa Crossley, Shana Kelley, Jacqueline Shan, Jessica Ching, and Clarissa Desjardins show that with hard work and priority management, women can lead both companies and family lives.
Jessica Ching, Chief Executive Officer,
Jessica Ching’s mother is a chemist, her father a chemical engineer and her sister a doctor. It’s no surprise that Ching eventually found her way into health services. Although Ching completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University in Political Science and International Development, halfway through the program she realized she needed to do something different, something creative. She wanted to make an impact and do something meaningful with her life. She made the move to Toronto to attend OCAD. After graduating from OCAD, incorporated Eve Medical in 2010 and has since seen her company win several awards for innovation, including a Market Readiness Award from the Ontario Centres of Excellence and an NRC-IRAP technical development award. Ching, now hustling for seed money for her start-up, won the 2011 Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Technological Entrepreneurship.
Why she chose medical devices: “You need people to do tests. You need people to take care of themselves. You need people to prevent disease or else they’re going to get sick and there’s going to be a lot of cost to the economy.”
What she’s learned: “My number one lesson has been about investment. There are different kinds of investors, and each of them has different pros and cons. Sometimes it’s tempting to jump at any VC opportunity, but you could end up wasting a lot of time and resources that could be spent building value in your company. The lesson for us has been to develop a funding strategy which includes, but doesn’t only consist of VC fundingthat balances what we can take and get according to our needs at different stages.”
On choosing mentors: Since starting Eve Medical, she has developed mentor relationships with some of those who started as company advisors. “A big lesson for us has been to be more selective of the advisors we ask to work with based not only on their credentials, but also whether there is the potential for building a mentor-type relationship.”
|The Passionate Technologist
Shana Kelley, Chief Technology Officer, Xagenic
This Philadelphia-born University of Toronto professor began her entrepreneurial career with GeneOhm Sciences, a company she helped start up based on some work she did as a graduate student. After meeting her one-day-to-be-husband who was in Boston on sabbatical from the University of Toronto, the pair decided to move back to Toronto. In 2008, the Globe and Mail named Kelley one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. “It was really just so thrilling to kind of be around people who had achieved so much so early on in their careers and definitely gave me a little boost of inspiration,” Kelley says.
Xagenic, the company Kelley founded in 2010, announced in January that it had raised $10 million to finance the commercialization of its diagnostic test. Unlike current diagnostic tests on the market, which require time and skill to process a sample, Xagenic’s technology uses nanonstructured microelectrodes to make the detection of pathogens lightning quick.
Out of the lab: “I’m not a scientist who just likes to tinker in the lab and just enjoys that for the sake of it. I like to see things that we do make an impact,” says Kelley. Taking basic science and turning it into a product drives her towards start-up companies.
What she’s passionate about: Early disease detection. “Many of the diseases we struggle with, they’re much more treatable when diagnosed early. The drugs we have work better, transmission is limited, outcomes are better. If you look at from a very high level, it’s just a very solvable problem if we get the technology that has the capabilities. So that’s really kind of what I feel like I devote my scientific efforts to and my efforts to these start-ups.”
Words of wisdom: Kelley’s graduate advisor had a five-year-old daughter, and Kelley watched her juggle her priorities. Sometimes family came first, sometimes work. “If you have somebody to watch that you really admire, it just gives you that extra bit of confidence and you’re a little more willing to take a leap that you might not have otherwise,” she says. What’s difficult is that if women don’t have these examples, it’s harder for them to say they could do the same, she says.
|The Accomplished Scientist
Jacqueline Shan, Chief Scientific Officer, Afexa Life Sciences
During flu season you may reach for a bottle of Cold FX, a well-known herbal supplement sold in stores across the nation and used by NHL players. But before Jacqueline Shan became President and CEO of Afexa, she was a little girl fascinated by the human body, how it functions and how it responds to the environment and to medicines. “As a child back in China, my grandmother used to give me herbal medicines. I always wondered what was in them, and how they worked. That’s what led me to study pharmacology at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences/Peking Union Medical College, where I earned my first PhD.” Between 2003 and 2008, Shan served as President and CEO of Afexa, and is currently the company’s CSO. In 2011, Valeant Pharmaceuticals purchased Afexa, making Shan a Canadian bio business success story and helping to propel her to the Women’s Executive Network’s list of Canada’s Most Powerful Women. She was also buffeted by claims of questionable marketing practices of Cold FX. Despite the bad press, Shan stays motivated.
What gets her motivated: “I’m motivated by the desire to create more effective and safer medicines,” says Shan. “I also believe that natural materials have not received the attention they deserve as potential sources for medicinal products.”
Why bringing a preventive approach to Canada’s health industry important: “Most of our healthcare and current medicines are focused on the treatment of illnesses, and symptom relief. These kinds of treatments are necessary, but treating illnesses is not ‘health management,’ it’s ‘disease management.’ Most chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, and neurological degenerations are preventable. I believe a balanced prevention and treatment approach will lead to the best health and economic outcomes, for individuals and the healthcare system.”
On being shy: Shyness isn’t a quality usually associated with leaders, who often have to be aggressive in their position. “I used to be very shy but very good at working independently in the lab. However, as a leader, your main job is to organize and mobilize the team to accomplish the company’s overall business objective,” she says. “Being too shy would have prevented me from accomplishing this business objective, so I really worked hard to overcome my shyness once I had decided to wear both science and business hats.”
Advice for women: “My advice to all women in business, in the biotech industry or not, is to think and act
Clarissa Desjardins, Chief Executive Officer, CEPMED
At 17, Desjardins left her small hometown of Moncton, New Brunswick, for Montreal to attend McGill University. As a PhD student she brought her idea of using fluorescent peptides instead of radioactive peptides to commercialization and formed her first company, Advanced Bioconcept. After Advanced Bioconcept was bought, she formed Caprion Pharmaceuticals, and now works as CEO of CEPMED, a non-profit dedicated to promoting personalized medicine. Desjardins has been lauded for outstanding contributions to the biotech industry, won awards for her visionary entrepreneurial spirit, and has been named as one of the people most likely to influence the lives of Canadians. She’s a visionary who’s proven she can take a company from the seed stage to market.
Why business: No one in her family is in business, but Desjardins believes the ability to conduct research is a privilege, as it was once reserved for the independently wealthy, and she had the responsibility to develop it. “I always thought I would become a professor. I never knew how valuable science was in terms of an economic driver of wealth for society and for individuals,” says Desjardins.
On promoting personalized medicine through a non-profit: Desjardins decided to try her hand in the non-profit sector. “I thought it must be nice to create social change without the pressures of revenue,” she says. “The information that derives from gene sequencing from the human genome is very recent information that a lot of physicians don’t know about. And I think it’s one of the key ways in which we can both deliver better medicine, which is also cheaper at the same time.”
Where are the women? Simple biology is reason for the lack of women in executive positions. “Certainly when I was in sciences there’s just as many women graduating, especially from the biological sciences. So that’s not where the issue is. It’s mostly that the women have the kids. And so a lot of very capable women check themselves right out of the career path.” Desjardins says that one needs an incredibly supportive spouse to make it work.
A return to business: Having spent two-and-a-half years in the non-profit sector, Desjardins has decided to take on another venture. “I still feel like I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I love to start things and still my drive is still to apply this science and these great ideas to foster economic activities,” she says. For now, all she can say is she’s creating a drug development company with great opportunities.
Lisa Crossley, Chief Executive Officer, VitalHub
Lisa Crossley is a serial entrepreneur. As President and CEO of Natrix Separations, Crossley raised $27 million in venture capital. She also secured $2 million in seed funding for when the company was a burgeoning business in Burlington, Ontariosubstantially more than the $500,000 seed companies usually average. Now Crossley serves as CEO at VitalHub, a company whose technology excites her. VitalHub’s technology merges all electronic medical record systems in a format that works like an Apple app and is easy for clinicians to use.
More than research: Crossley, a PhD in chemical engineering, knew she didn’t want a pure research career. “I definitely wanted something that had applications and had a direct impact on the human condition. Something that really moves us all forward as a society then you can really see measureable process.”
Where have all the women gone? At the Women’s Science and Technology Business Group in Toronto, Crossley has spent a lot of time talking about why women don’t end up in as many executive positions as they should, considering the population size. She says a lot of factors contribute to why female presence is scarce, but no one has conclusively determined what those are. However, Crossley notes there’s much more male peer-to-peer mentoring than there is female-to-female. And since there aren’t many women to do the mentoring, Crossley says a dearth of women in the C-suite is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On Mentorship: “There aren’t that many women who are going to approach other women who are lower down in the ranks and mentor them and give them opportunities and it’s much less common to have a male-female mentoring pair.” Crossley says she has been lucky to have several great male and female mentors throughout her career, such as Isle Treurnicht, CEO at MaRS.
On being a mom: Crossley, who has four children, says while raising children and juggling a career is a challenge many women face, it’s possible. “I think people measure you based on your productivitythe outcomes you produce. I’m very focused and I know what I need to get done. And I’m very aggressive and I’m willing to work middle of the night when I’m up nursing the baby,” she says. “People cut you some slack for things like needing to work from home several days a week so you can take somebody to the dentist or catch up on laundry because you were traveling.”
How to be a successful CEO: Know where your strengths and weaknesses are. “I’m very big picture so I always make sure I have someone who works close with me who is very detail oriented and more tactical
than I am so that we balance each other out.”
Women to Watch