New $1 Million Initiative Aims To Boost Women In Biotech

In this Tuesday, April 25, 2017 photo, post doctoral fellow Leslie Mitchell, works at her bench at a New York University lab in the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences in New York, where researchers are attempting to create completely man-made, custom-built DNA. Mitchell says it took her a couple months to build her chromosome but longer to debug. "The tiniest change in the code can have dramatic effect on growth,” she said. “We are learning new rules about how cells operate by building from scratch." (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A new initiative is trying to support women in the Massachusetts biotech industry by funding and mentoring early-stage companies led by women. Pictured: A post doctoral student working at a lab in the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences in New York (Mary Altaffer/AP Photo)

Women are underrepresented in the life sciences industry. Now, a new program is trying to change that by supporting biotech startups led by women.

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and Takeda Pharmaceuticals on Friday launched MassNextGen -- a five-year initiative that will fund and support early stage biotech companies run by women.

"This initiative is really targeted to encourage and support more women entrepreneurs in the life sciences industry, and to also provide them the skills, the tools and the network they need to go out and successfully raise funds for their small innovative companies," said Jennifer Griffin, a VP at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

Each year, MassNextGen will select two companies that will receive $50,000 and executive coaching, which will include mentoring, and access to a network of entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts.

"We want to make sure that we’re investing in big ideas that are led by women-owned companies here in the Commonwealth," Gov. Charlie Baker said during Friday's announcement at Takeda's Cambridge office.

The $1 million initiative is a partnership between the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Takeda put up $250,000 for the initaitive, which was matched by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. The remaining $500,000 will come from in-kind donations from executive coaches over the next five years, according to Griffin.

Sponsors of the program say the initiative aims to address gender gaps in the life sciences industry. Earlier this fall, a report by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) and executive recruiting firm Liftstream found growing gender disparities in the state's life sciences industry.

The report surveyed 70 companies and over 900 professionals and found that while women enter the industry in about equal proportion to men — 49.6 percent to 50.4 percent — their numbers decline as they move forward in their careers. By the time women reach the C-suite, they account for just 24 percent while men account for 76 percent, according to the report. And the disparity is even greater at the board level.

According to the report, the reasons for this gender gap include fewer opportunities to advance, perceived bias in evaluations and promotions and less career development and mentoring for women.

The MassNextGen initiative attempts to address some of these concerns. Officials say the program is just a first step and acknowledge that more work needs to be done to address disparities in the industry.

"It’s one initiative but hopefully it creates some visibility and allows us to express our willingness to improve the situation," said Takeda CEO Christophe Weber.

Griffin said biotech companies and venture capital firms also need to diversify so more women can have opportunities in the industry.  MassNextGen also hopes the women they target can eventually impact the industry more broadly.

"We're targeting early young entrepreneurs, but certainly those women entrepreneurs we hope will someday become board members of larger companies and advise those companies," Griffin said.

The MassNextGen program begins taking applications in January.


Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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