• WisBusiness

Friday, June 22, 2012

 3:37 PM 

Column: Wisconsin execs see promising future for women in biotech


By Jeanne McCabe

This year’s BIO International Convention shows the face of the world’s biotechnology industry hasn’t changed much.

The cavernous halls of Boston’s international trade center are a vast conglomeration of people, cultures and nationalities from around the world.

Attractive women dominate many of the convention’s trade pavilions. But it is clear that the decision-makers for most state and international delegations here are men.

Wisconsin, however, appears to be an exception.

The senior state official leading Wisconsin’s delegation is female: Lisa Johnson, the vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., not only led the delegation, but has previous experience in senior executive roles for a number of biotechnology companies in the Madison area.

Several of the major presenters at the Wisconsin pavilion were also women, including Laura Strong, president and COO of Quintessence Biosciences in Madison and a former president of BioForward, and Marsha Barwick, assistant director of applied research for Marshfield Clinic.

In fact, more than half the Wisconsin delegation is female, including several senior city and state economic development specialists.

And female executives in Wisconsin say the future for women in the state’s biotechnology industry looks promising.

Nationally, that’s not the case, said Phyllis Dillinger, president of the national Women in Bio organization, which held two seminars for women at BIO International this week. She noted that women are certainly more prominent in the industry than they were two decades ago, but that progress seems to have stalled in the last decade.

“We don’t have good data on this because the industry is so diverse. It includes bench scientists, intellectual property lawyers, regulators, educators on top of the business owners and executives," she said.

“But my gut feeling is that the progress of women in this business has stagnated. Women who leave academic research for the private sector rarely progress at the same rates as men when it comes to moving up in corporate leadership. That’s not just a lack of diversity, that’s a loss of talent."

Fortune 500 statistics bear out Dillinger’s observation. Female leaders in “C suite" positions and serving as board members has been stuck at about 15 percent for the last several years. And biotechnology companies are no different, according to the statistics.

In Wisconsin, however, anecdotal evidence shows that women leaders in bio-related companies are more prevalent.

Laura Douglass, president and CEO of Next Generation Clinical Research in Madison, said she definitely sees growing numbers of women in executive positions in the companies she does business with -- and vastly more than when she started her career 25 years ago.

Wisconsin may have larger numbers of female-led and female-owned biotechnology companies, added Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

"One reason is Wisconsin has a disproportionately high number of female investors," Still noted.

Finally, the number of women involved in biotechnology in Wisconsin may also stem from the UW System, where growing numbers of women are pursuing careers in science-related professions.

UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, for example, now has an enrollment that is 57 percent female -- substantially greater than the 51 percent university-wide female enrollment -- and more than half of its graduate students are female. In 1970, only 12 percent of CALS undergraduates were female.

University officials also note that not only has the increase in female interest in science been impressive, but women enrolled in CALS today are focusing less on “soft” subjects -- such as landscaping which was the case 20 years ago -- and much more on “hard” sciences such as biochemistry and genetics.

Dillinger noted there are also a growing number of resources to help women reach the “C suite,” including relatively new organizations such as Women in Bio and Springboard Enterprises, which educates, sources, coaches, showcases and supports women-led high-growth companies seeking equity capital for expansion -- including a major effort in Madison.

The programs are popular, Dillinger said. When WIB started chapters in Seattle, 210 women attended the initial meeting. In San Francisco, 175 women attended the initial meeting. Men are also interested in joining WIB as a means of helping their daughters learn more about the biotech industry through WIB’s Young Women in Bio effort, Dillinger said.

“We’ve made a lot of progress and the interest is high," Dillinger said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”

-- McCabe is president of JZB Solutions, which specializes in grant applications and management. She is former COO of the Morgridge Institute for Research and a veteran member of the Wisconsin delegation at BIO International.

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