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Women make mark in budding industry

Laura Douglass, chief executive of Next Generation Clinical Research in Oregon, is one of a group of women in the state who are making a name for themselves in the biotechnology industry.

Photo by Anna Ironside

Early in her career, Laura Douglass walked into a room to give a complicated science presentation and found 20 older men dressed in suits sitting around a table.
“That was the toughest crowd I ever had to present to,” said Douglass, who is now chief executive of Next Generation Clinical Research in Oregon, just outside Madison. “I was obviously the youngest person and the only woman in the room. I thought they weren’t going to ever take me seriously.”
But, to Douglass’ credit, they did take her seriously. She won a key project with her presentation and caught a glimpse of what was to come. Some 20 years later, Next Generation is assisting in clinical trials throughout the U.S. and Canada, employs 20 people and contracts with 20 more, and is growing every year.
The company is a success story in the Madison area’s growing biotech field — a story to which women are increasingly contributing.
Jane Homan, chief executive of ioGenetics; Irene Hrusovsky, chief executive of Eragen; Beth Donely, chief executive of Stemina; Lynn Allen-Hoffman, chief executive of Stratatech Corporation; and Laura Strong, president of Quintessence Bioscience, are all established in the state’s biotech industry.
“It’s definitely getting more interesting,” said Douglass, who received an award in March from the Washington D.C.-based Women in Bio, for her work at Next Generation.
Flexible partnerships, the relative youth of the biotech industry and simply more opportunities for women in business and the sciences are all reasons for women’s success in biotech, according to people in the field. But challenges remain. For starters, despite undergraduate — and graduate-level classes split evenly between men and women, a strong majority of the lead researchers and biotech executives are men.
“Women faculty in the sciences are definitely underrepresented,” said Laura Heisler, intellectual property manager/ strategic technology enhancement program manager at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. “Women are certainly a minority in biotech companies.”
Heisler, who has a doctorate in microbiology, worked for a biotech company in Madison for 10 years before joining WARF. Men and women were closer to equal while working as scientists, but the gap grew among professors and executives. Part of the reason is because the sciences can be hard on women who want to have children, she said. Why men seem to get more promotions than women isn’t explainable, she said.
Another wrinkle: Men and women are largely equal when it comes to handling the patent work that comes with inventions. Women make up the majority of Heisler’s staff, and many patent attorneys — who require a science and legal background — are women.
Even on the science side, women in biotech are finding equality when it comes to patents. A Stanford researcher found women were just as likely as men to apply for patents in the biotech industry, a notable finding given women are 40 percent as likely as men to file for patents in other fields.
The organization of the biotech industry may be giving women more opportunities, said Laurel Smith-Doerr, Boston University associate professor who wrote the book “Women’s Work: Gender Equality vs. Hierarchy in the Life Sciences.”
Smith-Doerr’s research found that small biotech firms collaborate with other businesses and organizations, rather than working in a top-down hierarchy that limits flexibility. For example, in a top-down hierarchy, such as a university or big company, employees work with their supervisors. In collaborative organizations, which tend to be smaller companies, employees pick and choose who to work with based on projects they select.
Women have a better chance of succeeding in biotech’s collaborative model, Smith-Doerr said, because they will work with people who support them. Her proof is the in the numbers. Women are nearly eight times more likely to hold leadership positions in biotech companies than in pharmaceutical companies or universities, according to her research.
Robbie Melton, president of Women in Bio, started her company with three other women seven years ago to train women in starting technology companies.
“When we started, we found women were at a disadvantage in raising money over men,” she said. “They (women) didn’t know how to present, didn’t know how to ask questions and didn’t know how to get venture capital.”
Women in Bio started with a small number of members and has grown to more than 300 members in 15 states, with plans to expand further in the coming year, Melton said.
Despite the growth, it has not gotten much easier.
“If you’re starting your own biotech company, you’re working a lot of hours, taking on risk and making a huge financial investment,” Melton said. “If you ask, ‘Do a lot of women want to do that?’ I would say no.”
Douglass works 60 to 80 hours a week at Next Generation. She helps set up clinical trials for drugs tested on humans. She travels, is faced with tough business decisions and has put her whole life into the company.
She also enjoys more flexibility — both in business and life — than she did at past jobs. She works long hours, but can be home every night for dinner. She travels, but brings her children with her. Her business is growing, but she can keep it small in order to make quick decisions without moving through layers of bureaucracy.
“We really do partner with our clients,” Douglass said. “That’s why I left the big machine, because we can do that. I feel amazing when a drug we worked on gets FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval.”
She also knows the impact a woman-run company can have. All but two members of her staff are women; her company recently gave out college scholarships to two young women studying sciences; and her two daughters, ages 16 and 12, are both good students who know what their mom has accomplished. When it’s their turn, Douglass said, they will have more opportunities than she could ever imagine.
“I think I was a fairly strong student, but they’re doing things now I was doing in college,” Douglass said of her daughters. “The advances have changed and shifted downward. They’re more confident and are being permitted to go in different, new directions. Since I was in high school, things have changed dramatically.”

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