By Dan Schell, Editorial Director, Life Science Leader
Walk the streets in and around Boston’s Kendall Square on any day, and you’re bound to encounter two or more people huddled around a table in a café drinking expensive cups of coffee while mulling over esoteric biotech-related topics. This is, after all, Boston — Genetown to some — the mother lode of life sciences innovation.
During this past year, Laura Indolfi and Elizabeth O’Day have found themselves spending more than their fair share of time participating in these kinds of informal caffeinated get-togethers. They do have a few things in common, after all; they both have their Ph.D.s and are the founder and CEO of their respective companies, which are located only about four miles apart. But none of those similarities is the reason why these two started meeting regularly to bounce ideas off each other and discuss their business challenges and solutions.
SUPPORT FOR FEMALE-LED STARTUPS
In June 2018, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) announced the winners of the first Massachusetts Next Generation Initiative (MassNextGen), a competitive program to support women entrepreneurs in early-stage life sciences companies. According to Travis McCready, president & CEO of MLSC, “We conceived MassNextGen as a first step toward ensuring that women entrepreneurs have access to the risk capital and network of investors and funders they need to bring their ideas to market.” Indolfi’s PanTher Therapeutics and O’Day’s Olaris Therapeutics were two of the five women-led companies in that first cohort.
PanTher makes implantable devices that deliver cancer drugs directly to a tumor, thereby enhancing therapeutic efficacy, while minimizing side effects, of traditional chemo treatments. Olaris is a precision medicine company that uses a person’s biomarkers to determine which patients will benefit most from a specific therapy.
All of the award recipients received access to executive coaches for one year (Olaris was one of two companies that also received $62,500 in funding). The 15 coaches included biopharma CEOs and other top executives, VCs, serial entrepreneurs, certified executive coaches, and finance professionals.
Takeda, the first sponsor of the MassNextGen program, hosted eight monthly meetings (after work hours with food provided) that involved the entire cohort interacting with the coaches as a group on broad topics such as reimbursement, clinical strategies, and the type of term sheet to consider. “There was a lot of time spent on refining your pitch and how to reach investors,” O’Day recalls. “They explained that the way you resonate with investors is showing expertise in things like commercial strategy, go-to-market, or reimbursement. It was always a combination of how to find the resources and the funding to do it and then also how to build your additional skillsets.”
The remaining four monthly meetings were held exclusively with a personal coach. “The coach would sit down with the five of us together to discuss ways we can improve as leaders,” Indolfi explains. “For instance, we discussed how to speak in public, how to create a culture for our company, and how to analyze the type of leader that we are and want to be. That aspect of the program was really helpful.”
FINDING/PREPARING FOR INVESTORS
As entrepreneurs, Indolfi and O’Day are acutely aware of the need to take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself. As part of the MassNextGen program, the participants could interact with the coaches during the monthly meetings, but the access to these experts didn’t have to stop there. Both Indolfi and O’Day were proactive in seeking additional meetings with the coaches to discuss issues specific to their companies.
“I think I had coffee with every person affiliated with the program,” chuckles O’Day. “It seemed like each person I would meet would then introduce me to somebody else who may be helpful to Olaris. At Takeda, for instance, I chatted with people in various parts of their organization from research to reimbursement to global market access. It was really an incredible opportunity.”
Indolfi agrees that the networking was extremely helpful, especially considering most of the women were first-time entrepreneurs with limited business networks. “I’ve been really good at following up with each of the coaches and the other people I’ve met from being in the program,” she says. “I learned a lot about my term sheet and what to negotiate when making deals, and I’ve gotten a lot of introductions to leaders in areas needed for PanTher to grow and succeed.”
Jo Viney, founder and CSO of Pandion Therapeutics, was one of the coaches whom Indolfi and O’Day ended up meeting with one-on-one multiple times for additional guidance. She says most of those meetings were about fundraising and crafting an effective pitch deck. O’Day actually asked Viney and another coach, Christine Brennan, a partner at MRL Ventures (Merck), to review her pitch deck slide by slide, critiquing everything down to the fonts she had chosen. “It was great to see the confidence of these women entrepreneurs increase exponentially as they learned more about company building and how to interact with the investment community,” Viney says. “The hands-on advice and connections to others with specialized expertise also really enabled these leaders to grow their knowledge very quickly, further contributing to their increased confidence.”
THE VALUE OF AN EXPANDED NETWORK
Participation in the MassNextGen program created a year of rapid change for Olaris and PanTher. The $62,500 in funding Olaris received enabled O’Day to hire her first employee. An additional successful seed round of funding in January, along with the company hitting some key scientific milestones, has it positioned to close on its Series A funding, which will help with the expense of adding new staff such as data and metabolite scientists and a chief commercial officer (as of July, the company was preparing to launch its first commercial product). “This MassNextGen cohort featured a lot of scientist entrepreneurs, original creators of a technology/product,” says O’Day. “So I think what the program did well is help us understand how to walk that line of still driving the science while also driving the business — and knowing when you have to give and take in each area.”
When Indolfi was chosen for the MassNextGen program, she wondered if the program was going to be valuable for her without the funding award. Today, she says participating in the program was one of the best decisions she’s made. “The recognition and the networking have been invaluable,” she says. “I like having the ability to pick the brains of other women who have gone through what I’m going through.”
"I learned a lot about my term sheet and what to negotiate when making deals, and I've gotten a lot of introductions to leaders in areas needed for PanTher to grow and succeed."
Laura Indolfi, CEO, PanTher Therapeutics
One of those common experiences is being the only woman in the room when meeting with a VC, which happens the majority of the time, according to Indolfi. Her new network also can relate to the gender bias that still exists in these situations. “There are instances when we would arrive to a VC with our male cofounder, and they would immediately assume that the man is the CEO and that the rest of us were some scientist or clinical person. I even had a VC tell me that in order to raise the Series A, we needed a male CEO — not a more experienced CEO, just one that was a man! Obviously, we didn’t have any more conversations with that group.”
According to Indolfi and O’Day, this first MassNext Gen cohort is a tight-knit group that still helps and supports each other — often over a cup of coffee. And luckily for them and the numerous other female biopharma company founders, there are many programs similar to MassNextGen that are designed to assist women in this industry (e.g., Women In Bio, CSweetener, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, and Women Accelerators). “By participating in this program, I feel like I’ve curated a very accessible network that I feel like I’ll have for the rest of my life,” concludes O’Day.