For International Women’s Day, DDW’s Diana Spencer celebrates some of the women in leadership making an impact on the drug discovery and life sciences sector.
The life sciences sector has traditionally outperformed others when it comes to attracting women to its workforce. In its ‘Women in Business 2022’ report, Grant Thornton reported that at 39%, the healthcare industry had the highest proportion of women in senior management out of the 15 industries surveyed.1
However, this progress seems to have stagnated and there is still a long way to go before women are represented at the same level as men. It was recently reported that the UK ratio of women working in R&D compared to men is almost unchanged at 39% in the past 10 years.
The McKinsey report ‘Women in the Workplace 2022’ found that in the US: “Despite modest gains in representation over the last eight years, women – and especially women of colour – are still dramatically underrepresented in corporate America. And this is especially true in senior leadership: only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 20 is a woman of colour.”2
We take a closer look ten female leaders making waves in the life sciences sector.
Linda Powers, CEO, Northwest Biotherapeutics
Powers has served as the Chairman of NW Bio since 2007, and as CEO since 2011. She has over 15 years’ experience in corporate finance and restructurings, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and intellectual property licensing. Powers also serves on a number of boards and commissions, including M2GEN (an affiliate of Moffitt Cancer Center), the Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association, the Rosalind Franklin Society, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, a Steering Committee of the National Academy of Sciences evaluating government research funding, and three Governors’ commissions focused on building biotech and other industries.
Powers taught for more than six years at the National Institutes of Health, on medical product development and commercialisation, and at Georgetown Law School as an adjunct professor.
In 2023, the company revealed data from a Phase III trial which showed that its vaccine candidate DCVax-L more than doubled overall survival in glioblastoma patients.
Dr Loubna Bouarfa, Founder and CEO, OKRA.ai
Dr Bouarfa is the founder and CEO of OKRA.ai, an artificial intelligence (AI) company for life sciences. Prior to OKRA, Loubna lead different machine learning positions in startups and academia. Loubna was a member of the European Union High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, where she particularly focused on achieving competitive business impact with AI.
She has previously been named an MIT Technology Review Top Innovator Under 35, a Forbes 50 Top Women In Tech, a Deloitte Fast 50 Women in Leadership, and has won several prizes, including CEO of Year 2019 at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards and Best Female-Led Startup at the StartUp Europe Awards in 2019.
OKRA.ai was recently acquired by Envision Pharma Group, with Dr Bouarfa joining Envision as a member of its Executive Leadership Team.
Dr Janette Thomas, CEO, Five Alarm Bio
Five Alarm Bio is an anti-ageing therapeutics company, which completed a seed investment round in early 2023.
Dr Thomas has a background in biochemistry research at Leicester, Cambridge, and Glaxo, after which she has had 25 years of pharmaceutical drug discovery and development experience from large Pharma (GSK) and SMEs.
She was instrumental in the early strategy and growth of small companies including Horizon Discovery and was Director of International Operations at Atlantic Healthcare until she founded Pellis Care Ltd. She has managed multinational projects for charities and not-for-profits to find new treatments for Malaria and led Innovate UK grants through to successful completion.
On the completion of the company’s seed funding, she said: “Whilst life expectancy has increased over recent years, our healthy lifespan has not kept up. Anti-ageing science therefore has huge value. Here at FAB our proprietary approach aims to overcome this fundamental challenge to human health as we work to discover and develop new drugs for age-associated diseases.”
Mei Mei Hu, CEO and Co-Founder, Vaxxinity
Hu is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Vaxxinity, as well as a member of the executive committee of United Biomedical, Inc. She has overseen the launch of one of the first endobody vaccines in the world and the successful spin-out of five companies, including Vaxxinity’s IPO on NASDAQ.
She currently leads the company’s pipeline of chronic disease immunotherapeutic candidates including for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and hypercholesterolemia, as well as variant-inclusive Covid-19 booster.
Hu was formerly a consultant at McKinsey & Company where she advised pharmaceutical companies on strategic, operational and organizational issues. She has been named to Time 100 Next list, Fortune 40 under 40, and is a member of the Young Global Leaders of World Economic Forum.
It was recently revealed that the company’s Covid-19 booster candidate UB-612 achieved its immunogenicity endpoints in a head-to-head trial against three established vaccine platforms.
Dr Natalie Kenny, Founder and CEO, BioGrad
In 2021, Dr Kenny won EVA’s Businesswoman of the Year award, The Business Desk top 50 City Region Leader for Liverpool and The Business Desk’s North West Investment Award. She has also been awarded the 2022 Liverpool Women In Business, Woman of the year Award.
In January 2023, the company opening the second largest Biobank in the UK, which will give parents the chance to preserve their stem cells within the North West and the provision of non-invasive, prenatal testing and pregnancy testing, something that Dr Kenny hopes “can be a real catalyst for female well-being for decades to come”.
Speaking on the diverse workforce at BioGrad, she said: “Wherever I look I see strong female role models, whether that be in our senior leadership team, our labs or in the classroom.
“I am now looking forward to officially opening a new hub for the local community and a space for city region-based, female-led science and tech SMEs later this year and will continue to do all I can to support women throughout the North West and beyond.”
Dr Cathy Tralau-Stewart, Chief Scientific Officer, ValiRx
With over 20 years of senior academic and industry leadership experience, Dr Tralau-Stewart has been involved in advising, evaluating, and carrying out due diligence on over 500 projects and has supported and facilitated the translation of over 40 therapeutic technologies from academia to the clinic.
Commenting on women in STEM for International Women’s Day, she said: “In my view, it is still more challenging for girls and women to get into the STEM industries, and to climb the ladder to reach senior leadership roles, due to the unconscious bias that exists which makes key decision makers more likely to recruit in their own image – so people who look and sound like they do.
“But if businesses are to grow, the value of different voices, experiences, views, and opinions must be realised and leveraged, particularly at board level. We still need more women in senior roles, and more role models for the younger generation of women to be guided by. Giving young women visibility of relatable role models can only have a positive impact on increasing the number of women in STEM.”
Livia Ng, CEO and Founder, Neuroute
At just 24 years old, Ng is working on critical challenges in clinical trials, specifically in planning and recruitment, and has been building innovative solutions designed to benefit patients and researchers – with a focus on efficiency, transparency and diversity in clinical development.
Ng studied Neuroscience at University College London and Imperial College London, followed by a stint in academic research in the biotech sector. She founded Neuroute in 2019, with the aim of empowering patients from diverse backgrounds to participate in drug trials.
Listen to her In Conversation With interview with DDW’s Megan Thomas on the DDW Podcast to find out more.
Dr Emily Leproust, Founder and CEO, Twist Biopharma
In 2015, Dr LeProust was named one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers for fast-tracking the building blocks of life, and Fast Company named her one of the most creative people in business for synthesising DNA faster than ever. Prior to Twist Bioscience, she worked at Agilent Technologies and at the University of Houston developing DNA and RNA parallel synthesis processes on solid support. She has published over 30 peer-reviewed papers.
In an interview with DDW’s Lu Rahman, she commented on the importance of diversity in the workplace: “Once you remove all of the artificial restrictions around gender, sexual orientation, race, and everything else, it opens the field in a marvelous way. To me, gathering people from diverse backgrounds with different talents, life experiences, and points of view creates this beautiful stew of ideas. It’s kind of magical.”
On receiving the BIO Rosalind Franklin Award for work in the biobased economy and biotech innovation, she said: “It’s only recently that Rosalind Franklin started receiving due credit for her tremendous contributions to Watson and Crick’s Nobel prize-winning work on DNA structure. I am privileged to live in a different time, in which my contributions are more likely to be recognised. I owe so much to Franklin and many others.”
Dr Fiona McLaughlin, Chief Scientific Officer, Avacta
Dr McLaughlin has over 25 years’ experience in research and translational drug development in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, having led teams from early research through to clinical development.
She started her career at GlaxoSmithKline and has subsequently held leadership positions in multiple biotech companies including Vice President, Translational Research at Antisoma plc and Director of Pre-clinical Development at BTG plc (now part of Boston Scientific).
Other roles include Head of Biology at TopoTarget A/S, where she was responsible for the pre-clinical development of belinostat which went on to gain FDA approval to treat peripheral T-cell lymphoma. Prior to her role at Avacta, Dr McLaughlin was Vice President of New Opportunities at Algeta ASA (acquired by Bayer), a Norwegian biotech developing alpha radio-pharmaceuticals, that gained FDA approval of Xofigo to treat castration resistant prostate cancer.
See her interview with Megan Thomas at the Avacta Group Open Day.
Dr Ulla Grove Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO, Novo Nordisk Pharmatech
Dr Thomsen holds an MSc in Pharmaceutical Sciences from 1992 and a PhD in Structural and Analytical chemistry from 1996, both obtained at University of Copenhagen.
She joined Novo Nordisk in 1997 and has held various scientific and leadership positions within Protein Engineering Research and Biopharmaceuticals. She was appointed as CEO of Novo Nordisk Pharmatech in 2021.
Thomsen is an advocate for women in leadership and a prominent member of Women in Life Science Denmark (WiLD), about which she said: “I wanted to be part of a network in Life Sciences in Denmark where we can support each other in making good business networks and inspire women to take executive leadership positions.”
Winning the battle for talent
The Grant Thornton ‘Women in Business 2022’ report concludes that women are thriving in the life sciences industry, but cautions that the sector cannot rely on past performance. “If life sciences businesses are to maintain their competitive edge, all the signs are that they need to remain vigilant and keep working on diversity and inclusion. Purpose alone will not ensure that women choose to build a career in life sciences; recognition, an inclusive culture, long-term prospects and individual flexibility will also be crucial. Companies must seize the momentum of a newly empowered female workforce if they are to win the battle for talent and continue to thrive in today’s fast-changing environment.”1
Read more about inspirational women who have achieved great things in the industry in this 2022 DDW article.