Few Women at the Helm of Life Science Companies

The month of March showed no shortage of challenges for the life science community, as COVID-19 grew from a whisper to a roar.

Numerous life science entrepreneurs, academic research scientists and engineers across North Carolina responded to the coronavirus shock wave by pivoting from planned projects and committing their talent and resources to fight the global pandemic.

March was also National Women’s History Month, a time for reflection on the contributions that women have made in all walks of life. And it became clear as the pandemic unfolded that women are playing a crucial role as physicians, policymakers, first responders, teachers, scientists and business leaders. 

Still, the gender that comprises slightly more than half the population does not hold a representative position of leadership in life science entrepreneurship. In fact, a search of data maintained by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the University of North Carolina’s Carolina Population Center shows that even though 48% of women aged 25 to 64 reported having an associate degree or higher in 2017, compared to 38% of men, females today account for just 5% of the CEOs, founders and/or presidents of the state’s 735-plus life science companies. The percentage of African American-led life science companies is even lower.

And the story is similar nationwide.

AskBio CEO Sheila Mikhail breaking molds

Sheila Mikhail, CEO and co-founder of Asklepios BioPharmaceutical (AskBio), is a high-profile example of that 5% -- the 38 females known to be corner-office life science leaders of companies statewide.

AskBio CEO Sheila Mikhail
AskBio CEO Sheila Mikhail. -- AskBio photo

AskBio’s gene therapy platform uses the harmless Adeno-Associated Virus (AAV) technology for a wide range of inherited maladies, from Pompe and Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2I to congestive heart failure.

Mikhail began her career in business law after receiving her juris doctorate from Northwestern University. After she taught a class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on how to start companies, UNC researcher and AAV pioneer Jude Samulski approached her seeking resources. Mikhail saw the power of AAV technology and the transformative abilities of gene therapy and joined Samulski in founding AskBio.

At the time, gene therapy was unfamiliar to the industry and had little traction with investors. After a fruitless walk on Wall Street, Mikhail continued to push until landing a deal with industry giant Pfizer. Mikhail details that she was driven by her trust in the science and her desire to help others.

Communication barriers pose threats to the success of female leaders. Mikhail says the best way to lead is with blunt and forthright honesty. She notes that this goes against the nurturing stereotype of women, and that there will always be judgment for going against the grain. Her best advice for other leaders is to be true to yourself and keep your eye on the ball. 

Atop AskBio’s typical production, the company is taking a unique vectorized approach for antibodies targeting COVID-19, either prophylactically or as a treatment, particularly to those who are vulnerable due to pre-existing pulmonary conditions or are immunologically compromised. Delivering the gene capable of producing COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies bypasses the manufacturing scale-up challenges and repeat dosing requirements associated with classic monoclonal antibody development and delivery, she says. And that affords long-term protection.

AskBio is currently seeking funding opportunities and partners who can help the company develop clinical candidates and run clinical studies.

AAD exemplifies ‘one health’ model for both animals and people  

AAD CEO Joy Parr Drach
AAD CEO Joy Parr Drach. -- AAD photo

Advanced Animal Diagnostics (AAD) is also enmeshed in the advancement of COVID-19 solutions. CEO Joy Parr Drach is leading the way for using her company’s highly flexible diagnostic technology for bovine diseases to provide a diagnostic test that could help with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parr Drach’s inspiration for diagnostic testing is rooted in her background in farming and her continued drive to raise her family around the livestock she protects. Her initial foray into the life science business world was with a portable test kit that allows farmers to quickly detect mastitis in dairy cows. 

Now, however, AAD is scrambling toward an FDA submission of her testing system for use in fast point-of-care screening for COVID-19. She says a scientific collaborator on another human application discovered the opportunity when reading a recent scientific paper about the coronavirus.

Like Mikhail, Parr Drach finds a significant barrier as a female entrepreneur is being able to have conversations with prospective investors on the same level they would with male entrepreneurs. When men sit in the entrepreneurial seat across the table from potential investors, the conversations tend to go deeper into technical details, for example, while conversations with females seeking funding may frequently include lighter questions and less connection. 

Female leaders in North Carolina

There may be other woman-led life science companies in North Carolina delving into various aspects of the COVID-19 battle. NCBiotech wants to tell those stories (as well as the stories about companies led by men who are confronting the pandemic). 

Meanwhile, here are the current female leaders of North Carolina life science companies, as identified by NCBiotech. If you know of someone who should be added to this list, please contact NCBiotech:                                                                                          

  • Afreen Allam, president and CEO of SiNON Therapeutics, Durham
  • Mindy Allport-Settle, CEO of PharmaLogika Inc., Willow Springs
  • Suzanne Babcock, chairman and CEO of CivaTech Oncology Inc., Morrisville
  • Deborah Bitterfield CEO and founder of Lindy Biosciences, Inc., RTP
  • Ann Black, president and CEO of ImmunoReagents Inc., Raleigh
  • Donna Bortner, CEO of TransViragen Inc., Chapel Hill
  • Allison London Brown, founder, CEO, UVision 360, Raleigh
  • Paula Brown Stafford, president and COO of Novan, Morrisville
  • Jennifer Byrne, CEO of Javara Inc., Winston-SalemGinger Dosier, CEO of bioMASON, RTP
  • Joy Parr Drach, president and CEO of Advanced Animal Diagnostics Inc., Morrisville
  • Amanda Elam, president of Galaxy Diagnostics Inc., RTP
  • JiNan Glasgow, president and CEO of Neo IP, Durham
  • Cynthia Greer, president of Cedarlane Laboratories Ltd., Burlington
  • Amy Greeson, CEO of Natural Discoveries Inc., Winston-Salem
  • Lisa Grimes, CEO of PurThread Technologies Inc., Cary
  • Dipti Gulati, president of PJI Biotech LLC, Morrisville
  • Mary Helms, president and co-founder of Rho, Durham
  • Elut Hsu, president of Asymchem Laboratories, Morrisville
  • Edna Hu, president of BIoCI Systems Inc., Raleigh
  • Pratap Joshi, CEO of Bio Matrix Inc., Greensbor
  • Rita King, CEO of MethodSense Inc., RTP
  • Pepper Landson, co-founder and CEO of Praetego Inc., Durham
  • Myla Lai-Goldman, president and CEO of GeneCentric Diagnostics Inc., RTP
  • Sharon Letchworth, president of Letchworth Pharma Consulting Inc., Kernersville
  • Karen LeVert, president and CEO of Southeast TechInventures Inc., Durham
  • Elizabeth Livanos, president and senior cytogeneticist of KaryoLogic Inc., Durham;
  • Kelli Luginbuhl, founder and CEO of Isolere Bio, Durham
  • Elizabeth Miescher-Clemens, president and COO of HepatoSys Inc., Cornelius
  • Sheila Mikhail, CEO and co-founder of Asklepios BioPharmaceutical Inc., RTP
  • Natalia Mitin, CEO of Sapere Bio, RTP
  • Susan B. Nichols, president and CEO of Falcon Therapeutics, Durham
  • Meg Powell, co-chair of TARGET PharmaSolutions, Durham, and co-founder of 501 Ventures, Chapel Hill
  • Nirmala Ramanujam, founder of Zenalux Biomedical Inc., Durham
  • Karen Romines, president and CEO of Pathfinder Pharmaceuticals Inc., Durham
  • Nancy Rosborough, founder and CEO of Mycorrhiza Biotech LLC, Burlington
  • Lea Strickland, president and CEO of F.O.C.U.S. Resources, Morrisville
  • Lynda Sutton, president and chief regulatory officer of Cato Research Ltd., Durham
  • Anne Whitaker, director and CEO of Aerami Therapeutics, Durham
  • Constance Wilson, founder, president and CEO of Endacea Inc., RTP
Lindsey Baron, NCBiotech Writer
scroll back to top of page