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From idea to inception and beyond: Important learnings from female biotech founders

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4  minute read
Date published
07 March 2022

Female biotech founders took centre-stage at AusBiotech 2021 with the leaders of some of Australia’s most innovative start-ups coming together to discuss their experiences in the commercial scientific world.

Chaired by Griffith Hack director and principal Karen Sinclair, the Female Founders of Biotech panel featured Sam Cobb of Currus Biologics, Lynette Walter of NavBit, and Elisa Mokany and Alison Todd of SpeeDx  – all who co-founded their respective companies. The candid discussion provided illuminating views on what it takes to start a biotech company, how to be a leader while surrounding yourself with the best people, and what they think the future holds for innovation in Australia.

About the panel

Sam Cobb is the founding CEO of Currus Biologics, commercialising its next generation CAR-T cell therapy from early research and development at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Previously, she was the founding CEO of AdAlta and applied for that first CEO position with encouragement from the Chair.

Lynette Walter is CEO and co-founder of surgical technology innovator and manufacturer Navbit. She believes the ability to create and maintain a company is an innate feature in those with the requisite passion, motivation and self-belief. She and her co-founders knew they had both a good idea and the right talent to take their product to market and persevered to achieve their success.

Elisa Mokany and Alison Todd are co-founders of molecular diagnostic company SpeeDx. Their innovative background was nurtured at Johnson & Johnson Research (JJR) and provided a strong foundation to start their own company, together with assistance from Cicada Innovations.

Mokany and Todd were passionate about what they invented and had support from their former Managing Director to branch out into SpeeDx. JJR encouraged their plan and assisted them by assigning rights to the IP and funding venture capital for the new entity. Todd acknowledged the risks involved but believes perseverance was key to making forward progress – founders must face problems that arise; solutions are found when you deal with problems head on and do not shy from them.

Founders don’t have to be CEO

Contrary to the other panel members, neither Mokany nor Todd are CEO of SpeeDx, rather they hold the positions of Chief Technology Officer and Chief Scientific Officer, respectively. Prudently, Todd remarked that not every founder is the perfect CEO. She embraces her capabilities as a scientist and inventor and has worked on assembling a team of experts, each with their own relevant skill set.

Similarly, Mokany noted that the first five years of SpeeDx was all science: developing assays, collaboration, and licensing technology. She understood her expertise in product development and, like Todd, lacked the desire to play the part of CEO and “sell”. They both have confidence in the experience, knowledge and skills of their appointed CEO and note that their C-suite is united in their decision making.

These founders are not made to feel like they lack clout, rather they focus on the aspects of the company for which they have a passion and take responsibility.

Getting started and making early in-roads

For those waiting to take the leap, the panel agreed that it is necessary in a start-up to continue to put one foot in front of the other. On the job learning is a constant process, and the important thing is to get started and keep going. Recognise your strengths and crucially, surround yourself with those that have other expertise that is needed, including the right mentors and advisors.

Cobb noted that a CEO must see the big picture and get on with making it happen. She also noted the importance of having IP: you need to know that your idea is worth funding. Competitive analysis provides excellent information.

Walter emphasised the importance of resilience and also preparing and educating yourself but not waiting for perfection: ask questions, get to work and be bold and open-minded; understand that there are many different ways to get to the end goal.

Surround yourself with experts and leaders

On the topic of advisers and those you choose to provide the expertise your start-up needs, all panel members agreed that the members of your board need to be the right people who can guide and grow your business. Mokany reflected on the importance of seeking legal and IP advice from people with science backgrounds, and who are switched on in the biotechnology fields – it can be unhelpful when service providers do not understand the technology. She noted that IP advisers had even helped drive inventive concepts, emphasising that your advisers should grow with you in your journey.

Todd and Cobb appreciate positivity. They do not want to only hear problems, nor what cannot be done. They seek others who are solution oriented. In addition, Walter believes that experts who think only in the context of their field without understanding how decisions impact your business are of less value. Advisers who are willing to be part of the inner circle are worth their weight in gold.

Building the bridge between research and commercialisation

Something that all speakers acknowledged is the tenuous bridge between research and commercialisation, particularly in Australia. Walter advises working with universities to take IP out of their hands and spin-off with it into another company. Collaboration is essential to successfully enter the market. By the same token, Todd encouraged strong connections between academia and industry and noted an important factor is the mentoring of others – as you yourself seek mentors. She recommends the supervision of students between educational research programs and industry to provide an understanding of commercialisation and would also like to see better training offered to scientists to be the entrepreneurs of the future.

The role of gender

It would be remiss to gather these experts and not discuss gender. No panellist has been caused to feel that their gender has held them back, but all advocate for monitoring and supporting other women in the workplace. They agreed that female founders need the same qualities as any other, such as tenacity, focus, belief and adaptability, and acknowledged that while a gender imbalance exists, gender does not matter. If you back yourself and move forward, you will achieve.

It was noted that women tend not to talk themselves up as much as their male counterparts and likewise do not ask for as much. Funding and capital raising is hard; Cobb’s advice is to tell a story and tell it very well. As CEOs, Cobb and Walter both agreed that you must raise money when you don’t need it, raise more than you need and be aware that it takes longer than expected. Cobb recommended practicing your elevator pitch on your friends: you will need a lot of money that will come from everywhere.

Success takes courage

It was encouraging to hear that these female founders embrace risk and see failure merely as a growth and learning experience. Their courage as innovators and leaders shines through. All speakers agree that Australians need to have this courage to take that leap of faith into new technology and innovation. These leaders embrace the opportunity to support others and look forward to giving back to the biotechnology industry.