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Start-Up Hurdles

As they apply their expertise in the chemical sciences, women wrestle with obstacles to entrepreneurship

by Susan J. Ainsworth
April 15, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 15

Credit: Kim Ifft Photography
Bosley launched Boron Specialties to develop chemicals, materials, and applications that depend on boron’s properties.
Credit: Kim Ifft Photography
Bosley launched Boron Specialties to develop chemicals, materials, and applications that depend on boron’s properties.

When Sheila DeWitt was laid off from her job as a vice president for business development, discovery, and manufacturing at Epix Pharmaceuticals in 2009, she knew that finding a similar position would be difficult, especially given the dismal state of the job market. So she began to consider a different path: starting her own company as a way to leverage her 25 years of experience in big pharma and small biotech companies.

Eighteen months later, she took the leap of faith and cofounded Deuteria Pharmaceuticals, a deuterated-drug company in Andover, Mass. “I saw starting a company as an opportunity to do something I had never done before, and I felt that the time was right in my career,” she says, noting that she had experience heading research and development, marketing, and business development operations.

Although some women chemists and chemical engineers are starting businesses to circumvent a poor job market, others are making the move to transfer promising technology from the lab to the marketplace, satisfy an unmet market need, or fulfill a lifelong passion to help people.

Gaining the independence that comes from “being your own boss” has been a motivating factor for Rachel M. Frazier in cofounding Graphenics, which provides graphene materials and consulting services, late last year. “I am surprised at how much I love my work,” she says. “This is an exciting time, full of unknowns. There is never a dull moment.”

More women seem to be jumping on the entrepreneurial bandwagon. In 2007, 12.4 million U.S. businesses were owned 50% or more by women, representing a surge of 34.8% from 2002, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners. These businesses accounted for 44.5% of firms in the professional, scientific, and technical services sectors. The bureau will release the next round of five-year data later this year.

Credit: Courtesty of Hongming Chen
In addition to managing high-profile tasks involved in launching Kala Pharmaceuticals, Chen takes on much of the responsibility of parenting her two daughters, with help from her husband, Tani.
Credit: Courtesty of Hongming Chen
In addition to managing high-profile tasks involved in launching Kala Pharmaceuticals, Chen takes on much of the responsibility of parenting her two daughters, with help from her husband, Tani.

In the chemical and pharmaceutical sciences realm, the number of women-owned businesses is likely to continue to increase in the future, predicts chemist Judith C. Giordan, who is a partner in the venture capital firm ecosVC and has headed R&D at Henkel, PepsiCo, and International Flavors & Fragrances. The great global challenges relating to the supply of energy, water, and food will provide opportunities to launch many more small businesses, she says. As a result, Giordan urges women in the chemical sciences to step up and participate in starting companies.

However, starting and sustaining a science-based business can be demanding, and women sometimes face additional obstacles to entrepreneurship, according to the women entrepreneurs contacted by C&EN. For example, some women say they struggle to balance work and family responsibilities or still contend with subtle gender biases.

Especially amid a troubled economy, women have also had to overcome major challenges in financing their businesses. Although many women opt to self-finance their start-ups, others take the rigorous path of seeking external funding from venture capital firms or angel investors—wealthy individuals or groups of individuals who invest independently and generally early in a start-up’s life.

For her part, DeWitt initially sought funding from venture capital firms, angel investors, and strategic partners as she launched Deuteria. “However, the venture capital firms kept telling me to come back when I had more data,” she says. Several wanted her to present human clinical data, even though the company was still in the discovery phase.

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DeWitt made even less progress negotiating with angels, who typically want every deal to be “de-risked,” she says. In short, they wanted an up-front guarantee that a specific pharmaceutical company would acquire the drug that the company was developing, which was something she couldn’t provide without data, she says. “I was caught in a kind of catch-22: I needed data to get funding, but I needed funding to generate data,” she says.

DeWitt ultimately fell back on loans from her business partner, Anthony W. Czarnik, and other Deuteria founders to get the capital needed to generate data.

However, DeWitt’s strategy worked out. Only two years after starting Deuteria, DeWitt and other shareholders sold it to an undisclosed biotech firm and used the proceeds to fund a second virtual biotech, DeuteRx. Also based in Andover, the new firm is continuing to develop deuterium-based technology aimed at improving the therapeutic benefits of existing racemic drugs. It operates without any laboratories of its own, outsourcing all of its research work.

For different reasons than DeWitt cites, other women scientists also report having problems securing funding from outside investors. Multiple venture capital companies “told me that I need to find an older man to be the face of the company,” says one entrepreneur, a Ph.D. chemist who asked not to be identified. Despite being disheartened by this advice, she says she is seeking “a male face and brain” for the company. Incidentally, the advice to find a partner could prove helpful for unrelated reasons, because she is seeking someone who can compensate for her lack of business experience in the therapeutics arena.

Ideally, she would like to find someone who has carved out a long career in pharma, “has the entire Rolodex of contacts,” and knows how the technology she is developing might fit within big pharma’s pipelines. Finding a woman with those credentials has been difficult, she says, due in part to the massive layoffs and other factors that have curtailed some pharma careers as women began to rise to more positions of power.

However, not all women entrepreneurs have faced this obstacle. Some say that having broad technical skills, coupled with a proven business track rec­ord, has bolstered their ability to negotiate—with or without a man alongside.

Even while she faced challenges in securing funding or strategic partnerships for Deuteria, DeWitt says she did not feel the need to bring her male business partner, “who is more science-focused,” into all of their business negotiations. “One plus,” she says, “is that I am a Ph.D. chemist by training and also have the benefit of having worked in business development and cofounded or managed seven biotech companies.”

However, DeWitt does not believe that gender bias has completely disappeared from the business landscape. Despite the progress that women have made, “we are all still operating in an old boys’ network and, quite frankly, it is sometimes easier for men to work with other men,” she says. “Because chemistry and life sciences are still male-dominated disciplines, I still think women have to work a little harder to get a seat at the table.”

Shikha P. Barman, who recently cofounded Integral BioSystems, a specialty drug delivery firm in Bedford, Mass., offers a similar observation. “Even today, people expect the heads of companies to be men,” she says.

While attending a recent trade show, Barman recalls being completely overlooked by an industry peer who stopped by her company’s booth. “He automatically assumed that my male business partner was the CEO and addressed every comment and question to him; it was as if I was not there,” she says. Barman says she has seen this kind of scenario “play out time and time again” throughout her 20-year career, and it no longer intimidates her. “As I have gained more experience and made a mark in my field, I have seen some of those biases fall away, and I have also learned to be immune to them.”

Other women profess that they have not experienced gender bias during their careers. “I’ve always worked in male-dominated environments, and I can honestly say that I have never found myself either impeded or empowered in any career situation due to my gender,” says Beth Bosley, a specialty and fine chemicals veteran who founded Ambridge, Pa.-based Boron Specialties three years ago. “Our industry is receptive to female scientists and business leaders, so I’ve always felt that it is important to start any business negotiations from a perspective of confidence that women are not at a disadvantage.”

Credit: Jean Duffy
In founding Integral BioSystems, Barman realized her vision of creating an R&D incubator.
Credit: Jean Duffy
In founding Integral BioSystems, Barman realized her vision of creating an R&D incubator.

Hongming Chen, vice president of research at Waltham, Mass.-based Kala Pharmaceuticals—which she launched with serial entrepreneur and Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineering professor Robert S. Langer—echoes that point. “I have not felt evidence of a glass ceiling or received unfair treatment doing the same job as a man,” says Chen, a chemical engineer who carved out a 16-year career at companies including Merck & Co., AstraZeneca, and TransForm Pharmaceuticals, another Langer start-up.

Other factors sometimes create unique challenges for women as they start businesses, however. When setting up health insurance for her then two-woman company a few years ago, Nicola L. Pohl was surprised to discover that it costs much more to cover women than men, even when no maternity coverage is included. “I was shocked to find that such differences in charges were legal,” says Pohl, a bioorganic chemistry professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, who started the custom carbohydrate synthesis company LuCella Biosciences in 2008.

As women launch companies, some say that balancing the demands of work and family is their biggest challenge. That’s been true for Chen, who has two daughters, ages six and eight. Although her husband, Tani, is extremely supportive, she says that she still takes on much of the parenting responsibility.

“Both roles—at work and home—are very demanding, and yet I cherish them both very much. They make up who I am,” says Chen, who, as Kala’s first employee, juggles high-profile tasks including building the firm’s ophthalmic medicines technology platform and recently raising $11.5 million in an initial round of financing. “However, you can’t give 200%; it’s just not possible. So there are times when you simply have to make a choice to either handle something at home or at work and hope that you are doing the right thing.”

To help her career growth, Chen relies on her personal network of successful executive men and women, both scientists and nonscientists, who regularly provide advice and mentoring.

In fact, as they take on the role of entrepreneur, women must avoid the tendency to do everything alone, which is something that may feel particularly comfortable to many who have spent ample time in the lab, ecosVC’s Giordan says.

Instead, they should surround themselves with people—employees, contractors, advisers, or consultants—who can contribute business and scientific expertise to augment their own skills and experience, says Janet Wolfe, who in 1999 launched Watertown, Mass.-based Wolfe Laboratories, a contract research organization. “There are so many elements of running a business that it is simply not possible for an individual to know everything and do everything well.”

Credit: Courtesy of Gabriela Gurau
Frazier (left) shares plans for Graphenics with budding entrepreneurs Gabriela Gurau (middle) and Julia Shamshina at the Alabama Innovation & Mentoring of Entrepreneurs Center.
Credit: Courtesy of Gabriela Gurau
Frazier (left) shares plans for Graphenics with budding entrepreneurs Gabriela Gurau (middle) and Julia Shamshina at the Alabama Innovation & Mentoring of Entrepreneurs Center.

Women should also tap the huge number of outside resources available to entrepreneurs at local, state, and national levels, both inside and outside the chemical sciences, Giordan advises. One such resource, the American Chemical Society Entrepreneurial Initiative, provides chemical entrepreneurs with affordable access to training and other assistance.

Budding business owners can also take advantage of entrepreneur centers popping up on many university campuses. Graphenics cofounder Frazier has relied heavily on the Alabama Innovation & Mentoring of Entrepreneurs Center, which helps University of Alabama students and faculty members develop their technology and business plans so they can grow viable companies.

Today, women can also gain assistance from a growing number of gender-specific resources and programs. They include the Small Business Administration’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership, which provides numerous resources through its website.

Some women may benefit from the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program, which sets aside certain federal contracts for women-owned small businesses, notes Anie J. Borja, executive director of the National Women’s Business Council.

In the private sector, women can go to groups such as Golden Seeds, which facilitates investments in women-owned firms. Another group, Springboard Enterprises, coaches and supports women entrepreneurs to help them secure equity and strategic investment for product development and expansion.

Credit: Courtesy of Sheila DeWitt
As she launched two companies, DeWitt benefited from the support of her husband, Joe; the pair are shown here on a recent vacation on Mackinac Island, Mich.
Credit: Courtesy of Sheila DeWitt
As she launched two companies, DeWitt benefited from the support of her husband, Joe; the pair are shown here on a recent vacation on Mackinac Island, Mich.

For her part, DeWitt went to Springboard for help polishing both her biographical pitch and her business pitch. Getting that kind of help is critical, because women “tend to be too humble when talking about our accomplishments and the skills and experience we have built up during our career,” she says. “It’s important to be able to present our credentials confidently, but not arrogantly. Striking the right tone takes lots of practice.”


In the face of countless obstacles, “women have to be able to defend their case to all of their stakeholders, including those who will provide funding—and even their friends and family—who might doubt that they can accomplish their goals,” Giordan says. “Starting a business is a contact sport.”

Despite the many challenges of the role, many women scientist entrepreneurs express enormous enthusiasm for their work. “Even though starting a business is a daunting task that requires dedication and hard work,” says Bosley, “the opportunity to take a new or underutilized technology for which you have a passion and see it through to commercialization is extremely rewarding.”

Adds DeWitt: “Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart, but if you love a challenge and you love learning, it’s a great high.”




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Jackie Frary (April 17, 2013 11:16 AM)
Dr. Sheila DeWitt is the true depiction of what strong, powerful, women look like. I am happy to have witnessed this amazing success story from an “All American Family.”

- Jackie Frary, WXRV/92.5 the River radio

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