Women Who Lead

Three biotech CEOs say it’s focused thinking, not gender, that defines them.

Woman Leading Meeting

Was it or wasn’t it a women’s panel?

That was a question in the air at a recent Life Sciences Pennsylvania leadership event in King of Prussia. Christopher Molineaux, president and CEO of Life Sciences PA said no. 

“We try to show the best talent we have,” said Molineaux, who leads the organization that represents the state’s biotechs, pharmaceutical companies and more.

Invited to the panel were Sue Dillon, president and CEO of Arō Biotherapeutics Company; Bethany Edwards, co-founder and CEO of LIA Diagnostics; and Gerri Henwood, president and CEO of Recro Pharma, Inc.

The CEOs acknowledged that they navigate a world inhabited by many male colleagues, board members and investors.

“Usually, I’m the only woman in the room,” Dillon said.

But none of the CEOs wanted to emphasize her gender in a male-dominated field or even go along with a question that called them “courageous.”

“I don’t think of it as courage. I think of it as determination,” Dillon said, who cofounded Arō.

Dillon, who has a Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology, previously worked for several large pharmaceutical companies and oversaw clinical development of blockbuster products for autoimmune disorders.

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With Arō Biotherapeutics, spun out of Johnson & Johnson, Dillon wants to go beyond monoclonal antibodies - manmade antibodies that are now the foundation of immunotherapy - to “take us to the next generation of protein drugs.” The company’s focus, according to Dillon’s LinkedIn profile, is on “Centyrins, a unique protein platform designed to enable optimized delivery of multiple drug payloads including nucleic acid and genetic therapeutics for diseases with high unmet need.”

It took two years to finalize the transfer from Johnson & Johnson, Dillon said. Working for large pharmaceutical companies was a fantastic education, but a small company can turn a laser focus on a promising research direction. Her advice: Get feedback from the external market and know what you’re getting.

“You don’t want to stay in your own head. You must test the case,” she said.

Gerri Henwood, of Recro Pharma, put it more bluntly: “Don’t believe your own baloney.”

According to its website, Recro Pharma “is a revenue-generating, specialty pharmaceutical company focused on products for hospitals and ambulatory care settings that is currently developing non-opioid products for the treatment of acute pain.”

To Recro, Henwood brings years of experience in pharmaceuticals and consulting. She also founded Auxilium Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and IBAH, Inc., a contract research organization acquired by Omnicare. When starting up a company, she recommends being honest with yourself and brutally honest with employees, even prospective ones who are in the interview process. Can they meet your exacting requirements and tight timelines all while “going 100 miles an hour with their hair on fire?”

“Hiring is the most important thing we do,” Henwood said. In a small company, every hire must be a good one who adds critical competencies. Lean companies can use their small size to their advantage, though. Freed of bureaucracy, “we can go faster and we must,” she said.

Edwards, CEO of LIA Diagnostics, knows a thing or two about lean organizations. For a time, her company’s staff totaled just two – her and cofounder, Anna Couturier Simpson. The team grew as their company developed an entirely flushable pregnancy test, which in December received U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance to be sold over the counter.

Edwards said her education, including a 2014 master’s degree in integrated product design from the University of Pennsylvania, enabled her to knit together a multidisciplinary skill set that includes engineering, design and advertising.

Women CEO panel

Amy Dorfmeister, Sue Dillon, Bethany Edwards and Gerri Henwood take part in a Life Sciences Pennsylvania leadership event in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. 

LIA’s pregnancy test is more than just flushable, according to the company’s vibrant, consumer-focused website. “It contains zero glass fibers, batteries, plastic or nitrocellulose – elements found in nearly all single-use diagnostics available on the market today.” LIA is marketing its product as discrete, sanitary and flushable. Beyond its pregnancy test, LIA wants to “create a new category of water-dispersible, eco-friendly diagnostics.”

Edwards said she’s “driven by curiosity and an insatiable desire to take an intangible idea and make it a reality.” Winning Tech Crunch’s Startup Battlefield competition in Berlin was a shot in the arm because strangers were validating LIA’s concept.

Everyone loves a success story, but steel yourself for the disappointments, too, the panelists advised. Henwood pointed to her own recent experience when the FDA said it was unable to approve, in its current form, Recro Pharma’s new drug application for an intravenous non-opioid pain reliever. Dillon said her young company’s journey has been a lesson in uncharted territory. She said she keeps in mind the end game: to offer something completely new to patients.

“You suffer setbacks and failures and come through with some significant successes that you feel a part of. That gives you tremendous motivation to do it again and again and again.”