Name: Sasha Thomas, PhD
Description: 31-year-old Sasha Thomas is a molecular geneticist who founded a company with several partners she met during a postdoc.
Scenario, Part 1: Dr. Thomas is being interviewed by Entrepreneurs in Biotech, a fictional publication, as part of an article on women business founders in the biotechnology industry.
[Note: This is a fictional case based on a synthesis of many real-life stories.]
Entrepreneurs in Biotech (EIBT): Hello, Sasha. Thank you for agreeing to let us interview you for our article on women founders of biotech companies. First, I wonder how your current work compares to academia.
Sasha Thomas (ST): There’s more to juggle in a biotech startup, but that’s what makes it so exciting. Things move faster in a startup than in academia because they have to. The saying “time is money” applies.
EIBT: What do you have to juggle?
ST: In addition to focusing on science and innovation, you have to keep the business afloat and keep the customers and the investors happy.
EIBT: Do you feel your experience as a biotechnology entrepreneur has been different being a woman than it would be for a man?
ST: Honestly, yes, sometimes in a good way, but other times in a harmful way, which can be subtle. The good part is that there are many opportunities for women due to initiatives by various organizations to provide training and guidance specifically for women and underrepresented groups.
For example, my university had an Institutional Development Award to enhance science transfer in states with low research funding. It helped fund my training and research during my postdoc. You have to learn about these opportunities and take advantage of them. Some organizations are specifically for women entrepreneurs and women in the life sciences and have much to offer in terms of support and potential networking contacts, such as Women in Bio and the Association for Women in Science. Check out their local chapters—you will learn so much. That’s how I found out about my state’s center for technology commercialization, which led to some matching funds and microgrants to complete market research.
EIBT: And the bad experiences? What have those been?
ST: They have mostly been subtle. But there are times when my ideas are not as accepted. I get invited for positions in organizations that would boost my stature in the business or science community less often, like being invited to serve on a panel. It started in graduate school. I was not included in informal networking situations that did include male students. Because it is subtle, I never know the reason—if it is racism, being a woman, or what. I worried that if I complained, they would tell me it was because I really am not as good a scientist or my product is not good.
EIBT: How do you cope?
ST: I am proactive in advancing my career. For example, when I am interested in serving on a panel in a professional organization, I let the person appointing the panel know that I am interested, and I tell them what I can contribute. Unfortunately, I have to try to be better than everyone else, which can be draining.
I started my own business thinking I would get away from bias, but unfortunately, I still run into subtle bias in the institutions and companies with which I do business.
EIBT: That’s a shame. Have you found that more investors are going out of their way to fund women-owned businesses recently?
ST: The investors want high value and return on investment. I think that most of them are not going to invest in your business just because you are a woman, and some are less likely to invest because of it. But compared to what it was like twenty or thirty years ago, investors are more likely to give women a chance today. Most of the time, being a woman or African American does not appear to affect how a customer or investor responds to me. But I know that sometimes it’s happening, and they may be hiding it. And I have encountered some not-subtle bias. Some people seem to interpret my confidence as impertinent, and I wonder if they would interpret similar confidence from a white male the same way. Sadly, I still hear stories of bias and barriers from other women and underrepresented minorities. But we are in a time of change. I hope it keeps going in a good direction.
EIBT: Do you have advice for women life scientists considering entrepreneurship?
ST: I recommend trying it. Don’t let fear and anxiety get in the way. You don’t have to know everything about running a business to get started. You just have to know some key information, like about protecting your intellectual property, and you need to talk with the funding organizations, like the NIH, early. Talk to a scientist who has started a business before you. After I understood the basics, I just kept asking the many potential helpers I have available questions, and I still do. There is a lot of support if you reach out for it. The NIH, for example. I felt like they really wanted us to succeed. But I had to listen to their advice and do the hard work.
EIBT: Do you recommend having partners in a business venture?
ST: It helped me to start my business with a team. Many women I know like working with other women, and that can be hard to find the higher up you go in this industry. Since I am one of the ones in charge, I make sure that we have a diverse team and people we enjoy working with, each with complementary strengths. Working with them and knowing the kind of impact our product will have makes the hard work involved worth it.
View Part 2 of the interview.
NIGMS Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence–Supports research, faculty development, research training, and research infrastructure improvements in states where levels of NIH research funding have historically been low.