In Search of Funds and Finance: Best Practices from Women Life Sciences Leaders

Friday, January 26, 2024

During the week of the 2024 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, our life sciences partners Suzanne Filippi and Laurie Burlingame sat down with women leaders in the industry to talk about how best to secure funding, what developments in the industry they feel are important to watch, and advice for women in the space seeking advancement of their careers and/or companies.

The ML Women panel discussion featured insights from Dr. Stephanie Oestreich, managing director of the Myeloma Investment Fund, and Dr. Sheila DeWitt, a life sciences executive and serial entrepreneur whose experience includes founding three deuterated drug companies.

Below, we share some of the discussion highlights touched on by the panelists during the annual ML Women event.

How can founders and others in need of funding secure financing?

Stephanie: Many foundations have venture funds—e.g., the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Type 1 Diabetes Foundation, the American Cancer Society. It is best to get familiar with the mission and funding process and then contact the philanthropic fund or ask for a warm introduction from one of your contacts.

Funds like ours, the Myeloma Investment Fund (MIF), not only provide funding to innovative startups, but also provide an important contribution to the mission of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) to identify a cure for patients with this devastating disease. In addition to funding, MIF also provides integral knowledge of this complex disease landscape and supports its portfolio companies in clinical trial design, contacts to key opinion leaders, and treatment centers.

Sheila: There are many diverse opportunities for entrepreneurs to secure funding other than venture capital. Over the past 13 years, I have secured financing through a variety of methods. These include investments by a syndicate of angel investors, promissory notes (loans), equity to compensate consultants, a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, a Paycheck Protection Program loan, the sale of pharmaceutical assets through merger and acquisition (M&A) transactions, and multi-year research and development (R&D) collaborations.

What trends or developments are you currently tracking that you feel are impacting the life sciences market or will help shape it?

Stephanie: In terms of what trends are affecting the current economic environment, for one, interest rates. As of now, they’re stable, but they might stay higher for longer. Additionally, the initial public offering (IPO) window is closed for now, and very few biotech companies are going public at the moment. Partnering and M&A may be on the rise given we’re still close, calendar-wise, to the end of last year. Venture capital firms are raising new funds, and the way capital is being deployed to fund new companies or for follow-on rounds in existing portfolio companies is another thing I’m closely watching.

The regulatory environment is also being shaped by a number of developments that I’m monitoring. These include the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) decisions around approvals and its review of certain areas, including cell therapy and genetic engineering. At the same time, we’re seeing the Inflation Reduction Act have implications on the industry as well from a regulatory perspective. Of course, we continue to see applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in life sciences. These include the identification of new molecules in early-stage research, patient selection in clinical trials, and optimizing adherence and compliance in marketed products.

Sheila: As a biotech CEO, it is important to monitor the trends in our industry for funding and deals, especially after a year when there were a record number of layoffs and company closures. As Stephanie noted, it was promising to see several large M&A transactions announced in Q4 and reassuring to see this continue into 2024 with the many encouraging announcements during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in early January.

Another area that justifies close attention are the many pressures on drug pricing and market exclusivity. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act allows for price setting of small molecule medicines as early as seven years after the FDA’s initial approval, which is long before the end of their average 13-to-14-year effective patent life (PhRMA Jun 2023). This discourages post-approval R&D in new indications, which is a common strategy for oncology drugs.

More recently, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun to crack down on Orange Book patent listings that it has stated are improper and are meant to delay generic competition. The impact of this policy started in November 2023, when the FTC sent letters accusing 10 companies of improperly listing drug delivery device patents in the FDA Orange Book.

What advice would you share with other women in the life sciences space who are looking to advance their careers and/or companies?

Stephanie: The advice is similar for women and men: Be sure to tap into all your resources, including board members, your current investors, and your contacts in the biotech industry about introductions to funding opportunities that are a good fit for you both in terms of indication and stage they are funding. Showing a good understanding of your competitive positioning and a well-developed pitch (deck) that is to the point will serve you well in the communication with investors.

Sheila: I encourage women to continually seek opportunities to build their network and participate in women-led forums (e.g., Springboard Enterprises, NEWISE). I have also found it extremely useful to engage with male colleagues to serve as mentors and advocates. For example, ask them to submit nominations on your behalf for different honors and awards.

It’s also important for entrepreneurs, male or female, to be conversant in the business case of their company. This extends beyond the science to include topics such as the commercial assessment, the competitive landscape, and product positioning.