• LifeSci Advisors aims to help place women on industry boards
  • Firm creates gender advisory board, doubles female staffers

Embarrassed after hiring female models to balance the crowd of men at an industry party in San Francisco, biotech investor relations firm LifeSci Advisors LLC is adding women to its staff and pledging to help clients increase gender diversity on their boards.

The New York-based consulting firm has created an internal gender diversity advisory group and set a goal to place 15 women on the boards of its 80 client companies by the end of the year. LifeSci also doubled its own female employees to six of 30 staff members.

“It’s very clear to me and this organization that we made a mistake,” Michael Rice, one of LifeSci’s founding partners, said in a phone interview. “That was a wake-up call, and now we have done all the work to figure out how we can be change agents from where we sit.”

LifeSci became the target of criticism when, hosting a January party at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, the firm decided to address what it saw as a shortage of women in attendance with models hired to mingle and hold champagne. J.P. Morgan didn’t sponsor the party. The news set off a firestorm among female executives and venture capitalists in the industry.

‘Serious Intent’

“Really people? REALLY??? Are we still working with people who think of women as chattel?” Karen Bernstein, co-founder of BioCentury Publications Inc., and Kate Bingham, managing partner of SV Life Sciences Advisers Inc., a venture capital firm, said in an open letter with more than 200 signatories. FierceBiotech reported April 12 that LifeSci responded with an apology and indicated some of the changes the firm was making.

Robin Smith of the Stem for Life Foundation and Barbara Piette, managing principal of Knightsbridge Advisers, are now co-chairs of LifeSci’s gender diversity advisory board. Bingham, a member of the advisory board, said she’s been impressed by Rice’s “serious intent to address diversity issues both within LifeSci Advisors as well as more generally in the biotech industry.”

Anna Protopapas, chief executive officer of Mersana Therapeutics Inc., said she applauds the steps LifeSci is taking.

“I hope it’s not a one-time window-dressing, and it’s a sustained effort,” said Protopapas, who participated in the J.P. Morgan conference in San Francisco and didn’t attend LifeSci’s party, by phone.

Encouraging Direction

Rice promises his company’s new push won’t be a “six-months or one-year effort.” By creating a board to advise them, he’s “hoping that will help us stay honest and goal focused, so we really do have an effect in our industry,” he said. 

The firm’s new direction has been encouraging, said Wende Hutton, a partner at venture capital firm Canaan Partners, who was in town meeting drugmakers during the J.P. Morgan conference and didn’t attend the party.

“In the last two or three weeks I would say their response has not only been a thoughtful response but a meaningful response,” Hutton said. “The tables are starting to tilt in a positive direction, so I think each one of these is a step that is incremental in nature, but that’s how you have evolutionary change.”

Mentoring Effort

Women occupy only 20 of 112 senior management roles at the 10 highest-valued companies in the industry, according to an August editorial in the journal Nature Biotechnology. At small, young companies, it’s not much better -- of the 10 biotech startups that raised the most money in 2014, 19 percent of top executives are women, and their boards are 8 percent female, the editorial said.

Rice thinks the gap at the top is caused by a lack of mentors and role models. LifeSci has also partnered with organizations Women in Bio and Girls Inc. of New York City to provide mentoring and advancement programs, hoping to address some of those issues, he said.

“Women may have a great knowledge base but may not have the appropriate skill sets to get to a C-suite or board,” he said. “That’s where we need to hit home.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the names of advisory board co-chairs.)

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