Last week, the MIT Future Founders Initiative sponsored by Northpond Labs announced nine finalists for its prize competition to promote female entrepreneurs in biotech. The program is a partnership between the MIT School of Engineering and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The initiative itself is the brainchild of  MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia, MIT Professor and President Emerita Susan Hockfield, and MIT Amgen Professor of Biology Emerita Nancy Hopkins, with the goal of addressing the gap of female academics in science and engineering becoming entrepreneurs. In fact, their research as part of the initiative suggests that we’d have some 40 additional biotech companies if women pursued entrepreneurship and received funding at the same rate as their male peers. 

Bhatia is not only one of the women leading the initiative, but she also has firsthand experience as a serial founder. In addition to being the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, she has started three different biotech companies in the Boston area. 

We caught up with her to hear more about her experience as a founder, the Future Founders Initiative, and why Kendall Square holds so much opportunity for positive change.

KSA: What are some of the major barriers keeping women from approaching entrepreneurship in biotech?

BHATIA: There are obstacles of both reality and perception. A real disconnect from the ecosystem makes it difficult to catalyze an invention into a startup- it’s the absence of a ‘network effect’ which ultimately includes access to capital. There is also a perception by some faculty that in order to be integrated into the ecosystem you need to engage with it in a particular way- dinners with VCs, flying across the country to investor meetings, etc. That is one way to engage with the ecosystem but it’s not the only way to do it. 

It certainly was not the only way for me. I started my first company when I had a newborn. Our founding CEO and my former student came over to my house after she went to bed, and I didn’t have to go to networking dinners and I didn’t have to pitch anyone on the west coast.

Tell us a little bit more about that experience and how you’re bringing it to these women who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. 

I honestly think my experience is not that unique though my husband and I did make some life decisions that were helpful- we moved from California to live close to my parents and we had a lovely nanny who we considered part of the family so we had a lot of support structures in place. My cofounders understood and supported my focus on local investors and were flexible about meeting times and locations. 

Advancing our technology into the world was something I was passionate about at that moment in time. It’s not a journey that every new mom would want to embark on, but I think it’s worth recognizing that we can change the rules of the game.  It doesn’t have to be that you can’t start a company until you get tenure or that you can’t start a company when you have little ones. We all have priorities, and if this is something that you want to fit in, it’s just as viable as the other things.

It’s a really interesting moment to challenge these status quos in the path to entrepreneurship, because there is so much changing—and more interest from people across industries to accommodate flexible schedules, lean into remote work, etc. 

Right, I think it’s actually gotten easier. I started a company with one of my oldest friends from grad school over the pandemic. We had investors from Boston and Israel and California and India and we could just sit together on Zoom and pull together that syndicate. I think it’s an exciting moment to think about how to do these things differently, but it’s very reliant on having existing relationships. That’s why I think it’s so important to connect these women to the ecosystem.

Which brings us to the Future Founders Initiative. Can you talk a little bit about its genesis?

Susan Hockfield and Nancy Hopkins and I started something called the Boston Biotech Working Group. That convened stakeholders from all over Boston, not just MIT, to think about this issue. We’d been meeting pre-pandemic at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and generated a number of work streams to address the perception that women faculty were under-founding biotechs relative to their male peers. What emerged from that broader initiative was a set of data that corroborated that perception (the ‘forty missing companies’), and some action items across the ecosystem. 

One workstream nucleated the Future Founders Initiative at MIT. It began over the pandemic with a virtual bootcamp that the legendary Harvey Lodish and I ran. It was a series of fireside conversations between amazing women entrepreneurs in biotech from all over the country to humanize the process and share origin stories: What does it look like to be a professor and start a company? How do you decide whether to stay in academia or leave? When and where did you have kids on the journey or how does it all fit together? We had over 500 registrants from across the Boston area so clearly we struck a nerve.

Then the next thing we wanted to do was follow that up with some specific programming. Anantha Chandrakasan is the Dean of Engineering at MIT, had been one of the Working Group members at the American Academy dinners. And he had found a sponsor, Northpond, who was interested in funding something like the $100K student competition or the ClimateTech and Energy Prize that MIT runs very successfully out of the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship under Bill Aulet’s leadership. 

The hypothesis was that a prominent, visible prize could serve as a catalyst for women who had been thinking about entrepreneurship to throw their hat in the ring. Bill recruited Kit Hickey, an EIR at the Sloan School, to co-direct the program with me and we spent the summer on a listening tour, going around talking to women faculty at MIT that we thought would be candidates for a program like this and trying to understand would they be interested? And what would the obstacles be that we could potentially remove.

What did you learn from those conversations?

Some women were very interested, but simply didn’t have bandwidth. Others were interested in theory, but didn’t really know how to go about venture creation, in part because they were disconnected from the ecosystem. For example, does the idea have the potential to be a company? Who’s your first call? How would you go about raising venture capital? And then, there were some women who truly were not interested. So this isn’t something that everybody needs or wants to do. But the one thing that we heard from the women who were interested and didn’t have time was just that a little bit of seed capital would be helpful in ‘buying’ them time, whether it would be childcare or a postdoc in their lab to help them put together the business plan.

And so we actually went back to the sponsors and asked, in addition to the prize capital, that there’d be a little bit of seed capital for every finalist to participate. We ran the request for proposals in September and got amazing applications, convened a selection committee of entrepreneurs, VCs, and university leadership and selected these finalists to participate. 

What was involved in the selection process, and what’s next for the women who were chosen? 

We’re really funding the person, not the project. Selecting finalists wasn’t so much about, “Does she have a company forming idea today?” It was, “Will she benefit from the program?’ ‘Can we create a cohort of these women that help each other? Can we mature the idea through mentorship and content? Can we connect her to the ecosystem and increase her visibility? And will that increase her likelihood of success and impact for this or future projects?”

Using those criteria, we selected these nine amazing women. Each has been paired with mentors from the industry, former CEOs or VCs. We have workshops on financing and the tech transfer process and storytelling. Covid-permitting, we’re planning a mixer in the New Year, we hope at one of the shared incubator spaces here in Kendall Square, so that they can also see this is where many biotechs go and also meet the other mentors. In April there will be a public showcase where they share their projects and we announce the winner and two runners-up.

It does feel like Kendall Square has some advantages to elevate women because of the network, the research, and the capital that’s already here. Can you talk a little bit about our square mile as a ground for change?

I think one challenging thing about DEI work, which I’ve spent my career on, is the so-called pipeline issues. If you really think, “How can I increase the rate of women faculty founding?”, you have to start with the pipeline of women faculty in the institution. And if there aren’t enough women faculty, then you have to take a huge step back and say, “Okay, let’s start in grade school and let’s change the STEM pipeline” And people get very quickly frustrated, because it’s such a long arc of change.

What’s magic about Kendall Square is we have all the ingredients to hack it, really quickly, at least on gender. We have incredible women faculty and postdocs in our ecosystem at very high numbers, probably the highest in the world. We have the ingredients if we can just bridge it.

What is your advice to—or request of—our local leaders in the biotech community? How can we change our mindset and better support this effort? 

I think the biggest thing is really to recognize that there’s so much talent in our region in the academic sphere, that just may not be top of mind for whatever reason. My advice: dig a level deeper. We have amazing women doing everything that you’re interested in doing. And so just figure out a way to invite them to the reception, invite them to the dinner, put them on the board, put them on the Scientific Advisory Board—get them into your ecosystem. We can be leaders on changing the face of biotech.

We also are very mindful that there are other underrepresented groups—people of color are also underrepresented at every level in biotech. And we should acknowledge that this framework is one that includes women of color and can further be broadened and used for other underrepresented groups. So that’s something that we know we’re not addressing head on with this initiative, but we are hopeful that if we can move the needle with this kind of approach, that it could potentially be mapped to other underrepresented communities in the future.