Two new venture funds, two new women at the top

The stats aren’t great.

recent report by the executive recruitment firm Liftstream found in an analysis of 177 publicly-listed biotechs, just 10.9 percent of board seats were occupied by women.

Finance is also notoriously skewed towards the male gender (as the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference demonstrates every year).

Yet somehow at the nexus of science and finance, more and more high-profile female venture capitalists are joining the senior ranks. Two of the freshest examples, Julie Sunderland of Biomatics Capital and Tracy Saxton of Pivotal bioVenture Partners, closed their first funds this week.

Lisa Suennen, managing director at GE Ventures and founder of C-Sweetener, a mentorship program for up-and-coming female leaders, noted via email that women are increasingly making their own rules.

“While it’s still very hard for women to break into traditional male dominated funds as partners, sisters are doing it for themselves and starting their own,” Suennen said via email. “Women know how to solve their own challenges and through that the industry will reach higher ground.”

Investors also seem willing to back the new female-led firms.

On Wednesday, Sunderland and cofounder Boris Nikolic announced a $200 million fund, raised in the firm’s first year.

The following day, Pivotal announced $300 million in funding, backed by the Nan Fung Group. Saxton and fellow managing partner Vincent Cheung plan to invest in 15-18 new companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Via email, Saxton shared her thoughts on the new firm, her take on the industry and the talents she honed in previous positions as an investor at the Roche Venture Fund and SV Life Sciences Advisers.

The responses below have been slightly edited for brevity.

How does your new firm plan to differentiate itself in the market?

The opportunity to identify differentiated science that can be mined to develop therapeutics to improve human health is more powerful than ever. Pivotal will make an impact and create value for patients by being an active investor in the early stage therapeutics arena. Currently, there is more funding available for de-risked clinical assets than for early stage therapeutics and we believe this is where Pivotal can make a difference. We look forward to partnering with leading-edge, science-based companies to make an impact. The fundamental biology matters– without understanding molecular mechanisms we cannot design the appropriate therapeutics to intervene.

Some experts are saying the capital markets in biotech/pharma are currently overfunded. What is your take on the landscape for investment?

Biotechnology has done very well over the past few years so there is a growth in capital into this area, as funds get larger they need to put more capital to work on each investment and therefore tend to shift to later-stage clinical assets. We believe that Pivotal is the right size fund to be able to back emerging companies with early stage programs – large enough that we can fund the companies well but not so big that we encourage them to take capital that they may not need to create value.

What personal qualities and skills do you hope to bring to this role?

Prior to becoming an investor, I began my career as a drug discovery scientist and moved to leadership roles in regulatory affairs, clinical development, business development and project management – this breadth of operational and investing experience will be drawn upon to determine which companies Pivotal will back. Being on the bench for so many years gave me the appreciation of both how exciting and challenging drug discovery is, also the acumen to recognize interesting and translatable science. I will use this passion for biology and knowledge of drug discovery and development to seek out strong ideas and teams for investment.

Photo: Sean Lau / EyeEm, Getty Images