5 female biotech superstars who want to change the future of healthcare
On Women’s Equality Day, we’re celebrating Johnson & Johnson, JLABS entrepreneurs who are working on innovations—like a simple way to detect Alzheimer’s before it manifests—that have the potential to improve the healthcare industry.
In 1971, Women’s Equality Day was established to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Since then, there’s been both progress and setbacks when it comes to equal rights for women, but one thing’s for sure: Women are changing the world. And they’re doing it right here at Johnson & Johnson.
Just look at the innovative work coming out of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS—the incubator arm of the company that helps healthcare startups bring their ideas to life across eight JLABS locales throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Fact: 19% of the 160 startups that are part of JLABS are led by women.
“I decided to work at JLABS because I wanted to be aligned with a company whose mission is aligned with mine: helping people,” says Kim Evans, CEO of Seremedi, which is currently based at a JLABS in Houston, Texas.
The innovations that women like Evans are nurturing could very well alter the future of healthcare—from detecting cancer earlier and more accurately to helping end the opioid epidemic.
Sound impressive? It’s all in a day’s work for these women.
Improving the Hospital Experience
What her company does: Going to the hospital can be overwhelming. Just ask Evans, whose mom suddenly got ill, went to the emergency room 18 times over the course of six months and, unfortunately, passed away.
“It was a harrowing experience, trying to decode and translate what was going on medically,” Evans recalls. “We needed a guide.”
And with that CareScriptions was born.
The mobile, digital platform, made by Seremedi, enables a hospital care team to input everything that a patient may need to do to properly prepare for or recover from a procedure—such as following a specific diet, inspecting a wound or taking medication—onto a loaner tablet. The hospital team can then monitor progress and get alerts about red flags before they become emergencies.
How she’s helping change healthcare: The product has launched in two hospitals, and will be in at least another three by the end of 2017. Preliminary data has shown that using the software results in a 20% reduction in length of stay, and a 30% reduction in readmissions.
What it’s like to be a woman in her field: From a young age, Evans was well-aware that she’d have to face obstacles others might not—and that knowledge gave her a resilience that has pushed her forward her entire life.
“My father used to tell me: You’re a woman. You’re a woman of color. So what? If you can’t get through the front door, go through the back door. Or climb through the window. Or cut a hole in the roof. Don’t let anyone stop you,” she says.
Making Cervical Cancer Detection Easier
What her company does: One in three women in Canada doesn’t get regularly screened for cervical cancer. This can be due to embarrassment, discomfort, fear, cultural reasons or trauma, among other reasons.
“The majority of cervical cancer cases occur in people who don’t get screened,” Ching says. “And it’s very treatable when caught early.”
So her company, Eve Medical, created Eve Kit, a product you can order online and have mailed to your home. It contains a device that women can use to swab the inside of the vagina. The sample can then be sent to a lab to test for high-risk strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.
How she’s helping change healthcare: Since March of 2017, the kit has been available in Canada. Eve Medical is now also developing a kit that can test for chlamydia and gonorrhea, which should be available in Canada by the end of 2017. Ching hopes to also launch her products in the U.S.
What it’s like to be a woman in her field: Ching credits stereotypical female attributes—such as being a good listener and being empathetic—for helping her to understand and communicate with her customers.
“Being a woman probably gave me an advantage with this work because it’s a sensitive topic,” she explains. “It enables me to speak to other women in a way that’s relatable, and makes insight-gathering easier.”
Addressing Alzheimer’s Before It Manifests
What her company does: Lynch’s 4-year-old company is developing a possibly game-changing medication for Alzheimer’s disease.
“There hasn’t been a new treatment for Alzheimer’s approved in 15 years,” Lynch says. “And the ones that exist only treat symptoms. They might give you a boost, but gradually, you still decline.”
So her team has created a pill that could possibly prevent the disease from occurring or progressing—something that’s never been done before. Existing drugs target beta-amyloid, protein pieces that clump together to form plaque. But new research shows that Alzheimer’s may be caused by a bacterial infection that can move from the mouth to the brain, so her company’s drug targets that specific bacterium.
How she’s helping change healthcare: So far, Cortexyme has raised $24 million in funding. In late 2017, Lynch expects to start clinical trials in humans.
“The goal is to give the pill to people who have Alzheimer’s, and eventually all people who test positive for the bacteria in their mouth—so you could treat the infection before the bacteria gets to the brain,” she says. “I think we have the potential to cure Alzheimer’s.”
What it’s like to be a woman in her field: Lynch is proud of the fact that 50% of her staff is female, but she attributes the success of her company to key qualities anyone can possess. “Many people believe success is due to luck and talent, but a huge part of it is grit, persistence, believing in what you’re doing and being passionate,” she explains.
Plus, “the good thing in biotech is that it’s about the merits of the company and the science,” she says. “If you can tell the story, and if you have the science, you can raise the money and get the job done.”
Taking Biomarker Technology to the Next Level
What her company does: Glympse Bio is an early-stage company that’s developing a biomarker technology that strives to detect medical conditions like certain cancers, blood-clotting diseases and fibrosis of the liver faster and more accurately than currently available biomarker technologies.
The test was designed to be non-invasive and it doesn’t require expensive equipment—a doctor simply gives a patient an injection, and later takes a urine sample. The ultimate goal: detect the exact stage a disease is in, and whether it’s slow-growing or aggressive.
How she’s helping change healthcare: Glympse Bio is beginning talks with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and plans to start clinical trials in 2018.
“We really would like to change the healthcare landscape to one in which we’re not trying to cure advanced diseases, but detect them early, so they can be treated successfully or even prevented,” she says.
And since the test can be administered so simply, it could be particularly beneficial in the developing world. “This could help democratize healthcare,” she says.
What it’s like to be a woman in her field: “As I advanced to leadership roles, I had fewer and fewer female colleagues,” she says. “It was the classic leaky pipeline.”
But Bhatia has learned tricks along the way to help fight gender bias. “I pick my moment to make a comment, so I won’t be underestimated,” she says. “And I try hard to hold open the door for other women. This profession needs all the best and brightest minds to impact patients’ lives.”
Tackling Opioid Addiction
What her company does: In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from an opioid overdose—that’s more than any other year in the past, and that number is rising.
Kirkpatrick’s team is working to develop an opioid medication that is completely different from current formulated products on the market—and removes the ability to abuse the medication. The pill activates only when taken orally, and if a patient tries to inhale, inject or chew it to get high faster, it won’t work.
How she’s helping change healthcare: The company is currently performing clinical trials, and hopes to gain FDA approval in the next three years.
“This offers the more than 100 million people with chronic pain something they don’t currently have,” Kirkpatrick says. “It would help solve a social issue, as well as help decrease the healthcare costs associated with opioid addiction.”
What it’s like to be a woman in her field: Kirkpatrick credits humility—a trait typically more associated with women—as a key ingredient to her success. So rather than lead her company with a false sense of confidence, she hires wisely to fill in for her weaknesses.
“I can’t do it all myself,” she explains. “I’ve surrounded myself with individuals who have helped me be successful. I’m able to recognize skills and put a good team together.”
She’s also been sensitive to the need for more work/life balance through flexible hours. “As long as they get their work done, I understand if my staff have to start early and leave early or go somewhere midday,” she says. “It’s never hurt my company’s productivity.”