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Cover Story

November 3, 2008
Volume 86, Number 44
pp. 50-54

Employment Outlook

Entrepreneurial Trailblazers

Women build businesses around their passion for science

Susan J. Ainsworth

WHILE LAUNCHING the biopesticides firm Entotech for Novo Nordisk in 1990, Pamela G. Marrone got a taste of what it would be like to run her own company. Although she disliked the corporate politics and the bureaucracy that surrounded her role as Entotech president, she found she loved charting the course of a business in her dream field.

So five years later, when Entotech was sold, Marrone took the leap of faith to start AgraQuest, a company focused on discovering, developing, manufacturing, and marketing natural pest management products. And two years ago, she founded Marrone Organic Innovations, in Davis, Calif., to create a new pipeline of products aimed at the pest management market.

Marrone studies grape plants treated during a bioherbicide trial. Marrone Organic Innovations
Creative Thinker Marrone studies grape plants treated during a bioherbicide trial.

From the start, "I was driven by a vision and a dream of what I wanted to accomplish—to change the world through pesticide products that are safer and effective," she says. "I didn't think about the barriers or the problems or challenges. I only thought about the possibilities and visualized the end game and the success."

That kind of determination and passion is something common to many successful women entrepreneurs, including the nine contacted by C&EN. Each of them cites different motivations for delving into entrepreneurship. Some were looking for alternatives to unsatisfying careers, while others sought a means to better balance work and family responsibilities or a way to transfer promising technology from the lab to the marketplace.

Having started businesses in diverse areas, from biofuels to instrumentation to pharmaceutical consulting, these women share their experiences and highlight the many paths to entrepreneurship that others like them are increasingly carving out.

Between 2002 and 2008, the number of women-owned firms grew by 10% per year compared with 9% for all privately held firms, according to estimates released in September by the Center for Women's Business Research. Currently, there are 10.1 million firms in the U.S. that are at least 50% owned by a woman, the center says, adding that these firms represent 40% of all privately held firms. The center, which reports the data on women-owned businesses by major industry categories only, estimates that women own a majority stake in 1.4 million businesses in the professional, scientific, and technical services segment alone, says Sharon G. Hadary, the center's executive director.

Still, starting and sustaining a business is not always easy for women. To overcome the many challenges of entrepreneurship, women need to have a support system of contacts, employees, and advisers; solid business fundamentals; confidence in themselves; and a motivating vision, according to those profiled here.

Karen K. Gleason, an associate dean of engineering for research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says her entrepreneurial spirit was sparked by a desire to commercialize coating technology developed in her lab. To accomplish that, she cofounded GVD Corp., which stands for Gleason Vapor Deposition, six years ago in Cambridge, Mass.

The company is built around technology that enables ultrathin layers of polytetrafluoroethylene (trademarked as Teflon by DuPont) to be coated on micro- and nanosized substrates. Because the technology allows coatings to be applied at cooler temperatures, it can be used on organic materials such as polymers rather than only on inorganic materials such as silicon. The technology is poised to meet growing demand in markets for medical devices, membranes, and textiles.

Parker Targeted Genetics Corp.
Armour Douglas Lockard

By starting GVD, Gleason says she has been able to see the technology transformed from "a novelty" to something that can really make a difference in more applications than she had imagined. Gleason benefited from the support of MIT, which encourages its faculty members to remain involved in the development of their own technology, she says.

Given her responsibilities at MIT, Gleason must play a somewhat limited role in GVD. The company's cofounder and president, Hilton G. Pryce Lewis, who earned a Ph.D. in Gleason's MIT lab, runs the company's day-to-day operations. That leaves Gleason free to "ask the bigger questions and think about the more long-term issues," she says.

Like Gleason, BioTools President Rina K. Dukor cofounded her company to commercialize a technology that originated in an academic lab. Studying vibrational circular dichroism (VCD) as a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Chicago, she came to appreciate the technique's potential use for solving stereochemical problems, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. VCD is a measure of the differential absorption of circularly polarized infrared radiation by a chiral molecule, such as a small pharmaceutical or any biological, including a protein, sugar, or nucleic acid, Dukor says.

WHILE LISTENING to lectures on VCD at a conference, "I realized that everyone who had worked on the technology was on the verge of retiring, and if I didn't commercialize it, it might never happen," Dukor says. She immediately began creating a business plan for the formation of BioTools, which she would later cofound with Laurence A. Nafie, a chemistry professor at Syracuse University (C&EN, July 18, 2005, page 32). Today, Jupiter, Fla.-based BioTools sells VCD spectrometers and provides services related to the conformational analysis and absolute configuration of chiral-organic and protein-based drugs to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. In the beginning, "I wanted very much to see this technology commercialized, knowing that it would be extremely powerful later on. It was my calling. It drove me," Dukor says.

Chen started a pharma consulting firm to avoid relocating her family, shown here during a recent vacation in China Courtesy of J. Chen
Ground-breaking Chen started a pharma consulting firm to avoid relocating her family, shown here during a recent vacation in China

Entrepreneur Pamela R. Contag sees starting a business as "one way to translate basic science into an application I believe in." She founded the first of two companies, Xenogen in 1995 to pioneer biophotonic imaging systems that expedite drug discovery and development. Contag, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, sold the company to Caliper Life Sciences in 2006.

In 2005, Contag founded Cobalt Technologies, in Mountain View, Calif., to develop biobutanol as a next-generation biofuel. By combining novel and patented microbiology, bioprocessing, and separation technologies, Cobalt aims to maximize the production of biobutanol, she says.

As Cobalt's president and chief executive officer, "I generally invent and develop technology and then take on investors who ultimately direct the company. I put all my energy into the demonstration of the technology and business model," she says. For Contag, "Entrepreneurial spirit has to do with necessity," she says. "The job needed to be done, and I was in the right place at the right time."

Serendipity also played a part in H. Stewart Parker's move to found Targeted Genetics, a publicly traded Seattle biotechnology company spun off from Immunex in 1992 to develop gene-based treatments for acquired and inherited disease. But there was more behind her decision to found Targeted Genetics, says the firm's president and CEO. "I was very passionate about the work, which is a requirement for anyone founding a company," she says.

As one of Immunex' first employees in 1981, Parker remembers that she "really loved the early days at the company when we were so excited about taking on these new opportunities and curing so many diseases." She had also learned that her strengths lie "in looking at a scenario that is early and unformed and making order out of it." When she was considering the offer to head Targeted Genetics, she knew that having that role "would restore the passion I needed to do the job and the passion I felt for the whole program and for biotech."

Unlike Parker, other women entrepreneurs have started businesses to escape from unsatisfying careers. That was the case for Rita R. Boggs, CEO of American Research & Testing, the Gardena, Calif., consulting company she started 25 years ago. A former nun, Boggs left the convent in 1973 at the age of 35 after finishing a Ph.D. in chemistry, opting to exchange her beloved role of teacher for a position that might compensate her for the many years in which she did not get paid. She accepted industrial positions, first at Colgate Palmolive's Research Center and then at the United States Testing Co. "Neither was satisfactory to me," Boggs says. At a dead end, she followed the suggestion of friends and opened American Research & Testing, which provides services including product development, custom chemical analysis, materials testing, and contract research. "We consider ourselves consultants with a laboratory," she says.

Elizabeth A. Armour, founder and president of the 15-year-old specialty chemical consulting firm Armour Associates, also started working in the chemical industry at a time when women's opportunities in industry were even more limited than they are today. Having earned bachelor's and master's degrees in biology and an M.B.A. in marketing and finance, Armour entered the workforce in the early 1980s and observed that "few women were being targeted for upper management roles," she says.

 Gleason (back row, second from left) cofounded GVD Corp., which now boasts a reactor that is used for small-volume manufacture of commercial parts. GVD Corp.
Fresh Approach Gleason (back row, second from left) cofounded GVD Corp., which now boasts a reactor that is used for small-volume manufacture of commercial parts.

Although Armour particularly loved her eight-year stint working in Europe, which included being part of RhÔne-Poulenc's specialty chemicals strategic planning team, "in the back of my mind, I knew that I would probably not continue in this large-company mentality forever," she says.

Forming Armour Associates, an international consulting firm with offices in Hendersonville, N.C., and Paris, allowed her to make that shift. "I always knew that I would find something that would allow me to better use my creativity and networking skills. I had a strong desire for more flexibility and to determine my own way."

Finding a new career path was a necessity for Sharon V. Vercellotti, who was forced to leave a university research laboratory position when "the dean thought my presence in the same department as my husband might be problematic." Vercellotti, who had already earned a master's degree in chemistry, enrolled in business classes and began to ponder starting her own business, she says. Shortly thereafter, in 1979, she and her husband founded V-Labs, a Covington, La.-based company that continues to provide consulting, custom manufacturing, and analytical services focused on carbohydrates and polysaccharides. In addition to carving out a new career, she also gained control over her schedule, which included her two small children, ages 10 and four at the time of V-Lab's inception.

Balancing work and family responsibilities was the primary impetus behind Jinling Chen's move to start Pharm Expedia, a pharmaceutical technology development and consulting firm, in August 2007 in Houston. After working for major drug companies including AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb for 15 years in positions she found both "interesting and enjoyable," she opted to follow her husband's job transfer from New Jersey to Texas. She then worked for a smaller pharmaceutical company, Encysive Pharmaceuticals, for five years, during which time she rose to the role of senior director of pharmaceutical sciences.

When Encysive closed its R&D facility as part of its acquisition by Pfizer, Chen was without a job. Instead of splitting her family and uprooting her 15- and 10-year old sons in a move to the East Coast where pharma jobs are plentiful, she decided to start Pharm Expedia.

With a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and broad project management experience, she says she has been able to address the challenging drug development needs of clients. She has also developed and patented innovative enabling technologies to enhance drug delivery and to improve the palatability of certain medicines, she says. Forming Pharm Expedia "has been a great way to take care of my career and take care of my family at the same time."

WORK-LIFE FLEXIBILITY is especially important to many women. Dukor, who has two children, says she has benefited from the ability to set her own schedule. "Even with all my travels, I think I have not missed anything critical in my children's lives. I volunteer for my children's schools. I have done science demonstrations. I can even take time during the day to watch my son's high school tennis matches."

As head of her own company, Boggs was free to care for her parents before they died in the early 1990s, she says. "Shortly after that, I developed breast cancer. Fortunately, because I had the business and the help of Barbara Belmont (now the firm's president) I was able to manage all of this."

Despite the benefits, entrepreneurship brings many challenges. Some entrepreneurs report that they must wear many hats—from janitor to salesperson—and log extensive hours to meet customer needs. And there's a huge learning curve, says Chen, who had to figure out how to apply for grants and handle tax issues, for example.

Vercellotti assaying samples of polysaccharides at V-Labs, the company she and her husband started to provide consulting, custom manufacturing, and analytical services. V-Labs Inc.
One-Stop Shop Vercellotti assaying samples of polysaccharides at V-Labs, the company she and her husband started to provide consulting, custom manufacturing, and analytical services.

Would-be entrepreneurs must be mentally prepared to take on the many risks that accompany this kind of work, Chen says. In smaller firms, in particular, the uncertainty of income can be a drawback. As a consultant or a contractor, "you may have good contracts for several months or even several years and then you may have nothing for a while."

To stay afloat in lean times, entrepreneurs must start with a good business plan, Boggs says. "I sometimes look at the original business plan I put together and see a number of inadequacies. Thank God we succeeded anyway."

Boning up on the financial side of business is equally critical for those entrepreneurs with degrees in science. Knowing that entrepreneurship might be in her future, Marrone, who has a Ph.D. in entomology, took in-house management training and business courses offered by employers earlier in her career. Others have opted to hire people with that expertise. Help is also available through the U.S. Small Business Administration, which administers the Small Business Innovation Research grant program that encourages small businesses to explore their technological potential.

For her part, Dukor worked for roughly 10 years for a medical diagnostics division of Amoco until she could save enough to start BioTools. She and Nafie then raised about $200,000, partly through the sale of Dukor's home, giving them enough to get started.

Looking back, however, Dukor says she regrets that she didn't raise capital, something she didn't understand how to do at the time. "Raising capital would have given us the funds not only to make the first prototype spectrometer, but also to educate the market," she says. "Money from an angel investor would have given us a much-needed jump-start and would have put less strain on family finances."

When approaching investors, Contag advises would-be women entrepreneurs to "choose your venture investors based on their track record with other female founders and their treatment of founders in general."

In addition, it's important to "build a personal board of directors or board of advisers to advise you over the life cycle of your company," Contag says. "Your company will go through many stages. Plan how you want your role to develop so that it fits you and sustains the success of the company."

At least in the earliest stages of starting a business, an entrepreneur's job is to remain optimistic in the face of the many challenges that will arise, Marrone says. "You have to be able to creatively knock down barriers that get in your way. You can't just wilt or give up. That attitude is really critical."

When Marrone started AgraQuest, she says, "I was ahead of the market; the biopesticides products I was developing were seen as snake oils, and I had to work to change the market perception." For example, the company integrated biopesticides into conventional pest management programs and went to farms to show growers that they could get good or better results compared with conventional programs, she says.

"Responsibility can be the most exhilarating thing in the world or it can keep you up at night. I find both to be true, depending on the week."

In another barrier-busting move, Marrone says she helped start a biopesticide industry alliance of small biopesticide firms that joined with larger companies to support the passage of the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act. That piece of legislation makes the Environmental Protection Agency's approval process more predictable, she says, thereby making it easier for companies to raise money through investors.

SUBTLE GENDER BIAS from customers, investors, or potential collaborators is another hindrance with which some women entrepreneurs have had to contend. "Sometimes I feel like people are surprised when they meet me," Gleason says. "They have not necessarily clued in to the fact that I am going to be female, and they sometimes assume that I am somebody's secretary. You realize that you are always still overcoming other people's perceptions of you before they are going to listen to what you have to say. But I try not to dwell on that so that I don't end up with a chip on my shoulder." Instead, she adds, "I focus on communicating my ideas to make sure that they are taken seriously."

That can be a challenge, she concedes, as women are not well represented in venture capital firms or in the companies to which Gleason pitches her technology. "Most of the people judging you are not women, something I am used to dealing with in the environment we have at MIT."

Marrone says she faces a similar situation in the agrochemical business, where relatively few women hold management positions. The dynamics of a meeting change dramatically when there is more than one woman in a room, however. "Generally, in a group made up of no more than one woman, the men will defer to the most powerful man in the room, and then you can't get a lot of things done," she says. "But when you have at least two or three women in a group, you can actually get down to work." In response, Marrone says she strives to build diversity into her management team, which is made up of more women than men.

Women entrepreneurs need to constantly demonstrate their competency and capabilities, Contag says. Although it's critical for women entrepreneurs to have "a differentiated technology and commercialization strategy and the ability to execute on a plan, that's usually not enough. I do think that women need to have a better-than-the-average skill set to receive the same considerations as men.

"Most investors like to move to their comfort zone of an experienced management team whether you are doing a good job or not," Contag adds. "It's not much different for men, except that they are often given the benefit of the doubt—something from which I don't think women benefit."

DUKOR ECHOES this point. She believes there is still a stigma against women scientists who want to enter into business. "People don't seem to doubt that I am a good scientist, but I think it is still harder for women to be taken seriously in the business world." It appears that men don't face the same biases in business, she says.

As cofounder of an instrumentation business, Dukor is able to manage work and family life, which includes a 5-K run with her son, Alan, and daughter, Anna. Courtesy of Rina Dukor
BALANCING ACT As cofounder of an instrumentation business, Dukor is able to manage work and family life, which includes a 5-K run with her son, Alan, and daughter, Anna.

Still, women entrepreneurs believe that gender biases are not as prevalent as they once were. It is "much easier for women to be taken seriously now than it was 15 years ago in what has traditionally been a heavily male industry," Armour says. "In addition to having a good number of women working in our industry today, we also have the input of women at strategic levels of decision-making. That's a really important difference right now."

As a result, it's easier to find role models who can be a valuable resource for women entrepreneurs. Armour, for example, feels "an obligation to mentor other women and help them avoid some of the things I encountered." And Dukor encourages women to reach out to male and female CEOs, many of whom are eager to help those who want to follow in their footsteps.

Although building networks comes naturally to community-oriented women, developing and maintaining a business network is not a skill that we all have," Contag says. However, "it is crucial to our business." Vercellotti, for example, has benefited from being a member of the American Chemical Society's Division of Small Chemical Businesses.

Building good relationships with employees is equally important, Dukor says. "I've learned to be totally open and honest with my employees," sharing successes and communicating problems such as a temporary need for a delayed payroll, says Dukor, who adds that she feels accountable "for the lives of every employee."

At the same time, Dukor says she has always taken on "responsibility for the success of every single customer who has put their trust in me." Especially when BioTools was new, she wanted to make sure that clients benefited immediately by applying the company's technology to their targeted applications. "Their success became my success," she says.

Even as head of a publicly traded company, Parker admits that she feels the weight of increased responsibility to employees, other shareholders, clients, and patients who take the drugs developed by Targeted Genetics. "That responsibility can be the most exhilarating thing in the world or it can keep you up at night. I find both to be true, depending on the week," she says. "I don't mind telling people that it tears me up when we have had to do layoffs here. And we had a patient death on a clinical trial last year that turned out to be unrelated to one of our drugs, but it was a horrible event and a very emotional event for me."

Other entrepreneurs are particularly burdened by their responsibility to investors—something that Marrone counts as "the biggest downside to founding a business," she says. "As soon as you take investors' money, you become beholden to them, so it is naÏve to think that you are still calling the shots."

Still, Marrone says she is happy to be divorced from the politics and the bureaucracy associated with a large corporation. She finds it "freeing" to be able to "really set a company's direction and see my ideas come to fruition more quickly."

Dukor, too, embraces the flexibility of owning her own business. "Basically, I can commercialize anything I want. There is no boss to shoot down my ideas. So if I have an idea in the middle of the night, I can come in the next morning and put people on it and try it. I really love that."

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