March/April 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 4

The Future Founders Initiative: Q&A with Susan Hockfield and Sangeeta Bhatia

Sangeeta Bhatia, Robert Buderi, Susan Hockfield

In the fall of 2018, three MIT faculty members affiliated with the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research – Sangeeta Bhatia (engineering), Susan Hockfield (president emerita), and Nancy Hopkins (biology emerita) – launched an initiative called the Boston Biotech Working Group (BBWG). The initiative cultivates women faculty as company founders and board members, activities in which they continue to lag behind their male counterparts. The idea drew inspiration from the pioneering study led by Hopkins and her colleagues in the 1990s on conditions faced by women faculty – including pay and lab-space inequities. The report appeared in the MIT Faculty Newsletter in March of 1999 and helped drive widespread changes, not just at MIT but at universities around the world.

The BBWG effort has grown tremendously and has given rise to the Future Founders Initiative at MIT. The two preceding articles in this special issue of the Faculty Newsletter are devoted to the effort. As is the following wide-ranging conversation, which Robert Buderi recently conducted virtually with Hockfield and Bhatia. Buderi, a member of the Future Founders Initiative, is also the former editor-in-chief of Technology Review and the founder of Xconomy. The conversation touched on a number of facets of the initiative and the changes it is fostering; a bootcamp series that is helping familiarize women faculty with entrepreneurship; a venture-capital upstart-fellowship program; a pledge by venture capitalists to significantly increase the number of women on boards of their companies; a new business-plan prize competition; and the possibility of scaling the effort to other regions.

Robert Buderi: Let’s begin with how – and why – you both got involved in this effort. Sangeeta, in a way the story starts with you.

Sangeeta Bhatia: I have been a faculty member at MIT since 2005, and have been founding companies to accelerate delivering the benefits of our inventions to patients. When I got out into the ecosystem, I realized that I had very few peers that were doing the same – very few women faculty who were founders or board members, or who were pitching a group of VCs (Venture Capitalists) their ideas. I felt that acutely. As a woman in engineering, I’ve been underrepresented most of my career, but this world of entrepreneurship took underrepresentation to a whole new – incredibly low – level.

I’ve had the great fortune of having my long-time hero, Nancy Hopkins, as one of my office neighbors. Nancy and I started talking about the involvement of MIT faculty in the biotech boom in Cambridge, and the sense that women faculty were underrepresented relative to their representation on our faculty. I started to look into the data I could get at MIT through the Technology Licensing Office, and it aligned with our overall perception – but it also pointed to the possibility of departmental microclimates where more or fewer female-led startups were emerging.

Buderi: That’s a great backdrop. Then things came to a head in September 2018, at an event in Boston((This was the Xconomy Awards, an event put on by the media company founded by Buderi.)) where Nancy Hopkins was being honored?

Bhatia: Yes. Nancy was given the annual Xconomy lifetime achievement award – a really important recognition in the biotech community. She spoke beautifully about the work that she’d done but also the work left to do. She explained, very bravely to an audience of largely biotech folks, that biotech today looks a lot like MIT did 40 years ago, that the industry has largely left women behind when it comes to company formation. Somehow Nancy’s observations about the biotech industry just landed on us differently that night. We had heard the data before, but it came together in that moment as a call to action.

Susan Hockfield: Nancy and her women faculty colleagues are the heroes of these efforts to open opportunities to women in so many ways. I was at Yale in the 1990s, when the MIT Women in Science Report came out. I remember how stunning it was. Not stunning because it was a surprise; we all had a sense of the many inequities for women in science. But no one had ever said anything about it in that pointed a way, or done anything about it in as determined a way as MIT. The issues of salary and space equivalence between men and women became top of mind. The impact of the MIT Report really was game-changing, not just at MIT but in academic institutions across the country. We still have a lot of work to do to level the playing field, but the universities of today are dramatically better places for women faculty than they were before the work by MIT women faculty in the 1990s.

MIT was well represented at the Xconomy awards that night to celebrate Nancy’s impact. When Nancy then included her observations of the perpetuation of inequities at the interface of universities and company formation – where lab results translate into the marketplace – the ongoing opportunity gap for women just leapt into view. Her observations were a real wake-up call: it became clear that we in the greater Boston region had an opportunity to advance our regional advantage in this increasingly important and impactful world of biotech and biopharma. If we could include as many able and willing participants as possible – including our women scientists and engineers – in the entrepreneurship journey, we could expand the region’s productivity dramatically. Nancy, Sangeeta, and I had a brainstorm together at that Xconomy dinner and said, “Let’s do something. Let’s figure out how we can change the game.”

Bhatia: We understood that solving this problem required bringing a variety of stakeholders into the conversation. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences offered to host a series of dinner conversations. That was really how it started. We realized we needed all the pieces of the ecosystem in that conversation: venture capitalists, founders, academic administrators, media, and some folks from the foundation world, who we thought would be important to help support the work. The model for the conversation was self-assembly: we would bring people together, surface the critical pinch points, and then the participants would form working groups to catalyze change among relevant stakeholders for each impediment. Out of that came five working groups [Data, Venture Capital, Academic Deans, Innovation Ecosystem, and Founder Development].

Buderi: There were about 30 people at the first dinner in December 2018, as I recall.

Hockfield: Yes. We had an ultimate goal in mind, but we didn’t have a pre-formed strategy to get to the goal. The strategy emerged step-by-step out of the dinner conversations. It happened organically, and very rapidly we developed an outline of what we needed to do. We started with only a general idea of the story, but we’re from MIT, and only a sense of a story is insufficient. We needed to have data to demonstrate that the critical technology transfer path, of translating a discovery into a marketplace product, is not a level playing field.

Bhatia: The data allowed us to dispel a lot of myths. A very common myth is that representation of women in the pipeline is getting better with time, and therefore it is just a matter of time before women are included in every level of the ecosystem. We can now look at the data the team has generated and simply say, “That’s not true.” Women’s participation really is not changing much over time. It allowed us to change the conversation and say, “We need new solutions. This isn’t just about waiting and being optimistic.”

Buderi: One of the most powerful things to come out of the data, described in the preceding article, was the idea that 40 or more companies might be missing because of the underrepresentation of MIT women faculty in company formation. Can you say more about how that concept came about?

Bhatia: That was Nancy’s insight. One thing she taught us was that to really understand the data, you need to understand the institution and the players. It’s actually really important to understand how companies get started from a faculty lab – filing an invention disclosure, raising capital, identifying co-founders. You have to understand that process to be able to look at the data and understand what it’s telling you. That allowed us to ask: If these women, who are equally qualified, equally well-regarded, and have been here just as long, had been starting companies at a rate roughly equivalent to their male colleagues, what would have been the outcome? And that’s how we got to the 40 missing companies. Simply put, if MIT’s women faculty in the seven departments we analyzed had been founding companies at about the same rate as their male colleagues, there would be roughly 40 more companies founded – companies advancing new therapies, new diagnostics, new medical devices. Forty new ways to save or improve lives.

Hockfield: This feeds directly into the regional advantage argument – that by missing out on the possibility of more company formation, we’re losing out on building a more robust innovation ecosystem in the region. The 40 missing companies is calculated only from the seven departments we’ve analyzed; the number across all of MIT is certainly even larger. This is a significant loss of potential; we’re squandering valuable resources and talent, and we’re defaulting on our responsibility to serve the world. And it raises another question: Why not explore every opportunity for new medicines, for new diagnostics, for new medical devices? We need them desperately.

What should be a source of real concern for greater Boston’s biotech and biopharma enterprises is our history. We had the lead in digital technologies, but we lost it because we just didn’t use our regional resources, our regional advantage, to their fullest potential. Losing our lead could happen again. We’re not the only biotech hub. I don’t view this simply as a matter of competition. To my mind, it’s more importantly a question of responsibility.

Buderi: So the data, which is detailed in the preceding article, in a sense provided the hard facts that motivated the next steps from other workstreams. Can you give a rundown of what those next steps were – and where things stand now?

Bhatia: Harvey Lodish, [an MIT biology professor] who’s a founder of Genzyme and Rubius, raised his hand and asked, “How can I help?” And so he and I decided to start a series we call the Future Founders Bootcamp, with support from Maria Zuber, the VP of Research, Anantha Chandrakasan, Dean of Engineering, and the whole MIT administration. We conceived of it pre-pandemic. We imagined that we would be convening women faculty for fireside chats with local founders to demystify the origin stories of companies. The silver lining of the pandemic, perhaps surprisingly, is that we were able to deliver our wish list of amazing founders from across the country – including Kathy High, who co-founded Spark Therapeutics in Philadelphia; and Carolyn Bertozzi at Stanford, who is a seven-time entrepreneur – and create highly personalized, curated conversations.

We touched on different financing strategies for starting a company. We talked with people who left the academy to run their companies, and others who pursued both tracks simultaneously and explored how they made those decisions. Now that we have 500 or so interested listeners, one of our goals is to qualify a cohort of participants who are interested in starting a company in the next one to three years and support them on their entrepreneurial journey. This would include one-on-one mentoring, networking, and a program that we’re calling Dolphin Tank (a more friendly version of Shark Tank), in which participants get feedback on their ideas, and have the possibility of competing for a monetary prize to help start their company.

Buderi: I’d imagine there might be high interest in an incentive prize? How would it work?

Bhatia: The idea of incentive prizes, of course, is not new. It’s something that MIT does very well – the 100K student entrepreneurship competition and the Climate Tech & Energy Prize are great examples. Anantha Chandrakasan, the dean of engineering, has championed the idea of a competition for women entrepreneurs with a visible and significant prize. We also want to offer small incentives, among them covering childcare costs to enable programmatic participation, and supporting travel expenses and other related costs as these women develop their ideas. If we are successful, then competition day will have a multiplier effect – all teams will gain exposure to the investor community and to one another. We hope to make a program announcement with an RFA later this year.

Buderi: Another working group was venture capital – which of course is often essential to getting a company off the ground. What has happened on that front?

Hockfield: One of the things that we all agreed on from the start, was that the existence of network effects is critically important when you want to move your ideas from your lab into the marketplace. The network effects are manifest in any number of steps along the way: how you raise money, how you put together your team, how you develop the expertise and understanding of how to take each step. While the conversations that build the necessary understanding seem to occur naturally among white male founders, women and minorities are not generally part of them. Our strategy is to “reverse engineer” these kinds of network effects for women who want to be company founders, or are curious about how to move down this path.

To start, they need to know where they can ask their questions. Activities like the bootcamp provide an opportunity for people to ask questions about how you get started and to meet people who can serve as their mentors. Another place where network effects are clearly important is in raising money. Among the members of our group were several venture capitalists from the Boston Venture Capital community. They quickly understood the problem and said, “We want to help change the game.” Their workstream developed the idea of a pledge by venture capitalists to change the composition of their boards in a very short time. The target is within two years to have 25 percent women on the boards of companies where they have significant control. It’s really encouraging that people who control so much of the deal flow are committed to changing the composition of the industry’s participants, and that they’re willing to step up to lead as change-makers.

Bhatia: The “VC Pledge” commitment is an important avenue to give women faculty deep insight into the process of company founding and development, as well as the personal connections to be able to recognize in their own work the possibility, and say, “Hey, I have a result in my lab that I think could be the next Biogen or Moderna.”

Hockfield: On the VC side of company creation, there’s another important exposure opportunity. Hanging out in a VC firm, where you can be part of the VC conversation as they review, vet, and fund new companies, is a terrific way to learn about what they do. To increase that kind of exposure, we are establishing a new program – the Accelerator Fellowships – that would give tenured women faculty the opportunity to spend some of their time in VC firms where they can be part of the action and actually see how it’s done. We have great partners in our VC participants who are enthusiastic about hosting women faculty in their firms. We’re currently aiming for an inaugural class of five Accelerator Fellows.

Bhatia: We plan to have an RFP supported by a bit of matchmaking. If you think about it from the VC perspective, they would host a colleague they let into their inner sanctum, who attends all the meetings where they’re making big decisions. Conversely, faculty members need to give up precious time to go be around ideas that are not necessarily directly connected to their work. As a start, Pillar, Polaris Partners, and F-Prime have all offered to take on these fellows.

Hockfield: The program is designed to be extremely flexible. In consultation with the host firm, program participants can design their time to spend any number of days a week and some significant fraction of a semester (or a summer) in the program.

Buderi: The future founder initiative is focused on leveling the playing field for women; do you have plans to extend it to underrepresented minorities?

Bhatia: This study on women is just a beginning, a first step, and our initiative includes women of color, a key underrepresented group in the academy. However, the intersectionality of race and gender is undeniable in opportunities for entrepreneurship. A natural extension of our work will be to people of color. As we look at the small numbers of people of color on our faculty, it is important to acknowledge that there are even more foundational and deeper systemic racism issues to address. We need more tenured faculty members of color so that we can tackle the part of the pipeline this initiative covers – taking them from academia into the commercial sphere. We believe the framework we are putting in place for data tracking, inclusive networks and visible role models can be used to support inclusion of underrepresented groups overall, as well as in faculty start-ups. At this cultural moment of receptivity to the core issues of diversity and inclusion, we hope this study on women can serve as a catalyst to open up a larger conversation.

Buderi: These things you’re talking about, they’re all about building familiarity with the company-formation process and networks at the same time. It’s all reinforcing.

What happens next? Are there any plans to take these ideas and programs beyond Boston – to a bigger scale?

Bhatia: Several foundations have expressed interest in our strategy. In some ways, our region is really special. Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of women in tech and biotech startups is not special. It’s something you see over and over again, just about everywhere. We hope that if we’re successful with the model we create in bringing women – and underrepresented minorities more broadly – into the network, we can make progress, quantify it, and disseminate the model to other innovation ecosystems. We’ve structured this Future Founders Initiative akin to a first chapter, a Future Founders Initiative at MIT. If we’re successful in our own region, we hope to follow the pattern the 1999 Women in Science Report took, and send it out across the country and around the world.