Laura Shawver - FierceBiotech's 2011 Women in Biotech

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Laura Shawver, Ph.D.
CEO, Cleave Biosciences

Laura Shawver might never have found herself in the front ranks of biotech entrepreneurs without a helpful twist of fate. Close to accepting a job in academia at the University of Kansas, she discovered an ad about a position for a bench scientist in molecular biology at Triton, a Shell subsidiary. That position got her started down a career path marked by a series of takeovers that ultimately paved the way to the president's office at Sugen. This was back in 2000 to 2002, before outsourcing became a dominant trend and big staffs were the order of the day.

Today, Shawver is CEO of San Francisco-based Cleave Biosciences, which has a staff of nine, an A round of $42 million and a mandate to go after a new field in cancer drug development. This is her second go-round as a biotech CEO. She took charge of Phenomix when it was tackling a diabetes program in San Diego. Phenomix was shut down after its big pharma partner pulled out and the odds of success looked bleak.

In biotech, though, that kind of experience can be a plus. And everyone, including the venture backers whose trust she retained, understands the long-odds gamble involved in drug discovery and development.

Four years ago, Shawver found herself playing a role in medical science she never had expected: as a patient, being treated for ovarian cancer. For a take-charge individual like herself, it was a chance to assess the strengths and weaknesses in the field and then do something about it. She launched the Clearity Foundation, a nonprofit group which helps women with recurrent or hard-to-treat ovarian cancer gain access to molecular profiling and diagnostic tests that can help determine the next treatment choice. The foundation set out to help provide access if insurers wouldn't and maintain a database to track outcomes over time.

For Shawver, a stint in San Diego led to a love of surfing, which helped provide some balance and perspective on her life and career.

"I lived up here (in San Francisco) for 13 years and then moved to San Diego," says Shawver. "That's where I learned to surf. Cleave has only been going since September," an experience she describes as "Mach 3 with your hair on fire." The short translation to that is there's no time to catch a wave just now, but once things settle down a bit she plans to be back on the beach for some rec time.

"It's never a dull moment," says Shawver about her new startup. "I always love the people I work with and the team spirit that goes along with the project; everybody pulling together with a common goal and trying to help people with serious diseases. I guess I never planned to be a CEO. I thought I'd always be a scientist. But I was fortunate to have good mentors who gave me opportunities."