LifeSci Advisors aim for model behavior after 'serious mistake'

JPM 2016

Picture this: You’re a life science professional, attending an after-party event at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco run by investor relations firm LifeSci Advisors. You’d expect to be in the company of some serious professionals, but instead you’re surrounded by 70 svelte models in a situation that would not have been out of place on Mad Men.

This is the very situation a number of execs found themselves in this January. Horrified, Kate Bingham at SV Life Sciences and Karen Bernstein, chairman of BioCentury Publications, were quick to write an open letter to biopharma in early Feb., calling for an end to any event that presents women as “chattel.”

Among the signatories of the letter were some big names, including George Scangos, the CEO of Biogen ($BIIB), Moncef Slaoui, vaccines chief at GSK ($GSK), John Maraganore, the CEO of Alnylam ($ALNY), Forum's Deborah Dunsire and Acorda CEO Ron Cohen.

It seems this has made an impression. In a letter written to a signatory this week, LifeSci Advisors’ founders Michael Rice and Andrew McDonald have given a quick gender diversity update. They (eventually) penned a reply several weeks after bungling their initial response apologizing for the whole affair but three months down the line, they’re keen to let the signatories know just how sorry they still feel.

Rice and McDonald write: “We read the open letter dated February 3, 2016 by Kate Bingham and Karen Bernstein published in BioCentury and are reaching out to you as a signatory. We want you to know that we welcomed the letter and that it has had a positive impact on us and on our industry.

“As you know, on January 11, 2016, during the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, LifeSci Advisors co-hosted an after-party event with Runway Waiters that was attended by approximately 1,000 investors and clients. Our objective that evening was to strengthen the relationships between our clients and the institutional investor community in the biotechnology and biopharma industries.

“In an effort to boost attendance by investors, through Runway Waiters LifeSci invited 70 female promotional models from prestigious modeling agencies such as Wilhelmina, Ford, NEXT and Vision. We made a serious mistake in doing so.

“We want to apologize to you directly. In deciding to invite models to our party, we perpetuated the culture that contributes to barriers facing women in our industry and offended both our female and male colleagues. The respect of our colleagues is very important to us, and we value yours very much. This has been a wakeup call for us, and we are taking it very seriously.”

Financial news wire Bloomberg interviewed McDonald two days after they got wind of the party, with McDonald having a very different tone. He said: “Last year [at the 2015 JPM], people were just coming to a cocktail party, and the buzz was generated during the party and afterward. Obviously for this event this year, people knew what to expect […] When you think about going to a party, when you don’t have any models, it’s going to be 90/10, or even greater, male-to-female. Adding in some females changes the dynamic quite a bit.”

But as the weeks have passed, both men have had an epiphany that maybe the male-female ratio at a professional life science investor event should be made equal by proactively seeking more women to work in the biotech and VC industry, rather than flooding the room with paid-for models.

“We mishandled that interview and made matters worse by not taking full responsibility for the choices we made that evening [and we] did not fully appreciate or acknowledge the negative impact our actions have had both within and outside our industry.” [sic].

In the 12 paragraph letter, the words ‘women’, ‘girls’ and ‘female’ are mentioned 17 times, specifically setting out all the things it has done to help women in its company and outside it, including setting up an advisory board of “leading women and men” across the life science fields to help it “identify initiatives and programs that we can support that provide networking opportunities and mentoring to women at all levels of their careers”.

It also said it had doubled the number of women employed by the firm, adding several new employees to its staff including Moran Meir-Beres, the company’s second female MD, and Ashlee Bennett, a research analyst.

“In the past three months, we have reflected deeply on what we have learned,” Rice and McDonald write in a much more solemn tone than in previous interviews. “We have had some very tough discussions with female and male business leaders in our industry. We have taken a hard look at ourselves as individuals and as a firm and at the biotechnology and biopharma industries’ track record on diversity and have found them all lacking.”

They add that they welcome advice, feedback, criticisms, comments and suggestions. “If you have some time in the coming weeks, we’d love to talk to you over the phone or in person and engage you in whatever way you feel comfortable in our efforts to diversify the biotechnology and biopharma industries. With your permission, we’d like to remain in touch and keep you up to date on our progress.”

Do make sure to send on your thoughts.

There has however as yet been no letter from Roth Capital Partners, which had also been named as a firm which uses female models, with an official video of the 27th Annual Roth Conference “proudly flaunting its use of scantily clad female dancers,” according to the original BioCentury letter.

In Feb., a biotech exec sent an image of several under-dressed models dancing at a West Coast Roth Capital conference after party for investors in March 2014 to FierceBiotech as an example of the kind of activity so many women in the industry find offensive. John Chambers, vice chairman and head of healthcare investment banking at the firm, said that it was “unfortunate to have our name referenced in this context by people who have not attended our event.”

We continue to await an update from the folks at Roth.