Amy Schulman, Polaris Partners

Amy Schulman
Breaking down the barriers to innovation

Company: Polaris Partners
Title: Venture Partner

By the time she left Pfizer ($PFE) in 2013, Amy Schulman was running the consumer healthcare division at the nearly 80,000-employee behemoth, overseeing a business that brought in $4 billion a year. And thus her next move came as something of a surprise: This summer, Schulman took a partner position at Polaris, turning her focus to companies that are years away from generating revenue and leaving the office parks and boardrooms of pharma for the often less opulent world of biotech.

The allure, Schulman said, came from "the energy, the dynamism, the accountability" inherent in early-stage drug development, and Polaris offered her a chance to look at a familiar world from a completely different perspective.

At Polaris, Schulman has taken on the responsibility of steering future investments, serving on the boards of some of the group's portfolio companies and assuming the top spot at one of its early-stage ventures. Arsia Therapeutics, a company co-founded by biotech luminary Robert Langer, is working on technology to make large-molecule biologics easier to administer, and Schulman has stepped in as CEO to work with Polaris Partner Alan Crane and get the company off the ground.

Schulman said her first three months at Polaris have been challenging and instructive, but, moreover, her early tenure in venture capital has also affirmed something she already knew: Innovation can only take place when dissent is encouraged.

"My sense that it is in an organization characterized by true, deep diversity in styles and thinking," she said. "I couldn't be happier with that aspect. I'm convinced that it's one of things that helps make us successful as an investing vehicle."

Such diversity--of opinion, of background and of gender--is something that has only increased in Schulman's years in and around biopharma, beginning as a practicing attorney before becoming a partner at DLA Piper and eventually jumping over to Pfizer. More and more women are taking seats at the table in both science and business, she said, changing not only the makeup of institutions but the tone of conversations at the highest levels.

But barriers still exist. Schulman said everyone with whom she's ever worked "wants to be fair, wants to do the right thing, believes in merit and equality," but lingering unconscious biases encourage "the proverbial kind of double bind for women: the asymmetry between being powerful and being liked."

Thus, the onus is on managers of all backgrounds to examine and interrogate those biases, something Schulman said she and her colleagues take to heart when assembling teams and building companies.

"We have to make sure we're really being vigilant and look at, 'Are we really gender neutral? Are we really color blind?'" she said. "... I'm hardly alone in the recognition that those of us who are here should be spending our political capital to open the doors to the next generation of women, and many of us are deeply committed to that."

For more:
Ex-Pfizer exec Schulman lands at Polaris after an abrupt departure
Polaris preps for a $400M fund to back a new wave of biotechs
Amy Schulman, tapped to lead a new Pfizer division, makes an abrupt exit
Pfizer exec Amy Schulman talks gender, power and company policy

-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)

Amy Schulman, Polaris Partners
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