Beth Seidenberg, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Beth Seidenberg
A champion to even the odds for women in biotech

Company: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
Title: Partner

The women who are in biotech make up a small sorority, and probably no one understands the challenges they face better than Beth Seidenberg, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. It is something she has been giving a lot of thought to of late, after her firm this year went to trial in a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by former partner Ellen Pao. While Kleiner Perkins--the most gender- and ethnically diverse VC firm in Silicon Valley--won the suit, it generated a lot of soul-searching across the tech world. For Seidenberg, that means thinking hard about the biotech and digital health device companies with which she interacts.  

It has stiffened her resolve to back more women entrepreneurs and to become not just a mentor but a champion for talented women and minorities. She has succeeded in her career and she wants to "pay that forward." But what worries her most right now is that with all of the talk of a deflating biotech market, talented women--all young talent actually--will go running for the doors.

She doesn't want the smart people who are headed into the so-called STEM fields to think that to get a shot at success they need to become an engineer and learn to code. "We need talented coders but we need scientists as well," she said recently in a telephone interview from her Silicon Valley office.

"I worry because this is coming out at a time when some women and others are afraid, 'Oh my god, the good days are over.' I don't believe that," Seidenberg said.

Having worked in biotech for 20-plus years, first in R&D and developing products and now building companies, she says there is always a place for companies, and the people who work for them, that improve people's health. "If you focus on innovation, focus on the mission of what we are trying to do, success will be there," she says.

Seidenberg has seen the mission of biotech from just about every angle. A New York native and Barnard grad, she got her MD from the University of Miami and did postgrad work that included a stint at the NHS. Her own career has been a series of successes. She was a senior executive in R&D at Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck & Co. ($MRK), before Roger Perlmutter lured her to Amgen to be chief medical officer. She counts 10 "innovative products" that were developed and marketed globally while she was in those roles.

At Amgen ($AMGN), she got to know some of the VC folks that had helped bring the biotech into existence. They convinced her she would be good at the VC game. They hooked her up with Kleiner Perkins, where she has been for a decade, scouting for and nurturing companies like Flexus Biosciences, which Bristol-Myers Squibb bought in February for $1.25 billion for its preclinical IDO1 immunotherapy that shows promise in treating cancer. She has incubated 5 companies and was the founding CEO of two. She sits on the board of 9 biotechs and 5 digital health companies.

When you are bringing companies to the market, merger or buyout, you hone your ability not only to spot people with a good idea, but also to become insightful about what kinds of people succeed and why. With entrepreneurs Seidenberg has said that three things are essential, "vision, passion and smarts." By smarts she means a combination of book smarts, street smarts and people smarts: IQ and EQ.

But she realizes not everyone drawn to biotech, pharma and medical devices aspires to be an entrepreneur. For those who want to succeed in other roles, her advice is specific but runs counter to what they often hear or believe. She says:

  1. Become an expert in an area and focus

  2. Don't whine, just deliver

  3. Speak up; don't be afraid to have a contrarian point of view.

She says a lot of people looking to move up believe they need to politic and get to know a lot of people. They believe they need to have different experiences. As a result, she says, she encounters too many people who haven't focused enough to have that "carrying card that says 'I am an expert in this. Here's why you want me, because I speak knowledge in this and have such unique skills that I am going to add enormous value to your organization,' whatever that role is."

In studying the data since the initiation of Pao's gender discrimination lawsuit, she learned that women make up only 15% of the founders and CEOs in business.

As a scientist she wondered what was underlying the data. She found there was a "leaky pipeline," that women who study science from a woman are more likely to be drawn to careers in science. She learned about the unconscious bias that anyone may display. She wants to take what she has learned and help more women and minorities.

"It is a 50-50 world but we see that 15% of founders or CEOs are women. Only 15% in the 50% that are women have good ideas?" Seidenberg asks rhetorically. "Come on. There are a lot of good ideas that are waiting to happen. People like me and many of the other women that you feature show it is possible to make it to a leadership and influencer role. We need to be the champions." -- Eric Palmer (email | Twitter

For more:
Bristol-Myers bags IDO immunotherapy in $1.25B buyout of fledgling Flexus
Amgen vet reveals stealth startup Flexus backed by $38M from Kleiner Perkins, Celgene
Kleiner Perkins to back early-stage biotechs with $525M fund

Beth Seidenberg, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers