Putting people, and science, together in biotech startups
Company: Canaan Partners
Title: General Partner
Wende Hutton figured out early on that she wanted to work in an entrepreneurial environment. So armed with an MBA from Harvard, she turned to the world of medical devices when most of her class was interested only in finance.
"I cut my teeth at Nellcor--a venture-backed medical device company--in the mid-'80s, when everyone was going to Wall Street," says Hutton.
Nellcor made a lot of sense for her. Hutton wanted to work with a company that had set out to change the way medicine was practiced. And it combined well with her interest in biology, a discipline she was attracted to as the child of a biology teacher and pursued as a student at Stanford.
Hutton likes to study ecosystems and the synthesis of systems working together, with a particular focus on human physiology. That interest has segued nicely into building biotech organizations, where she feels one of her strongest attributes is an ability to foster the best teams in the business.
Says Hutton: "It's a particular focus of mine to build a team, and we back the best talent."
It starts with recruiting the best people to take the helm of the biotechs in her portfolio. There was Alan Levy at Chrono Therapeutics; "this was the third time I backed him as CEO." Tom Wiggans at Dermira, which is on the threshold of an IPO, and Bill Yelle at Aldea Pharmaceuticals are two more standouts from the talent scouting.
Talent at the top can attract talent for the team.
"You can source talent through a lot of networks you've built up over time," she says. And so do the best CEOs she works with. "Sometimes I see a CEO that has a following and can assemble a team. People will quit and say, 'Hey, I want to be part of their rodeo.'"
True, most of the top people she cites are men, but Hutton says there's no question that women have been rising fast in the biotech world. Chimerix, where she just left the board, is now run by Michelle Berrey--who joined three other women already on the board.
"I think we've already seen it," she says. "I have never seen so many capable female CEOs in a venture portfolio."
Just as important, though, are the women making their way up through the ranks. It's not unusual for Hutton to be the only woman on the boards of the biotechs she backs. Being there sends a clear signal that the career ladders for the women on the staff don't end in middle management.
"Within Dermira there are several vice presidents who are female and I do think it's significant that when they walk into the boardroom they see a woman on the board," says Hutton. "I always felt that there was an important role for bringing diversity and perspective to a board. We're at a tipping point of seeing more women in the ranks of top talent in venture-backed companies. Bringing diversity at the board level offers an assurance that there are successful women progressing in the industry."
The bios at Canaan have an outdoorsy theme. But Hutton says those pics of her kayaking and biking and skiing weren't posed on a set. She enjoys the chance to get outside. She also knows what it's like balancing a career and raising kids. Right now, with one child grown and the other in college, there's also more time for nonprofit work--something she's been committed to for years.
But it's biotech that claims the bulk of her time. And she isn't complaining. It doesn't hurt that this is one of the greatest times to be in biotech, as companies are raising more cash and going public at unprecedented rates. And there isn't anything she'd rather be doing.
"I have to tell you," says Hutton, "after the last couple of years, it's pretty fun right now."
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-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)