Women in VC Part I: Q&A with Kate Bingham, managing director, SV Health Investors
Tuesday 13 October was Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron and his wife Lady Byron, is recognised as one of the pioneers of computer programming through her long working relationship and friendship with Charles Babbage, 'the father of computers'. In honour of women's achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), PEWire is publishing a mini-series of three Q&A interviews with women working in venture capital.
First up is Kate Bingham (pictured, below), managing director of SV Health Investors, which invests in biotech, digital health companies, medical devices and healthcare services.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and the journey that has brought you to where you are today? How did you get into STEM investing?
It wasn’t until A levels (having been told by my headmistress to study chemistry, physics and biology) that I really got into science. I continued with a degree in Biochemistry, where I specialised in clinical biochemistry and worked in a metabolism lab in the John Radcliffe Hospital. I became excited by how they used genetic engineering to develop new drugs. So I started thinking about a career where I combined science and business – while making a difference to the world.
I interned at a venture-backed US biotechnology start-up called Vertex Pharmaceuticals (now $70bn market cap) when I was at HBS studying for an MBA and rapidly moved into venture capital as a route to combine entrepreneurship with the latest scientific insights. I’ve now been at SV for 29 years and I co-lead biotech investments and activities. My past investments have so far resulted in the launch of six drugs for the treatment of patients with inflammatory, autoimmune disease and cancer.
This year I was also appointed Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, reporting to the Prime Minister to lead UK efforts to find and manufacture COVID-19 vaccines to protect the UK population. The skills needed for this VTF role are exactly the VC skills I’ve gained from biotech investing – defining problems/opportunities, building plans, assembling teams, risk assessment, swift decision making plus intense and supportive oversight. So while I’m certainly not a vaccine expert, I know people who are – and have been able to bring them in quickly. These roles have enabled me to harness excitement for and expertise in STEM into tangible benefits for patients.
How does Ada Lovelace inspire you? Which other women have inspired you throughout your career or inspire you today?
Ada Lovelace was a pioneer. She isn’t only considered to be the first female computer programmer, but the first computer programmer full stop. This is of course more remarkable given the barriers that women wishing to contribute to STEM faced at the time but it would be a significant achievement regardless of her gender.
I have always been inspired by Rosalind Franklin who had the intelligence and dexterity to perform cutting edge X ray crystallography on DNA – enabling Watson and Crick to solve its structure. In her male dominated world, where her colleagues were less than collaborative, her discoveries and persistence were all the more remarkable.
And of course I am completely delighted and thrilled by the all-female winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry – Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier who have been jointly awarded the prize for their discovery of CRISPR-Cas9, a genome editing technology. This genome editing technique allows DNA to be cut and replaced easily, and can be used in all sorts of treatments ranging from cancer to HIV. Absolutely 21st century scientists to shout about.
What barriers do women in STEM face in your industry?
We are seeing better representation for women. Outstanding examples of women who are changing the face and future of healthcare are being celebrated through initiatives such as the BioBeat Movers and Shakers annual report. At SV three of the 6 most recent investments in our SV7 Impact Medicine Fund are led by female CEOs. Their successes will inspire our next generation of scientists and encourage the growth of a more diverse talent pool. Barriers of course still exist but the more role models we can create for the next generation of women the better.
What advice do you have for other women working in STEM?
Let yourself be heard. Diversity of ideas is essential and something to be celebrated. I won't sit on a board if I am the only woman. We might have had a very different economic environment if Lehman Sisters had been in charge.
Don’t let anyone, including yourself, tell you that you can’t do it. If it’s something you want to do, you will find a way despite the appearance of potential barriers.
Keep going. No one has ever achieved what they hoped to without hard work, determination and resilience. Skill and expertise can develop over time, particularly when you learn from a mistake or a knock back, so just fuelling your ambitions and taking steps towards achieving them. Get over your imposter syndrome and get out there and make a difference!