DeciBio’s Women in Consulting group has started an initiative to interview women in positions of leadership in the life sciences and healthcare industries. As part of this series, I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle Dipp about her experiences as a co-founder of Biospring Partners. Biospring Partners is a growth-stage investment firm for Life Sciences Technology. This discussion highlighted the importance of diversity at all levels within a company as well as the value in engaging with a diverse set of mentors. You can find a transcript of our conversation below.
Michelle Dipp M.D., Ph.D., is a Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Biospring Partners. Prior to founding Biospring, Michelle served as a Managing Director at General Atlantic (GA) after co-founding Longwood Fund and working as a senior executive at GSK. With over a decade of experience in private equity and in venture capital, she is passionate about investments that drive success in the life sciences.
For our readers not familiar with Biospring, could you share a bit about your fund and your mission?
Biospring is a growth equity firm focused on investing in healthcare technology. We’re really interested in the future of the intersection of healthcare and technology. It’s for two reasons. One, we firmly believe that technology can make the healthcare industry more efficient which is great for everyone, right? Especially patients. But the second reason is—and this is perhaps the most exciting reason—, the intersection of technology and biology is yielding completely new subsectors. Examples of that are subsectors like: synthetic biology and the use of AI in pathology. Just to pick on synthetic biology as an example—you’re looking at a brand-new way to manufacture something that is faster, better, cheaper, and also more sustainable. So, at Biospring, we could not be more excited to fund companies that are essentially services, tools, and software companies that serve the life sciences industry.
Definitely. It’s going to be amazing to see in the next few years how this intersection is able to change the way that healthcare is today. What experiences and milestones in your career inspired you to start Biospring last year?
You know, it’s interesting. Jennifer [Co-Founder and Managing Partner at BioSpring] and I have known each other since 2013, thanks to my sister. We ended up becoming very close personal friends and finding each other at all of the same companies. We were both living in Boston, and Jen’s background is all technology. She has been a technology entrepreneur and a scout for certain investment firms. My background is all science and medicine, and we kept finding that we were interested in the same companies where there was that intersection between technology and healthcare—so, companies like Gingko Bioworks, PathAI, and several others. What we learned was we actually needed both of our backgrounds in order to fully understand what the company did and to fully be able to diligence its products. I relied on Jen heavily to understand the software, machine learning, and AI side. I would say vice versa on things like the chemistry, biology, etc. We just really enjoyed working together even though it was informally working together at that time. When we left our respective roles, we both felt very strongly that the future, in terms of the companies and the themes we were interested in, was at the intersection of healthcare and technology. We were constantly being introduced to companies where there was an opportunity to invest in those companies. So, we decided to start a firm that was focused on these areas and to invest in these areas. I think part of starting an investment firm is - can you make a return for your investors? Can you get into good companies? Is there more than one, two, or three companies of interest? The second thing is: is this the right person with whom to build the firm? Do you really want to partner with this person? Because, if this is what you’re going to do, which we both firmly believe will be for the rest of our career, we want to make sure that we are the right fit as well. So, it was really important to us to focus on diversity both inside of the firm (so our investment team, our operational team, our advisors) and through the companies in which we invest. There was just so much alignment in terms of the type of culture that we wanted to build and the team that we wanted to build. That was really the main reason that we wanted to start Biospring. We didn’t want to go work for another firm. We wanted to build the kind of firm that we wanted to be at.
It sounds like the two of you have made an incredible team already. Obviously, you started Biospring in 2020. So, how has COVID pandemic affected the founding of your fund and its initial investments?
You know it’s so funny. We originally thought, “Oh my gosh. Are we absolutely crazy to be launching the fund in the middle of COVID?” But we really took a bottoms up approach to it. We had obviously talked about it long before COVID, and we had an opportunity to invest in a really important company called Abzena which did end up being our first portfolio investment back in July. So, we did decide to launch the fund just to be able to invest in Abzena. One of the themes that we were really focused on is that, as you probably know, pharma outsources a lot of its manufacturing, particularly biologics manufacturing. This is something that Abzena is focused on and where their expertise lies. So, we were introduced to the company by one of my former colleagues at GA, and they said, “We really need someone with life sciences expertise to be on the board.” So, Jen and I did our diligence. We liked the space a lot; we liked the technology; we liked the company. The team are absolutely terrific and by the way, very diverse. We did our diligence on that team, and it was just extremely impressive to see how well they were executing even during COVID. In fact, in some ways, they were actually even more successful because of COVID, because they were able to sort out things like supply chain and capacity at times when other companies were struggling with those types of challenges. COVID meant a lot of Zooms—like what we’re doing now—and a lot less, in fact zero, travel. Usually, you have to go and meet with a lot of people, but it really strengthened our conviction in the fact that we already have built such a deep network and deep relationships. We already know these companies. We typically know these companies for years before we invest in them. So, it actually benefitted us in that way, because we had already met with the people, met with the team, and met with the company. We actually were more efficient, because we didn’t have to waste time traveling and could just get work done on zoom.
It’s interesting that in some ways COVID has increased efficiency and particularly, in life sciences, increased the market for different sectors of the industry due to the nature of being in a pandemic and it being a healthcare crisis. So, it’s interesting how different areas have been affected in different ways.
Yes, we also feel like it gave people a renewed sense of faith in healthcare. I think people had a lot of concern with the healthcare industry and a mistrust in pharma and biotech. I think people realized, “Oh wow, this is really why they spend so much money on research and development.” The fact that we have multiple COVID vaccines a year later—it’s nothing short of a scientific miracle. It’s a lot of work, and it’s because there has been a lot of research over the last 20 years that really laid the foundation and the framework for that to happen.
Definitely—it’s amazing what the scientific community is able to do today.
It is just amazing. Especially with the mRNA vaccines. That was years and years of a platform and then that was also two other big themes: 1) the cost of sequencing coming down and 2) cloud computing. We needed those mRNA discoveries as well as the other two things to happen in order to create an mRNA vaccine, so, it’s pretty remarkable.
It truly is remarkable. How has being a woman impacted your experience as both a founder and investor?
For me, it’s been a wonderful experience. I had the very good fortune of having very strong mentors early on in my career—whether it was in medicine or when I transitioned to being an investor in 2005 with the Wellcome Trust. I actually had several—not just one, but actually three—incredible women at the Wellcome Trust all of whom were mentors to me and all of whom I’m still in touch with to this day. I think in some ways, I didn’t notice that I was a woman, because I was in a very diverse environment which I recognize now is not the norm, especially on the investment side. At that time, it felt really great. Mentorship is something I think is really important for everyone but especially for women. It’s important to have a diverse set of mentors too—inside your focus area, not necessarily in your area, people that report into you, people to whom you report into, men, women, etc. I just think the more you can diversify your group of mentors—you’re really going to learn a lot about yourself.
You’ve touched on this a bit, but what have been some of the most significant challenges you have faced as a female founder and also some of the most inspiring aspects of the experience?
They end up being a double-edged sword—sometimes I think the challenges, in many ways, are also what drive you. Certainly, you will often hear that it’s very hard for women to start an investment firm. It’s not just one woman. It’s two women. We have two female General Partners (GP) who have founded Biospring, and we are the only founders. A lot of people gave us the very harsh feedback that two female GPs don’t often succeed, but as you can imagine, this has also driven us. I think so much of it is just not letting the past statistics get in the way of what the future holds for you.
For sure. I think if someone were to tell me I couldn’t do it, I would be way more likely to try. Ashley Summer, CEO & Founder of Quilt, brought to light the discussion surrounding the title of “female founder.” Summer stated that “by putting my gender in front of what I am belittles what I’ve accomplished, and reminds women how few of us get to where I am.” Others may consider the title to be empowering. What is your perspective on highlighting gender when a woman is in a position of leadership?
This is a really tough one, and I don’t know if I know the right answer here in terms of what actually moves us forward. One thing I will say is if you were to ask me 10 years ago to do this interview, I would have probably shied away from it. I was afraid of always being labeled as the female partner or the female whatever it might be. I wanted to be seen for my accomplishments, not for the fact that I was a woman. Interestingly, my experience has been that as I have grown older, I have actually felt more comfortable as someone who is an advocate—not just for women, but for all types of diversity. I think it’s incredibly important that we’re having these discussions and that we advocate for it. That means, for us as female founders of an investment firm, that we prioritize diversity internally as we hire people for our firm. That means that we are measuring and prioritizing diversity and inclusion within our portfolio companies. So, looking at the composition of the board, the C-suite, and also the rest of the company, but particularly in the board and the C-suite, which is typically where we see that gap. I feel a lot more comfortable, now, saying call me a female GP or whatever, whereas 10 years ago I think I would have shied away from it.
It’s great to see how that paradigm and perspective has shifted; hopefully, it continues shifting and moving in that same direction over the next few years. With less than 10% of senior positions and less than 20% of all positions in private equity and venture capital being held by women, what can be done to increase female presence in the industry, both in leadership and at all levels in the industry?
You know this is a topic that several of us think and talk a lot about. I think so much of it is that firms like ours have to make sure that we’re putting diversity as a priority, that we bring people in, and then mentor them to the partner level. The interesting thing is that the statistic really varies depending on the level. The statistics that I have seen are actually that at the more junior level, like the associate levels whether right out of college or right out of business school (which is typical in PE at the VP level), you actually have 50/50 in terms of gender diversity. By the way, for other types of diversity, the investment industry doesn’t rank well. We have a long way to go. Unfortunately, though, especially as you move higher up the ranks, and especially at the GP level, diversity of all kinds is very poor. I think so much of it is because we need to make sure that we are mentoring and paying attention to the needs of people at that VP level. Things like flexible working hours and things that we’ve frankly gotten more used to with COVID—I think these will really make a difference. I think COVID will actually help with diversity, because people got used to working from home. If your kid walks in on a Zoom, it’s not the end of the world.
What are your thoughts on the lack of VC funding for female-led companies?
I think this is changing, and it’s being driven by LPs. If LPs prioritize diversity, diverse managers will typically back diverse teams. We track the diversity at all levels of our portfolio company management teams and Board of Directors.
With your experience and journey in mind, what advice would you give to any woman pursuing a career as an investor or entrepreneur?
The best advice I can give is probably the best advice given to me. Ask people of all levels to mentor you. Diverse mentorship is critical to a person’s learning experience.