Women in Biotech Q&A with Yan Zhang, CEO of Mission Bio

April 19, 2021
DeciBio Q&A
Research Tools

DeciBio’s Women in Consulting group strives to support and encourage women in both consulting and the life sciences industry. As a member of this group, I had the opportunity to speak with Yan Zhang about her new position as CEO of Mission Bio. Our conversation focused on her experience as a woman in biotech and what the industry can do to help close the gender gap. Mission Bio is a privately-held company based in South San Francisco that recently raised $70M in their Series C round. You can find a transcript of our discussion below.

Yan Zhang, Ph.D. is the recently appointed CEO of Mission Bio. Previously, Yan led multiple business lines for Thermo Fisher Scientific, driving above-market growth. Her time at Thermo Fisher included leading the commercial organization in China for the Genetic Sciences and the Clinical Next-Generation Sequencing divisions.

Thank you so much for joining us today. To begin, and to provide context for our readers, could you please share a bit about Mission Bio as a whole? In particular, how critical do you think multi-omic approaches like Mission's DNA + Protein technologies will be in the future?

Our system is very robust in isolating single cells to be able to monitor DNA expression, RNA, and protein. So why is it important? How is it relevant? The ability to look at single cells is fundamental to understand complex diseases such as cancer because cancer starts with one cell. When that cell has accumulated multiple mutations, it becomes cancerous and is the beginning of a devastating disease. This isn't necessarily about the origin of the disease. Rather, when we look at cancer treatment options and when we look at the recurrence of the disease, there will be new clones and new cells that pop up in the patient and cause recurrence—which we call minimal residual disease. So to be able to really understand the cancer, design the treatment, monitor the patient, and ensure they have a healthy outcome, you have to look at the cellular level.Why do we look at multi-omics? Cancer is a very complex disease. Sometimes at the level of DNA you have a change that isn’t necessarily reflected at the protein level. To be able to monitor both will give us additional insights. So, you can use a protein on the cell’s surface to pull down the cell and be able to look at it differently. When you have multiple dimensions to look at a disease, it gives you complimentary information. So why is it critical? Cancer is a big area but it is not the only area that we believe our technology could be extremely powerful for. Cell and gene therapies are personalized medicine that are being propelled by the past few decades of accumulation of knowledge and technological advancement. These therapies require work at the individual cell level from the beginning of the development all the way through to the production and clinical implementation of them. Our technology lends power to accelerate the whole development cycle.We are fundamentally and absolutely excited to be able to help drive these advances. This is the right time for the market and the right time for the accumulation of knowledge. We believe that the market is going to reach this explosive space and that we have the technology to be at the forefront of this research. With our partners, we can really take things to the next stage. We have a unique technology, strong funding—having just raised an additional $70M last year—, great team, support from partners with publications, support from the board, and will pull this all together for an exciting next stage.

Thank you so much for that context, and we’re excited to see where Mission Bio takes things over the next few years. I’d like to transition to discussing your role as a woman in a leadership position in biotech. What have been some of the most significant challenges that you have faced being a woman in biotech?

The biggest challenge we face really is the numbers game. We remain a minority, especially in leadership positions. Even in the Bay Area, only about 19% of VC-backed startups have female CEOs. This is better than before, so we are on the right trajectory. At Mission Bio, we actually have about 45% women at the company, so this is a strong position to be in. Being a minority at the table poses a lot of challenges. I am really excited to be in a position where I feel like I can have a bigger platform to make a bigger impact. Like with any business, there is a circle of influence. As an individual contributor, as a scientist, my circle of influence is really how I behave. We need to be more inclusive of others to set an example for others and to step up so that our voices are being heard. We can also form a “buddy system” to help each other out around the table and make sure that our “buddies’” voices are being heard. As a CEO, I will be able to expand my circle of influence to really raise these things to the top. As a minority, how do we not only control our circle of influence but also influence and change a company’s culture or how society views this? There is a lot of work at the company level as well as beyond the company. It really requires a culture shift. There is a lot of work to be done.

Do you find that progress in terms of what it is like to be a woman in leadership is tied at all to major public events (e.g., Me Too movement) or announcements?

Absolutely, a big part of all of this is awareness. Awareness is absolutely critical. I do find a lot of times that lack of awareness is what is holding us back. I do not think that a lot of the bias that we feel in our day to day work is malicious. A lot of it is just that there are fewer of us around the table, so there is a lack of awareness by the majority around their actions, behaviors, and impact on the minority. Raising this level of awareness is the first step and happens on a day-to-day basis. The big events are great triggers to actually refresh this conversation, so that has been fantastic. Many of the public events (e.g., International Women’s Day), books, and movies being published are opportunities for us to raise awareness. It really comes back to the positive impact on business. We are not just doing this so that we can chat. Ultimately, the positive impact is two-fold: 1) The business discussions and the outcomes are much more balanced with inclusion and diversity, and 2) On the individual level, all of us will feel more rewarded in our careers. We have a purpose to drive both personal career satisfaction as well as more positive business outcomes.

I know you touched a little on how women within the industry can join together and encourage each other to promote inclusivity. What do you believe that the industry can do as a whole to promote greater inclusivity and to bring more women in leadership roles such as your own?

I would love to see more men joining in. I think that that in itself can speak much louder. At the end of the day, the statistics are a lagging indicator. The feedback and outcome of the individuals are huge. Getting our friends who are men around the table to understand how we can positively impact the business will be huge. Honestly, I think this will take a lot of work and a lot of collective understanding and persuasion. This will not change overnight, but every small step can accelerate this movement. Let’s continue to work on this and accelerate the progress.

What advice would you give to current biotech leaders to promote female leadership in their organization?

There are a few actionable things that we could do. One would be recruiting. I’m not advocating that we should get an inferior candidate, but the point is to be sensitive and conscientious about getting a diverse candidate pool. We have to ensure that, through recruiting, diverse candidates have an equal opportunity to compete and earn the right to a seat at the table. I think recruiting is really huge to make sure that I have exhausted everything I can to ensure a diverse candidate pool. The second is day to day work—no matter how big or how little the meeting size—to raise awareness to leadership and make sure that they have a discussion with the team to make sure that everyone has an equal voice. We play some games for example in meetings where you pass a dime. Only the person with the dime can speak. You have to change how we work so that everyone has the opportunity to give an opinion. Those small changes in how we engage at the team level, how we have the conversation, and how we have a dialogue can have a fundamental impact. These are some of the things that we think through and talk about.

Considering many venture-backed life science companies spin out of universities, how can the industry help female faculty members drive commercialization? A recent study out of MIT found that, despite making up a quarter of faculty, female faculty in the science and engineering departments participated in less than 10% of commercialization events between 2000 and 2018.

I think we have to look into multiple factors that may have resulted in this statistic. If you put them into buckets, there can be elements of individual circumstances, support systems, and there may be internal factors that could be involved. There are also external factors—does the environment support this? We need to work on both fronts. For the internal factors, as a woman, I do feel intimidated in situations either due to my upbringing or family’s upbringing. This gets more difficult in a Chinese household where there are more expectations surrounding the performance of women as compared to men. I think the internal factor is something that we can control through mentorship discussions with young women and young scientists to help them build their confidence and encourage them to speak up. We can make them feel empowered and that there are many things in their control. This is one thing I talk to young scientists about. Sometimes we ask for permission to do things and as a result, relinquish what is rightfully our enablement and our empowerment. We have to empower ourselves. We cannot wait to be permitted to be empowered. Empower is a verb. We do not wait for someone to empower us. There has to be work done to continue having these discussions so young female scientists have a different mentality going into the workforce and have a mentality of empowering themselves. There are many organizations that we can work with to drive that message.So, this is one aspect of what we can do for ourselves—to take control over our lives. Then, there is the aspect about what we can do for society and what we can do for each other. I have benefited, in my career, from many of my mentors who are women, who are my role models, and who have reached out to me and encouraged me. Those are precious moments and ones we need to reach for. As an individual, I can do more, and I can continue to encourage others to do more. Then there’s the broader society which is harder because it is out of your control. Conversations like this one can be an opportunity to do so. It is up to all of the leaders to continue forming coalitions and to have stronger voices to surface these conversations in a very logical, non-intrusive way so that the message can be well-received, well-heard, and engage our male counterparts. This way, they can continue to see eye to eye with us and work shoulder to shoulder with us to make positive changes. I think this is really multifaceted. Change has to come from within, from those around us, and change comes when it forms a tidal wave. This is when you feel the momentum. When we accumulate enough of the numbers, the momentum will grow, and the tide will shift. 19% is not bad but when we get to 30%... I believe that there will be a much bigger impact. We just need to work on this, and the change will come.

To wrap up our conversation, with your experience and journey in mind, what advice would you give to any woman beginning a career in the industry?

I’ll go back to what we can control and what we can influence. There are a lot of things we can control—to feel confident and to speak up. I also have a parallel life in ballet. There’s a lot of things in ballet, like any sport, that parallel with business life. The parallel is to be confident on stage. On stage, you want to project a level of confidence like in business. The number one thing to feel confident is to rehearse and practice every day. For us to be confident in meetings, to champion an idea, the number one thing is to totally feel in control: to prepare, to work with people, to do the research, to put in 120% or 200% of what you do, to ask a lot of why’s. These are all number one—these are table stakes. The second thing is to reach out to others for help, to ask, “How did you do this?” To have a meaningful, not forced, dialogue and to say, “I’m working on this project—what would you do? Can I give you a pitch, and will you help me out?” This will help you organically understand what others have encountered in their careers and to help you lay the groundwork. Those will be one-on-one conversations. Feel comfortable reaching out, because trust me, a lot of us are more than happy to help you. I want to help. Let’s form that alliance and create those relationships. There is nothing like seeing many more female scientists take center stage.

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