Breaking the system to make a change: How biotech leaders drive diversity and inclusion

Two years into a global pandemic that disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities, executives are seeking to ignite change in the biotechnology ecosystem. During the BIO International Convention in June 2022, several biotech leaders discussed challenges and solutions to diversity and inclusion in the biotech sector.

On Day Three of the 2022 BIO International Convention, journalist and reporter Luke Timmerman moderated a panel called “Improving Disparity Begins with Us: Biotech Leaders Drive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Healthcare.”

He was joined by top executives of the biotech world:

  • Paul Hastings, President and CEO of Nkarta Therapeutics
  • Rob Perez, Operating Partner at General Atlantic
  • Nancy Hong, Managing Director of RiverVest
  • Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)

‘Break the system’

“We can want change all we want, but unless we do something to break the system, nothing is going to change,” said General Atlantic’s Rob Perez.

One of the ways executives in the biotechnology industry can effectively tackle these disparities is by offering paid internships for students of underrepresented groups, which is what Perez does in his company.

He went on to say that programs like this are the reason that “breaks the system,” because they recruit students from schools that normally don’t get recruited, and students who don’t typically have access to such programs.

Perez says this move has benefited both interns and companies, as CEOs start to recognize fresh talents and ultimately employ more students.

Paul Hastings added that diversity and inclusion is also a major element at Nkarta Therapeutics. As an LGBTQ+ member and ally, Hasting said it’s important to stand up against inequality, and show employees that they’re accepted, they’re wanted, and they’re loved.

As an Asian venture capitalist, Nancy Hong is a firm believer in speaking out and pointing to the problem, adding that the investor world tends to be shy about these topics.

Even though topics such as anti-Asian hate are difficult topics to talk about, Hong says “we must not be willing to let race hold us back.”

Diversity leads to success

Statistically speaking, the best-performing firms have diverse partnerships, which is why Hong has hired women CEOs and Asian CEOs.

BIO President and CEO Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath recalled a conversation with a biotech CEO, who said that the basis of biotechnology is biodiversity, but when it comes to people, it seems to be completely opposite.

As a former regulator, Dr. McMurry-Heath pointed to the lack of diversity in the placebo-controlled studies. The trials often referred to as the “gold standard” are “very sanitized and artificial,” she said, noting that they almost never reflect safety rates because they don’t represent true patients – Black or white.

Representation in data is important not only for the sake of diversity but also for the clinical reality, Dr. McMurry-Heath concluded.

Clinical trial diversity is a key priority for BIO, as Bio.News has reported.

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