Women Leading Next Crop Of San Diego Biotech Standouts

The faces of biotech are shifting—particularly in San Diego. Not only are billions of dollars moving into new public companies in the area, but women are leading this next generation of biotech CEOs.

On the front lines of innovative biotech are several women working to develop cancer therapies. They include Laura Shawver of Synthorx, Dr. Sheila Gujrathi of Gossamer Bio, and Dr. Athena Countouriotis of Turning Point. Each of these women had their individual strategies to get to the top of the biotech food chain—and for others, things just fell into place.

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For Shawver, biotech wasn’t her first line of business, per se. She started as a lab scientist and even got a Ph.D. in pharmacology, but admitted in a recent interview that she never had an interest in the business of biotech. Moving on from president of Sugen to her first CEO role at Cleave Biosciences, she was groomed to take on Synthorx in 2017. The company, which recently completed its IPO in early December at a market cap of $452 million, specializes in advancements in protein design to help patients with autoimmune disorders and cancer. “My move from the lab to management, I think it was partly because when there was something that needed to be done,” she said. “I would put my hand up and say, ‘I can do that.’”

Countouriotis of Turning Point believes camaraderie helped her reach the CEO post. Through family support—her mom flying out to watch her kids—and close alliances with firms like Goldman Sachs, she climbed the biotech ladder. “If you’re ever going to be a CEO, the most important thing is make sure you have a good support system,” said Countouriotis. “I relied on seven to 10 people to help, so it’s definitely not a one-person show.” Earlier this year, the company completed its IPO, closing at more than double the IPO price at $1.4 billion and recently received clearance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its new drug application, TPX-0046, which targets solid tumors.

Sheila Gujrathi was a biotech exec from the start. She previously served as chief medical officer of San Diego-based Receptos, before shifting into the CEO role at Gossamer Bio, a clinical-stage biopharma company focused on therapeutics covering oncology, immunology, and inflammation. “In biotech pharma, we need to deliver on milestones,” Gujrathi said. Gossamer completed its IPO this year, raising $276 million from an original goal of $230.4 million. “We need to make sure we’re meeting our timelines. And we are making bets on whether the biology is going to play out and hopefully lead to positive clinical trials, and that we’ll actually have a clinically meaningful result. That’s a lot investors have to sign up to.”