March 25, 2022

Celebrating black biotech trailblazers in life science

This February, we celebrated Black History Month and our commitment to meaningful change and inclusion in the life science industry by hosting our first Black Biotech Trailblazers in Life Science panel.

The panel included three leaders in the biotech industry: Enoch Kariuki, CEO of Lengo Therapeutics, Stanley Lewis, M.D., co-founder and CEO of A28 Therapeutics, and Paul Mola, founder, president and CEO of Roswell Biotechnologies. The event was moderated by Juli Moran, San Diego market place leader for Deloitte.

The reception and feedback received from members and students who attended was overwhelmingly positive. During the Q&A session, an audience member said she had never met a Black CEO in the biotech industry before and was thrilled to see three Black CEOs in the industry onstage together.

The panelists candidly shared experiences of how they have been marginalized throughout their lives, and challenges they experience today as Black leaders in biotech.

Kariuki recalled the frustration he felt when studying business at a prestigious university in a predominately white town. While working in groups with other students, he was ignored or talked over during class discussions when sharing his opinion or the correct answer to a homework assignment. But when a white classmate spoke, even repeating what he had just said, they would receive a reaction or praise from the group. Lewis said he was first called a racial epithet when he was just nine years old, and throughout his life he’s been acutely aware when he walks into a room that he is different from everyone else. Mola noted that when he’s seeking funding for his company from VC firms, investors seem confused when meeting him in-person for the first time.

In addition to sharing experiences, each panelist reflected on overcoming hardships, their personal successes, and expressed how our industry can improve its diversity efforts to be more supportive and inclusive.

“Don’t hire resumes, hire people. If you’re not exposed to people who are different than you, then you’re missing out on what they could contribute, and it could be something that really catapults your organization to the next level.”

– Stanley Lewis, M.D., co-founder and CEO of A28 Therapeutics

Kariuki added that it’s essential for leadership to take the time to let their employees know they care about them by regularly checking in. Although this is important for all employees, it can especially make minority employees feel welcome, heard, and included. Mola also addressed underrepresentation within the industry’s workforce, noting an emphasis on STEM education in schools and creating a pipeline for high school students to introduce them to careers in life science is one long-term solution.

“We need to be a bit more strategic in how we go about solving it. Otherwise, it could be interesting to talk about for a couple of years, and then we’ll forget about it.”

– Paul Mola, founder, president and CEO of Roswell Biotechnologies

A big hurdle for any biotech business is receiving funding, but all the panelists expressed it’s even more difficult for Black entrepreneurs (roughly only one percent of venture capital goes to Black-owned startups, according to a 2021 report by Crunchbase). Mola said this is one of the top problems that Black biotech leaders are currently facing. His company, which recently appeared in an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for developing the first molecular electronics chip, still has no VC funding and is entirely bootstrapped, he said. He compared getting access to VC money to trying to get into to an exclusive club.

“It’s almost like the door is closed, and we are waiting for someone to open the door and allow us to enter.”

– Paul Mola, founder, president and CEO of Roswell Biotechnologies

The life science industry can benefit from a diverse workforce, Lewis emphasized, and said executives need to see it as essential for a company’s success.

“Our lifeblood is innovation. If we really want to get beyond our current plateaus and have more breakthroughs. We’re going to have to introduce new ideas from new people. Diversity is that engine. Diversity is innovation. It’s synonymous with life science.”

– Stanley Lewis, M.D., co-founder and CEO of A28 Therapeutics

View the archived event recording from February 16, 2022 at Biocom California’s headquarters below.