What group makes up half the global population? Women. Who makes about 80 percent of health-care decisions for their families? Women do. Women also have different bodies and medical needs than men, and innovation in health-care technology for women requires financial investment.
Yet big investors tend to put money into solutions to problems that they can relate to. And most venture capitalists are male. By one account, only approximately 20 percent of VC firms funding early-stage biotech companies have any women's-health-focused technologies represented in their portfolios at all. The top twenty VC firms most active in health care made upwards of 1,500 investments in the last decade, but only roughly 80 of those were in women's health.
Anula Jayasuriya is one of about 5 percent of venture capitalists who are female, and she is banking on the fact that the broadly defined women's-health-technology market is untapped, and on the reluctance of male financiers to go there. She put together the first-ever women's-health-focused investment fund, called EXXclaim Capital, which has supported early-stage companies making things like pregnancy-tracking apps, streamlined breast pumps that time-stamp bottles, and at-home sperm counters.
In addition to EXXclaim, Jayasuriya counteracts the sometimes-hostile male-dominated climate of venture capital and biotech through her work with Astia, a nonprofit identifying and funding female entrepreneurs and women-led ventures. We discussed the paucity of women in the fields she works in, why there's a built-in bias against women's-health startups, and why women in biotech may win the long game when it comes to career triumphs.
Madeleine Johnson: Can you explain the difference between biotech and tech?
Anula Jayasuriya: I've always thought it was funny that "tech" got hijacked to mean computer science. Life sciences or biotech, including medical devices, is similar to tech, in that they are both based on technology and move very fast, unlike, say, industrial engineering or the energy industry, which are also "tech."
MJ: As a venture capitalist, you invest in technologies focused on "women's health," and you have a somewhat nuanced way to define that; can you explain it?
AJ: I'm defining it holistically, to include both women as the users or end recipients of the care — what they want and need, and how they are different — as well as when women are caretakers, caregivers, and decision-makers on behalf of others. I think of it as three concentric circles. The little circle is OB/GYN and reproductive health. The second circle is common chronic diseases where women are different from men in terms of their symptoms, response to treatment, and outcomes. Cardiac disease is the best known in that category, but there are many others. And the third circle is places where women make decisions on behalf of both the elderly that they take care of and on behalf of children.
"Women and health" might be another term, or "sex- and gender-targeted medicine," so that we don't leave out men either but point to the importance of targeting to biological differences.
MJ: And is women's health a successful thing to invest in?
AJ: I'm seeing women's health, the way I define it, as an overlooked fantastic business investment opportunity. There are a lot of people who look at it, especially in the developing world, through a nonprofit lens, more from a social-justice perspective based on the ethics of providing care to people. I agree with that, by the way. But I believe very passionately that women's health is a huge market opportunity, because it's new and it is growing under everybody's nose, but only somewhere between 4 and 6 percent of venture capitalists are women.