Editor’s note: This article is part of a series spotlighting female medical entrepreneurs who serve other women.
Michelle Dipp has viewed medical entrepreneurship from both sides of a pitch.
As cofounder of the Longwood Fund, which invests in companies that are inventing solutions to persistent medical problems, she has seen firsthand how research-based ventures can make people healthier and their lives better. And as cofounder of OvaScience, a publicly traded company that provides alternative fertility treatments for women, she knows what it takes to build just such a business.
Dipp’s rich professional experience has introduced her to many women like herself who are using business to find and deliver effective and creative treatments for a range of women’s medical conditions. But she says many more women are needed on all levels of the medical industry — and in venture capitalism — if we are to foster more innovation.
“We definitely see women scientists being more passionate about women’s health issues,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Oxford with a PhD in 2001 and a doctorate in 2005, Dipp embarked upon a career marked by serial entrepreneurship and investment. She worked at outfits like London-based biomedical research foundation Wellcome Trust, and helped found several companies, including oral-medication maker Alnara Pharmaceuticals and biopharma company VeraStem, which researches medications that target malignant tumor cells.
At the Longwood Fund, Dipp says she and her colleagues are in the business of “backing early stage science” with the potential to yield new approaches to treatment. She helped launch the fund in 2010, which typically invests $15 million to $20 million in each portfolio company, and has often searched labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other Boston-area research hubs in pursuit of the next big thing.
As it turns out, many of the firms Longwood backs are founded by women. For example, it has invested in Calithera Biosciences, run by Dr. Susan M. Molineaux, which is researching drugs that target tumor cell growth and immunity. And it has a stake in Mitobridge, run by Dr. Kazumi Shiosaki, which develops new drugs based on its mitochondrial research.
Another beneficiary of the fund is Dipp’s own company, OvaScience, which she helped launch in 2011 to develop new fertility treatment options for women around the world.
How it Helps
Dipp was inspired to start the firm after learning about a long-held and pervasive misconception about egg production in the ovaries. Medical students “have always been taught that that women are born with a set number of eggs that die over time,” she says. “I was taught that in medical school, even at the highest levels. The best scientists, that’s what they’re taught.”
But newer research reveals that, while eggs in the middle of the ovary do die off, there are additional eggs stored in the ovary lining called “egg precursor cells” that remain even as women age. OvaScience is working on curating and maturing those egg cells in humans.
Based on this discovery, OvaScience has developed several fertility treatments — two of which are available to clients abroad, though none are approved for use in the United States. The company’s Augment treatment promotes better egg health, while its OvaPrime treatment focuses on increasing egg reserves in female patients. A third treatment called OvaTure is in the works, and is designed to be a hormone-free update to in vitro fertilization (IVF), which can be both financially burdensome and emotionally taxing — and succeeds less than half of the time.
Dipp holds up OvaScience as an example of how women’s research and investments can lead to life-changing discoveries, and feels its body of work — and indeed, its very existence — is part of a larger trend.
To help along that trend, Dipp is currently moving away from OvaScience to focus on other projects, including the Longwood Fund, because, she says, more women VCs are needed to support these kinds of ventures. Often, Dipp has seen male VCs focus on aesthetic businesses — for example, those making skin-care products — as “women’s health” ventures. But female investors also include companies that address fertility problems or even incontinence as parts of that larger whole.
Why it Matters
Dipp says having more women involved in medical innovation can boost awareness of women’s health concerns. For instance, she has a special understanding of the pain women experience while struggling with fertility, due both to her involvement with OvaScience and her own interactions with female friends.
Infertility can be an especially fraught experience since “one thing we expect the body to be able to do is get pregnant, and we’re embarrassed and ashamed” when it doesn’t, she says. “We feel like our body has failed us, that it’s something we did. We blame ourselves.”
As a result, many suffer in silence, she adds. “It’s viewed as such a taboo, such a personal topic, that no one talks about it.” But Dipp aims to reduce the social stigma surrounding fertility struggles and help women feel less alone by demonstrating that infertility is a wider problem to be addressed.
Beyond raising awareness, involving both more female researchers and founders can increase the chances of finding long-lasting solutions for women — and building long-lasting businesses that will provide them. “Diversity makes companies more successful,” she says. “The more creativity of thought you have, the better.”