Life in the Life Sciences for HBS Women

Emily Levy (MBA ’84) was working in a research laboratory at Yale in the early 1980s when she heard about a business called Genentech that had just gone public.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there’s this whole industry of science meets business.’ Maybe I could get into that if I knew the business part,” said Levy, who decided to apply to HBS as “an experiment //”

She got in and found she indeed had a lot to learn: “My first day, I met someone who said they worked for Bain. I said, ‘What’s Bain?'” When she graduated, she found that the budding biotech industry wasn’t sure what to do with her, either.

“I actually got offers to go back into the lab,” said Levy. “There were very few companies where there were opportunities for newly-minted MBAs replica watches.” Levy wound up joining Genzyme and today works as an independent consultant in biotech.

Lisa Putukian (MBA ’88) had a different challenge–after undergraduate studies in administrative sciences and working as operations manager for a symphony orchestra, selling herself into biotechnology required creative thinking.

“I did a whole lot of informational interviews in which people said, ‘Am I crazy? I don’t have a science degree,'” said Putukian. Most people she spoke with encouragingly advised her that she could pick up the expertise needed on the job, and that her business knowledge would be valuable in the still-emergent field. After graduation, she consulted for several local biotech firms, eventually landing a fulltime role. She now serves as VP of business development at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, helping leverage the intellectual property created through the institution’s research into potential business opportunities.

As both Levy and Putukian discovered, the area of life sciences, broadly defined as encompassing healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, offers opportunities for HBS alums with a variety of backgrounds.

Today, fellow female Boston-area graduates are involved with some of the leading companies and hottest entrepreneurial ventures in the field.

Cynthia Fisher (MBA ’90), has helped found not one but two companies–Viacord, Inc. (started in 1993) and ViaCell, Inc., launched in April 2000. ViaCell garnered an impressive $60 million in funding during the tightening VC market of 2000. Both companies are connected to the rapidly-developing area of medical applications for stem cells found in umbilical cord blood. Viacord enables expectant parents to “bank” these precious cord blood cells at the time their child is born. Material that would otherwise be discarded can be stored for possible future use in treating disease in that child or another close relative. ViaCell aims to manufacture “cellular medicines” derived from banked stem cells to treat certain cancers, genetic disorders and neurological diseases.

In effect, Fisher and her colleagues created a whole new industry, along with the ethical standards for regulating it, in the course of launching Viacord. She’s gratified by the relatively-short time it took to gain broad acceptance.

“What’s really exciting for me is to see stem-cell banking go from the early years when there were many skeptics to now, when physicians state that it’s a ‘no-brainer’ as they recommend Viacord to expectant parents,” said Fisher.

Heidi Wyle (MBA ’89), another successful life sciences entrepreneur, founded Ardais Corporation in December 1999, and has raised raising $60 million for this venture since inception. Ardais is working with leading hospitals to create a library of human tissue that will support the personalized medicine promised by the successful mapping of the human genome sequence. Wyle, who is on the Board of Directors of Ardais, primarily focuses on the ethical and strategic issues arising from the execution of the company’s mission.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about the right thing to do,” she said. “How do you not compromise the clinical situation of the patient at all? How do you protect patient privacy?”

Like Fisher and Levy, Wyle, a Ph.D. in medical physics from MIT, brought a scientific background into her work. Mara Aspinall (MBA ’87), however, has a different background. She worked after HBS at Bain and the Boston law firm of Hale & Dorr before joining Genzyme Corporation, where she now serves as president of Genzyme Genetics and Genzyme Pharmaceuticals.

Aspinall acknowledges spending “a lot of time with textbooks” to get up to speed, but generally found that, like Putukian, her success in the business came through applying critical thinking and overall management skills. Putukian, however points out that it is getting tougher to get into biotech these days without some requisite science background given the proliferation of people with multiple degrees.

“I think most importantly people need to ask the right questions–it’s inappropriate to think of yourself as doing everyone’s job,” said Aspinall. “You have gifted people working for you that can’t be micro-managed.”

Whatever their original backgrounds, all these women now seem hooked by the intrinsic rewards of working in the life sciences. They stick with it because they see lives touched through their efforts. Fisher told the story of a nine-year-old patient with sickle-cell anemia who had suffered five strokes by the age of six. After stem-cell therapy from a sibling’s cord blood, she is fully cured and living a healthy, normal life. Levy described meeting a young boy who would have lost his spleen except for an enzyme developed by Genzyme that cured him. “We had pictures of him where he looked nine months pregnant,” she said. Wyle noted, “[The business] interests me because I have a high degree of empathy for people–I hate to see people sick.”

Also intriguing to them is the potential to affect not just today’s lives, but also tomorrow’s, with the work they are doing. “As our children assume you can fix things, there’s an expectation there’s more action you can take–you don’t have to live with pain,” said Aspinall.

All predict continued growth in exciting new frontiers like cellular medicine, genetic testing and personalized medicine. Clearly, jobs in this industry feed more than just business ambition. “What turns me on is working with the best people in the world to build the future now,” said Wyle. “We build the future, and I love that.”

HBS Alumni Networking in the Life Sciences For HBS graduates working or seeking to work in the life sciences arena, there’s a new and growing alumni group, the HBS Health Industry Alumni Association, started in December 1999 by Beatrice Ellerin (MBA ’95). The organization is the first industry-focused alumni group sanctioned by HBS, according to Ellerin, and has a membership of over 600 worldwide. It includes graduates from the 1950s to the present, working in all aspects of healthcare, from pharmaceuticals and biotech to doctors, lawyers and venture capitalists.

“I found that there are so many interesting and successful people from HBS in healthcare,” said Ellerin. “I thought it would be great to have a more formal network where people could access expertise.”

HBS Health will hold its second annual conference November 16-17, 2001 at HBS. For more information about the conference or joining the network, visit their website: