To set the context, could you share more about your journey to Petri?
Over the past 20+ years, I’ve spent my career working at the intersection of education and innovation. At first I was focused on being an innovative educator and then I became passionate about large-scale change. I have worked in every sector and with every age group trying to find that sweet spot where my skills and experiences are best leveraged for impact.
In 2012, right after I had my son, I was drawn to an opportunity at MIT: the Department of Biological Engineering posted that they were looking for someone to support their students in learning how to communicate effectively. The more I learned about this opportunity, the more enticing it became. There was an incumbent — a writing program that already existed — and there was a vast sea of potential. I figured that if I could figure out how to improve engineering students’ skills for the biological engineering department, I could scale the program across the School of Engineering — which is ~75% of MIT.
Being at MIT was the first time I really got to be an entrepreneur — though I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I launched the MIT Communication Lab and, by my second year, I was already growing the program to support the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering as well. By five years in, we had five departments in the program — including the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I realized the program needed a different institutional structure, so I led the acquisition process for the Comm Lab to become housed in the School of Engineering’s Gordon Leadership Program. I loved working at MIT — and met some of the most wonderful people there. I continue to serve on the Steering Committee of the MIT Communication Lab.
While I was at MIT, I was introduced to a colleague at Harvard who, at the time, oversaw the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching — the university’s hub for innovation in education. I was invited to take the lead on a new role at the University to help fund, launch, and scale ideas to improve teaching and learning. When I first arrived, the University was primarily focused on teaching and learning innovations at Harvard driven by faculty to improve Harvard. I launched a new fund, Operation Impact, to support students innovation for global impact in education as well.
About three years into working at Harvard, a former fellow of mine from the MIT Communication Lab, Tony Kulesa, invited me to help build Petri. Tony was in my first cohort of Communication Fellows at MIT, so I’ve known him for 8+ years at this point — since his first year as a PhD student in the Department of Biological Engineering. He has always been driven to clear a pathway for entrepreneurship in the life sciences and often came to me for strategic advice as he trail-blazed new courses for technical students to learn about biotech, founded the MIT Biotech Group, and led a number of other high-value initiatives.
It was an easy decision to join Petri. Petri is a new approach for funding formation-stage startups at the intersection of biology and engineering. Petri develops companies attacking the world’s largest problems in human health and sustainability. There were so many reasons why I found this opportunity compelling — it’s an exceptional team with incredible impact. Additionally, the role is really exciting — I can flex my entrepreneurial wings while leveraging my experience in education to design the right sorts of experiences to help technical founders grow alongside their companies.
How have you applied what you learned in the education world to heading programs at Petri for biotech founders?
Yes, I have been applying what I’ve learned in education to working with biotech founders. I find myself leveraging different design principles to figuring out how to meet each founder where he/she is on his/her journey. Interestingly, a lot of my business principals as a founder stem from my practices as an educator — concepts on leadership, management, and communication — which are often opaque areas for technical founders. In many ways, Petri is the culmination of all of my experiences to date.
How have you seen content play a role in the VC and startup world?
I see lots of VC firms using content as a way of sharing their successes and spotlight their commitment to a certain investment thesis. For us, however, I think of content as being part of our broader vision to help PhD students and Post-docs start thinking about a potential pathway in entrepreneurship early on, as technical founders. That’s why we decided to launch our own podcast, which will debut in Spring 2021. In the podcast we interview successful bio + tech founders about their roots as a founder, talk with them about the breakthrough science happening in their company, we discuss impact and, finally, we ask each founder to share three concrete tips for building, based on their own experiences. We’re going to be tagging and cataloging his advice to build out a library of advice for early-stage bio + tech founders so that they have the best of the best giving them nuanced and practical advice to help them as they build their own companies.
How do you think investors can most effectively close the gender gap in the startup world, especially in biotech?
I am passionate about supporting women founders in bio + tech. When I first joined the firm about a year ago, I was surprised that I was often the only woman in the room — the education sector is quite different! The men at the firm genuinely wanted more women in the ecosystem but weren’t sure how to do that. I realized it was going to take an insider — a woman — to lead the way. I started doing a lot of customer interviews with women founders and launched a bunch of rapid-fire experiments to see where I got traction and how I could move the needle.
I’ve learned a bunch of things. The first is that — just by being a woman — I think that makes it more inviting for other women to stick their neck out to start a dialog. I started hosting Women Founders Network “office hours” and it took a little while to gain momentum, but I now have quite a few women reaching out — at all stages — for advice on how to get started, how to give back as a mentor, how to pitch their idea and build their team — you name it. It’s made me realize that we need more women in VC, period. The more women we have at the table, the more this issue remains front and center and the more access we can offer for women founders.
I also learned that supporting women founders is different from supporting men. There’s something about the comradery that happens when women are among women. They are more vulnerable and open when asking for help — they are less worried about the optics and feel safer putting themselves out there. I’ve been hosting an “Action Group” for women builders and it’s been incredible to see the community and support that has been developing across similar-stage women builders.
I’ve seen that it takes a village to collectively move the needle, which is why we’re hosting a big spotlight and support event in early June 2021 to draw the ecosystem together. I’m really excited for this event as a way of bringing people together. We’ll be sharing more on this event very soon.
Supporting women founders isn’t a one-time event. It’s something I think about every day. We need to make sure that, for example, for every male podcast episode we host, we have a female founder interviewed as well. After the Women Founders Network event in the summer, I am going to be facilitating and hosting ongoing support for this growing community. My goal is to foster collaboration across the bio + tech ecosystem that’s going to, collectively, improve this gap. We all win when there are more women founding and launching successful companies.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself to worry less. I wasted so much time wondering, in my twenties and thirties, if I was doing the right thing, professionally. I worried I needed different degrees and I worried about certain experiences closing doors. But the truth is — there’s no way I could have predicted landing where I am today. I feel so lucky to be on such a talented team that is doing such important work in this world — it is such a privilege. The fact that I’ve had a windy path has actually made me (I’d like to believe!) a really interesting addition to the team. I genuinely see things differently. I also credit Petri for their forward thinking in asking me to join the team — it’s not often you see a VC firm — let alone a bio + tech company — selecting someone with my background in education onto the team.
- What are you most excited about in 2021 with Petri and biotech in general?
There is pretty much no way we would have launched Petri in 2020 had we known that a global pandemic was about to unravel. My first day at Petri was the first day of COVID-19 lockdowns (with my eight year old son at home!). We beat unbelievable odds launching when we did — and we ended up having to pivot some of our strategy immediately. And yet, a year later, we’ve seen enormous success with our first companies. 50% of our portfolio companies have received really solid term sheets; the median raise has been $5M so far.
I am so excited for 2021 for so many reasons. Personally, I can’t wait for my son to go to school again! We’re doubling down on sustainability and crafting a new therapeutics strategy. We’re meeting such talent for our People Connector and for potential investments. I can’t wait to be able to meet in person and build community in a way that is innately challenging to do virtually.
But on a meta level, I’m super excited about the fact that our national leader is a passionate supporter of science. The bio + tech industry has been key to turning this pandemic around and I believe the time is ripe for us to realize, collectively, that the world is a better place with a thriving bio + tech innovation ecosystem. We need new ideas, new founders, and new models of companies to push boundaries and provide solutions to some of our most daunting problems — like we’re doing at Petri. It’s going to be an amazing year.