11 women who prove that health tech investing isn't a boys' club

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Health Tech Matters

11 women who prove that health tech investing isn't a boys' club

  • There are higher numbers of female investors in health-tech than in traditional tech, according to new research.
  • But women are still the minority.
  • Meet 11 female investors who are changing the ratio.

Women continue to represent a tiny sliver of investors in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs.

But in health tech, the divide isn't quite as stark as in other sectors.

New research from the early-stage investment fund Rock Health found that women make up about 11 percent of health-tech partners, a slight decrease from 11.4 percent in 2015. The average overall for venture capital is just 7 percent.

In the research process, Rock Health looked at the websites of 131 venture firms that invested in at least 5 start-ups in the space. The researchers specifically included partners and managing directors, while discounting associates, principles and board partners. It also didn't include life sciences funds, of which there are also higher-than-average numbers of female partners.

CNBC set out to meet 11 female investors in both digital health and life sciences to find out what they'd change about Silicon Valley, how they got into venture, and what they're looking for.

These interviews have all been edited for brevity.

Halle Tecco, Techammer angel investor 

Halle Tecco

Nerd cred?

Probably the Shark Tank database I maintain.

Most admired female exec in any industry?

Sheila Johnson. She is one of the most multi-talented entrepreneurs who proves that you can continue to reinvent yourself. Sheila has been a concert violinist, the founder of BET, a film producer, owner of two professional sports teams, a mother, a hotelier, and a philanthropist.

Biggest portfolio success story?

In terms of exit multiple, Misfit Wearables (which sold to Fossil for $260 million) has been my best personal investment.

What's first thing you'd change about Silicon Valley if you had a magic wand?

Professionally, I grew up in Silicon Valley. I moved there straight from college, and left only two years ago. I loved my time in the Bay Area but if I were to change anything, it would be the livability. It's become so overcrowded, expensive and monocultural.

Julie Papanek Grant, Canaan Partners partner 

Canaan Partners

Most admired female exec in any industry?

I started my career working under Sue Desmond-Hellmann at Genentech. She was intensely focused; fearless when it came to making organizational change; led with patients' interests first; and also remained humble. I remember seeing her on public transportation commuting to Genentech while executives at other companies took private jets and helicopters.

What question do you wish you were asked more often?

I wish more venture capitalists called me, or other women in business, to ask for recommendations for qualified women for boards, investor positions or CEO roles.

What's first thing you'd change about Silicon Valley if you had a magic wand?

The cost of living and commute times. The Bay Area needs to take affordability and transportation infrastructure seriously. Employees are less willing to commute 90 minutes or more and companies cannot retain the teams they need.

Camille Samuels, Venrock partner 

Camille Samuels

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture?

I think of myself as "just one of the _____" (insert your preferred noun, like "guys" or "partners" or "colleagues.") That's often not how others usually see me, and I worry that there are jokes I don't hear, events I don't get invited to, or deals I don't see as a result of simply being "different."

Most admired female exec in any industry?

Ruth Bader Ginsberg for being strong, funny, outspoken, and irreverent. Oh, and for her politics!

Biggest portfolio company success story?

I was the only institutional investor in a seed round for a company called Kythera. I actually helped conceive of the founding idea and recruited the awesome CEO, Keith Leonard. The company went on to go public, get a drug approved, and sell to Allergan for $2.1 billion.

What's first thing you'd change about Silicon Valley if you had a magic wand?

I'd change the star culture, particularly the way the media depicts our companies as being created and propelled by a singular hero. Building a great company is a group activity, and it's not nearly as simple as a brilliant and charismatic founder getting a fancy venture capitalist to give him lots of money.

Lisa Suennen, GE Ventures managing director

Lisa Suennen

Biggest challenge about being a woman in venture?

While most men in venture are great to work with, there are unfortunately a notable number who don't take women seriously. It's also very frustrating to watch how some male VCs treat female entrepreneurs. However, there are some signs that the tolerance of that behavior is shifting.

Nerd cred?

I am a spelling fanatic. I can't help but correct everyone's spelling and grammar at all times, and I have no control over the urge to do this.

Who's your professional mentor?

I have some great peers who I rely on heavily for guidance, input and support. I think of them as my personal board of directors. When I first started my career in health care, my boss at American Biodyne, Shannon Kennedy, was key to my ability to rise through the ranks.

What question do you wish you got asked more often in interviews?

"What do I do to ensure my daughter has a better go of it than those who came before her in the business world?"

Rebecca Lynn, Canvas Ventures' general partner 

Rebecca Lynn, Canvas

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture? Getting asked all the time for names of women that male investors can hire, but almost never as investment partners.

Nerd cred: Working at a nuclear research reactor in college. I even have a patent on a radio nuclei generator.

Favorite female exec in any industry: Stephanie Tilenius, CEO of Canvas' portfolio company Vida Health (see below), or Judy Faulkner, because she owns so much equity in Epic, which is a multibillion dollar private company.

Biggest success story: Lending Club (In December 2014, the company raised almost $900 million in the largest tech IPO of the year).

The first thing you'd change about Silicon Valley if you had a magic wand: Silicon Valley is out of touch with middle America. I'd love it if we had a better understanding of the rest of the nation.

Nina Kjellson, Canaan Partners general partner 

Canaan Partners

Why aren't there more female health-tech investors?

There are very few women investors. Period. We've done a poor job of exposing young women to venture capital as a career path and the industry, generally, has a reputation as the domain of entrepreneurial cowboys, engineers and C-suite execs.

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture?

VC is more flexible than most careers, but it's still an intense juggle with career, family and community commitments. It always feels like something is falling short.

What are you looking for from an investment standpoint?

Exceptional founder(s) and teams with grit, big vision and a sense of deep passion and curiosity about the space they are innovating in. And areas of significant unmet need where the value to patients and the health care system is beyond incremental.

What question do you wish you got asked more often?

"What does your gut tell you?"

Ann Lamont, Oak Investment Partners and Oak HC/FT managing partner

Ann Lamont

Why aren't there more female health-tech investors?

If you told me 30 years ago that women would make such limited progress entering venture, I wouldn't have believed you. In hindsight, I think it's a virtual loop as partnerships tend to be smaller and hires are infrequent.

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture?

The biggest challenge for women is getting into venture. I was fortunate to find my way in. I did what I had to do to get in and once I became a general partner, I can honestly say I rarely thought about being a woman in the industry.

Most admired female exec in any industry?

Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet, is amazing. Not only is she brilliant, but she is the hardest-working person I know. She has a true north, fantastic sense of humor and is an incredible mother with an amazing relationship with her boys.

What question do you wish you got asked more often?

"Who knew healthcare could be so complicated?"

Jan Garfinkle, Arboretum Ventures managing director 

Jan Garfinkle

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture?

Being one of the only woman in the board room, although that is getting better. On most of my boards there are two women!

Nerd cred?

Having a bioengineering degree from Berkeley, and working as an engineer for Procter and Gamble as my first job out of engineering school.

What question do you wish you got asked more often in interviews?

"How do you have a successful career while raising great kids?"

What's first thing you'd change about Silicon Valley if you had a magic wand?

I'm in Ann Arbor, and love investing in Midwest companies. Silicon Valley could learn to be more capital efficient.

Wende Hutton, Canaan Partners general partner

Canaan Partners

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture?

The health care venture business is a challenge. And winning the right deals over the long-haul is more difficult with the unconscious bias that women face in the board room or in VC partnerships.

Biggest portfolio success story?

I am very proud of the investment in Labrys. We always cheer when a drug achieves impressive results in clinical trials and Labrys, now owned by (pharmaceutical giant) Teva, will bring substantial relief to patients with chronic migraines. The drug is expected to hit the market in the next 12 to 18 months.

What question do you wish you got asked more often?

I wish more entrepreneurs asked me, "How might we work well together to build a successful company?"

What's first thing you'd change about Silicon Valley if you had a magic wand?

Let's all join hands and migrate away from the "bro culture" and use the best and brightest minds in Silicon Valley to devise company cultures that embrace innovation, diversity and social responsibility.

Stephanie Tilenius, angel investor and Vida Health CEO 

Stephanie Tilenius

Nerd cred?

I love reading clinical studies and papers about epigenetic mechanisms in cancer and mental health to understand the root causes of these diseases and the linkage to our genetics to develop preventive solutions.

Most admired female exec in any industry?

23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki for her early vision that consumers would want control of their data in healthcare. And for her persistence in pushing through hard times with the FDA, and evolving 23andMe to a digital health success story with multiple business lines.

What question do you wish you got asked more often?

"How should we reinvent healthcare from the bottom up and fundamentally change the industry so that consumers have choice, transparency and accountability like other industries?"

The company you passed on that you regret the most?

Investing in Airbnb at a $2 billion (valuation) when I was at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. The numbers looked similar to eBay, except higher marketing costs. I had stayed in Airbnb homes and loved the experiences. (But) we couldn't convince the naysayers.

Alexis Ji, Illumina Ventures' Partner

Illumina Ventures

Biggest challenge with being a woman in venture?

It is sometimes necessary to stick to more gender-neutral topics to connect and relate with male investors and entrepreneurs, when we are not talking about science and business. It can at times be challenging to connect on topics that aren't specific to my interests, like sports!

Nerd cred?

Earlier in my science training, I spent days to purify proteins, grew protein crystals and solved crystal structures. When I was pursuing my Ph.D., I used graph theory to design algorithms and wrote thousands of lines of code to predict RNA structures.

Most admired female exec in any industry?

When I was a girl in China, the international news was filled with stories about the "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the U.K. She made a deep impression on me by setting an example of how a woman can influence the modern world at a global level.

The start-up you passed on that you regret the most?

None so far, and I hope to keep it that way. I always have to have good reasons to pass on deals and I don't regret making those decisions.