For the third instalment of our D&I Leadership series, the team recently had the privilege to spend some time with Dame Kate Bingham, Managing Partner at venture capital firm SV Health Investors, and former Chair of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce.
Coulter Partners: Starting with your recent position as Chair of the UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, what roles do you think diverse thinking and inclusivity are playing in achieving the goals of the Taskforce?
Kate Bingham: I think this was one of the best performing teams I’ve ever worked with. What was fascinating was the diversity of the team. It was a mix of people from industry and from government. Some members of the team knew each other, but mostly they had never worked together before.
You can imagine that time was of the essence so we put together a strategy very quickly. People were all deeply expert in their own area, and each of them was given authority to take charge of a work stream and they were responsible for making it happen.
The team was highly effective, I think precisely because of that empowerment and very clear mandate, and also because of the team’s diversity – not only gender, age, and ethnicity, but also diversity of thinking. People came from very different backgrounds, not just the Oxbridge elite.
The team included very hard core practical people experienced in their fields. It would be difficult to name everyone involved but for example, Ian McCubbin ran factories for GSK all his life. Divya Chadha Manek has been running clinical trials within the UK for years, though the trials for the vaccines were of much higher magnitude and the scale up on manufacturing was bigger than we’ve ever done before. Tim Colley was a diplomat in Lithuania and had skills such as diplomacy, and most importantly, patience, to be able to work with all the different international organisations, which is like herding sheep. Ruth Todd used to run factories and build submarines, so nothing was too complicated or difficult for her! Maddy McTernan is a former investment banker/lawyer, who has been doing the most complex, serious, difficult transactions, and of course, all her contracts have been dissected out in public, when comparing UK contracts to the European ones. I was further supported by the superb Clive Dix – a serial biotech entrepreneur and drug discovery and development expert. He led the team diligencing and prioritising the vaccines around the world and was excellent. Nick Elliott was my Director General and was the person that fed into the government. Nick started his life as a bomb disposal expert and then worked in defence procurement.
So if you think of the sort of characters and personalities required for such an incredibly ambitious task, who do you appoint? You appoint somebody who knows the sector, knows the people and knows what needs to be done, combined with a bomb disposal expert coming from defence procurement who knows how government works, who knows how to get big contracts done, written and approved. So I think in terms of the lessons, a lot of it is to do with diversity, inclusion, clear mandate, clear authority, empowerment. And all with speed and no politics.
CP: Given your vast experience in the biotech and investor worlds, and your numerous Board roles, what are your personal observations of good D, E & I practices and how do they impact organisational thinking and performance?
Kate: For me, good practice means that you do have a diverse inclusive board and C-suite, not just token but systematic, and it needs to be beyond just gender and ethnicity. It’s the different ways of thinking that matter.
Having said that, diversity in gender is also important and I always make this joke that we wouldn’t have had a global crisis if it had been Lehman Sisters. I still believe that women tend to be more practical in finding solutions: rather than just saying, ‘It’s not acceptable, I’m not doing that’, they might say, ‘I don’t agree with you, but let’s find a solution for this’. So from our perspective, it is a very important criterion.
And to be fair, the recruiters, including Coulter Partners, now always produce short lists that will have fair and broad representation from all different diverse candidates, which is really important and fundamental to how we build companies, and having a gender balance really matters.
At SV Health Investors, we have female CEOs in 43% of the companies in our most recent fund, the ‘SV7 Impact Medicine Fund’, and a woman in the C-suite of 86% of those companies. The one that doesn’t have a woman in the C-suite, has a woman founder and plenty of women on the board. I think we are definitely practising what we preach in terms of gender balance, both at the board and in the C-suite.
We are also a signatory to ‘Investing in Women Code’, meaning we will continue to push senior women leaders, giving women the opportunity to be in the C-suite, get support and mentoring, but also the ability to sit on other boards. I think that to be an effective leader, you need to know more than just what’s going on in your company or the companies you’ve been involved with, and to actually see how other CEOs, C-suites and boards operate. I think it’s really important so that’s something I push quite hard.
CP: Over the course of the last couple of decades have you noticed a change in behaviours when you speak to CEOs, and do you find that it’s getting easier to convince them?
Kate: Yes. I think a few years ago, it was seen as a token, or not even recognised as something important to focus on. Now everybody is focused on it. That doesn’t mean we have any positive discrimination, as we would always recruit the best person for the job, but we keep shaking the trees until we can generate strong candidates that would include women. On the other hand, I’m building one company right now, which has a US-based male CEO. So far all the others we have found are women, so I think that may be going too far and we do need to have a balance. I don’t think that an all-women company is necessarily the right solution.
We’ve also looked at our own website and explicitly highlighted there that we welcome proposals from underrepresented groups. In addition, we send a broad ESG questionnaire to our portfolio companies, which explicitly asks: Do the companies have policies addressing diversity and inclusion? When we look at their board and C-suite members, and overall in the company, what does that look like? What sort of training do the companies provide? What approaches are they using to promote recruitment, retention and promotion of underrepresented groups? Does the company comply with equal pay? I think the answer is always Yes, but we want to at least have them formally tell us that.
Our legal documents highlight that we expect companies to have strong ESG policies and probably our biggest place of influence will be about the diversity access and inclusion. I think it makes a big difference. And I think it helps if you’ve got lots of strong senior women providing role models.
CP: I think that the fact that you are putting this at the same level as financial reporting is hugely significant. Other companies we talk to don’t always do that. They’ll mention it but in reality often focus more on points like EBITDA.
Kate: I think the world has moved on now. And this goes beyond social inclusion. We map ourselves against the UN’s SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals) because we’re finding that our investors care about it. Out of the 17 SDGs, we contribute to 7 of them. Gender equality is important but this is also about how we bring up younger people, train them and get them into either the SV business itself or into our companies. We take on many interns and secondees.
CP: Diversity doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of a female candidate and can come in many other ways, for example cognitive diversity linked to academic or industry background. At Coulter, we’re looking beyond life sciences to find placements for our sectors and guide our clients, because they might have a narrow vision of what their ideal appointee looks like.
Kate: I completely agree. Again, going back to vaccines, we were working with a wide range of different people: dealing with hardcore industrial manufacturing and scale up requires very different sorts of skills than early discovery, or starting a new company or expanding it to a point at which you’re launching drugs. That’s what you call cognitive diversity, which often also means international diversity. I estimate that the portion of our companies with non-British nationals in the C-suite, is likely to be close to 100%. Actually, by and large, we are scientists, and we tend to do better on international and cognitive diversity as everyone comes through a very wide range of education backgrounds.
CP: There’s a bit of a reputation that the R&D world doesn’t have enough female representation. Do you think that mentorship and the drive from some universities to get more women into STEM are all playing a role, and are you seeing the needle move?
Kate: I think it’s getting better definitely: we’ve never before had a position where 43% of our CEOs are women. We’ve often had women CBOs or CFOs as women tend to be found in commercial, finance, HR, or legal roles, but five years ago, I doubt we had a lot of women CSOs. The real test to know if we are making progress is to check if we’ve got more women CSOs. We now have three in our portfolio companies, which is certainly three more than five years ago. And also, they’re really good: Jane Osbourn as CSO – you can’t do much better!
I think it’s also worth making the point that your firm, Coulter Partners, and the best recruiters, are helping force the change by encouraging reticent firms in the way you work, generate candidates, and how you present them.
When we write job specs we are mindful that women will look at them differently than men: unlike men, they tend to put themselves forward only if they can tick all the criteria, so when we develop and share a job spec, we will make an explicit comment that we recognise we’re not going to get all of this, but that we put the “kitchen sink” in so that they can then mix and match as to what they can do versus what they can’t.
I think it’s a real art to get the highly qualified, but possibly less confident candidate to actually agree to put themselves forward and you’ve got to coach them and provide whatever training or support is needed for management when they ask for it. I’m setting up a company now, and we’re working with an HR coach so that we can be very explicit about culture fit, communications, expectations. I think that normally in small companies, the culture is very much led from the top and the CEO will typically set the tone of what they want, but we can actually be more overt about how we manage these cultural issues now. Ten years ago, we certainly never used to talk about culture in the boardroom, and now it’s something we talk about regularly.
I am excited by the progress we’ve made both towards better diverse representation and certainly in terms of how important the industry now views it to be. Although we still have a way to go before we achieve perfect diversity across the board, this recognition of its value is certainly something to celebrate.
Dame Kate Bingham
Prior to joining SV, Kate worked for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company in Cambridge, MA and at Monitor Company, a strategy consulting firm.
In May 2020 Kate was appointed Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce reporting to the Prime Minister to lead UK efforts to find and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine on a six month engagement stepping down as Chair in December 2020. On December 8th 2020 the UK started COVID-19 vaccinations – the first Western country to do so. She was awarded a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2021 for services to the procurement, manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Kate serves on the Board of the Francis Crick Institute and won the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the BioIndustry Association UK in January 2017. At weekends Kate spends time in Wales where she rides horses and mountain bikes, grows vegetables and competes in bog snorkelling competitions.
Kate holds a First class degree in Biochemistry from University of Oxford, and a MBA from Harvard Business School (Baker Scholar).
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