Antiva Biosciences: Case Study in Difficulties Facing Biotechs Focused on Women’s Health

In the biotech world, only 7 to 9 percent of companies have women as their chief executives. Antiva BioSciences is a good example of how this problem is perpetuated.

Industry, in general, does not have enough women heading companies. One study suggested that in the Fortune 500, only about 4.2 percent were led by female chief executives. In biotech, the number is better, although still remarkably low, with a rate of 7 to 9 percent typically cited.

Regardless of equality issues, there is an area where this appears to be particularly problematic—gaining the interest of venture investment from male-led firms in companies focused on women’s health.

And part of what makes that both dismaying and puzzling, is that significantly more money is spent per capita on women’s health—24 percent more in 2015—than on men’s health. You would think that would get the attention of even male-led venture capital firms, but in reality, according to a 2017 STAT article, “investment in women’s health startups is measured in millions of dollars, not billions, and less than 5 percent or so of venture capital investment goes to women-led companies.”

South San Francisco-based Antiva Biosciences is a good example of the problem. Each year, approximately half-a-million women in the U.S. require surgery for precancerous cervical lesions caused by cervical neoplasia caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Antiva is working on developing a drug that would eliminate the need for that surgery. It has early-stage safety data in 16 women and expects more data to be released later this year. Their topical drug can be self-administered with an applicator similar to that used to insert a tampon.

“What we want to do is basically make cervical neoplasia as easy as treating a yeast infection,” Antiva’s chief executive officer, Gail Maderis, told STAT recently.

Yet the company had a lot of trouble getting the interest of venture capital companies, especially if they were made up of men. “It’s very safe to say that we got more traction in VC firms where there was a woman partner who was in a decision-making role,” Maderis said. “It’s much easier for them to relate to the need for this.”

It should be noted that women-led biotech companies or venture firms do not need to be focused on women’s health issues. There are numerous female executives at biopharma companies that have a more universal focus—Emma Walmsley, chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline, Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and chief executive officer of 23andMe, Rachel Haurwitz, president and chief executive officer of Caribou Biosciences, for example.

However, companies that are focused on women’s health often have difficulty gaining the attention of investors who are male.

Maderis describes a meeting with on potential VC investor who hadn’t shown much interest. But the next day the male investor called her, indicating he had told his physician wife about the company and she had convinced him to take a harder look at the company. Ultimately he didn’t invest in Antiva, but it is emblematic of the problem.

One of Antiva’s investors, and now a board member, is David Kabakoff with San Diego-based Sofinnova Ventures. STAT writes, “Over the past few years, as part of their due diligence process, Kabakoff and his team have made several dozen calls to OB-GYNs to ask them what they think of Antiva’s pitch. The data was limited and anecdotal, but the trend was unmistakable: Male physicians tended to express skepticism about the need for a drug. Female physicians tended to say new treatment options are badly needed.”

And it’s not as if Antiva is the only example of what appears to be a gender-biased lack of interest in companies working in the women’s health arena. There are exceptions, STAT notes, primarily breast cancer. And recently there has been more focus on fertility and contraception.

Kabakoff told STAT, “I think the concern in the investment community about women’s health has nothing to do with whether there are unmet needs in the market, but with the fact that there are relatively few large pharma players who are in the business. And after all, there are only two exit opportunities that we have for these companies: One is we sell them. The other is we take them public.”

It’s, of course, possible that investors’ lack of interest in Antiva is due to other concerns. For example, Antiva hasn’t released Phase I data yet, and there’s a bigger competitor working on a related product, Pennsylvania-based Inovio. But with a potential U.S. market of 500,000 women for what is essentially an unmet medical need, a lukewarm response is a bit unsettling.

On the other hand, Antiva ultimately is doing a pretty good job in raising money, having brought in a total of $52.5 million so far, with a most recent Series C-1 raise this summer of $15 million. It was led by Hillhouse Capital Management, and existing investors included Sirona Capital, Canaan Partners, Sofinnova Ventures, Brace Pharma Capital, Osage University Partners and Lumira Capital.

At the time, Hillhouse’s healthcare team stated, “We are eager to leverage our global experience to assist Antiva in developing a topical therapy that has the potential to help millions of men and women across the world. We believe in Antiva’s mission and are excited to partner with a talented team.”