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Developer and Penny Pritzker-backed venture promote women in life sciences

The effort of the Prysm Institute and P33 takes on gender equity while trying to raise Chicago’s profile with venture capitalists.

Michelle Hoffmann, senior vice president of P33.
Michelle Hoffmann, senior vice president of P33.
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James Gillespie remembered the time he was at a meeting of life sciences entrepreneurs in San Francisco. A female head of a company confided that she often delegated her second-in-command, a male, to handle a ritual of the trade, the “pitch meeting” for impressing venture capitalists.

The male subordinate “doesn’t have to face the questions and challenges I do,” Gillespie recalled the executive saying. It crystallized in his mind an ingrained, continuing bias against support for women-led firms.

For Gillespie, a scholar in business management and data, that equates not only to sexism but lost opportunity. Citing data from Crunchbase, Gillespie noted that women-owned firms get less than 3% of venture capital. “You can’t say men have 97% of the good ideas,” he said.

For Michelle Hoffmann, who has advised startups in life sciences and health care and has a doctorate in molecular neuroscience, the message gets driven home to her during meetings in which she’s the only woman there. It can amount to an oppressive atmosphere. “When there’s nobody in the room who looks like you, you start to wonder, ‘Why am I here?’” she said.

Gillespie and Hoffmann are among those who have joined forces to change minds and improve outcomes in biotech and medical research, areas whose importance in our lives has been shown by the pandemic and the rush to develop vaccines.

Gillespie is executive director of the Prysm Institute, a Chicago-based accelerator in life sciences. Hoffmann is senior vice president of “deep tech” at Chicago’s P33, which has set out to be a catalyst for innovation that helps the region’s economy.

James Gillespie, executive director of the Prysm Institute
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They are cooperating to get more women to successfully launch companies in the life sciences. They aim to find entrepreneurs and get them where they want to be, with the right contacts for funds and mentoring.

This is no trifle. Prysm is a division of Sterling Bay, a real estate developer that has seized on life sciences as a source of tenants. The name P33 refers to Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition in 1933, which showed innovations of the time and the city’s role in delivering them.

The “P” is said to stand for “purpose, people, plans and progress,” but you’ll be forgiven if you think it stands for nothing other than “Pritzker.” Business leader and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is a co-chair and major force behind this nonprofit.

Working mostly from their own spaces in a business world that’s still remote, Gillespie and Hoffmann are connecting founders to local money and advice, often by involving the incubators 1871 and Matter, or the economic promoters at World Business Chicago. They can be reached through the Prysm and P33 websites.

“Because of the pandemic, the life sciences have really been thrust into the forefront,” said Suzet McKinney, former CEO of the Illinois Medical District and now a principal at Sterling Bay. “However, I will tell you that the life sciences had great momentum prior to COVID-19.”

The developer converted a building at 2430 N. Halsted St., formerly a part of Lurie’s Children’s Hospital, to accommodate labs and shared workspaces that appeal to life sciences startups. The 120,000-square-foot building is more than half leased, and the response is such that Sterling Bay wants its first building in the Lincoln Yards megasite to also specialize in life sciences, maybe businesses that have outgrown incubator space. At 320,000 square feet, the building is planned on the southern end of Lincoln Yards.

It’s really about creating a “knowledge community,” a cluster that will foster growth, McKinney said. “If a company comes to us small, we’re good with that. We love the opportunity to have a company … grow with us.”

Suzet McKinney, principal at Sterling Bay.
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Gender equity is one goal, but another for Prysm and P33 is to put the Chicago area on more venture capitalists’ radar. There has been progress the past few years, but Chicago still pretty much is viewed as a flyover country when it comes to tech investments.

An analysis by Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association put the 2020 deal volume in Chicago at $2.8 billion, up 21.5% from 2019. But the deals in Boston were $16.9 billion, up 47.6%. In San Francisco, $61.5 billion, up 18.8%. “We’re off by quite some order of magnitude,” Hoffmann said.

Changing that won’t happen overnight, but Gillespie and Hoffmann figure the tools are in place to do better, starting with the large employers that are tech innovators and the know-how at the universities.

Chicago also is adding hubs for medical research, biotech and related fields. The planned medical research center at the former Michael Reese Hospital site and development in the Illinois Medical District come to mind. These “knowledge communities” need to be synced.

A rendering of Sterling Bay’s planned life sciences building in Lincoln Yards.
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