“The reaction from investors to a women’s health opportunity was disappointing at best" - BioInnovation Institute

“The reaction from investors to a women’s health opportunity was disappointing at best”

“The reaction from investors to a women’s health opportunity was disappointing at best”

BioInnovation Institute (BII) has welcomed the co-founder of the women’s health biotech company KaNDy Therapeutics, Mary Kerr, to the Women’s Health Innovation Panel.  

KaNDY Therapeutics became well-known in the women’s health space for developing a non-hormonal treatment for symptoms of menopause. As CEO, Mary Kerr and her co-founder Mike Trower led the company until Bayer acquired it in September 2020 for an upfront consideration of $425 million, potential development and regulatory milestone payments of up to $450 million, followed by possible additional triple-digit million sales milestone payments. Today, the compound is in phase 3 clinical trials.  

We talked with Mary Kerr, who went from post-doctoral research in estrogen-sensitive tumors to top leadership positions at GSK and ViiV Healthcare before she made an exit in women’s health with KaNDy Therapeutics.  

Why did you join the BII Women’s Health Innovation Panel?
BII’s Women’s Health Initiative is needed to shed light on a space that historically has received so little attention. By providing much-needed funding for innovative academic research and start-ups, BII signals to VCs and the pharma industry that there is an enormous global unmet need and associated commercial opportunity in women’s health. Venture capital is crucial for stimulating early discovery and development; this initiative and recent high exits will hopefully lead to renewed investor interest.  

What was your journey into the entrepreneurial world?
I was leaving GSK and doing due diligence on a VC-funded company called NeRRe because I was considering taking the position of CEO. I jumped on a call where the founder, Mike Trower, was presenting to a women’s health expert, and I was listening to them talking about the science behind one of the company’s compounds. Just random dots of evidence and little pieces of information came together as they spoke, and when I got off the call, I said to my husband: “I think this compound will work in menopause.” I joined NeRRe to pursue that vision, and two years later, in 2017, Mike Trower and I founded the spin-out KaNDy Therapeutics. I am still CEO of NeRRe.  

Why did you decide to spin-put KaNDy Therapeutics?
We had two compounds in NeRRe, one we were targeting for menopause and one for a chronic cough currently in phase 2. Two very different conditions and the pool of investors interested in women’s health was much smaller. I was super excited about the possibility of non-hormonal treatment for menopause. I saw it as cutting-edge technology, but investors’ reaction was disappointing at best and outright shocking at worst. There was minimal interest in menopause, even though it is experienced by every single woman globally. I spoke to around 40 VCs trying to raise a Series B investment, and not surprisingly; it was a VC with a female Partner, Ena Prosser from Fountain Health Partners, who stepped up with Advent Life Sciences to lead the financing. Other supportive VCs, Forbion and OrbiMed, joined the syndicate. 

Why do you think there was so little interest?
There was a time when investments in treatment for menopause and women’s health generally were much healthier. Hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) was a billion-dollar market; millions of women were on this treatment, especially in the US. However, in the early 2000s, the market imploded overnight due to a longitudinal study suggesting increased breast cancer risk and cardiovascular side effects with HRT. The data has since been put into context, but it created fear in the pharma industry and, as a result, reduced interest among investors. The trajectory for women’s health would probably have been quite different if that event had not happened.  

What led to Bayer acquiring KaNDy Therapeutics?
We started speaking to Bayer in 2017 because of their commitment to women’s health. Bayer followed the progress of KaNDy and understood Bayer’s expectations of a data package. I always advise founders to make an early connection with target pharma companies that could eventually become acquirers without expecting an immediate sale. Keeping the doors open and the dialogue going is essential, so it is easy to pick up negotiations when a triggering event happens. 

What is your expectation for the BII women’s health Innovation Panel?  

I look forward to participating with the other members of BII’s Women’s Health Innovation Panel to identify and support academics and entrepreneurs to progress their innovations to benefit women and society. Specifically, I am keen to share my experience as a founder and CEO of a successful women’s health start-up. 

Read more about BII’s Women’s Health Initiative 

Large acquisitions spark greater investment interest in women’s health

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