Meet The Woman Who is Breaking Barriers In The Biotech Industry

By Vic Kolenc
El Paso Times, Texas

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dr. Michelle Dipp’s resume speaks for itself. She has co-founded five biotech startups, a biotech venture capital firm, and has become an executive for a large pharmaceutical company. Last year, Fortune Magazine, put her on its “40 under 40” list of the most influential young people in business, calling her a “biotech wunderkind.”

El Paso

When Dr. Michelle Dipp left El Paso in 1994 to pursue several medical degrees at the prestigious University of Oxford in England, she planned to be an eye surgeon.

But something happened in the science labs in Oxford that changed her life and sent her on the path to co-found five biotech startups, found a biotech venture capital firm, and become an executive for a large pharmaceutical company.

“I was doing my Ph.D., and I had people from hedge funds reach out to me. And I really didn’t know what a hedge fund was. And understanding that there were people who were interested in the forefront of technology and science was very exciting,” Dipp said during an interview last week in El Paso.

“I got calls from people asking me about (my research) papers, and that’s what led me into the world of biotech,” Dipp said.

Fortune Magazine, which last year put 39-year-old Dipp on its “40 under 40” list of the most influential young people in business, called her a “biotech wunderkind.”

Bob Coughlin, chief executive officer of MassBio, a Boston organization promoting and supporting Massachusetts’ large life-sciences industry, said Dipp is a rock star in Boston’s biotech industry.

“She is a woman small in stature, but huge when it comes to her passion and intensity,” Coughlin said. “She is so tenacious to bring science to the point it can benefit a patient.”

Her main focus for the past five years has been running Boston-area biotech startup OvaScience, which is using cell technology to improve women’s chances of conceiving babies during in vitro fertilization. She co-founded the company in 2011 with four men, including the scientist who discovered the cell technology.

The company eventually hopes to turn back women’s ever-ticking biological clocks by growing new eggs for women.

Dipp came to El Paso this month to help open the $29 million biomedical research building built by the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation in Central El Paso.

MCA officials and El Paso leaders hope the 60,000-square-foot Cardwell Collaborative building, with one floor of research labs and incubator space for biotech startups, produces biotech companies like the ones Dipp has produced. They hope the building sparks an El Paso biotech industry.

“The fact that we (El Paso) have a biotech hub, it’s kind of a big deal. Not many places in the U.S. have taken this step to create a hub,” Dipp said recently during an interview in an office inside the new research building. “We’re not the first, but we’re ahead of the curve.”

She added, “Growing up in El Paso, I did not know what biotech was,” even though science was her passion.

That passion was nurtured by her mom, Mary Ann Dipp, who was an ER nurse, and her high school biology teacher, she said. Her father is El Paso businessman Mike Dipp Jr.

The new El Paso biotech research building is important because it helps people growing up here get to know about biotech, Dipp said.

“Kids are talking about it. I was talking to kids setting things up (for the research building grand opening), and they majored in biomedical engineering. It’s extraordinary how much has changed in 20 years” since she graduated from Loretto Academy in 1994, she said.

Emma Schwartz, president of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation, and Dipp were friends at Loretto, a private, all-girls school in Central El Paso.

“We were both nerds, and in NHS (National Honor Society) and Student Council in high school,” Schwartz said. Many in the 110-girl graduating class were nerds who became successes, Schwartz said.

Dipp was smart, serious, and determined in high school — someone who you could tell would do big things, Schwartz said.
They lost contact during their college years and beyond, but Schwartz in the past year has been trying to get Dipp involved in the MCA Foundation’s biotech efforts, she said.

“She has lived the biomedical startup, and living it in one of the (biotech) epicenters, Boston,” Schwartz said. She has the Longwood Fund, a venture-capital firm Dipp co-founded, that funds biotech companies and could help El Paso startups, Schwartz said.

Dipp’s only sibling, Margaret Dipp, 34, is head of investor relations at Longwood.

Dipp recommended the MCA Foundation start a scientific advisory committee and she agreed to be one of its four members, Schwartz said.

Starting OvaScience in El Paso in 2011 would have been difficult because El Paso did not have the capabilities and support to nurture a biotech startup at that time, Dipp said. Besides, such companies are usually started where the technology was found, she said.

“Our technology came out of Harvard, and that’s why we started the company in Boston,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in the labs at Harvard, MIT — that’s really the only way to stay close to the science.”

The MCA research building will help scientific discoveries get transferred into companies, Dipp told more than 200 people at the building’s June 17 grand opening ceremony.

“This will generate jobs, lots of jobs,” Dipp said. But it will require years of patience and lots of money from private and government sources, she said.

Dipp has been on a biotech roller coaster for years. After getting her medical degrees and Ph.D. in physiology from Oxford, she moved to Boston and in 2005 became part of startup Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which developed drugs to fight diseases tied to aging.

She helped engineer its sale in 2008 for $720 million to GlaxoSmithKline, or GSK, a giant, London-based pharmaceutical company, and she headed GSK’s research and development unit in Boston until she left to help start OvaScience.

Stephen Kraus, a partner in New York-based Bessemer Venture Partners, a 105-year-old venture-capital firm that invested almost $10 million in OvaScience, said Dipp has a unique duality of skills in science and finance, which, he said, have helped the startup.

“She plays as well talking to investment bankers on Wall Street as she does talking to the scientists and doctors in the lab,” Kraus said in an email.

Her skills are “really compelling when it comes to running a biotech company as these companies require endless amounts of cash and resources to fund the experiments and trials,” Kraus said.

OvaScience continues to lose millions of dollars a year, which is not unusual for a biotech startup. But it continues to have the ability to raise the millions of dollars needed to develop its technology and bring that technology to market. In June, it completed the sale of almost $54 million of company stock. The company, as of March, had about $110 million in the bank, Dipp said.

Dipp has received OvaScience stock, but no cash salary for the five years she was CEO. She will begin receiving a base, annual salary of $500,000 this year as executive chairwoman of the company’s board of directors.

Harald Stock, who has been the CEO of two large health-care companies in Europe, becomes OvaScience CEO on July 1.

“We’re kind of at the point with this company where a lot of the science has been figured out,” Dipp said. So, it’s a good time to have someone more experienced in running companies to be CEO, she said.

Dipp said she has not sold any of her OvaScience stock, despite seeing it soar to $51 per share in January 2015 — about three years after hitting the Nasdaq stock exchange at $7.50 per share. On June 24, it closed at $5.04 per share.

The company’s stock is subject to market swings, which Dipp said was the main reason for the stock’s huge price drop.

Venture capitalist Kraus said the price drop was largely due to the company missing its sales projections in 2015.

Infertility is a huge, growing global market, and OvaScience has compelling innovations to meet that market, he said.
Bessemer sold its shares in the company long before its stock hit its high. Bessemer invests in startups and often exits when a company becomes a success and can provide a good return for the firm’s investment, he said.

Dipp knew little about in-vitro fertilization until a friend told her about a Harvard scientist who made a revolutionary and controversial discovery: that cells in a woman’s ovarian walls could form new eggs or be used to rejuvenate a woman’s existing eggs.

That discovery by Jon Tilly, a former Harvard Medical School researcher and now chairman of the Biology Department at Boston’s Northeastern University, and confirmation by David Sinclair, a Harvard genetics professor, expert on aging, Sirtris co-founder and Dipp’s friend, led to the formation of OvaScience.

The company has brought one treatment to market outside the United States. That treatment, Augment, uses energy-producing material, or mitochondria, taken from egg precursor cells in a woman’s ovarian walls to revitalize the woman’s older eggs to improve her fertility chances during in vitro fertilization. The company is developing two other fertility treatments.

The ultimate goal, and what Dipp refers to as the holy grail, is to take the cells, which OvaScience has labeled EggPC, from a woman’s ovarian walls and grow them into new eggs outside of the body.

“That’s why we started the company,” she said.

The treatment, named OvaTure, would eliminate the need for women to take painful hormone injections during in vitro fertilization. The hormone injections also have been shown to increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

The technology also might help Dipp herself.

“I want to have kids eventually,” said Dipp, who is single. “I might need this technology.”

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