Leadership & Management

SpeeDx CSO reveals what it takes to become a female founder

Health Industry Hub | October 8, 2021 |
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Leadership & Management: A serial inventor and the corecipient of Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s Clunies Ross Innovation Award in 2020, Adj/Professor Alison Todd, Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of SpeeDx, spoke to Health Industry Hub ahead of the ‘Female founders of biotech’ session at AusBiotech 2021 virtual conference.

Health Industry Hub: What inspired you to jump off the corporate ladder and become a female co-founder?

Professor Alison Todd: I was a senior research director at Johnson and Johnson Research (JJR) in Sydney when the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008 led to the closure of JJR ending my 17-year career in the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, Professor Susan Pond was the managing director at JJR and she encouraged my colleague Dr Elisa Mokany and I to spin out a new venture which became SpeeDx in 2009.

We had two main challenges before we could get going. Firstly, we had to find venture capital in the middle of the GFC which was obviously not easy. Secondly, we had to navigate the assignment of the intellectual property from J&J to SpeeDx where the IP had been invented by Elisa and I.

We have grown the company from a team of four into a global molecular diagnostics company which develops, manufactures and sells medical tests. We currently manufacture a range of 48 products that are sold into 17 countries.

As I was at JJR from the early days of its set up and we were a smaller team, I got a bit of experience in a lot of things. I guess from there I just winged it. I did not necessarily have to have all the skills as I found the people who did have them.

We have grown the company by assembling an extraordinarily talented and dedicated team of people with very diverse capabilities, and we currently employ over 120 people who come from some 29 countries. Our vision is to provide diagnostic solutions which empower clinicians to make informed treatment decisions. Our products are powered by an arsenal of disruptive molecular tools which are protected by over 85 granted patents, all of which are based on our own inventions.

Health Industry Hub: Which systemic boundaries are holding women entrepreneurs back? What have been your key learnings in managing these barriers?

Professor Alison Todd: We can impact our agenda by managing up but that does not always get you any closer to the positions of power.

The roadblocks for women have been recognised for a long time and the biggest one is gender bias. The compounding factor is predominantly unconscious gender bias. There are opportunities to overcome this by being mindful of our own unconscious biases, particularly misconceptions that we may not be sufficiently qualified for a managerial role. We need to self-advocate and clearly articulate our aspirations for career advancement. We need to recognise our individual and unique capabilities and to truly understand the tangible advantages that we can bring to businesses.

Importantly we need to proactively mentor and sponsor other women to guide their development and strongly advocate for them in the workplace. My advice to all aspiring entrepreneurs is to find powerful women to mentor and sponsor them. As they traverse the rungs of the ladder themselves, ensure that they mentor other women too.

Another key roadblock is related to the workplace culture. We all need to band together to create a more flexible working environment so that we can juggle our career, our kids and personal responsibilities.

Health Industry Hub: Why is building your personal leadership brand so important and what have been the essentials in developing it throughout your career?

Professor Alison Todd: I am neither a conventional person nor a conventional thinker. Throughout my life, my parents, teachers and managers tried to steer me towards conformity, but with very little success. My failure to accept or believe dogma and to perform tasks in the manner to which one was accustomed, has served me very well as an inventor. Invention is my most significant and valuable attribute.

As a leader who is reticent to be led, I aim to inspire as opposed to dominate. I figure that if it does not work for me, then it might not work for others. I really love working, collaborating and mentoring my team and I take enormous pride in their success.

I recognise that my personal style may have ended my professional progression and a middle ground would perhaps have been far easier to navigate. In saying that, I am perfectly comfortable with where I have landed.

Health Industry Hub: How do you avoid burnout as a female entrepreneur and stick around for the long game?

Professor Alison Todd: I work too hard, and I always have. But I also play hard and I value my work-life balance far too much to ever lose perspective. I am a truly blessed soul in that I have an extraordinarily happy personal life. If life in the real world becomes too hard, I can always retreat to my personal space.

My general strategy is to stick to doing the things that I like to do and the things that I am good at. I try to find like-minded folks who are much better at and more interested in doing the other aspects of the business. There is only one person who needs to be across everything in the company and that is the CEO. This is precisely why I did not want the title and why the chief scientific officer role is a much more comfortable fit for me. I am really passionate about technology and getting it out there into the marketplace to improve health and wellbeing. Honestly, I have enjoyed the journey.

Health Industry Hub: How do you see the future evolve for female founders in the healthcare industry?

Professor Alison Todd: The pace of progress for women in business in Australia, and indeed around the world, is disturbingly slow. Women are much better represented in middle management. There are still very few women in the top jobs.

At SpeeDx we are genuinely doing our best to provide equal opportunity. Of our 120 employees, 68% are women. What is pleasing is that 63% of the senior management positions at SpeeDx are held by women.

There are many women at SpeeDx that have grown exponentially in their competence and confidence. I have two wonderful research managers reporting to me and they have three things in common; both are women, they started as research assistants straight out of university, and they are both talented inventors. They may be the next gen female founders, and if so, I will be right behind them backing them all the way.

Through women mentoring women we can create positive changes.

AusBiotech 2021

The ‘Female founders of biotech’ session will be chaired by Karen Sinclair, Principal, Patent and Trademark Attorney, Griffith Hack and delivered virtually on 27 October.

Health Industry Hub is a proud media partner for AusBiotech 2021. Register here.

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