A senior executive at a pharmaceutical company focused on women’s health said the sector was chronically undervalued because the investment world is dominated by men.
Susanne Fielder, chief commercial officer of Merck spin-off Organon, said investors often assumed that women’s specific health needs were limited to reproductive health, whereas common autoimmune and cardiac conditions could hit women much harder, or in different ways.
Investing was still “a bit of a men’s world”, she told the Financial Times. “I think the fact that most of them are men is not always helpful . . . We cannot assume that people understand what we mean because they really think it’s a niche,” she said.
“Most people define [women’s health] very narrowly, and forget about the fact that 50 per cent of our population are women with very specific needs and gaps and we’re facing inequality in healthcare.”
For decades after the Thalidomide scandal, women were excluded from clinical trials in case they were pregnant. In 1993, the US Congress passed a law mandating their inclusion, to ensure drugs were tested for their suitability for the whole population.
But both scientific funding bodies and venture capitalists have underinvested in women’s health. Organon is the first pharmaceutical company of a significant size to focus on the area.
The lack of attention to women’s health means there has been little innovation in treatments for unwanted pregnancies and for problems that can be very debilitating, such as endometriosis — which causes severe period pain — and symptoms of menopause.
All three conditions can hit a woman’s ability to participate in the workforce. The US campaign Women’s Health Matters estimates that a $300mn investment in women’s health research could yield a $13bn return in reduced healthcare costs and improved productivity.
Fielder said it was a “no brainer” for governments to invest in women’s health because of the “positive economic impact”, pointing to the women’s health strategy of the UK’s NHS, and the French government’s strategy for endometriosis.
In the UK, increasing awareness of hormone replacement therapy to ease the symptoms of the menopause has led to soaring demand in the past couple of years. Organon has expanded its production of HRT treatments.
Shares in Organon have fallen 11 per cent since it started trading separately from Merck, known as MSD outside the US, in 2021. In addition to the focus on women’s health, Organon houses MSD’s older medicines and creates new generic versions of biologics, known as biosimilars.
Since the spin-off, Organon has done several deals to fill its pipeline with treatments, such as an early stage potential drug for endometriosis, a device used in a hysterectomy, and biosimilars for breast cancer and osteoporosis, which affects far more women than men.
Early-stage investors are beginning to recognise the opportunity in women’s health, especially digital innovations such as fertility-tracking devices. Funding rose more than tenfold to $1.4bn in 2022, from $124mn in 2017, according to digital health fund Rock Health.
Jessica Federer, managing director of Supernode Ventures, who is raising a $50mn fund to invest in women’s health technology, said Organon’s dealmaking in the sector should be an example to investors.
“Every human on the planet is the product of women’s health,” she said. “Waiting on male investors to invest in women’s health clearly hasn’t been working.”