Female Founders: Laura van ’t Veer of Agendia On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
…Not everyone will embrace emerging innovation. Eventually, you also have to take along those that seek it out and wait, and only then do you get to full implementation of an invention.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura van ’t Veer.
Laura van ’t Veer is a world-renowned molecular biologist and inventor of the breast cancer recurrence test MammaPrint® for which she received in 2015 the European Inventor Award. She co-founded Agendia, a diagnostic company dedicated to women’s health by enabling breast cancer patients worldwide to access the MammaPrint test, a genomic assay that accurately informs women and their providers who may benefit from chemotherapy as part of their treatment and who may be able to safely forego this toxic therapy.
MammaPrint offers a personalized approach to assessing every woman’s breast cancer tumor at a genomic level and determines her individual risk of recurrence. The company Laura founded also offers a test called BluePrint®, which classifies each individual tumor so patients and their providers know the specific type of breast cancer they need to treat. When combined, MammaPrint and BluePrint are designed to empower patients with more precise treatment options to combat their unique breast cancer, improve their outcomes and preserve their quality of life.
Laura is dedicated to getting the right drug to the right patient, while ensuring the highest treatment effect with the lowest side-effect.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
As a high school student, I was inspired by my biology teacher, who — at the time — taught us about the newly-discovered knowledge of DNA and genes underlying all biological processes. Later, studying biology at the University of Amsterdam, I was fascinated by the then-emerging science that defective genes were causing normal cells to derail and become a cancer cell.
Science has inspired me throughout my entire career, and I am passionate about patient care. I am lucky I found a career in which I can combine both every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
MammaPrint categorizes breast tumors into Low Risk or High Risk for recurrence types. Over the years, many patients have reached out after having a MammaPrint test sharing how it helped them feel more confident in deciding whether they should have chemotherapy or not. Women whose breast cancer test resulted in a MammaPrint Low Risk assessment realized they may be able to safely forego chemotherapy since their cancer was less aggressive and they alternatively could benefit from other types of treatments. This meant they may not need the toxic, and sometimes debilitating side effects of chemotherapy (which they otherwise could have experienced for up to a full year). Conversely, women whose breast cancer resulted in a MammaPrint High Risk assessment may have chosen to pursue chemotherapy, accepting its side effects because they were more confident it would effectively address their breast cancer. These inspiring stories motivate me to continue generating the critical information they need for improved outcomes.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is perhaps not a mistake, but an experience I had when we would meet with investors in the early days of Agendia. I often was the only woman in the room and one of those times, a particular group of investors turned to me when they wanted coffee served. They were beyond apologetic when they realized who I was.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think my parents are those special people to me. Both my parents were journalists, and I was raised in a setting where opinion mattered. One of their friends reminded me much later that from a young age I had to express my opinion on everything from world subjects to arts and music. This taught me to observe and appreciate so I was well-informed when I spoke up.
It takes a village to create a successful company. You need a group of dedicated ‘can do’ people to build and scale the business. Agendia has benefited from several dedicated employees championing the company for almost two decades and collectively building the know-how in our industry. Many others joined along the way, and several more recently. Success is built on each and every one of them.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Women may not realize that a ‘can do’ attitude is paramount. Believing in what you can do, in addition to putting in the hard work to get there, is necessary to actually achieving it.
Women have an incredible capacity to achieve personal and professional goals, and need support and encouragement from other successful women to pursue what we aspire to accomplish.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Provide education, opportunities, and encourage women in leadership. It is happening, but continued support is critical.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women are particularly well-suited to efficiently set up an organization where everyone thrives, and the output is a collective achievement.
Agendia has always had women in leadership positions at every level, including Senior Vice President of Research and Development Annuska Glas, Vice President of Reimbursement & Government Affairs Vicky Huerta Reyes, and recently-appointed Betsy Hanna as Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer. Female leadership on both the scientific and commercial sides of the business allows for women of all facets to see themselves in similar leadership roles.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One thing I heard when I was founding Agendia was how building a company takes time and requires an incredible amount of work — so much so that founders sometimes forget to enjoy it. However, I found that one can experience great joy when establishing a great company.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Most important is to recognize in your daily life and in work what it is that brings you joy and what excites you — that’s the best guidance to follow. A future founder should not be afraid to try something they have never done before.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Establishing a successful company involves way more politics than I ever imagined.
Understanding the crucial roles that all parties play to turn an invention into a successful product. Align with all.
In the early 2000’s when Agendia was founded, it was not yet very common that academic scientific findings were brought to the market. It required education of our science colleagues to convey that it is the way to go so everyone can have access and benefit, and that personal gain was not the motivator.
Not everyone will embrace emerging innovation. Eventually, you also have to take along those that seek it out and wait, and only then do you get to full implementation of an invention.
Patients know best what is best for them. Their voice needs to be heard.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have been fortunate our scientific discoveries and resulting technologies — which continue to progress to this day, 20 years later — have driven a new standard of care that has helped tens of thousands of patients with breast cancer, and will continue to do so in the future. MammaPrint was at the forefront of the healthcare transformation to bring personalized care to women with breast cancer. Agendia continues to pave the way for our science and capabilities to establish the right treatment for the right patient.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Healthcare has come a long way, but has the potential to be even more personalized. Every woman is unique, and therefore deserves an individual approach to healthcare. Medicine is not a cookie-cutter solution — ‘one size does not fit all’. We have achieved so many milestones around personalized medicine but the work we have done can still benefit so many more patients worldwide.
Personalized medicine should be on every stakeholder’s radar.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Science is not a luxury; science impacts our lives, including our health, and it has more potential today than ever before. The MammaPrint story, from laboratory discovery to a worldwide product, is a prime example. I would want to talk to a thought leader who fosters innovation, who has a global perspective, and who understands how crucial public health is. Someone like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. We need to come together to facilitate and accelerate new developments faster and scale way beyond where we are today. We need a truly global impact.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.