Stella Vnook on founding biotech companies and solid advice for women entering the field

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

Women in Science: Stella Vnook - the importance of resilience and persistence

Related tags Women in Science biotech oral health dental diseases Pharmacology

Stella Vnook has founded several biotech companies, including Oral BioLife, a biotechnology firm specializing in pioneering therapies for dental diseases.

As this week’s woman in science, we delve deeper into her impressive career, from where it began to her sound advice for women considering the life sciences field.

Could you provide an overview of your work?

I have founded an advisory group dedicated to building out biotech and pharma companies and strategic growth. It is an honor to help a scientific entrepreneur build their first company. My goal is to leverage my experience and skills to bring novel therapeutics to market supporting physicians and scientists in transforming their inventions into market-ready solutions.

When did you realize your interest in science—during childhood, as a teenager, or later in life?

Many groundbreaking inventions never reach clinical application due to a lack of funding or business acumen. When my mom got the diagnosis of ovarian cancer, we realized that out of 20+ university ‘projects,’ none would be making it to the clinic before she would go into treatment. And almost seven years later, none of those research initiatives made it to the clinic. There are significant gaps between innovation and the availability of new treatments. My passion lies in bridging this gap. I am committed to guiding scientists, doctors, and universities through the complex process of building strong, viable companies around their innovative assets. Together, we can turn groundbreaking ideas into life-saving treatments, ensuring that promising innovations reach the patients who need them most.

Could you describe the journey that led you to your current position?

With a robust academic foundation, I embarked on a career in the pharmaceutical industry over 25 years ago. My academic journey grounded in science, pharmacy, and mathematics later included earning a Master’s in business administration (MDA) and another doctorate in public health studies impact of global economics, alongside clinical knowledge. These qualifications provided me with a comprehensive understanding of drug development, regulatory affairs, and clinical practice, forming the bedrock of my professional expertise.

My tenure in large pharmaceutical companies was instrumental in shaping my career and equipping me with critical skills and insights.

What challenges, whether related to gender or otherwise, did you encounter along the way, and what is the most valuable lesson you've learned?

Balancing a demanding career with personal responsibilities has been a continuous challenge. The expectation to excel professionally while managing personal commitments can be overwhelming, often leading to difficult choices and sacrifices. Being a female founder and CEO meant frequently navigating a landscape where I had to have more experience, more confidence, more education, and more validation to support my decisions compared to my male counterparts.

Establishing credibility and building networks in a competitive industry required persistent effort. Being a newcomer or an outsider (a woman, an immigrant, an 'English is not my first language' speaker) in certain circles meant I had to work harder. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is the importance of resilience and persistence. Challenges and setbacks are inevitable, but staying committed to my vision and goals has been crucial. 

Every obstacle I overcame strengthened my resolve and prepared me for future challenges to prove my worth and gain trust.

Surrounding myself with a supportive network has been a key factor in navigating challenges. Embracing diversity and promoting inclusion within my teams and projects has led to richer perspectives and more innovative solutions.
The importance of continuous learning and adaptation cannot be overstated.

What fuels your passion in your current role?

My primary source of passion comes from the opportunity to transform groundbreaking scientific discoveries into tangible, life-saving therapies. Knowing that what I do can potentially save a life or improve someone's quality of life because of the companies I am building today.

Second, is the infusion of confidence into the young generation of scientists to keep going, keep innovating, and keep evolving. Confidence I did not have when I started this journey. Building confidence and advocating for myself and my ideas has been pivotal. Understanding my worth and the value of my contributions allowed me to assert myself effectively in various professional settings, from boardrooms to conferences. Reflecting on my journey, I am proud of the progress and impact I’ve made despite the challenges. These experiences have shaped me into a resilient leader, dedicated to driving innovation and making a difference in the healthcare industry. I hope to continue empowering other women and underrepresented groups to pursue their ambitions and break barriers, fostering an inclusive environment where diverse talents can thrive.

What is your current work ethos/style?

My work ethos is passionately driven by a relentless commitment to innovation, ambitious collaboration, and strategic execution to transform groundbreaking scientific discoveries into life-saving therapies and revolutionize healthcare.

Can you offer advice for young women looking to develop an interest in science or pursue a career similar to yours?

Here are some valuable insights that have guided me throughout my journey. Some I gained along the way and others are still a work in progress: Pursue what truly excites you. Medicine, technology, and science are vast fields with endless possibilities, so find the area that sparks your curiosity and passion. The journey becomes much more fulfilling and rewarding when you love what you do.

Don’t be afraid of challenges or setbacks; they are an integral part of the learning process. Each obstacle you overcome will make you stronger and more resilient. Embrace these experiences as opportunities to grow and improve.
Surround yourself with supportive mentors and peers who can guide, inspire, and motivate you. Building a strong network can open doors to new opportunities and provide invaluable advice and support throughout your career.

Confidence is key. I would encourage you to believe in your abilities and the value of your contributions. Don’t let self-doubt or external biases hold you back. Trust that you have what it takes to succeed and make a difference.

Be your advocate. Don’t hesitate to speak up for your ideas, seek out opportunities, and pursue leadership roles. Your voice and perspective are valuable, and advocating for yourself can help you achieve your goals.

Balance your ambition with empathy and create a supportive environment where everyone can thrive.

Keep your ultimate goal in mind. Is it about reaching a certain career goal or financial freedom or becoming a thought leader, mentor, or entrepreneur? Usually, you can achieve your goal through various paths, decide which one will be more meaningful for you, and let your desire to make a difference drive your actions and decisions.

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