Maria Flynn almost didn’t get the CEO job, because she didn’t ask for it.
Today, she is the leader of a recently acquired biopharmaceutical company, Orbis Biosciences, located in Kansas City, and one of the standout women entrepreneurs in the middle of the United States. But back in 2008, a year after the company was founded, she was working as the company’s chief operating officer and its only full-time employee.
The part-time CEO, Bo Fishback, who was an old friend of hers, decided to step aside.
Flynn was responsible for Orbis’ sales in its first year and for landing the second half of its financing — no easy feat in the tough period just after the start of the Great Recession. She was also a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, with a prior career in the corporate world. In short, she was a star candidate, at least on paper. She also was effectively leading the company, even though she didn’t have the title.
But there was a problem: She didn’t quite fit the mold, in her eyes, or in those of the companies’ co-founders, Fishback and Cory Berkland, the scientist who had developed Orbis’ drug delivery technology. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision, Fishback and Flynn said in interviews: Indeed, the trio worked well together, and 12 years later, Fishback says frankly the company would never have succeeded without Flynn at the helm.
But at the time, the team thought they might need to raise money from venture capitalists – and that is much easier to do if you’re a white man. It was the elephant in the room. Without overtly stating it, they were thinking they needed someone who looked like Fishback, he acknowledged.
“I fit the mold. I’m 6’8”, bald, I went to Harvard,” Fishback said. “If you look like that, of course they want to give you money,” referring to venture capitalists.
The other, unspoken obstacle was that Flynn thought of herself as an operator – someone on the inside who “made the trains run on time,” as the saying in business goes – not necessarily as the lead salesperson or lead fundraiser. Of course, her success in those areas spoke for themselves – Flynn just couldn’t hear it, at least at first.
Luckily, she spoke often to her mother on the phone. She and her mother had both grown up on a farm in Kansas, in the patriarchal culture of the German community on the Plains. They didn’t come across as forceful. But they both knew how important hard work was, and they were both right more often than not. “If you’re doing the work, take the title,” Juanita Stecklein told her daughter.
Flynn ended up doing just that, and went on over the following 12 years to build a successful company that brought a number of important innovations to market. Orbis has patented technologies to manufacture uniform particles used to make oral and injectable medicines.
The next time you take a drug that has an extended release time – as long as 18 months – thank Flynn and the team at Orbis. It’s particularly important for patients who have a hard time swallowing or taking painful injections, because it enables them to space out taking medications over time, while still receiving the right dose of medicine. Among the people who benefit are the elderly and people with throat cancer.
And parents owe Orbis a special thanks. Asked what she’s proudest of as an innovator, Flynn said, “making pharmaceuticals that are good tasting and easy to swallow for kids. If you have ever tried to get a child to swallow bad tasting medicine when they turn around and vomit all over your carpet, or try to get them to swallow a tablet when they are not ready to, you know what I’m talking about.”
Orbis’ story is a fairly rare case study of a successful woman entrepreneur in a DeepTech company. (We wrote about another, here). It’s also a model of a biotech company that didn’t fall into the trap of trying to fit its business model into the prevailing norms set by software companies. In the early years, as it tried and failed to win venture financing, Orbis kept trying to develop the “killer app,” for its technology. It survived those early years because Flynn was the CEO she was – strong on operations.
Fishback now believes that if they had signed on another CEO in his image – a big, deep-voiced sales-oriented executive – that man probably would have killed the company in a fruitless search for a “killer application” that would have won a lot of venture capital funding but met with little success in the market. As it was, it took the team years to recognize “this was an enabling technology, and we needed a partner to bring it to the market,” he said. “This is a messy process for somebody not comfortable with ambiguity.”
Many biotech firms, and other firms in the DeepTech space, don’t have single killer apps – and they also take longer than the typical venture-capital-funded software company to develop robust products and find their markets. Flynn identified five phases in the company’s development: proprietary technology and intellectual property; demonstrated applications; scaled manufacturing; client licenses; and internal development.
Three Siblings On A Farm
Flynn knew from a fairly early age that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. Reared on a farm in Kansas, she had a strong work ethic, and she liked “the blank page. I like figuring out how to get from A to B,” she said.
In addition to farming, her parents also had their own businesses: Her father was an architect and her mother was an interior designer. With two older brothers, Flynn also wanted to keep up with the boys. “That’s part of my drive,” she said. It was also good practice for working with Fishback and Berkland.
She grew up in the 1970s, so she was acutely aware of the different norms and expectations for girls, but she also wasn’t bound by them. “In farming communities, it’s all about legacy and what you hand down. That primarily went to boys,” she said. But her parents’ relationship, and her own success in science made her think she could carve a career outside the norm.
She went on to get a bachelor’s in civil engineering from Kansas State, an master’s in environmental engineering from Stanford and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. But she heeded some advice from a professor at Chicago, when he said that it was wise not to launch a business right away.
But in 2008, she decided she was ready. With no kids (yet), she left a good-paying job at Cerner Corp. to see if she could land a position with a startup – and as part of that process, reconnected with Fishback and Berkland.
Fishback, a serial entrepreneur and a former vice president of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, had founded the company with Berkland, based on the latter’s PhD work at the University of Illinois, Urbana. “When the two founders got together, and went looking in the lab, they kept coming back to this innovation,” Flynn said. “They had tried to start a company the first time and didn’t it go.”
This time, the innovation had legs. “They got the license out of Illinois, got a seed round, and then they got me,” she said.
After Flynn talked to her mom, she told the two co-founders that she wanted the CEO job. She said it gently. “I’d be interested in checking that out,” she said, as Bo remembered it. “That” meant becoming CEO of Orbis. It was quickly apparent to everyone involved in the company that she should have the job.
It was a challenge to raise money, in part because of the environment post Lehman Brothers, and probably in part because there is a capital gap in DeepTech finance.
Led by Flynn, they turned to grants, eventually raising $9 million from, for example, the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the early years, the company pursued many different applications, even working to create a chewing gum that kept its flavor forever, or at least for 24 hours.
Early in the company’s history, Flynn also found a key mentor, a retired pharmaceutical executive named Terry Shelton, whom she connected with through the Kansas City-based accelerator, Pipeline. He earned shares in the company at first, and then became a paid advisor. She talked to him weekly.
“The Terms Are Too Good”
Investors were eager to fund Bo Fishback, but they looked at Maria Flynn with doubt. Once, she recalled, an investor said, “No” to one of her pitches because “the terms are too good.”
“We’re in the Midwest, I’m a female, who knows,” she said. “Not that those are excuses.”
“It’s probably not right, but I don’t sit around and complain.”
Rather than throwing herself against a brick wall, she leveraged her knowledge of the scientific world to win more than $9 million in grant funding for Orbis over the years. This funding was, in many ways, even better than traditional investment capital – government grant money doesn’t come with equity ownership, unlike other forms of capital investment. Flynn was both scrappy and fortunate in finding alternative sources of funding. The vast majority of people capable of innovating never even find their way into the rarefied boardrooms of startup America, nor do they successfully navigate the labyrinth that is the process for applying for government grants.
“The non-dilutive aspect was a blessing at the end. We could be very flexible when it came time to negotiate with Adare,” she said. But in the early years, they were taking on too many projects, in too many varied areas.
Flynn listed a handful of turning points in the life of the company, including bringing the first scientists inside Orbis. At first, they were landing clients and outsourcing the work to Berkland’s lab; and in 2013, the company refined its focus to pharmaceuticals. “In the beginning we did whatever paid,” she said. “That was a blessing and curse of the technology.”
The acquisition meant that the few investors who had shares, including the founding team and advisors, made money — they won’t say how much — and that Adare, the acquiring company, will be able to innovate further on Orbis’ breakthrough. “To get the technology to the next level, it really made more sense to be in a larger company with large commercial manufacturing and large formulation and business development teams,” Flynn said.
During the 12 years she was building Orbis, Flynn had three children. Her husband was wonderfully supportive, she said, and her mother-in-law provided much of the childcare.
She spends time now talking to everyone from philanthropists to middle schoolers about women in STEM. She thinks a lot about how to get more people involved in innovation.
“I always have my ear to the ground on that research. One of the biggest factors is on what girls decide to study in college – what did the other moms on their street do?” she said.
There are two questions: “One, do we start on the path. Two, do we stay on the path?”
After women have children, she said, there’s an opportunity to bring more women back into the field. “There’s room for more of the re-entry,” she said. “There we could do a lot of work.”
But if she could change one thing, so that more people felt confident and powerful enough to become entrepreneurs, innovators or even just entrepreneurial, it would be this:
“If I could equalize all of us, to give all of us a chance, I would look at this question,” she said. “Who are the voices in your head, either voices from the past you carry with you, and who are the voices around you now? Who plays those supporting roles and what are they telling you?”
Her mother’s voice had been clear. Step up. Take the baton.