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Women’s health is chronically underfunded both in the public and private sectors and has been for many years. No one knows this better than Piraye Yurttas Beim, CEO and founder of Celmatix, a women’s health biotech company focused on improving ovarian health.

Since founding Celmatix in 2009, she has been working hard with others in the sector to raise the profile of women’s health and encourage investment in the field. Prior to starting the company, Beim was an academic researcher who completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge in the field of embryology. This work inspired the founding of Celmatix to improve women’s reproductive health and help treat diseases such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Now more than 10 years down the line, using a combination of deep tech, data analytics, and a large ovarian knowledge base, the company has built an impressive preclinical pipeline of therapeutic candidates. These include a potential treatment for PCOS and an oral follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) receptor agonist to target infertility. The company hopes to move some of these candidates into clinical trials in the next couple of years.

Inside Precision Medicine senior editor Helen Albert spoke to Beim about her inspirations, founding Celmatix, precision medicine in reproductive health, and how to break down barriers and be a successful female founder and entrepreneur in 2023.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

Piraye Yurttas Beim
Piraye Yurttas Beim

Piraye Yurttas Beim: My warmest and earliest memories include hunting for sea creatures in tidal pools at the seaside. I’m originally from Turkey. We moved to Texas when I was three and I was born and grew up by the sea. I was just really fascinated by the natural world and have always loved it.

My mother was also a pioneering chemical engineer and had a laboratory. I wasn’t raised with a nanny or with caretakers, so that meant that after school I would spend hours in her laboratory surrounded by experiments and was allowed to play with all sorts of fun stuff.  I was very lucky to have my mom as my first role model!

I think the combination of growing up with my mom’s lab environment and just being so fascinated by how things work in the natural world were probably the two things that inspired me to be a scientist.

Q: What made you decide to move into industry and found Celmatix?

PYB: I originally started in women’s health oncology before moving into women’s reproductive health. When I was in the cancer field, I didn’t really feel the same disparities as I did when I left. I was just so struck coming from oncology, where there were relatively strong financial resources and cutting-edge technologies to progress research, by just how far behind the women’s health field was and how relatively underfunded it was. I really had no idea how big the disparities were until I moved outside of oncology. It’s just incredible how little funding goes into women’s health.

My father is a computer scientist and spent his entire career in academia, through the 80s, 90s, and early noughties when the great tech companies were built in Silicon Valley and other places. Looking back on his career, one of the things that he shared with me was that he stayed in academia because he thought that’s where he could do the purest work as a computer scientist. But now he feels that some of the most groundbreaking and important work in his field ended up happening outside of academia.

We had a conversation around the year 2000 and he said: “My sense is this next century is going to be the biology century. Don’t feel that the only place you can do incredible work in your field is in academia, because you may find one day that the private sector may unlock resources and potential opportunities that you won’t have in academia.”

I think for me the combination of seeing that funding was going to continue to be a real issue within academia to progress my research, being influenced by my father’s experience, and just thinking about the huge opportunities from an addressable market standpoint in women’s health made me move in that direction. The opportunity across the board is so big that I thought maybe if I can tap into that market potential in the private sector, I can unlock capital that not only will create a successful business but also move the field forward from a scientific standpoint.

That’s what I’ve been able to do and it’s been a real dream-come-true scenario, the trajectory that my career and that of Celmatix has taken.

Q: When you first founded the company that must have been quite a big change coming from academia. What did you learn from the experience?

PYB: It was very challenging. I experienced a lot of imposter syndrome. I felt like I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t know what I was doing at times. What I realized a year to a year and a half into it is that I had all the tools, I just wasn’t feeling confident and using them.

Having done a PhD, I really had gone through an entrepreneurial journey already. If you think about the arc of a PhD, you identify an area of unmet need and an unsolved problem. You come up with a creative solution for solving it and you then have to acquire the resources and sometimes the collaborators, to be able to move that forward and to produce a result. Then you have to “exit” by publishing your work and graduating.

The other thing you learn during your PhD is to take feedback. Most PhD programs are pretty grueling. They humble you. They make you open to critique. In some ways, I think a PhD program prepares you better to be a founder and CEO than an MBA program.

For me, I think that it was harder than it needed to be, in part because I kept erecting barriers in front of myself, assuming I didn’t know certain things, assuming I was not capable of certain things. At some point, probably in year two or three of this process, I woke up and said, “Wait, I’m good at this. I learned how to do this already.” At my core, I am an entrepreneur and I’ve always been an entrepreneur, even when I was in academia.

Q: What was it like trying to fundraise and develop the company?

PYB: What I learned is that it’s very hard to raise money for women’s health. When I got started, I think less than 1% of capital went to female founder CEOs, and certainly less than 1% went to women’s health.

I had a triple issue of not only being a young female founder from an academic background, but also being one who was trying to address the high unmet need of women’s health.

What I would say is that in the last five years I’ve seen a sea change in awareness and excitement about a range of things in women’s health from FemTech, all the way through to midlife and menopause issues. There’s been a lot of excitement, but it is still hard to fundraise for therapeutic development and deep tech.

It has gotten incrementally easier to raise money as a female. Getting older also helps! I remember when I first got started, I went to the Yves Saint Laurent makeup counter in Bloomingdale’s department store here in New York. I was 31 and I went up to the counter and I said, “I need you to make me look older.” There was a French woman behind the counter who just couldn’t catch her breath, she was in shock. She said, “In my decades of working in the beauty industry, I’ve never had a woman come in and asked me to make her look older!” And I said, “Well, no one’s taking me seriously in my investor meetings, I need to look more mature.” So she helped me to do that.

Q: Do you have any tips for young female founders trying to get investment for their own companies?

PYB: Yes, I’ve learned two important lessons. One is to relax. I think women are so intense and focused and men tend to be more relaxed in these interactions. Small talk is important. I used to never get to know the investor, I was so focused on needing to go into meetings and to look a certain way and to know my facts. It was so methodical that I didn’t take the time to just build rapport and communicate. At the end of the day, even though the data is very important, they’re also backing the person and if they don’t get to know you, then that’s a hindrance.

The second piece of advice is to know your numbers. An investor who saw me pitch suggested I should pump everything up more and gave an example of a male founder who had done this successfully. I said, “Okay, let me ask you a question. Would you have had the same reaction, if a female had walked into a room with that attitude, where you didn’t believe half of what she was saying, but you just liked her swagger?” And he stopped and said, “You’re right. It wouldn’t have impacted me the same way.” I said, “Okay. So now, as a female founder and CEO, please give me the advice of what you have found most impressive in female CEOs,” and he said, “Know your numbers.”  We have these implicit biases in the room, no matter how much we hope that they’re not there with us. So I think that the most successful way to be a female leader is to embrace the realities of the situation and make them work for you.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about needing more women in biotech and pharma, particularly at senior levels. Do you think things have improved since you started out?

PYB: I think until we have parity, we’re not there. I think when I got started, less than 5% of the Fortune 500 CEOs were female. Now I think it’s closer to 10%. I think less than 1% of venture dollars went to female CEOs and founders, and now it’s around 2%, but there’s still a long way to go.

Those stats are also for cis,women without disabilities, when you start to talk about LGBTQIA+ women, non-White, or disabled women, the numbers get very depressing. The leadership demographics within these companies just do not reflect real life.

I think that we need to do a better job, not just in recruiting females but in recruiting diverse females into these roles. I think it’s critical. It’s also just better business. I think part of what’s been really exciting about the greater awareness of the fact that we don’t have women in leadership roles is that when we do actually put them in leadership roles, or give them the resources to build these companies, the organizations perform better and they become more profitable in a faster time.

In part, I think this is because women often have the hardest problems thrown at us throughout our careers. It is an equity thing, but it’s also really good for capitalism to have more women in management because we’re really good at building and running successful, durable companies.

Q: What are you trying to achieve at Celmatix?

PYB: I started Celmatix as a precision medicine company focused uniquely on women’s health. What that has meant from a practical standpoint is that we have built some of the world’s largest data sets that are specifically collected and structured to help us understand what makes female biology unique.

One of the key organs that underlies female biology is the ovary and so we’ve developed probably the deepest understanding and knowledge of ovarian biology as it relates to potential therapeutic targets. Where physiology gets disrupted for women, when they have conditions that uniquely impact them, like certain types of infertility, premature menopause,  endometriosis, and so on. Celmatix’s aim is to build datasets to understand what makes female biology unique and to help drive product development.

There are really three key pillars of focus … women who are expected to live well into their 80s need all their organs, including their ovaries, to function better throughout their lifespan. When women are not just surviving but thriving well into their later years, they need access to better fertility treatments so that they can start and expand their families later in life. Then finally, women need first-line, disease-modifying medications for conditions that uniquely impact them like PCOS and endometriosis.

Celmatix is a company that’s dedicated to understanding what makes female biology unique and believes that women deserve therapeutics that are purpose-built for both their bodies and conditions that uniquely impact them. So that’s really been our mission for the last 14+ years.

Q: What are some key achievements for the company since it was founded?

PYB: In our current drug pipeline, we have a program to eliminate needles from IVF treatment, an oral FSH program. We have a peripherally acting melatonin agonist being developed to treat PCOS. That will be the first true disease-modifying intervention for PCOS. It impacts 15% of women on earth and we have no drugs for it yet.

We also have a groundbreaking anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) program that is aimed initially at protecting the ovary of women who are undergoing chemotherapy, but long-term is aimed at trying to make menopause a choice. Every day in the U.S., we have 6,000 women entering menopause. We have more women who are now menopausal in the workforce than ever before, so menopause is a growing public health crisis with very few interventions, and certainly no interventions that allow us to extend the function of the ovary. Making menopause a choice for women instead of an inevitability is going to be a game changer.

All of these things have fundamentally come out of our years of research at Celmatix. I’m really, really proud that we probably have the deepest bench of innovative new drug programs within women’s health of any company that I’m aware of.

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