El Paso native Michelle Dipp is the chief executive of OvaScience – a publicly traded company that is slowing the biological clock.
Last year, Dipp was named to Fortune Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list, the magazine’s annual ranking of the most influential young people in business. Time magazine profiled her company in an article titled “The Incredible, Surprising, Controversial New Way to Make a Baby.” Fortune Magazine described Dipp’s résumé as that of a “biotech wunderkind.”
Dipp will be in El Paso on June 17 to speak at the grand opening of the Cardwell Collaborative – a three-story, high-tech research building located at the entrance of the Medical Center of the America’s campus.
The $29-million building is among the first pieces of a decades-long plan to grow the El Paso economy by transforming a tired area of Central El Paso into a 440-acre medical campus. The Cardwell Collaborative will house laboratories, a super computer, office space and an accelerator for biotech startups.
Dipp, 39, is the daughter of El Paso businessman Mike Dipp Jr. and Mary Ann Dipp. She grew up El Paso and attended Loretto Academy.
She left El Paso to attend the University of Oxford in Oxford, in England, where she earned a degree in medicine and a doctorate. Dipp never practiced medicine. Instead, she went into biotech.
As vice president of Cambridge-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, she led the sale of the company to GlaxoSmithKline in 2008 for $720 million. Later, she headed the pharmaceutical giant’s Centre of Excellence for External Drug Discovery.
In 2011, Dipp cofounded OvaScience, which is developing treatments for infertile couples. The Boston-based company has developed a fertility treatment called Augment that uses a woman’s own mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, to improve the quality of older eggs. The technology is aimed at improving the success rate of in vitro fertilization.
So far, 30 babies have been born using the procedure.
Dipp is set to step down as CEO of OvaScience in July and become executive chair.
She spoke with El Paso Inc. from her office in Boston about El Paso’s budding biotech scene, how OvaScience is slowing the biological clock and what she misses most about El Paso.
Q: You’ll be in El Paso for the opening of the Cardwell Collaborative. What is the significance?
It’s a critically important development not only for our city but also for the region. It’s much bigger than the science; this will translate into economic growth. It will mean more jobs in the area.
A lot of cities have spent a lot of time and effort and budget on creating biotech hubs.
Q: The efforts to create biotech hubs – the MCA Foundation is leading such an effort here – do they work?
Very much so, but it requires patience. You can see that in terms of other cities such as Boston or San Francisco.
When I left medicine to go into biotech about 10 years ago, I was trying to make a decision on whether I should go after opportunities in San Francisco or Boston. At that point in time, San Francisco was much larger.
But over the past 10 years, Boston has had the most growth and recently exceeded San Francisco in terms of the number of companies started in the biotech sector.
El Paso is poised to be very successful in this. It takes three things. First, you need some sort of edge in terms of the technology or sciences. Second, you need the people. Third, you need the funding. That can come from public or private sources.
Q: OvaScience is headquartered in Boston. What challenges do biotech companies, and startups in general, face in El Paso?
El Paso has a unique advantage in that it is multicultural, on the U.S.-Mexico border and next to one of the largest Army posts in the country.
If we were to move there, the biggest challenge would be finding the scientists to work in the company.
Q: Has El Paso reached an inflection point? Is the vision of a tech hub in El Paso finally starting to happen?
This is it. It is incredible to see the amount of money going into research there.
I hadn’t realized this, but Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso went from $5 million in annual research expenditures in 2004 to $23 million 10 years later.
The University of Texas at El Paso – $30 million in 2010 to $83.2 million in 2013.
When you look back at all of these other tech hubs, the tipping point came with the academics – the relationship between the universities and companies. People have to understand it all starts with research, and that’s what will translate into the companies.
Q: Start from the beginning. How did an El Paso girl become the CEO of a publicly traded biotech company and one of Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40?
I was born and raised in El Paso and attended Loretto Academy, the all-girl Catholic school. El Paso is a unique place to grow up. It makes you appreciative of so much, and you are exposed to so much. Every Wednesday we would go in buses to Juárez and would take lunches to kids who were our age. That had a great impact on me.
Being an all-girls school, it was never a question to be a leader as a woman. Of course a woman was class president or led speech and debate, which was what I was active in.
Q: Were you the kid who went to science fairs and had chemistry sets?
Yes! I’m a total science geek. That was encouraged by my mom. I wanted to be an eye doctor, so I always thought I would go to medical school.
Q: An eye doctor?
I really like the intricacy of the eye. It’s very detailed surgery.
Q: What prompted you to tackle fertility?
About five years ago, I had friend after friend asking me about in vitro fertilization – “I tried IVF and failed. What should I do?” I was so struck by the question. I didn’t know that IVF failed as often as it does, especially as you get older. On average, IVF fails 70 percent of the time.
You never hear about it, because women don’t feel comfortable talking about it. You usually only hear couples talk about IVF when they have been successful. It’s a very emotional journey.
Q: How many babies have been born using the new procedure, Augment?
Thirty babies have been born since last year. The first baby born through the procedure is now 1. He is so gorgeous.
Q: How many times had some of these couples tried IVF?
As many as four to seven times. They tried everything basically.
Q: And IVF is expensive.
On average, an IVF cycle costs $15,000. But a couple will spend as much as $50,000 to $70,000. The reason why is they usually go through multiple IVF cycles. For the most part, it is not covered either.
Q: So how did Augment help them have babies when IVF failed?
We always thought women were born with a set number of eggs that die over time. That’s the case in the middle of the ovary where there is a very rich blood supply.
But there was a big discovery here at Harvard Medical School that there are immature egg cells in the outer lining of the ovary where there is a low blood supply. On their own they won’t mature, but we can go in and get them.
OvaScience is focused on creating three different treatments depending on the need of the patient using those immature egg cells.
Q: What are the three treatments?
With Augment we take the mitochondria from the immature egg cells and add them to the mature egg, which supercharges the egg.
OvaPrime is for women who don’t make eggs. Basically, it involves taking the immature egg cells and placing them inside the ovaries where they can mature.
OvaTure involves taking the immature egg cells but growing them outside of the body.
I wanted to start a company that could not only provide women with a really effective fertility treatment but one that didn’t require women to go through hormones.
The more hormones you are exposed to, the higher the risk of cancer. There are a lot of woman who have had cancer or are at risk of cancer who can’t go through IVF.
Q: OvaPrime and OvaTure are still in development, right?
Q: Is Augment available in the United States?
It is not. Not yet.
Q: Because you are seeking FDA approval?
Q: Does it work for everyone? Who is a good candidate?
It’s not for everyone. It’s aimed at women with poor egg health.
Fertility is directly correlated to age, and women ages 35 to 42 struggle the most with IVF.
Q: How much does Augment cost?
We sell Augment to the clinics and then they can charge what they wish. On average, the cost is $7,000.
Q: What is the success rate with Augment?
It is hard to give a sound bite – a lot of it depends on the age. Doctors in Canada have seen a success rate of around 50 percent, but that is in women ages 35 to 40.
Q: I read that fertility is a $4-billion industry and growing. Why?
Women are waiting to have kids, especially in Japan. Japan does twice as many IVF cycles as the U.S.
Four billion dollars is just the fertility drugs. The IVF market is $9 billion, and it is expected to grow to $22 billion by 2020. It’s one of the fastest growing markets.
Q: Fortune magazine asked you about the lowest moment in your career. You said it was in South Africa.
I went to South Africa for a few months to do my pediatrics rotation. I went over there this naive and overly enthusiastic medical student, thinking I could make a difference.
I treated a lot of kids who were HIV positive, and all of them had tuberculosis, but I didn’t have access to antiretroviral drugs.
Q: HIV is a treatable disease now. It just requires expensive drugs. I imagine these kids didn’t have access.
Q: What do you miss most about El Paso?
Aside from missing my family, I miss the Mexican food. I always go to Lupita’s Tamales and freeze them and take them back with me.
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m moving into a chairman role as we bring in someone who is an operations and commercialization expert, now that the science is in place.