Katie McGinty waged a campaign drawing national attention to become Pennsylvania's first female senator, coming up short against Republican incumbent Pat Toomey in the most expensive Senate race in history.
But in a conference room last week at a University City coworking space, she was perhaps the least of the rock stars at the table.
McGinty sat with two women of considerable acclaim in Philadelphia's life-sciences community: Jane Holmes Hollingsworth and Joan Lau. "Remarkable citizens" and "proven to be leaders in many dimensions," Stephen Tang, president and chief executive officer of University City Science Center, said of them in an interview a day later.
Each has led and successfully grown life-sciences companies. For Hollingsworth, those included NuPathe and Auxilium; for Lau, Locus Pharmaceuticals and Azelon Pharmaceuticals. After a couple of years trying, with others, to raise the profile of Philadelphia's life-sciences sector, in part by trying to encourage West Coast venture funds to open offices here, Hollingsworth and Lau made a decision over a round of golf in fall 2013.
They formed Militia Hill Ventures to launch and grow early-stage biotechnology companies focused on innovative medicines. They named it for the golf course at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, where they were playing that inspiration-fueled September day, and for the site of a Revolutionary War battle that proved pivotal for Gen. George Washington.
"That was the turning point of the war," Hollingsworth said, drawing a parallel to what Militia Hill wants to accomplish for the region's life-sciences economy. "This is the turning point."
"We just decided one of the real needs here was actively building companies as well as creating a core physical space … where we could bring the various constituents together: the universities, the investors, the entrepreneurs, pharma, all in one place on a regular basis," she said.
Since then, Militia Hill has built a portfolio of three companies — Talee Bio, Immunome, and Tmunity — helping to pull together about $40 million in capital for them.
Which brings us to McGinty, who joined Militia Hill about four weeks ago as a partner. Hollingsworth and Lau are managing partners.
"Jane found out I was a worse golfer than her, so I was invited to join the team," McGinty cracked.
Joking aside in the serious business of finding the best new science to address unaddressed medical issues — which is Militia Hill's mission — adding McGinty is a power move, its founders acknowledged.
"One of the things that we've discovered as we have now built, I think, a really strong foundation and sort of validated the model, if you will, of how we do this, is that we are limited by just sheer human resource and that we needed more firepower in order to really dig deeper and go farther and build more companies and do more," Hollingsworth said. "So that sort of coincided with meeting Katie."
That meeting, in February, came after McGinty had been talking with Tang, a longtime professional acquaintance, about possibly joining the Science Center as vice president of corporate development. With McGinty's "great leadership skills," Tang thought there was a better fit for her, that "she could offer a lot" to Militia Hill. He put her in touch with Hollingsworth, who is on the Science Center's board.
"She just went through a campaign that attracted the most funding in any U.S. Senate race in history," Tang said. "Obviously she knows how to raise money. … I think that bodes well for Militia Hill."
For McGinty, Militia Hill's appeal was professional: She began her career as a chemist and, while in law school, took graduate biology and biotechnology courses, later becoming secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and working for a number of energy and management consultant companies.
But also, it was personal: "I lost a sister to brain cancer and a brother to lung cancer," said the Northeast Philadelphia native and mother of three. "And if you care about seeing brilliant science become beautiful cures, Jane and Joan are known as the team that can do a lot to get that done. So I wanted to help."
Sounding a little like a candidate on the stump, she added: "Throughout my whole career, I've really cared a lot about both U.S. excellence in science and technology, and even more that we make good companies creating good jobs and worthwhile products from that science. The science shouldn't just be collecting dust in a laboratory, but out making a difference in the world."
Currently, Militia Hill doesn't have an investment fund, mostly because it wanted to establish its own proof of concept first.
"We've got three really great companies that we got off the ground and a great pipeline and many relationships that are producing fruit," Hollingsworth said. "So now we need to be able to take that foundation and build it even bigger. And to do that we think we need to be able to have more control over the investor side ourselves."
Needed, Lau said, is an ability "to look out and engage with the external community in how we build and grow this faster and bigger. … Katie has that in spades."
Despite its leadership of women, Militia Hill is decidedly not in existence to promote women-owned companies, Lau and Hollingsworth said.
"We're really focused on building just the best companies that can deliver," Lau said.
McGinty is more willing to play up what Hollingsworth called the "woman thing," contending that it's a competitive advantage.
"We know how to build cross-disciplinary teams that are needed to take good ideas and make them great businesses," McGinty said. "We're good at nurturing that kind of environment. And I do think that's something that's increasingly recognized in a lot of sectors in the economy."