The Advantages of Gender Diversity in Health Innovation and Investing: Spotlight on Loretta Little

Loretta Little is a managing director with WRF Capital. She focuses primarily on investment opportunities in the life sciences, health care IT, biotechnology, and scientific instrumentation sectors. She also oversees several of WRF Capital’s ongoing investments. Ms. Little serves as a board member with the Alliance of Angels and the Washington Medical Technology Angel Network (WINGS). She is looking forward to attending the Cascadia Venture Forum Summit as a panelist on November 15th.

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How does a Zoology major with a passion for parasitology wind up as a managing director of the Washington Research Foundation’s early stage investment arm? She follows her nature, that’s how.

As a recent grad, despite her love of science and all that can happen in a petri dish, Loretta Little felt that something was missing. “I soon realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career doing tissue culture in a lab. It’s very solitary. Although you work with other scientists, a lot of what you do is on your own.”

An extroverted nature and genuine need to work with humans—not cells—prompted Loretta to change direction and pursue an MBA at the University of Arizona with a focus on marketing. 

“I had several wonderful mentors. One of them called me after class one day to say there is a local organization looking for an intern over the summer at a prominent tech transfer organization. I think you should take it. I applied and got it.” And she never looked back.

When she eventually moved to Seattle with her husband and learned about the Washington Research Foundation, her varied education perfectly positioned her for the organization and she was hired in 1986.  During the early days at the foundation, Loretta explained, although they were able to fulfill their mission to help commercialize technology via licensing intellectual property from Washington research institutions, it was initially slow going since licensing can take longer than expected. “Commercializing early stage tech transfer is difficult because companies are usually seeking something further along.”

After successfully licensing patents, the foundation continued its goal through equity investments in early stage Washington companies via WRF Capital “to help commercialize and transfer technologies and innovations from Washington State institutions into the marketplace and ultimately benefit the public.”

“When a portfolio company has a successful exit, the proceeds allow the foundation to support additional grants and invest in even more companies.”

After 20 years with WRF Capital, Loretta has a clearer sense of which companies will deliver. For her, it comes down to due diligence and an understanding of a company’s marketing plan. “What is the problem? How big is the problem? How will the company solve the problem—today and in the future? Have they sized the real problem? Have they really found a viable solution to the problem?.”

As for the financials, she goes beyond projections and milestones and hones in on what is realistic. “I am less interested in the numbers than I am in the assumptions behind the numbers. People talk about being conservative. Even when the numbers seem reasonable, you have to take into account the malleability of early stage companies.”

“Companies need to explain how they are going to make money. Who would acquire them? What are the comparables? And that is not to say that it has be the goal but at least they have to be thinking that way.”

Informed by an education that marries marketing and science together with considerable experience that has earned her the right to trust her gut, Loretta’s contribution to WRF Capital is equally shaped by her experience as a mother of two older sons and a long family history of teachers.

“I love working with young people and first time entrepreneurs. I love the optimism!” she says, laughing. “You want to make sure they are being realistic but you don’t want to kill the enthusiasm. I love that people have the desire to go out and create something. I think that is an amazing thing and it takes so much guts.”

No matter which hat she wears—scientist, investor, entrepreneur, parent—one thing is clear: Loretta’s very nature, and what has ultimately led to her success, has always come from her personal mandate to “seek new experiences, welcome new connections, listen, learn and care.”

Jason Robertson