IVCA Profile: Dr. Suzet McKinney, Principal & Director of Life Sciences at Sterling Bay

March 17, 2021

Continuing the IVCA series on Life Sciences and Biotech, we turn to Dr. Suzet McKinney, who was recently named Principal and Director for Sterling Bay Chicago (an investment and development company). In that role Dr. McKinney will oversee Sterling Bay's relationships with the scientific, academic, corporate, tech and governmental sectors involved in the Life Science ecosystem, as well as manage the experience and facilitate the growth of Life Science tenants in Sterling Bay developments.
Prior to joining Sterling Bay, Dr. McKinney was CEO and Executive Director of the Illinois Medical District (IMD) where she managed medical research facilities, labs, a biotech business incubator, universities, four hospitals, and more than 40 healthcare-related facilities. Before IMD, she served as Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Chicago Department of Health. 
As we continue to gain insight into the Life Sciences sector, especially during this pandemic year, the IVCA talked with Dr. McKinney about her career and perspective.
IVCA: Sterling Bay has been name on the financial scene for many investments, and you recently have been named the Director of Life Sciences. What is the origin of your joining Sterling Bay, and what are your prime responsibilities?
Suzet McKinney: Prior to joining the Sterling Bay team, I served as CEO of the Illinois Medical District and had been working for a number of years to build out a significant portion of the IMD into a Life Sciences innovation cluster. My motivation was cultivating growth for the IMD and our partners, but also harnessing the patient and community outcomes that Life Sciences can bring.
I think my passion for bringing Life Sciences to Chicago was well-aligned with Sterling Bay’s plans to bring that category to Chicago and expand nationally. So it was a natural fit for us to join forces. My role at SB is expansive … my primary responsibilities are to oversee the Company’s relationships with the scientific, academic, corporate, tech, and governmental sectors involved in the Life Sciences ecosystem, as well as to lead the strategy to expand Sterling Bay’s footprint in Life Sciences nationwide.
IVCA: Life Sciences is a broad term. In your purview, how do you define the term, as far as what Sterling Bay is pursuing under your leadership?
McKinney: Life Sciences are broad. For our purposes here at Sterling Bay, we define Life Sciences very traditionally. That is it’s about the organizations, institutes, and businesses dedicated to protecting and improving human and animal life here on earth. Our pursuits in the industry are all-encompassing in that sense.
IVCA: Given our last year with the pandemic circumstance, Life Sciences became vital in both the quest for the vaccine and the investments to make it happen. How much has the financial branch of Life Sciences evolved in the last year?
McKinney: The financial aspect of Life Sciences has evolved significantly. According to CBRE’s 2020 Life Sciences report, total VC funding for the industry hit record levels in 2020, posting $17.8 billion as of the end of Q2 2020. The report goes on to forecast an increase in NIH funding for healthcare research at major universities and institutions. Greater investment obviously translates into job growth in the industry, which I believe we can expect to see now in 2021.
IVCA: In terms of public health, what is the U.S. priority beyond the pandemic? Since science has moved forward in importance because of the vaccine, what boxes do we need to check next, as far as research and deliverance is concerned?
McKinney: Prevention is the core tenet of public health. COVID-19 highlighted the impact of health disparities on certain communities and population groups, and demonstrated how large-scale emergencies such as the pandemic only exacerbates those health disparities. That being said, I believe research and development of new therapeutics and next-generation medicines for emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases will be critical.
Within the sphere, the development of new technologies that help speed up delivery processes will also be critical, just as we saw with the use of mRNA technology to rapidly develop the COVID-19 vaccine. Back to prevention, I believe new assessment technologies will also be critical. The pandemic bolstered rapid technological advances that are at the core of the life sciences industry, but I believe human behavior and how it impacts health and wellness will continue to advance the sector.
IVCA: You worked with the State of Illinois in the COVID response, and throughout your career you’ve had roles in government and the private sector. What is the key to the cooperation between government and commerce in the Life Sciences, and how does that predict the investment circumstances?
McKinney: The key is cooperation. Government is notorious for getting in its own way. Bureaucratic policies and procedures can bog down urgent situations, like the pandemic. All the capabilities that are necessary for governmental emergency response exist in the private sector and usually can be rapidly deployed.
Every business owner and private sector leader that I know is always willing to step up and lend their expertise, capabilities, and resources to governments in the case of emergencies and disasters. I think governmental leaders need to figure out how to harness the power and expertise of private sector business to respond to our nation’s most pressing challenges, especially urgent responses. There is a happy medium that exists somewhere, but it will require some strategic and creative policies for government to tap into private business for the benefit of the American public.
IVCA: You’ve done some teaching as a adjunct professor. What are students most curious about the public policy surrounding your expertise?
McKinney: Well, my teaching has not focused specifically on Life Sciences. My faculty appointments at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at Harvard are both in their Schools of Public Health and focus on Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response/Crisis Management.
Now that we’ve experienced COVID-19, obviously the largest and most deadly pandemic in over 100 years, my students are curious about vaccine development … how new technologies can be used to develop even more therapeutics for emergent situations as well as how policy, or lack thereof, hinders our nation’s ability to respond to threats quickly and efficiently. And the most popular question I’ve received from my students over the past year has been “why weren’t we better prepared as a country for this pandemic?”
IVCA: Finally, how would you advise the Illinois Venture Capital Association to interact with the opportunities in the Life Sciences, both as an investment strategy and as a contribution to society in general?
McKinney: The Life Science industries are one of the fastest growing in our economy. We’ve seen the benefits of the industries on healthcare, technology, and the economies of the top Life Sciences markets on the coasts.
As a contribution to society in general, I would advise IVCA to become even more active in helping to attract Life Science companies to Chicago. There’s no shortage of talent here, plenty of opportunity, and a more economical cost of living than the coasts. Bolstering the Chicago and Illinois Life Sciences community is good for all of us.
The same goes for my advice to the IVCA regarding Life Sciences as an investment strategy. Companies are always looking for incentives to relocate or establish a presence in a new market. If a dedicated Life Sciences investment strategy within the IVCA membership is an option, I say let’s get to work! As the premier developer in the region, Sterling Bay is ready and willing to help you place those investments in strategic and innovative ways that will benefit the Chicago and Illinois Life Sciences ecosystem.
For more information click on SterlingBay.com