She Knows How to Bank on Female Sexual Pleasure
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because making money can be gender-blind. Or not.
By Eugene S. Robinson
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When Cindy Eckert calls from North Carolina, it almost sounds, at first, like she’s whispering. But the initial quiet, it readily becomes apparent, is not diffidence. More that she’s … listening. An undervalued skill in the muscled mall of VC world-beaters who were holding the keys to the kingdom she’s now part-owner of, after the two companies she built and sold for about $1.5 billion made it so.
But also, listening because the prevailing narratives about her fall along two typical trend lines: business badass or the savior of female sexuality. And are we going for the former or the latter?
While business drives the engines of innovation, maybe the answer is both, because no one will ever really go broke solving sex riddles. And so it was when the budding pharmaceutical entrepreneur was at a 2010 Miami conference sponsored by the Sexual Medicine Society of North America that she actually heard about something that she thought would change not only her life but the lives of just about anyone who was having sex.
“This guy kept following me around,” the 46-year-old Eckert says, finally talking. “Not just a guy really, but Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a pioneer in the field of sexual medicine.” Goldstein, who some have almost accused of being a Big Pharma shill, had his laptop in tow and wanted to show Eckert a little video. Which at a conference on sex could mean just about anything.
[My companies are] about improving lives, and realistically, the only barometer of success can’t just be male.
While she’s clearly told this story before, it doesn’t come across as rehearsed. No, it sounds like it’s genuinely coming alive for her since what Goldstein had to show her were videos of women bemoaning the loss of their medicine that the German company he was repping had developed as curative for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, or HSDD. Goldstein had pitched the therapeutic use of the HSDD pills to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the FDA thought the risks outweighed the benefits so it turned it down. The German company’s response? Well, it was poised to shrug its way into a future without the drug developed to help HSDD, but Goldstein was trying to interest someone, anyone, into saving it. Eckert finally did.
With a degree in business from Marymount University in Virginia and an ear for the obvious, the medicine seemed like a slam dunk to her, and the only reason this native New Yorker imagined the FDA would turn its back on the drug she would eventually call Addyi would be if they assigned no value whatsoever to female sexual pleasure.
Six years — compared to six months for some men’s drugs — and two rejections later, it was clear that that was probably the case.
“We had three times as many patients,” Eckert says. “About 13,000 women. [The FDA] found that the benefit was only ’modest.’ We disputed this.” And in the face of that dispute, the FDA voted to approve it, a win Eckert chalks up to “science.”
So now with her companies — Slate Pharmaceuticals and Sprout Pharmaceuticals — looking acquirable, Sprout gets acquired by Valeant and Eckert walks away with $1.5 billion and immediately pivots to The Pink Ceiling, an investment firm focused on funding women’s companies or, at the very least, companies that produce products for women. She calls it The Pinkubator. Then a twist: Valeant can’t keep up with Sprout, she reacquires it and Addyi in 2017, and thus is back in business. To the tune of about 50 employees and a Pinkubator portfolio that covers 12 companies.
But smooth sailing? Not even. Valeant bobbled Addyi sales by charging too much, a turn that got many insurers denying pill coverage. And now with Eckert back at the helm and price adjustments immediately put into place, whatever scant lead they had before is gone, as other competitors have entered the marketplace.
None of this seemed to ruffle Eckert very much, a development that surprises no one who’s spent any time with her. “She’s who I call,” said model and TV presenter Ashley Graham a few weeks ago in Allure magazine, referring to her source for advice. “She doesn’t know anything about fashion, but she knows contracts, how to grow businesses and how to get what you want when you’re very certain about it.”
And she writes a prescription for better business, as well as better sex.
“My companies are not only about women’s rights to desire,” says Eckert, whose funded startups are pushing everything from high-tech date rape drug detectors to flushable pregnancy tests to sleep science technology to medical devices. “But they’re also about improving lives, and realistically, the only barometer of success can’t just be male.”
When Eckert left Marymount University and it was time to look for a real-world job, she didn’t go to job boards or career centers. She went to Fortune magazine’s Most Admired Company listing, and sitting at the top of the list that year was Merck. So Merck was where she went to first cut her teeth. And in the same way, you can tell that a big part of The Pink Ceiling’s ROI calculations are not dollars and cents but admiration.
Or, like Amy Jo Martin opined last year on her podcast, simply: “Cindy is pink gold, no BS.”
Read more: The woman bringing you sex 52 weeks a year.