Navigating Cancer’s founder and former CEO sues its investor Merck, alleging gender bias and interference with acquisition talks – GeekWire

Navigating Cancer’s founder and former CEO sues its investor Merck, alleging gender bias and interference with acquisition talks – GeekWire

The founder and former CEO of Seattle health tech startup Navigating Cancer, Gena Cook, is suing one of its investors, pharmaceutical giant Merck’s Global Health Innovation Fund, on claims including gender discrimination, wrongful termination, and blocking a potential acquisition of the startup by one of Merck’s rivals.

Cook’s lawsuit, filed Oct. 29 in King County Superior Court in Seattle, alleges that David Rubin, managing director of Merck’s Global Health Innovation Fund and a Navigating Cancer board member, led an effort to demote and ultimately push her out of the company. The complaint claims that Rubin said Cook didn’t fit his perception of “what a CEO should look like.” The suit says the alleged statement was relayed by another, unnamed board member.

GeekWire has contacted Merck, Rubin, Navigating Cancer and its current CEO Bill Bunker for comment. The suit names Bunker and Navigating Cancer as defendants along with Rubin and the Merck Global Health Innovation Fund.

Navigating Cancer makes software to help healthcare providers and patients manage cancer treatment. It has raised $44 million in funding, including a $26 million Series D round in September 2019, led by the Merck Global Health Innovation Fund and TT Capital Partners. Navigating Cancer had 80 employees at the time.

Cook’s farewell message to her Navigating Cancer colleagues (above) was posted to YouTube in July of this year.

“Simply put, we’re improving the care experience for patients every single day. And we’ve done that for millions of cancer patients. I can’t think of anything more rewarding. It’s been my honor and my privilege to work on this problem for the last 12 years,” she said in the video, before indicating that her departure wasn’t voluntary. “And although I’m not leaving by choice, I’m excited about taking the skills and things I’ve learned to help solve new problems in healthcare.”

Cook, who got her start in the industry in pharmaceutical sales for Bristol-Myers Squibb, founded Navigating Cancer in 2008 and brought on Michael Graff as co-founder the following year.

The suit alleges that Rubin, acting on behalf of Merck, blocked acquisition talks after “a multi-billion dollar international pharmaceutical company who was a competitor to Merck” made an unsolicited offer to acquire Navigating Cancer in June 2019. The complaint says the initial offer from the unnamed suitor “would have provided tremendous value to the shareholders” of the company, including Cook, who had an equity stake of about 12% in stock and options at the time, according to the suit.

Merck’s Global Health Innovation Fund first invested in Navigating Cancer in 2015, leading a Series C round that ultimately totaled $12 million, the suit says.

“Thereafter, on behalf of Merck GHI, Rubin wielded control over the company’s strategic planning, direction, and operations,” the suit alleges. “The control Rubin exercised on behalf of Merck GHI was unlike that exercised by any other financial investor in the company.”

According to the suit, Rubin was heavily focused on Merck’s Project BOLD data initiative, as part of a broader effort to decrease industry reliance on Flatiron Health. Merck rival Roche purchased Flatiron for more than $2.1 billion in 2018. The suit says Rubin pushed Navigating Cancer to shift its focus to data products and away from patient-care technology. Cook opposed the move, according to the suit.

The suit alleges a series of efforts to sideline and ultimately replace Cook as CEO, without her full knowledge, through a search process that “did not seriously consider any female candidates.”

Bunker, previously CEO at EagleView and ClarityHealth, was named Navigating Cancer CEO in December 2018. Cook was named president at the time.

The suit alleges that Cook was terminated from her employment in July 2020, removed from the board in September 2020, and denied severance benefits that the complaint says she was contractually owed.

We’ll update this post with any response from Merck or Navigating Cancer to our inquiries. Here’s the full text of the complaint.

Gena Cook vs. Merck et al by GeekWire on Scribd

GeekWire editorial operations director Cara Kuhlman contributed to this report.

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