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The woman behind 'female Viagra' sold her company for $1 billion — that's when everything fell apart


Cindy Whitehead Headshot 1

In August 2015, a little pink pill designed to boost women's sex drives was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The next day, Cindy Whitehead sold the company behind the drug to a pharma giant for $1 billion.

That's when everything fell apart.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals became embroiled in scandal for jacking up the prices on some of its drugs, including Addyi, the little pink pill. The company doubled the cost of Addyi, drawing ire from US lawmakers and investors, and axed Whitehead's sales force.

Whitehead stepped down as CEO of Sprout Pharmaceuticals last December, as Valeant continued to bungle the libido-ramping pill's go-to-market strategy. The drug is currently available, though doctors had prescribed it fewer than 4,000 times as of February.

Now Whitehead wants to help female founders make breakthroughs of their own.

Her latest project, The Pink Ceiling, is a cross between a venture capital firm, a consulting group, and a startup incubator (though the latter doesn't launch till January). Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, The Pink Ceiling offers female entrepreneurs and scientists support to build the right product, pitching their ideas to rooms full of male investors, and everything in between. Whitehead hopes to leverage her experience to help others.


"Being in this position, the best way to pay it forward is to say 'I stepped on that mine. Step left,'" Whitehead told Business Insider. "You've been there. You've done that. And hopefully they're advantaged by your own experiences — successes and failures."

Whitehead has taken three startups under her wing. Most of the founders are women from science and engineering backgrounds who can relate to Whitehead as a "geek," she says.

The only one that's been announced publicly, Undercover Colors, developed a piece of wearable nail technology that when dipped in a drink can detect the presence of date-rape drugs. It was created in 2014 by four male engineering students at North Carolina State University.

undercover colors nail polish

Another startup is led by a scientist who filed four different patents on sleep technologies. While attempting to raise funding, investors told her time and again that she would need to bring on a "professional CEO" to structure the business.

"I sat down with her and I said, 'Here's my deal: I'll invest in you if you're the CEO. It's your idea," said Whitehead, who plans to guide entrepreneurs outside the Valley to success. "My hope is certainly that I will be helpful to them in my own lessons learned."

Whitehead's exit money from the Sprout Pharmaceuticals acquisition helped get The Pink Ceiling off the ground and will supply investments in her portfolio when appropriate.

She calls 2017 the "year of the 'pinkcubator,'" when The Pink Ceiling will launch a coworking space for founders in Raleigh. Building community among women in entrepreneurship is important when they're so outnumbered elsewhere, Whitehead says.

"In my case, I'm a geek. I like the geeks," Whitehead said. "And I'd like to see more women in those [executive] roles, particularly in STEM" — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

SEE ALSO: One year after it was approved, a look back on the 'female Viagra'

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