J. Craig Venter

K. C. Alfred/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Craig Venter’s synthetic biology company hit with gender discrimination suit

A former employee of a company co-founded by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter has filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination against the firm’s female employees—and alleging harassment by Venter himself.

The complaint, filed on 7 September in San Diego Superior Court in California against Synthetic Genomics, which is located in San Diego, was first reported on 19 September by The San Diego Union Tribune. Attorney Teresa Spehar, former vice president of intellectual property for the company, alleges that women were paid less than men, promoted less often, left out of meetings, and discriminated against “with gender-based stereotypes.” Spehar says she was fired in June, after more than 8 years with the company.

Spehar’s suit alleges that in one incident at a dinner meeting with a client, Venter, the company’s chairman and co–chief scientific officer, put his arm around another woman executive and loudly told her that she was “‘the only one without a penis here!’ or words to that effect.” Spehar, who says she suffered a loss of income and employment opportunities, among other harms, has asked for unspecified damages.

Oliver Fetzer, the CEO of Synthetic Genomics, which makes lab tools for synthetic biology, said in a statement emailed to reporters that the lawsuit is “without merit and we will vigorously defend the claims.” Fetzer added that like many life sciences companies, Synthetic Genomics has been working to increase gender diversity on its leadership team and board. Asked to comment on the alleged incident at the dinner meeting, Venter’s personal spokesperson, Heather Kowalski, referred to Fetzer’s statement.