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Business Beat: Farm Bill passes House, Jordanian startup picks Columbia

Kristofor Husted

This week, NPR is airing a piece about Jordanian businesswoman Penelope Shihab who has launched a startup company in Columbia.  She is already the CEO of the biotech company MONOJO in Jordan where her company produces a skin care line using antibodies found in camel milk.

She’s brought that line to the U.S., choosing to launch it in Columbia first. Shihab’s new office is located in the MU Life Sciences Business Incubator at Monsanto Place. There, she has access to legal counsel, business consultants and research connections.  I recently sat down with her to find out what her journey has been like launching a biotech company in the Middle East to starting one in Missouri.

Tell me about what your business is first.

I'm running a biotech company in Jordan called MONOJO. MONOJO started as a multidisciplinary innovation biotechnology in Jordan. We started 2005 by antibody production. We started multidisciplinary projects ranging from drug discovery, diagnostics, therapeutics and recently we started to commercialize our first product line which is a skin care product line branded as Skinue in the U.S. Columbia is our test market for now.

What were some of your challenges getting the company started?

Honestly, the most challenging factor in MONOJO foundation was financing. This kind of business in the Middle East and in general, and in Jordan particularly is very, very new. So going to invest in biotechnology and advance technology is not very attractive for investors. It's very long term for returning. So they prefer the short term investment in general.

I started with creating awareness for investors and for people in my country by lecturing, by workshops, by training courses, by talking on the media about the biotechnology sector and how can we build that in the country. After this aggressive, if you can say, awareness for people, we started to have some investors interested in understanding the business. I got (in MONOJO)  23 different investors.

Do you think you made the right decision to launch Skinue in Columbia?

I believe I made the right decision because I can't as a Jordanian [start] from a big city like New York or Chicago. I don't have good experience with the American system or business. So I would have to go and compete with the big players in Chicago or New York. I can't do it. I'm not well prepared.

Rarely do you seem a woman CEO running a biotech company. Can you tell me a little bit about how that’s been? Was it difficult? It does seem like it’s been more of a male-dominated industry.

It's a male-dominated industry. Yes, that's true. But, when I started in the Middle East there were no men or women. So I am the only woman in the country who's the CEO for a biotech company. That was really difficult. Tough for me.

How so?

It's still the idea in our country that the woman should go to teaching, to nursing, but not to business because it's tough and very challenging. It will need long [hours] and travelling, and they don't like this. They are not yet prepared to have a woman who's traveling, who's doing business, especially international business.

It's even not easy in the U.S. But I did it because we have to start. It has been a long time. We were just waiting for this opportunity and it came up. So we had to get this.

I imagine it wasn’t easy.

It's not easy especially for a woman with four kids and a family. This is a big challenge to have a balance between your dream – your big dream – and to keep your family happy and satisfied.

Now looking forward, what is your ultimate goal with Columbia Biotech and Skinue line?

I will cover Missouri, Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia. By late 2014, I will be able to devide if it's feasible to start operation here -- packaging, production -- all the manufacturing activities which is feasible for us to start from here. 

I'm very happy to be here in the state. I didn't expect this kind of appreciation. I think this is why the U.S. is a very impressive country and very strong in business because they get the talented people and they support them until they really excel. 

Kristofor left KBIA in fall of 2021
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