Meet The Pink Ceiling.
You may remember Cindy Whitehead as the woman who created Addyi, the women’s libido-enhancing drug often referred to as “the female Viagra.” Whitehead was the tireless force of nature who, after two failed attempts, finally pushed the controversial drug through FDA approval last year—then promptly sold Addyi and the company that created it for a whopping $1 billion.
But then the Addyi saga took an unexpected turn: Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which purchased Whitehead’s company, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, found itself in the midst of major drug-pricing scandal just as the deal closed. Valeant circled the wagons, all but abandoning Addyi. Whitehead, who was supposed to oversee the launch of the drug, stepped down as CEO and fell off the map.
But not for long: Just four months later, Whitehead is back with a new venture that launches Wednesday. For those who have followed her 22-year long career in pharmaceuticals, the nature of her new company may be a surprise—though the through-line from her work on Addyi is clear.
Called The Pink Ceiling—a fitting name, given Whitehead’s signature hot pink lipstick and clothing—the new company is something of a cross between a VC fund, an incubator, and a consulting firm. Whitehead says that the company will partner with startups that provide products or services to women, helping the fledgling businesses come to market and scale. She expects The Pink Ceiling to invest in some, but not all, of the companies it works with. For those that she doesn’t put money into, Whitehead will charge for her services.
The company’s first partner is Undercover Colors, a Raleigh, N.C.-based company that is developing nail polish intended to help wearers detect the presence of date-rape drugs. The startup says its polish will change color when it comes into contact with ketamine, ecstasy, Rohypnol, or GHB. In theory, the product should allow a woman to dunk her nail into a drink and immediately know whether it’s been spiked. The Pink Ceiling is an investor in the Undercover Colors, though Whitehead declines to specify the size of that investment.
Whitehead says that she reached out to the Undercover Colors founders after reading the early press on the company, some of which has been quite critical, alleging that such products imply that the responsibility for protecting themselves against assault should be borne by women.
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“I understand how misunderstandings can become truths,” says Whitehead, referring to some of the negative media coverage of Addyi. “I asked them, ‘How can I help?'” She was drawn to the idea of a product that could become “a real solution to a real problem faced by women.”
Interestingly, the startup was founded by four recent North Carolina State University grads, all of whom are male. Whitehead says that although The Pink Ceiling will focus on companies that are developing “women-centric” products, it is not necessary that companies have female founders or leadership teams—though “it’s a bonus if it’s led by a woman,” she says.
Pharma companies are welcome, says Whitehead, and would likely benefit from her extensive experience with regulatory approvals. But she’s also happy to branch out into other industries. “We’re looking for companies that are either going to propel the social conversation or open up a new category,” says Whitehead, noting that interested startups can submit through ThePinkCeiling.com.
Right now, The Pink Ceiling consists of ten people—all women, and all of whom have worked with Whitehead before. The company has not taken any outside investment; it will be funded in large part by the $1 billion sale of Sprout.
Whitehead credits her work with Addyi for inspiring her focus on the women’s market, and says she still hopes the drug will succeed.
“I think founder satisfaction can be elusive,” she says, comparing selling a company to putting a child up for adoption. “You hope the adoptive parents will come in and love the child like you do and nurture the child like you would—but sometimes they have a different plan.”
“Addyi has not yet been launched by the acquirer. It needs a sales force, educational efforts… The type of support you would think is typical to successfully launch a new product,” says Whitehead.
In an email statement to Fortune, Valeant said, “We believe Addyi has strong potential, and we are committed to making ADDYI affordable and accessible to the millions of premenopausal women… Addyi remains on the market and available for physicians to prescribe. Valeant intends to expand its Market Access team and plans to re-establish the Addyi sales force later this year.”
Whitehead says she was shocked by what happened with Valeant, which became the subject of a congressional investigation over drug price hikes around the time it was closing on Sprout. That inquiry ultimately led to a major crisis for the pharma giant, sending its shares from a high of $262 down to as low as $26 earlier this year.
The way the company handled Addyi—and Whitehead herself—in the wake of that scandal “wasn’t in the spirit of the original deal,” she says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what Addyi does when there’s a real launch effort behind it.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from Valeant that was received after publication.