University spinout companies: where are all the women?

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

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Only 13% of university spinout companies in the UK have a woman founder or co-founder. This needs to change, say Dr Heather Griffiths and Professor Simonetta Manfredi of Oxford Brookes University, writing for University Business.

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Roadmap sets out the government’s vision for the country to become a ‘science superpower and invest in the science and research that will deliver economic growth and societal benefits’. University spinout companies, which are set up to translate research into product and services, have a key role to play in achieving these aims.

In order to increase commercialisation of research and spinout activities, universities need to harness the talent of women scientists who are currently significantly under-represented in spinout leadership. Research undertaken at Oxford Brookes University, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), shows that only 13% of university spinout companies in the UK have a woman founder or co-founder (Griffiths & Humbert, 2019).

Further research, recently published as part of this project, investigates what lies beyond the numbers. It explores the experiences of spinout founders to understand if women are encountering additional challenges such as gender bias. This study charts the journey of founding a spinout, from the initial challenges of establishing a spinout company right through to developing and scaling up the business. By comparing the experiences of women and men founders we found that, contrary to much of the existing literature, they face many of the same challenges. However, women reported additional barriers throughout their journey which we argue creates an accumulated disadvantage.

The experience of these women is shaped by the fact they are a minority in both STEM research and business

Some women reported instances of gender stereotyping about their looks or behaviour, which were exacerbated by intersecting inequalities of race and age. Others described instances of gender discrimination, particularly in male-dominated spaces such as investment events. Several women reported negative experiences when they were pitching their business to investors. As one recalled: “They were all men… I had my confidence knocked by how dismissive they were”.

Yet, for many, the disadvantages were more subtle as some older or younger women felt they were taken less seriously because of their age and women founders were more likely to report issues with persuading their institutions to support their patent applications. Similarly, more women founders than men used the word ‘resilient’ when asked to describe a successful spinout founder, perhaps an indication of the additional challenges they had to overcome.

The experience of these women is shaped by the fact they are a minority in both STEM research and business and, as one participant pointed out, “the challenges that women face are very similar to the challenges that people from ethnic minorities face” because “the whole area of spinout companies is very much dominated by white males”. It is important to create a more inclusive innovation ecosystem that supports not only women but encourages a much greater diversity of academic entrepreneurs.

Spinout founders had not been given any additional time by their institutions to run the business

Another significant challenge that was identified by both men and women was a perception in academia that spinouts and other forms of entrepreneurial activities are not valued as more traditional research outputs. Several men and women commented that commercialisation of research was not properly recognised in academic promotion activities.

Also, spinout founders had not been given any additional time by their institutions to run the business and, as one man said, “one thing I would say about universities with spinouts is that they do not take into account that you have to do all the other jobs [i.e. teaching, pastoral care, administration]”. Although this is a problem for both men and women, it can be a ‘double whammy’ for women who tend to have a bigger share of caring responsibilities.

The ultimate aim of this research is to drive a step-change in institutional approaches to innovation. To this end, and based on the empirical findings, we have made some recommendations to help universities create a more inclusive environment for academic entrepreneurship. These include:

  • Increase the visibility of women spinout founders which will diversify the networks of expertise and provide women researches with more ‘relatable’ role models.
  • Monitor engagement in commercialisation activities from an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion perspective and work with local partners to ensure greater representation of women across the ecosystem.
  • Develop specific funding opportunities for women and minorities.
  • Ensure that academic entrepreneurship programmes are gender-sensitive and recognise intersectional inequalities by considering the use of diverse images, examples and role models in their content and materials.
  • Undertake a high level reviews of existing processes to ensure that all researchers have equal opportunity to access support for their ideas, irrespective of age, gender, ethnic identity and other individual characteristics. This also includes creating alternative career pathways to recognise academic entrepreneurship and offer researchers flexibility to explore innovation opportunities without having to sacrifice their personal lives to do so.

The full findings from The Spinout Journey: Barriers and Enablers to Inclusive Innovation, as well as more information about the Women and Spinouts: A Case for Action project can be accessed here.

This article was originally published in University Business.