EIT Health: Women entrepreneurs are “key” to innovation in the health sector

Women account for only one third of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates in Europe, while only 15.5% of Startups have been founded by women active in the Startup scene. However, there are many positive trends to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.A key metric shows that Startups set up by women outperform those of their male colleagues, while EIT Health has accelerated the rise of many women entrepreneurs from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe in the health and biotechnology sectors.

In 2015, the United Nations designated February 11 as International Day of Women and Girls in Science to enhance women’s participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In Europe, women account for only about a third of STEM graduates, according to the European Commission’s Women in Digital Scoreboard 2021. The gender gap also affects entrepreneurship, as women make up only 15.5% of the founders of Startups in the EU.

In addition to the fact that fewer women are graduates in STEM fields, women also find obstacles in receiving funding. In Central and Eastern Europe, a recent survey shows that only 1% of the available capital goes to Startups with women in charge and an additional 5% to groups where both sexes are represented.However, the data also show that women as business starters in Central and Eastern Europe make more use of the money they receive, surpassing men in capital productivity and generating 96% more revenue per 1 euro of funding than Startups set up by men.

Healthcare: a promising sector for women professionals

Women make up the vast majority of health workers in Europe (70-80%). And in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, the proportion of female doctors is the highest among developed countries. In the Baltic states, the Visegrad countries, Slovenia and Portugal, the majority of doctors are women, exceeding the OECD average of 49%. Although the professional experience of female physicians may be destined to lead innovative changes in the healthcare industry, their business potential has been less explored than that of their male colleagues. Although this has been the case historically, the trend towards an increase in the number of women entrepreneurs in the health sector is relatively recent.

“We’re seeing three strong trends now. Firstly, women who innovate in healthcare come from different fields. Of course, science and technology dominate, and many women come directly from the laboratories, but there are also social science graduates. There are many different roles in innovation in healthcare and women can integrate quickly. Secondly, we see that more Startups are co-founded and/or run by women. And third, there’s a wave of discussions to create equal opportunities for women-led Startups, and we’re seeing a trend in the Startup ecosystem for VC funds to be more open to investing in women-led Startups,” said Monika Toth, Director of the Regional Innovation Scheme at EIT Health InnoStars, the leading organization that supports the development of innovation in the health sector.

EIT Health has many programmes designed to empower women entrepreneurs. One such program is the Five-Week Women’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, which connects early-stage healthcare Startups, led by women or both genders, with a network of mentors to nurture and support their rapid growth.The initiative, supported by the IESE Business School, the Pedro Nunes Institute and NUI Galway, provides intensive training, network access and mentoring. EIT Health accepts applications for the programme until March 14.

“You have to see it in order to become reality”

“The emergence of innovative women is not only great for their own Startups, but also helps to create a wider social impact to attract more women to STEM and innovation,” said Monika Toth. The EIT Health portfolio includes several women with a leadership in healthcare innovation.

Joana Melo, a young female entrepreneur from Portugal, has participated in many accelerator programs of EIT Health InnoStars. Her company, NU-RISE, helps doctors provide safer and more accurate radiation therapy by ensuring appropriate doses of radiation in the right place.Her compatriot Joana Paiva is a CTO and co-founder of iLof. Leveraging biolumines and artificial intelligence, the Porto-based company is developing a non-invasive solution for screening Alzheimer’s patients for clinical trials. In 2020, Joana was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list in the Science and Healthcare category and was nominated for the EIT Woman Award.

In Poland, Forbes’ magazine list of the 100 most influential women includes Magdalena Jander, PhD, CEO and co-founder of UVera, winner of the EIT Health Catapult and InnoStars Awards, which is developing the next generation of healthy and ecologically friendly protective substances against the whole spectrum of UV solar radiation. Together with her team, she aims at sustainable production, while contributing to the circular economy.

“We aim to produce an extremely powerful substance that is 100% environmentally friendly. Not only will it not affect coral reefs or marine life, but the production process is sustainable. It consumes tons of CO2 and releases tons of O2 and fertile biomass as by-products,” explains Magdalena Jander, adding that if we want to see more girls in STEM classes, we need to change the education system from a very early stage and develop the critical thinking skills that may attract the attention of girls from primary and high school. “It’s often about engaging in science at the right time,” she argues.

According to a survey conducted by Microsoft on 11,500 young women in 12 European countries, girls aged 11-12 are equally interested in STEM issues as boys. However, once they turn 15-16 their interest plummets. At this age, according to the OECD, only 5% of girls say they expect to make a career in it or engineering, compared to 18% of boys. Microsoft’s research also reveals that the existence of female role models stimulates girls’ interest in STEM careers, alongside practical experience and practical exercises inside or outside the classroom.

Sustainability also comes to the heart of female founders

UVera is not the only company for which sustainability is a priority. The Lithuanian Startup CasZyme, founded by women, is developing tools that enhance the application of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) in research and development of gene processing.The tool is already successful in healthcare, in the fight against genetic diseases and various forms of cancer, as well as in accelerating testing for COVID-19. However, CRISPR – the so-called ‘genetic scissors’ technology – can also play an important role in the fight against climate change, aiming to allow local communities to grow enough food in any climate, thereby reducing the environmental costs of transport.

According to Dr Monika Paule, who holds a PhD in social sciences and has experience in high-tech business development and technology transfer in the biotechnology industry, “we need to reshape the biotechnology industry to be pro-gender.”

Women in the biotechnology industry may be more sensitive to the environmental uses of the latest developments in the field. According to OECD research, women worldwide tend to be more sensitive to ecological issues, are more likely to recycle, buy organic and eco-labelled foods, deal with water and energy savings, and use energy-efficient forms of transport. This can also be translated into viable ideas started by women.

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