Support in Scotland that fosters academic entrepreneurship is among the best in Europe, says Olga Kozlova
Since the Converge Challenge was established in 2010 and quickly evolved to become Scotland’s benchmark university-based entrepreneurial business competition, it’s pleasing to see the growth in the number of entries from aspiring female entrepreneurs.
Of last year’s six finalists, three were nascent technology businesses created by women – each with significant growth potential as their technologies start to develop further.
One of these finalists was Dawn Maskell – a post-doctorate research associate at Heriot Watt University developing a sustainable source of proteins for the food industry using by-products from Scotch whisky, which can be converted to a high-quality protein feed for aquaculture.
Another, Kanika Bansal, a Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, has created an automatic, non-invasive disposable device enabling a near 100 per cent reduction in bacteria on skin, to prevent infection from intravenous needle punctures. Two further graduates from the University of Edinburgh – Liita Naukushu, a third-year PhD student, and Helen Fisher, a graduate from Edinburgh College of Art – have been developing products in the healthcare sector by devising a range of home and industrial cleaning products aimed at dramatically reducing the spread of infections.
Last year continued a trend of early-stage businesses created and developed by women. They join the ranks of other female entrepreneurs who are serious players in the innovation economy – leaders who can generate wealth, create jobs and transform the lives of customers and employees alike.
Yet, so far, only a few women can be found among the entrepreneurial elite – for example, Dr Rabinder Buttar, the CEO of ClinTec International.
When you examine the venture capital money going to fund the science and technology businesses of tomorrow, a very small percentage will be won by female entrepreneurs, although it is true that fewer women overall create businesses – and those that do tend to be in industries that perhaps don’t appeal to the venture capitalist community.
Across Europe, entrepreneurship development programmes are now a mainstay of universities, through a raft of curricula and start-up support programmes and initiatives.
Women represent around 50 per cent of the student population at universities and as we have seen at Converge Challenge, are now studying with a long-term goal of commercialising research.
Here in Scotland, our academic funding agencies and universities provide outreach to female students and want to encourage many more to be entrepreneurial – to invent, patent and potentially commercialise their research and bridge the gap with their male counterparts.
Jackie Waring, CEO of Investing Women, a growing community of angel investors, is delighted to see emergent female entrepreneurs having the vision to create businesses that are nurtured from our university base.
She says: “It’s really exciting to see the growth in numbers of such talented female entrepreneurs emerging from the Converge Challenge. I’ve had the privilege to hear about several of their ventures, which are impressive to say the least. These women are not only pioneers and innovators in their respective markets, they are also fantastic role models, inspiring other women to achieve in sectors where they have been traditionally under-represented.
“These entrepreneurs are leading tomorrow’s high-growth companies, proving once again the global impact of Scotland’s innovators as well as the rapidly-growing economic impact of women entrepreneurs. We at Investing Women are thrilled with this trend and really excited about the future potential.”
Statistics also suggest that female scientists-turned-entrepreneurs clearly have a lot of ground to cover to make up the gender divide, but the support and encouragement is here to be utilised.
A fresh injection of aspirational female talent in this year’s Converge Challenge and other university-inspired business competitions will propel them forward to be truly entrepreneurial.
Fostering academic entrepreneurship needs to be a two-fold policy – one that focuses on the current situation of development and progress, whilst keeping an eye on the prospects for “post-academic” growth.
The support we have in Scotland is among the best in Europe. The training and mentoring programmes nurture new, aspirant talent and this will help harness more female-led early-stage ventures.
Whilst media reports suggest that the glass ceiling is getting thicker, as women face more challenges than men in getting top jobs, often curtailing people’s perceptions and aspirations, the same limits will not exist for women with their own plans for business success.
Once their academic days are over, they can seamlessly build businesses that can create wealth and employability, and importantly, inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
• Olga Kozlova is director, Converge Challenge