Only 10 per cent of medtech startups are founded by women. But those that are, are packing a punch and supporting generations to come. Read their stories and advice to fellow female entrepreneurs below
In January this year, Forbes contributor Geri Stengel argued strongly in an article that 2016 should be seen as the year of female entrepreneurs. The US census results were in and revealed that 36 per cent of all US businesses were owned by women – a hike of 30 per cent from 2012.
The skills and prowess of female entrepreneurs, their ability to spot gaps in the market, and to be innovative and cost-effective in their launch strategies were lauded as signs of the beginnings of a golden age for female startups.
But don’t chill the champagne to celebrate just yet. Progress is being made, women are creating their own companies, but in the medtech industry there’s still a way to go.
In London this September DigitalHealth.London Accelerator announced the first cohort of 32 SME digital health businesses to get part funding from the European Regional Development Fund. Of those selected, only three were founded by women. ‘Unfortunately this is an accurate representation,’ says co-founder of HealthTech Women UK, Maxine Mackintosh, ‘when it comes to female founders, fewer than 10 per cent of medtech companies come from women.’
Whilst women make up the majority of the workforce in the NHS (77 per cent) and healthcare managers in the US (73 per cent), the percentages quickly drop the closer you get to the C suite. It’s a phenomenon Mackintosh refers to as ‘the leaky pipeline’, which means females account for only 24 per cent of medical directors, 20 per cent of Professors of Life Science and 11 per cent of surgeons.
Playing the devil’s advocate, one might ask why do we need more women in medtech? For Mackintosh the answer is more nuanced than diversity for diversity’s sake. ‘For me it centres on a social movement towards “people-powered health”,’ she says.
‘This is the concept that a bottom-up change in the way we deliver healthcare will be driven by the frontline staff, patients, and the average person. At present, a very select group of individuals are driving the future of the field. If we want the next generation of healthcare to be appropriate for its users, all innovators must be harnessed as its designers. At present, we’re losing out on 50 per cent of the potential intellectual capital purely because they are women.’
So there’s work to be done. But the good news is there are pioneers out there. They may be few in numbers but these female entrepreneurs are punching above their weight and making a significant impact on medtech. We turn the spotlight on five of them – and find out what advice they’d give to women considering going down the startup route.
1. Marje Isabelle: The hormone pioneer helping women self-manage their menopause
Marje Isabelle’s own diagnosis with womb and ovarian cancer at 35 and management of her subsequent early menopause took her career down an unexpected route from charity fundraiser to successful medtech entrepreneur.
In 2014 she launched fertility testing and analysis service Fertile Matters to ‘keep [us] better informed and monitor our sex hormones to determine our fertile health.’ This year the self-confessed ‘new starter-upper, non-medic, non-techie, new mum,’ is well on her way to launching a wearable device that will allow women to manage the symptoms surrounding the menopause with her new company Intelligent Hormone Science Ltd.
‘There are eight million women in the UK and 48 million in the US currently in a menopausal state. Clinicians, health bodies and pharmas are failing to provide safe, proven, effective alternatives to HRT, which has led to a growing demand for herbal or bio-identical personalised therapies. These are unregulated and/or unapproved, yet they are used more frequently than FDA-approved synthetic HRT options, which clearly demonstrates that there is an unmet need in the market,’ Isabelle points out.
Personal experience and her own passion to raise awareness of the care for female fertile life are key drivers for Isabelle who is currently seeking seed funding for her new venture, but she acknowledges that putting yourself and your idea out there is not always easy.
‘Women view failure in business very differently to men,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to be flexible, adjust and pivot over the last few years to get to a place with my business where I feel that it will benefit all.
‘But I’ve also learnt that I don’t have to adhere to the male timetable of business. I can be a businesswoman and a mum. Family and work can be juggled and enjoyed. Yes, there will be a period where your babies need your attention, but the world will not disappear and your plans and ideas will not dissolve.
‘My advice to female entrepreneurs is to be clever and surround yourself with as much help as you can, and with a good network of childcare, and you will come out of the experience stronger, better and with a different life perspective.’
2. Professor Suzanne Saffie-Siebert: The inventor using nanotech to shake up drug delivery
Ask a diabetic, a cancer patient, an elderly patient or a child what they find most difficult about the management of their illness and chances are the need for constant injections will be high up on their list.
SiSafe® a drug delivery platform invented by Professor Suzanne Saffie-Siebert, founder of nanotech drug delivery company, SiSaf Ltd is set to disrupt the market in drug delivery so that medicines given by injection, for example, could be instead taken as oral tablets, intranasal sprays or even delivered though the skin.
‘One of the key challenges of drug delivery carriers is their biocompatibility and, in order to be fully biocompatible, silicon-based materials need to fully dissolve to silicic acid – ideally orthosilicic acid (OSA) – which is the bioavailable form of silicon,’ explains Saffie-Siebert.
‘OSA has been shown to be beneficial for the health of bones, connective tissue, and the skin. Although the initial hydrolysis product of elemental silicon is OSA, it very rapidly polymerises in vivo, with polymerised siloxanes, such as silica, the major by-product. Therefore, silicon-based delivery systems that rely on the dissolution of silicon alone are not truly biocompatible and cause safety concerns.
‘I developed a technology which overcomes this issue and offers full and controlled production and release of OSA. It’s totally safe and that’s why we call the technology SiSafe®.’ Successful Series A funding and commercialisation of SiSafe® is well under way. ‘In five years time we would like to see these product developments well advanced into human clinical trials.’
She urges other women to be the same. ‘Say loud what you believe is right. Stay firm and defend your view. And if you make a mistake in judgment, accept it and move on.’
For Saffie-Siebert the lack of women founders in medtech is less a question of policy and more a question of mindsets. ‘As a woman in a leadership position, I have not only been undermined by male colleagues but received less respect than men from other women. Consciously or subconsciously, many women seem to believe men can do a better job than women.
‘It all comes down to how women value themselves, and as long as female professionals suffer from the delusion that guys can do things better it’s hard to challenge male attitudes towards women in leadership positions,’ she says.
3. Dr Jin Lee: The VC turned mHealth app entrepreneur empowering parents to detect child development issues
The inspiration for Dr Jin Lee’s mHealth startup was a casual conversation. ‘When my husband and I were ready to have kids, he asked “I wonder what a four month old baby can do versus a seven month old?”. I realised that, even with a PhD, he had no clue what to expect and what to do regarding children’s development.
‘I started to do some research and found, according to the Center for Disease Control reports, one-sixth of American children have developmental issues and about half of pediatricians don’t screen for it. Soon after, I quit healthcare venture capital to start Qidza, to develop a parent-friendly mobile platform to help with early screening, early detection, and better outcomes for every child,’ she says.
Parenting is increasingly a shared job, but there are still differences in what mums and dads notice. These differences were something Lee was careful to build in to her first BabyNoggin app. And yet she still had to spend time convincing investors that mums behave differently than dads when it comes to a child’s upbringing. ‘Often, I had to show male investors testimonials of what moms said about the app,’ she says.
With experience of both sides of the VC table and three startups behind her, Lee knows the landscape. ‘Being a woman entrepreneur is hard,’ admits Lee, ‘Being a mompreneur is even harder. Yet the startup is your other baby and there’s no greater satisfaction than raising your baby and seeing your startup going from idea to a real company – where others also share your passion and vision.’
4. Dr Rashmi Narayana: Building evidence for digital platforms crunching data to improve health and research outcomes
Data is a big deal in healthcare. The holy grail is to apply it in a manner that offers researchers and practitioners ways to help patients better understand and self-manage their condition. Dr Rashmi Narayana, who left clinical medicine and academia to join umotif, is well on the way to proving that this patient-centred data capture platform meets the needs of patients, health care providers and researchers – whilst improving outcomes.
‘Our first project in 2012, was working with people with Parkinson’s to look at ways to help improve adherence,’ says Narayana. Now we’re working with more than 14 clinical conditions across the NHS, in the USA and Australia, and in the near term we’re aiming to integrate with wearable devices including medical devices, Electronic Health Records and Personal Health Records to help reduce the barriers to data flows within the healthcare system,’ she adds.
Earlier this year umotif launched 100 for Parkinsons, which aims to get 100,000 people to track their health on the app for 100 days. If it works it will be the world’s largest data set of its kind and will be accessible to researchers around the world. Narayana designed and led the study and fronted the video asking to people to take part.
Putting herself in front of customers and the industry is something that she feels she and women leaders should do more of. ‘It seems obvious that we should be meeting people but I think it is harder for women because, generally, marketing ourselves and our skills doesn’t come easily to us. My advice to other women in startups is to accept the anxiety and do it anyway.’
5. Edel Browne: The STEM student revolutionising the management of freezing gait in Parkinson’s patients
Some 72 per cent of all Parkinson’s patients suffer from freezing gait. It’s caused by a deficiency of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the mid-brain, which makes the patient feel like they can’t move their legs or feet. It’s also a big factor in 38 per cent of the falls experienced by people with Parkinson’s each year.
Edel Browne found out this fact from her brother who works as a movement disorders clinical nurse in their local hospital. In 2012, at the age of 15, the young STEM student decided to do something about it.
The result was a small laser light device, which acts as a visual cueing system for the brain. Support from the Irish Medical Devices Association, which gave her a bursary to attend the London International Youth Science Forum at Imperial College, and from the Outbox Incubator which mentors young women with STEM related projects has brought Edel to a place where she is now, at the age of 19, ready to seek €20,000 of crowdfunding for her company Free Feet Medical to develop her second prototype and carry out further testing with users.
‘Outbox really helped me to develop my business and realise that I wasn’t alone as a woman embarking on a career in STEM entrepreneurship, which was incredibly important to me,’ says Edel. She’s also learnt more than a thing or two about getting her product this far. Her advice to others? ‘Just be resilient. There will always be people who aren’t confident that your idea will work and that you won’t be able to pull it off, but try your absolute best to prove them wrong. Know your product better than anybody else, be prepared for every meeting and pitch, and do everything possible to be the best you can. I don’t think there’s any substitute for hard work.’
The road to female-led entrepreneurial success might not be easy, but it can be done. As these five women have proved, asking for and taking support, building confidence, networking and ‘leaning in’ can break down barriers and boundaries.
Read more inspiring stories about female entrepreneurs in healthcare.