Scaling up gender diversity in the university spinout ecosystem.

Why are so few women involved in university spinout companies? Simonetta Manfredi has some ideas.

Simonetta Manfredi is Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Business School at Oxford Brookes University

The University Alliance’s Research and Innovation Network, has recently been discussing what more can be done to promote greater diversity and representation across the academic pipeline.

While great strides are being made across the system, one area often overlooked is the representation of women in the university spinout ecosystem. UA have today launched a new publication highlighting some of the work being done by UA members in this area.

At the time of writing, only 13 per cent of university spinouts were being founded by women. One of these, Oxford Expression Technologies Ltd, was co-founded by Oxford Brookes University’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Global Partnerships, Linda King. The spinout was recently awarded a grant from Innovate UK to accelerate the development of a Covid-19 vaccine in collaboration with an Australian Vaccine company, Vaxine Pty.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought research commercialisation under the spotlight and demonstrated the immense value of exploiting the intersections between industry and academic research to speed-up vaccination development and delivery. Looking beyond the pandemic, a broad range of commercialised research can only benefit the Government’s Research & Development roadmap, and aspirations to become a “science superpower”.

If the UK is to achieve these ambitions however, it needs to tackle inequalities in the STEM community and develop an inclusive innovation ecosystem that captures the benefits of diversity.

Why aren’t women founding spinouts?

I am passionate about this agenda, and supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), my colleagues and I set out to investigate why there are so few women founding spinouts, and what we can do to change that.

We looked at the 789 spinouts identified as active from the Beauhurst database (January 2019), which showed that across the UK, only 13 per cent of university spinout companies had at least one woman founder. We also found that not only are women significantly under-represented in the C-suite of spinout companies (a company’s most senior level of executives), but also that women founders are less likely to receive large innovation grants, and that their companies are less likely to feature in high growth business lists.

It wasn’t only gender that was lacking in diversity. We also discovered a lack of parity in the types of universities that carry out spinout activities – spinout companies are mostly established in the “golden triangle”, and 70 per cent originate from Russell Group Institutions.

In their words

Numbers however, only tell part of the story. Through 35 interviews with women and men founders, we gained a better insight into the challenging and enabling factors that they encountered during their spinout journey. Most of the founders we spoke to had to manage their spinout activities over all the other commitments of their academic jobs. While this is clearly a challenge for everyone, it could prove especially difficult for academics with caring responsibilities.

There was also a clear sense that sometimes entrepreneurial activities within academia were frowned upon as being a less legitimate path for their research: one woman founder said

a lot more people would do this if it was better recognised in promotions.

There were also reports of gender bias among women founders within the investment community; a couple of women founders described their experience of pitching as “entering a very male biased world” which consisted of “men pitching to men”.

Despite this admittedly bleak picture, there are some funding initiatives in place within the academic spinout community that can help women founders realise their spinout visions, such as the Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) funding from Innovate UK and entrepreneurial fellowships. Those we spoke to said these helped to validate their ideas and were instrumental in the creation of their spinouts. Though these initiatives are vital in the current spinout climate, they aren’t enough to unlock widespread diversity.

What can be done?

So, aside from these isolated instances of research commercialisation funding, what needs to happen for the ecosystem to improve, to establish equal opportunity for women no matter where they are in the country, or which institution is funding their research?

Access to alternative career paths to be facilitated within Research & Innovation

There needs to be a widespread understanding of the range of academic careers that are available within the R&I landscape, particularly for working across sectors (e.g. industry, NGOs, policy departments).

More support for students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) to understand and exploit available spinout opportunities

There isn’t enough information for ECRs to assess the full range of career opportunities available, particularly where academia interacts with industry. Offering more support and resources within Higher Education institutions and external bodies would expose the potential of such career paths. At University Alliance, we support those within our Doctoral Training Alliance through training, networking events and career guidance.

Universities and industry partners need to work closely to create an inclusive innovation ecosystem

The Higher Education sector and the investor community should work more closely together, in order to develop funding opportunities to support women founders and generate equality in the ecosystem.

Development of an EDI framework for data collection, to understand the actual levels of participation among women, BAME and other equality groups as founders of spinout.

The Knowledge Exchange Framework can be leveraged to provide EDI benchmark data across the sector. This is a starting point to identify what data and information needs to be captured at the institutional, regional and national level. This could then be applied to Higher Education providers, commercialisation practices and spinouts.

Redefining success and what is rewarded and supported within academic careers

When researchers look to commercialise their research, the value of these activities needs to be fully recognised. If the types of researchers who had the opportunity to start spinouts diversified and expanded, it would help to create greater recognition for this type of academic outcome.

Individual opportunity and increased innovation

Developing a more diverse spinout ecosystem, with equal opportunity and a clear system of support and resources for all researchers – regardless of their HEP or background – will not only create greater opportunities for individuals, but help to drive innovation within the UK. The Government’s Research & Development roadmap provides a timely opportunity to address many of these issues, and the rebalancing of spinout activities according to gender, geography and HEPs should feature as goals for the roadmap.

This was a core argument within University Alliance’s response to the R&D roadmap survey, and a solution which we think could help drive the post-Covid economic recovery and achieve the Industrial Strategy goal for the UK to become the most innovative economy by 2030.

4 responses to “Scaling up gender diversity in the university spinout ecosystem.

  1. An excellent, thought-provoking piece. Shines a real light on the inequities in the existing spinout system alongside a clear roadmap for much-needed change.

  2. I wonder if the male willingness to take greater risks is part of this, as several female spinout team members I’ve talked with were very uncomfortable with the potential personal financial risks involved if their spinout failed coupled with being seen as a professional failure when they started their first companies.

    The legal duties placed upon directors are not for the faint hearted either, BTDTWTTS.

  3. But The Decider’s The Willingness To Take Shit. Or something. I’m sure you know what you mean. The notion that your thoughts are at the forefront of your readers’ minds doesn’t embrace inclusion.

  4. The origins of many spin out programmes are in technology, with universities having in mind that some could go on to be commercially very successful. The stake the university holds could raise a lot of money if the venture has such commercial success.
    I think this sidelines other kinds of spin outs including social innovations. It marginalises academics who have an idea they want to take forward that does not sit within that framing. In contrast, the education incubator at Exeter attracts academics (men and women) who have an innovative approach in their teaching that they would like space and advice to develop. https://www.exeter.ac.uk/teaching-excellence/educationincubator/about/

    Funders that have tended to be very tech focused are now becoming more interested in social innovation and behaviour change. The Innovate UK programme included – The Future we Want. A university of Leicester spin out to turn a climate change game into an online resource. https://ktn-uk.org/programme/women-in-innovation/ https://futurewewant.co.uk/index.html

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