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.