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“Many more role models are needed.” Women's presence in the Catalan biomedical ecosystem

There are around 100 startups in the BioRegion of Catalonia led and/or founded by women, representing such diverse fields as biotechnology, medical technologies, digital health and investment, among others. To commemorate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, we have interviewed ten women entrepreneurs from the BioRegion who have launched a company within the past three years.

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23.02.2021
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It's common to hear talk about the need to encourage STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) vocations among young girls and university students in order to close the gender gap in technological and scientific professions, which has a direct impact on the growth and competitiveness of the global economy. With the goal of showcasing the role of women in the life sciences and health innovation sectors in the face of this challenge, we have interviewed a selection of female leaders who have emerged in the latest batch of entrepreneurs in the BioRegion.

We wanted to hear about the initial motivations that led them to choose a science-related profession, and to ask about their vision and experiences to find out what shortcomings and opportunities for improvement they think are needed to normalize the presence of female role models, especially in leadership roles in the sector.

A vocation since childhood?

Some of them had no doubts: “Always a scientist! I've always had that curiosity to discover, that zeal for adventure,” Carolina Aguilar, CEO and co-founder of InBrain Neuroelectronics, answers euphorically. Others wanted to be teachers when they were young, like Ivelisse Sánchez, co-founder of Biointaxis, and Noemí Balà, CTO and co-founder of Aortyx. Sánchez clarifies: “I wanted to devour the world in many disciplines, depending on my age,” and Balà explains that “since I was young, all I wanted to do was teach. Later, in my baccalaureate, I wanted to be a doctor. But I wasn’t too sure because I'm a bit squeamish. I thought that I'd like to help, but from a different angle: offering treatments and seeking solutions for patients. That's why I decided to study chemistry.” She shares this frustrated vocation as a doctor with Elisabeth Bosch, CEO and co-founder of Sampling Solutions: “My dream was to become a doctor, but when I had to dissect a frog in biology class and I fainted, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the blood. So I decided to study the pure sciences (chemistry and biochemistry).” However, Alicia Martínez, CEO of Time is Brain, knew that she wanted to be a doctor by the age of 8. “I’m a pretty stubborn person; I don’t stop until I reach my goals.” 

We also find women whose first choice wasn’t science, like Judit Camargo, CEO and founder of Roka Furadada, (“I didn’t have a clear scientific vocation. I really liked my father’s profession - he worked in an import-export company”), and Patricia Villagrasa, CEO and co-founder of Reveal Genomics (“For a long time I dreamed about being a pilot. I was always really curious about how we were able to fly.”).

Others, like Maria Eugenia Martín, CEO and co-founder of ColorSensing, and Roser González, CEO of DBGen Ocular Genomics, weren't sure. “I didn't really know. I knew I wanted to make decisions and organize games...,” says Martín. González recalls: “When I was little I was interested in lots of things: history, literature, math... At that time, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. Later, the problem was choosing.”

Regardless, many of them concur that the reason science interested them was so they could “understand the reasons for things,” as Camargo sums it up. “What I liked the best, and I still do, was being able to learn,” concurs Villagrasa. Martín (an engineer) says that she “chose carefully so I could wear many different hats, and that's what I like the most.” Alícia Martínez and Nuria Pastor, CEO and co-founder of HumanITcare, recall the influence of books and TV. “I was always intrigued when I watched the TV or read books about people who were able to make things from scratch. Inventing something that could heal people or help solve a problem. I thought that was so extraordinary,” recalls Martínez. 

The gender gap in senior management and the lack of female role models

One way or another, they all ended up choosing scientific or technological degrees and then took the leap to the business world. Managerial jobs are still primarily held by men, the majority contend, “especially in longer-standing companies,” Martínez notes. She goes on: “Your interlocutors (especially managers) are still usually men. This actually makes you change the way you do things. For example, when stating your answers or opinions, you take on more ‘masculine’ aptitudes. And this is actually enriching,” she thinks. Camargo states that within large companies “there are many women; they just need to reach leadership positions. However, when setting up a company, we are definitely in the minority. Obviously, everyone has to do what they like, but it would be great if there were more of us.” González asserts: “Women should have more support; there's lots of talk, but we don’t get it. The situation is difficult, especially if there are kids in the middle.” Villagrasa reflects that this entire situation “may be promoted by the social roles which we are assigned since we're little kids, where girls are funneled more towards certain careers and boys others. It's a shame, but that's still the case.” She adds, “Women weren't able to study at the university until the late 19th century. Think of all humanity has missed out on! Do you know where we'd be if we’d had equal access with men?”

What could be done to redress this situation? Martín calls for “policies that foster a work-life balance instead of repeating discourses focused on what women should do and what girls should study,” a suggestion that Pastor seconds: “I think that the family-work balance has a lot to do with it. It's easier for men to have time and to deal with heavier workloads.” González stresses the same idea: “I think that politicians should reflect much more seriously on why certain boards of directors are only 10% women, why certain professions are much more male-dominated...” Aguilar suggests that the situation “has to change from women, based on cooperation with men and an appreciation of diversity.” In terms of education, Martín claims that “not only should we motivate girls to pursue science degrees more, we should also encourage boys to pursue degrees like nursing or other care-related fields (usually female-dominated). Then we’ll achieve a certain balance.”

Another idea shared by the majority of interviewees is the need to hold up role models. Sánchez says: “There is a real lack of female role models which would enable girls to make better decisions and not make the same mistakes. And so they can ultimately have more freedom to choose what they really want. It’s not like they can’t do that now; they simply feel like it's not a viable option because they don't see more women in these jobs.” Balà confirms this: “Since it seems like large companies are run by men, you get the sense that there aren’t any women doing these jobs. More role models and visibility are needed.” Camargo is optimistic about the future: “Organizations like Biocat are nurturing the growth of this ecosystem, generating more opportunities and making them visible. So in the future there will be more girls who see that this sector is a possibility for them to work and bring their projects to fruition.” 

Support from Biocat

 

We couldn’t miss the chance to ask how they think Biocat contributes to this goal. Camargo explains: “I think that Biocat is doing a great job. We are all contributing to becoming the Boston of southern Europe in the near future.” Based on her experience, Aguilar thinks that, “innovating is difficult, even in large corporations. Incubators where you can research and develop transformative technologies are needed. When we founded Inbrain Neuroelectronics, we thought we could help this ecosystem in Catalonia. And this is when my relationship with Biocat began.” 

In terms of financing, Sánchez claims that “they've helped us land investors and trained us on how to interact with them or speak in more appropriate jargon for the business world.” 

In terms of outreach, Martínez stresses that “ever since we were founded, we've been in touch with Biocat; it tells us about calls for applications and programs, and it spreads the word about us in its investor network.” “And since they're associated with EIT Health, it's been a mouthpiece for sharing our initiative and meeting people in the ecosystem,” says Pastor. Villagrasa focuses more on business training: “Since I came from the world of laboratories, it was very useful for me to have Biocat help me to know options in the business sector. I think it has a very important role in training, especially for people like me who come from the world of science.”