In the research arena, according to the European Commission, women make up 42% of all biomedical researchers in Spanish higher education and 54% of those in the government sector, but only hold 23.9% of senior positions. A recent study by IBEC reveals, for example, that at this research center only 30% of female scientists go out for management positions compared to 70% of the men there. Founding a spin-off, for some, is an alternative to take their research to market.
Like most female researchers, entrepreneurship was never part of the plan for Laura Soucek, cofounder and CEO of Peptomyc. “It was simply the most logical decision to turn 20 years of hard work in research into a real therapeutic opportunity for cancer patients,” she remembers. In 2014, she founded Peptomyc, a spin-off of the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) that has developed peptides to combat Myc, which plays an essential role in the survival of cancer cells but not of normal cells.
“Being a woman hasn’t been an obstacle in starting up the company, but it has meant answering questions they never would have asked a man,” she says. “An expert in the sector once told me my project was extremely good but that I should let a head of laboratory or professor at an important institute lead it: he never even considered the possibility that I could be both of those things: I’m head of laboratory and an ICREA professor!,” she decries.
“As female scientists, we are used to challenging the male chauvinist world,” she says. “If we raise awareness of the trailblazers, we encourage others to follow in their footsteps.”
Mariona Serra, cofounder and CEO of GoodGut, says that “it’s still hard to implement equality measures in the world of science, like for example compensating for maternity leave when applying for grants. In a world where things are measured in number of papers published, the time you are on maternity leave has a direct impact on this metric and limits female scientists’ access to funding,” explains this veterinary scientist who began her time as an entrepreneur after a postdoc at the Girona Biomedical Research Institute.
Some grants and funding are starting to take this into account, “but there is still a long road ahead,” warns Serra. Now that she runs her own company that develops non-invasive systems for diagnostic support and treatment for digestive diseases, she aspires to enact “an equal-opportunity policy that promotes work-life balance.”
Serra was pregnant for two key moments in the company’s history: when it was set up and the round of funding. “That meant I had to justify myself to some investors, but not many,” she says.
“I consider myself fortunate: in my professional life I haven’t experienced any sort of gender discrimination,” says Marta Barrachina, cofounder and CEO of ADmit Therapeutics, the newly created spin-off of IDIBELL to develop a test for early detection of Alzheimer. The company is the result of a clinical project Barrachina has led for the past three years with support from a team of neurologists. “Dr. Ramon Reñe and Dr. Jordi Gascon are the other two founders and there was never any discussion that I would be CEO,” she reveals. “The team’s good performance is based on respect and generosity towards the
Barrachina attributes the growing number of female science entrepreneurs to an increase in women in the biomedical world in general and to public commitment to translational research. “Being an entrepreneur is difficult in any case, and even more so for scientists,” she warns. “University degrees should include classes on entrepreneurship, regulatory issues and business to teach scientists that, in addition to basic research, we have to tackle innovation research.”
In Spain, 25% of women who found their own company do so out of need, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Women’s Entrepreneurship Report, which covers all sectors.
The Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST) launched a call for grant submissions called The Mothers of Science last February to support female researchers with children who are up for a position of leadership in science. At this center, 41% of senior research positions are held by women, but they only account for 15% of group leaders.