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Academic Women: Overlooked Entrepreneurs
The majority of US small businesses are started by women, which suggests that women are indeed entrepreneurial. Yet when it comes to the academic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, women lag behind their male peers. Women file proportionately fewer invention disclosures and patents, launch fewer startup companies, and are less successful attracting venture capital and angel funds (Rosser 2012).
As women increasingly join university faculties, this commercialization gender gap becomes progressively more problematic for institutions of higher education. Transferring ideas from the laboratory to the world of business is not only essential for our nation’s economy, but also capitalizes on innovation, supports expanded experiential learning curricula for undergraduate students, and provides funding streams and revenue to researchers and institutions.
At Ohio State University (OSU), we have studied the institutional environment for academic entrepreneurship, especially in STEM fields, and offer insights about why higher education fails to attract and involve women scientists and engineers in the enterprise. The programs we have developed, with funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) ADVANCE program, show the path forward.
As part of our ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant, we proposed a two-year workshop series on entrepreneurship for women faculty. The two-year frame was inspired by a similar workshop series, the President and Provost’s Leadership Institute, which has had phenomenal success transitioning women to leadership positions at Ohio State (Ohio State University 2011). Yet, there were significant challenges in our adapting that model to entrepreneurship.
Initially, we established a steering committee, including colleagues from Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business, the technology commercialization office, and several women faculty at various ranks. The committee was charged with designing a curriculum for the entrepreneurship workshop series. However, cultural differences quickly emerged regarding what women faculty would need to know to become engaged in commercialization. Some insisted that a full grounding in the theory of entrepreneurship was essential, while others maintained that a purely practical approach was needed. After several months of little progress, we decided to conduct focus groups with women STEM faculty.
Accordingly, we met with six mid- to senior-level women faculty in STEM to discuss their careers and potential for engaging in commercialization of their basic research. We especially sought to understand the attitudes of women faculty who had vigorous and highly successful research careers, a group that has historically not engaged with technology transfer. Therefore, faculty were chosen to participate based upon two criteria: a prominent research profile and relative inexperience with commercialization. Included in this group were physical scientists, life scientists, and engineers.
Overall, our women faculty were found to have a preference for pursuing what they know they can do well, and we suspect that faculty elsewhere feel much the same. OSU women in STEM are highly successful researchers (their rates of funding and publication impact factors are similar to their male colleagues), tend to be risk-averse, and report being very busy. We also concluded that OSU women STEM faculty are highly attuned to the reward structure of the institution, and, as a result, tend to adopt behaviors that align with that reward structure. Not surprisingly, these women focus on traditional routes of securing support for research, namely extramural grants and contracts.
We also used our focus groups to determine what women STEM faculty consider to be relevant about the impact of their work. Several expressed frustration that breakthroughs from their labs, which have commercial potential, have been ignored by all but a small handful of specialists working in the same area. When asked to envision commercialization as an avenue for expanding the impact of their work, many of our colleagues in these focus groups became excited about the possibility of seeing their research make a real difference.
In sum, our focus groups revealed several themes related to the lack of involvement of OSU women STEM faculty in entrepreneurship:
- Time. While all faculty can claim to be busy, women expressed great reluctance to add work onto already overfull schedules.
- Source of Motivation. OSU women STEM faculty are, by and large, highly successful in garnering extramural grants and contracts to support their work. As a result, they are not motivated by the need for money.
- Tolerance for Risk. OSU women STEM faculty tend to be risk-averse, and maintain established, “safe” patterns of work, which have led to success. Commercialization lies outside of that domain.
- Perception. Faculty, particularly those in the basic sciences, have chosen academia over other career paths (especially industry). A strong prejudice against business thinking prevails, which produces a parallel distaste for commercialization—the “ick” factor. One faculty member even described venture capital funding as “dirty money.”
- Knowledge. Pervasive ignorance about entrepreneurship is itself a deterrent. One faculty member described the first step of moving into this sphere as “akin to crossing the Grand Canyon.”
The Intervention—REACH Workshops
Our focus groups taught us that OSU women STEM faculty can become motivated to engage in commercialization when the activity is framed in terms of societal impact. All faculty want their research to matter, but most do not take steps to disseminate their work outside of traditional academic routes such as refereed journal articles and presentations at scientific conferences. We, therefore, designed our workshops to emphasize that impact (fig. 1). Specifically, we invited them to extend the REACH of their research via commercialization.
As we designed the REACH workshops, we kept in mind that our women faculty are highly successful, therefore extremely time constrained. As such, the most critical decision we made was to scale back the programming significantly from a two-year series to that of four two-hour workshops spread over a five-month period.
Designing these workshops required that we focus on what women faculty wanted to learn and how they would be inspired to follow through on their learning to engage in commercializing their research. We also learned from other efforts on campus that a “talking heads” approach would not succeed; our faculty need to envision themselves as entrepreneurs, with activities and learning tailored to their own work. Personalizing the training was our tactic to keep women faculty engaged in the workshop series.
The NSF ADVANCE program has led to numerous findings that underscore community building among Women STEM faculty as essential for organizational change. As such, a second important decision was to assemble cohorts of faculty, chosen by their deans and chairs, for our workshops. The cohort approach to our workshops not only provided content knowledge, but also assembled a coterie of like-minded individuals. The end result of two years of planning was a series of four REACH workshops that synthesized basic introductions to concepts of technology transfer with one-on-one analysis of research potential for the marketplace. Personalized attention allowed faculty to learn about emerging markets and potential investments for their technologies; having direct feedback on the potential of one’s work often sparks successful commercialization.
We offered our REACH workshops on campus for two successive cohorts of faculty from Ohio State, and then adapted the content and format to develop a two-day workshop for a national cohort. The REACH workshops themselves were organized around three themes:
- Learning the Landscape. Because initiating a commercial enterprise is quite daunting, we offered an overview of the world of commercialization and also stressed some new ways of thinking. Faculty need to understand clearly that great research is not the same as marketable inventions, and they must be willing to accept the advice of those who know the market. Many mistakenly believe that commercialization must involve a startup company, an effort foreign to most academics in the STEM disciplines. When our participants learned about the myriad pathways for commercialization, their apprehensions were visibly assuaged. Furthermore, faculty were surprised to learn how long the process can take, that most inventions are not marketed, and that most patents never return their costs. By combining these reality lessons with examples of successful women scientist entrepreneurs, the workshop allowed participants to envision themselves and thereby gauge their potential in this new arena.
- Building the Team. Faculty mistakenly think they must become experts at business in order to commercialize. During our training, we offered a skills assessment session that helps individual faculty discover their strengths, as well as what kinds of skillsets they must seek in partners. When faculty learned that the business side is typically assumed by a partner, they were both relieved and apprehensive about losing control of their ideas. Finding the right team members for any given entrepreneur requires individualized analysis, and universities must be prepared to offer assistance connecting faculty with individuals in the business and regulatory world.
- Identifying Resources (especially for startups). Faculty may have heard about Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR and STTR) grants, but few knew how they are structured; even fewer had an appreciation for the timeline of commercial development, and the respective roles of small grants, angel funds, and venture capital.
To date, our REACH program has supported nearly one hundred women, including faculty and postdocs at fifteen institutions. We conducted pre- and post-assessment for our participants of their interest, knowledge, and potential for commercialization activities. We also conducted follow-up assessments and asked participants to submit reflective essays, the full results of which will be published elsewhere. In sum, they demonstrate that understanding of and interest in commercialization was elevated through our training, and those effects persisted for at least one year after the training itself. Furthermore, the number of industrial contacts for our participants and their involvement with our office of technology commercialization and knowledge transfer rose dramatically within two years; indeed, one of our alumnae received the Ohio State Innovator of the Year Award. We continue to track patent applications, industrial funding, and other metrics of commercialization activity, and will report on those in the coming years.
We were struck by two demographic characteristics of our participants. First, postdocs are eager for this kind of training, especially international postdocs. Many are interested in nonacademic careers, and expect to be involved in the world of patenting and commercialization. Indeed, interest by postdocs can often drive an entire laboratory to become entrepreneurial.
A second surprise was that individuals who were well-versed in commercialization sought our training. Even faculty with patents and successful startup companies wished to be involved in the workshops. They expressed several reasons for participating. Most wanted to stay current in their respective enterprises and were pleased that such training was available. Apparently, there is no such thing as too much support from an institution for successful tech transfer. Second, we learned that cultivating a community of women entrepreneurs is essential: women have different experiences than do men, and being able to share concerns and engage in peer problem solving is a powerful way for universities to foster faculty entrepreneurship. Further, because women often have shallower collegial networks, our REACH workshops proved significant in expanding their circle of colleagues. Indeed, our REACH alumnae continue to meet regularly to exchange experiences and seek peer support.
Change in the Reward System
Overall, our participants expressed concern that entrepreneurial ventures were not recognized as legitimate or valued faculty activities. While universities may offer considerable support for entrepreneurial activity, including a special office and a profit-sharing scheme, the academic reward system is not designed to include such pursuits. Clearly, if universities wish to attract their women researchers to commercialization, they must recognize such activity in the same way that research, teaching, and service/outreach are recognized. Explicit value must be placed on entrepreneurism for promotion and tenure reviews, annual salary deliberations, and other assignments. These activities must also be perceived as contributors to career development and advancement of stature within the institution. If we do not change the reward system, women who already perceive such activities as add-ons to overloaded schedules will simply ignore them.
Women often think about problems differently, and can develop new approaches to long-standing problems that also open up new areas of learning (Schiebinger 2008). OSU women responded very positively to the message that commercialization is a powerful mechanism to make a better world—whether through saving lives, developing new materials, combatting environmental degradation, or improving social programs.
Our work on entrepreneurship among STEM academic women has taught us a common lesson: systems established by men tend to appeal to and serve men’s interests. In order to make those systems attractive and helpful to women, we must think more broadly about what motivates women and what they require to be successful. Institutions that tailor their programs to include women’s needs will always out-innovate those that do not.
The Ohio State University. 2011. Presidents and Provosts Leadership Institute Evaluation. http://womensplace.osu.edu/assets/files/Final_Evaluation_with_appendices_5-11.pdf.
Rosser, S. V. 2012. Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Schiebinger, L. L. 2008. Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Samantha A. Howe is the director of Project CEOS; Mary C. Juhas is the associate vice president for Gender Initiatives in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine); Joan M. Herbers is a professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology—all of The Ohio State University