When Kristen Otto was putting together materials related to an award nomination for Washington University’s Women in Innovation & Technology program, she heard a remark that was as moving as any award.
“We were speaking to one of our faculty members, and she said, ‘I never saw myself as an inventor until this program came about,’” recalls Otto, marketing director for the Office of Technology Management, which oversees the Women in Innovation & Technology program.
“That was a real awakening for us because these faculty members all see themselves as researchers. That’s totally in their wheelhouse, but a lot of our women never saw themselves as inventors.”
That gender gap is part of the challenge of academic technology transfer, a complicated transitional world where scientific research moves from university labs to profit-generating commercial products, sometimes through enterprises founded by the researchers themselves.
Unfortunately, that process can be even more daunting for women who may face additional barriers in everything from nailing down venture capital to networking with peers. Washington University research in 2013 revealed that only 30 percent of invention disclosures included female faculty. Now, that number is above 50 percent.
“They may not be the only inventors on a patent, but they are seeing themselves more as inventors than they did even five years ago,” says Otto.
One reason has been the university’s proactive approach to encouraging female entrepreneurship through the WIT program. Begun in 2014 with a diversity grant from the provost, the initiative now includes a welcome event, a symposium and various ad hoc activities designed both to address issues of gender disparity and educate women faculty on the essentials of commercialization.
“It is a very easy thing for men to say, ‘I’m going to start a company. I’m going to build it around this technology,’” Otto says. “But women just weren’t in that space. They weren’t even thinking about it.”
Now celebrating its first half-decade, WIT is changing that. Nichole Mercier, managing director of the Office of Technology Management and founder of WIT, says that last year 44 percent of patents from faculty included at least one woman. When the program began, the campus had spawned no tech startups run by a woman. Today, it has two. Additionally, two other companies are based on work in which a female researcher was seminal to its founding.
“When we first started the programming, it was really based on a couple of key articles in the literature,” Mercier says. “One of them suggested that if you could provide women with the language of commercialization, you can close the gap. The other one suggested that networks are a huge barrier for women engaging in tech transfer, engaging in commercialization of their work.”
The initiative gelled around both concepts. Starting with 27 women, its events answered basic questions about tech transfer, patents and invention disclosures in a process that spurred women to think of themselves as technology creators while creating networks that connected women inventors to one another and the larger corporate world.
Mercier says the annual symposium, which has doubled in size during the past three years to 160 people, also has helped to deepen the knowledge base of faculty. Topics at its most recent iteration in February included sessions on how to talk to investors, ways to build a personal brand beyond academia and strategies for breaking the cycle of bias in tech funding.
Ad hoc events also enhance the schedule.
“For example, if Eli Lilly is coming to Wash U, then I might contact whoever it is that’s coming and say ‘Hey, if I get a group of women together, could we talk about this topic?’” Mercier says. “It is usually not really specific. It could be ‘How do you better engage corporate business development people?’ or ‘How do you talk to corporate scientists without giving away things that are confidential?’ I might bring in a patent attorney to talk about what they need to think about in starting companies.”
Otto says the symposium now is attracting participants from other area campuses such as the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
“We know now that we can take this kind of programming bigger than just Washington University,” she says. “That’ll be something we’re looking at in the future.”
Otto and Mercier both spoke of other future plans including bringing a pitch competition event to campus, perhaps as soon as next year.
But the true challenge ahead is another change in mindset. Just as it moved women from thinking of themselves as just researchers to seeing themselves as inventors, the WIT program now aims to push that envelope even further to the next logical step — minting individuals who can form companies as well as write patents.
“If women are not self-identifying as faculty entrepreneurs, then we have some work to do. I would see that as the future,” Mercier says. “I feel like we’ve got to move the needle because there are a lot of programs in the community outside of universities for women entrepreneurs, but because our women in the academic world aren’t identifying as entrepreneurs, they are not going to take part in those programs outside the walls.”
Some, like Nancy Tye-Murray, certainly think of themselves in those terms.
“I still have my day job,” she says, laughing.
That day job is a professorship in otolaryngology at Washington University where she is also principal investigator of the Audio/Visual Speech Perception Laboratory.
She’s also co-founder and CEO of clEAR, a customized learning system that provides unique auditory-training exercises to teach patients with hearing loss to recognize speech and improve auditory perception. In 2015, the enterprise received a “Quick Start” contract from the university as it began operations. The following year, it grew enough to convert from an LLC to a C Corporation. Now, it has customers in five English-speaking nations.
Tye-Murray says she believes the entrepreneurial climate at the university has warmed considerably during the past five years due to initiatives such as WIT.
“My take is that it is a growing program,” she says. “It started with limited resources, and they did a lot with those limited resources — and I think it is picking up traction, especially with young women at the university who are being inspired by the fact that it exists. It shows that Wash U supports women entrepreneurship within the community.”
“It gave me networking opportunities, and I’ve certainly met some women entrepreneurs within the St. Louis community that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she adds.
Audrey Odom-John, an assistant professor of pediatrics, says the program also builds bridges.
“Before I got to Wash U and before I participated, I really didn’t understand the process of disclosing intellectual property or moving a patent forward,” she says.
Now she holds four preliminary patents related to malaria therapies she helped to develop as well as a breathalyzer test for the tropical illness. Both may someday have commercial potential.
“For some of it, I might have eventually gotten there because I had collaborators who were a little more familiar with the process,” says Odom-John. “But certainly we have disclosed more inventions and been far more proactive about it because I understand the process better.”
Technology development at times can be overlooked by women faculty who look to more traditional measures of success in academia such as the number of papers published or grants acquired, Odom-John says.
“The key piece of what the Women in Innovation & Technology group has done and the efforts that Nichole has led is that they have really shown us that the university cares if we do this,” she says. “That it is considered value-added to the university for us to take our technologies forward.”
The networking and sense of connection are valuable, too.
“There were things going on even in my own department that I didn’t know about except through the Women in Innovation & Technology symposium,” Odom-John says.
As for the program itself, it is getting wider attention.
“We published a paper last summer in the journal Technology and Innovation about our findings so we’re seeing a lot of traction,” Mercier says.
The program’s leadership also is expanding data collection to look at other factors on female participation rates, such as the effect of tenure on technology transfer and whether women tend to choose a different point in their career to pursue entrepreneurial efforts than do their male counterparts.
But the real payoff is assessed not just with numbers, but via the intangible effects.
“You can see it through the networks of women inventors as they meet one another through the program. They are maintaining those ties,” Mercier says. “We’re seeing a much more robust population of women inventors who know each other and who are talking about more than just research. They are talking about inventing and startups.”