Taking on the gender gap in academic entrepreneurship

By Stephanie Stehman, Biotech VC Scientist at Osage University Partners, a venture capital fund that invests exclusively in startups that are commercializing university research. Reused with permission.

The gender gap in academia at the faculty level has been well documented. Male faculty far outnumber women, particularly in the STEM disciplines, though the gap has narrowed in recent decades. It’s also no secret that the rate of academic entrepreneurship is on the rise: the number of startups formed out of university research has nearly doubled in the last decade, increasing from 533 in 2006 to 1,012 in 2015 (1) (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 — Number of Startups Formed each Year

Figure 1 — Number of Startups Formed each Year

It’s worth asking then: how does academic entrepreneurship break down along gender lines?

The Gender Gap in Patenting

One measure of academic entrepreneurship is patenting. A published study examined gender disparities in patenting by analyzing all patents issued by the United States Patent and Trade Office from 1976 through 2013. The authors found that, for patents awarded in all settings (i.e. firms, government, universities), the rate of inventorship among women has increased from 2.7% in 1976 to 10.8% in 2013. The gap was narrower when looking at the university sector alone, where a woman was listed as an inventor on 18% of university-owned patents in 2013 (2). These numbers are clearly moving in the right direction, but before we pat ourselves on the back too much, consider this: The Institute for Women’s Policy Research recently published a similar analysis and used current trends to project that the US will not achieve gender parity in patenting until 2092 (Fig. 2) (3). Considering that’s a date many of us will never live to see, our progress is hardly cause for celebration.

Figure 2 — Share of Patents with at Least One Women Inventor and Projection to Parity

Figure 2 — Share of Patents with at Least One Women Inventor and Projection to Parity

The Gender Gap among Company Founders

We can also measure the gender gap in academic entrepreneurship by comparing the number of male and female scientific company founders in the academic setting. Osage has compiled a database of over 6,000 startups with information obtained from our 90 university partners worldwide (a complete list of our partners can be found here). Using our own data on Scientific Founders along with commercially available gender-matching software, we were able to generate a data set for analysis. This approach isn’t perfect — the software introduces a certain margin of error and the data are limited to the universities with which Osage has a relationship — but it’s more than enough to get the conversation started.

Of the 5,860 names where gender could be determined, we found that only 11% of companies had a female scientific founder or co-founder. Assuming there is no upper limit on the number of university startups that can be formed, let’s revisit that first graph showing the dramatic increase in university spin-outs in recent years; but this time, let’s project what that graph could look like if the rate of participation by men and women was equal:

Figure 3 — Number of Potential Startups if the Rate of Participation by Gender was Equal

Figure 3 — Number of Potential Startups if the Rate of Participation by Gender was Equal

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It’s a big difference. And this isn’t just an issue of feeling good about social progress. At its core, this is an economic issue. There’s no way to accurately quantify these lost opportunities in terms of job creation or economic growth. More troubling is the likelihood that new therapeutics or other technologies are being missed. How many promising drugs are never developed because of our failure to support and promote female academic entrepreneurship?

We’ve already acknowledged the simplest explanation for this lack of equality — there just aren’t as many female faculty members. Progress at the academic level is certainly necessary since a woman isn’t likely to file a scientific patent or form a startup if she never becomes a scientist in the first place. But women currently comprise ~34% of researchers in STEM fields, and the percentage of women filing patents or becoming scientific founders appears to lag significantly behind (4). So what other factors contribute to this deficit?

Female faculty work more hours overall, yet spend less time conducting research. The additional hours are taken up by an increased burden of administrative and other professional responsibilities (5). Add in the fact that women often shoulder greater domestic responsibilities and it’s no surprise that there is less time to devote to activities of academic entrepreneurship.

Another major disadvantage is that women often don’t have strong networks of colleagues and industry contacts. Support from such networks is critical to access funding, find technical assistance, collaborate on projects, and interact with industry. Even evaluating whether something has sufficient commercial relevance to pursue a patent can be prohibitively time-consuming without an experienced network to lean on (6).

Programs to Foster Female Entrepreneurship

Recognizing the importance of such networks, several universities are now launching programs to provide women with educational resources and opportunities to build networks with the ultimate goal of increasing participation in academic entrepreneurship.

Here’s a look at two such programs started by institutions partnered with Osage:

Launched in 2015, the Columbia University Women Inventors Network (WIN) is dedicated to engaging, encouraging, and empowering women inventors in Columbia’s research labs. The organization sponsors numerous events throughout the year that focus on topics such as the licensing process or forming a startup. In addition to being an educational resource, these events give members an opportunity to interact and start building their own networks. Those two things combined put its members on the right path to start moving their research from the lab to the market. The reception at Columbia has been overwhelmingly positive so far, and the group has seen their membership grow into the hundreds.

The Empowering Women in Technology Startups (EWITS) program was launched by the University of Florida in 2012 with a mission to educate, inspire and empower women to pursue leadership roles in technology-based companies worldwide. Over the course of several weeks, participants work as a virtual management team to create a simulated company under the oversight of an experienced entrepreneur mentor. Once the business plan has been finalized, each team “pitches” to a group of female investors. This process not only helps participants better understand the process of moving innovation into the marketplace, but gives them a chance to network with other participants, mentors, and investors. The program has proven very popular with over 250 women participating since its inception.

These institutions deserve to be recognized for their efforts, but there is still significant work to be done. As a community, we should start by resisting the presumption that gender disparity in academic entrepreneurship will naturally resolve with the increasing number of female faculty appointments in STEM disciplines. Such a passive approach is destined to preserve the status quo for decades. If we accept that it is necessary to realize the full potential of academic entrepreneurship, then we must find ways to support female faculty and facilitate their efforts to pursue opportunities that go beyond the lab.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.


1. AUTM STATT Database

2. Sugimoto CR, et al. (2015) The Academic Advantage: Gender Disparities in Patenting. PLoS ONE, 10(5): e0128000

3. Milli J, et al. (2016) Equity in Innovation: Women Inventors and Patents. http://iwpr.org/publications/pubs/equity-in-innovation-women-inventors-and-patents#sthash.mjXqKei4.dpuf

4. Shen, H (2013) Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature, 495: 22

5. DesRoches CM, et al. (2010) Activities, Productivity, and Compensation of Men and Women in the Life Sciences. Academic Medicine, 85: 631

6. Ding WW, et al. (2006) Gender Differences in Patenting in the Life Sciences. Science, 313: 665

SOURCE: Osage University Partners