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Empowering female innovators and business owners

Northwestern’s Querrey InQbation Lab addresses impediments to entrepreneurship with the FoundHer program.

Women are less likely than men to reveal inventions, file patent applications, and found businesses, resulting in a gender difference at almost every stage of the innovation life cycle. According to a recent analysis by Osage University Partners, only 11% of university businesses had a female scientist as the founder. Just 1.9% of all venture capital funding were allocated to firms with female founders last year, according to more recent data from PitchBook.

Many obstacles persist despite efforts to enhance these numbers. In academics, women frequently lack female role models and mentors in innovation, must learn the fundamentals of business on their own, and struggle to identify as entrepreneurs due to a lack of representation.

The University’s new centre for space and programming for research-based companies, Northwestern’s Querrey InQbation Lab, is confronting these concerns head-on with a brand-new programme called FoundHer.

“The name FoundHer has a double meaning,” said Alexandra de Paz, associate director of new ventures at the Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO). “We want to identify creative women who are interested in launching a business and invite them from across the University to participate in entrepreneurship. After that, we want to identify these women by providing them with the mentors, know-how, and networks they need to succeed.”

FoundHer is especially designed for women who are just starting out on the path to commercialisation.

Programming got underway in December with a lecture series that featured the spinout experiences of female academic founders from all over the nation, fundraising tips from female venture capitalists from various industry sectors, and instruction to demystify the tech transfer process.

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Then, in March, FoundHer introduced a six-week fellowship programme that was created to support Northwestern faculty members who were starting their own businesses for the first time by providing one-on-one guidance, professional development, and pitch presentation coaching. Through the Office of the Provost, a gift was made to support the fellowship programme.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta, one of three fellows in the first cohort, said, “The fellowship programme has been great, and I feel motivated to take our start-up, Yobee, to the next level. They gave us a strong network of women to support one another in addition to a wealth of resources, including mentors and a diverse mix of female entrepreneurs and venture capital professionals.

At Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Gupta teaches paediatrics and preventative medicine. Julie Kim, the Susy Y. Hung Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Feinberg, and Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy, associate professor of neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, are the other two fellows. All three of them are starting their first businesses.

An all-natural scalp therapy for lowering inflammation and reestablishing the scalp and skin microbiota has been developed by Gupta’s firm, Yobee Care. The high-throughput drug discovery platform being developed by Kozorovitskiy’s business, Neuroplastica, evaluates neuroplasticity. An in vitro multi-well microfluidic technology for researching organ physiology is being developed by Kim’s business, NUVitro.

Each of Gupta, Kozorovitskiy, and Kim has been matched with a business mentor who specialises in a comparable field. The fellows take part in a structured programme that is offered both in-person and online. It includes a combination of cohort meetings and one-on-one consultations with mentors, a professional communication coach, and graphic designers to assist the fellows in creating and delivering an effective pitch presentation.

The cohort’s local relationships were strengthened at the end of April when they gave a presentation to a group of Chicago-area investors, faculty peers, and female business owners. The fellows will visit Boston in June for two hectic days filled with initial meetings with regional VC firms. In order to host a “VC Blitz” pitching and networking event, the FoundHer fellows programme will collaborate with MIT’s Future Founders Initiative, a similar initiative.

While in Boston, each fellow will have the opportunity to meet with a number of venture capitalists in order to begin establishing important investor ties, according to de Paz. In order to level the playing field for entrepreneurs as they build their businesses, the fellows will be able to broaden their networks thanks to the trip.

While the fellowship programme and speaker series this year have primarily aimed at faculty members, they will change their focus for the following year to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have founded a company based on their academic research. These women frequently wear several hats; in addition to being the startup’s founder, they may also fill positions such as chief executive officer or chief technology officer, each of which calls for a separate set of skills.

The FoundHer speaker series, which has included faculty entrepreneurs like Shana Kelley of Northwestern, Pam Silver of the Wyss Institute at Harvard, and Cigall Kadoch of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, came to an end on April 26 with a businesswoman who founded a company based on her graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. The founder and CEO of StreetLight Data, Laura Schewel, talked about how she built her business into a market leader in transportation analytics and made it possible for it to be recently acquired by a major international engineering firm.

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