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Boot camp for brilliant minds

Posted on 29/03/2017

Levelling the playing field for women innovators.

The infocus: Women in Innovation programme offers support to female entrepreneurs.

By Katharine Rooney

Standing next to an image of a bright-eyed toddler named William, Dr Jenna Bowen is explaining how the little boy died, just after his first birthday, of undiagnosed sepsis. It’s an infection so devastating, she notes, that it kills more than 44,000 people annually in the UK – more than breast, bowel, and prostate cancer combined.

It’s a powerful opener, as acknowledged by Bowen’s peers in the room. But she’s not here to persuade anxious parents or story-hungry journalists: she’s here to practice pitching to potential investors, and for that reason, her audience advises her to whittle down her ‘human impact’ narrative; concentrating instead on the potential return on investment for a rapid-response diagnostic tool.

These mock-pitching sessions were part of a two-day boot camp for the 15 winners and 19 finalists in the infocus: Women in Innovation competition, launched last year by Innovate UK to help increase the number of female entrepreneurs, after it was found that of 8,000 funding competition applicants, only 14% were female.

Each of the winners, across a wide range of industry sectors, was given £50,000 to develop their ideas. Alongside the competition finalists, they have also been offered a bespoke business support programme, of which the boot camp, organised by KTN, was part.

Bowen – whose company, Cotton Mouton Diagnostics, uses magneto-optical sensors to enable swift diagnosis  – found the pitch reviews one of the most useful aspects of the boot camp.

“I’m used to presenting to audiences who are predominantly from a life sciences background,” she said, “so it was great to receive feedback and advice from people from across different sectors – and great to be in a room of supportive, like-minded women.”

Jenna Bowen: pitch reviews one of the most valuable parts of boot camp.

Whether it was presenting a 30-second investment pitch against the Countdown clock – as ably demonstrated by KTN Head of Access to Funding and Finance Ian Tracey – creating a business model canvas, or understanding audience personas using design thinking, the boot camp had a wealth of information for an audience often more accustomed to the lab than to loan applications.

For Shakhardokht Jafari, who aims to deliver more accurate radiology treatment via micro silica thermoluminescent detectors, “It’s about changing my mentality from researcher to a business mentality.”

Jafari’s steely determination, she said, came from overcoming a number of early life challenges: a refugee from Afghanistan, she later returned to teach in that country and became its first recipient of a science PhD. Having already invented a low-cost IUD that has been used to treat over 14,000 infertile women in Afghanistan, she turned her attention to improved cancer outcomes.

As she wrote in a blog for The Huffington Post: “When I came to the UK to become an expert in cancer care, I was shocked to learn that the global 5-year survival rates for cancer patients is 51%, and this rate dips as low as 8% for lung cancer sufferers. My father passed away too young due to cancer and I promised him during his last moments that I would try to make a difference to the lives of other people suffering like him.”

Jafari, too, was offered some advice by her fellow attendees: why not partner with cancer charities, and seek innovation in delivery, as well as in her research?

"The feedback I’ve received has been so positive and encouraging that I truly feel included and empowered" - Rebecca Street.

It was this kind of input that, said several delegates, really underlined the value of the Women in Innovation programme.

“I’m completely new to the scientific world, having come from luxury fashion, so felt slightly intimidated at the beginning,” said Rebecca Street, who is applying some of the techniques she learned working with precious metals in fabric to wearable medtech devices. “However, the feedback I’ve received, especially during the boot camp, has been so positive and encouraging that I truly feel included and empowered.”

“I had a refreshed sense of awareness of my value as an impact creator,” said Anna Hill, who is at the “de-risking” stage with her planned floating cycle path, Thames Deckway, with technical feasibility studies underway. “I also felt a strong sense of camaraderie with a few of the other entrepreneurs that I met. I came away with a stronger conviction to realise a high-impact vision and manifest the values I have set out in my company.

“I would like to see more opportunities for female innovators to seek funding for their projects, raise public awareness of their successes, and learn lessons and form coalitions with other successful entrepreneurs. Mentorship is also fundamental.”

Despite ongoing efforts to attract young women to STEM subjects and diversify executive boards, it was clear from the event that we have not reached anything like parity.

“Levelling the playing field will need a generation of finance and senior managers who can understand that women do produce financial results and advanced technology,” suggested Pauline Dawes of SOMI Trailers.

Dawes has devised a lorry trailer that adds capacity and cuts down carbon emissions. It is now being trialled by four major retailers, but it has taken her more than 10 years of work to reach this point.

“As a woman in heavy goods transport and engineering, gaining credibility is so hard,” she said. “In the development phases, raising finance was nearly impossible. I ended up borrowing  £2.6 million from family and getting £500k in grants and mortgaging my home. I had to work in other projects to keep going and the SOMI trailer was delayed due to finance, difficult engineering and having leukaemia.”

Pauline Dawes of SOMI Trailers: “As a woman in heavy goods transport and engineering, gaining credibility is so hard."

That level of commitment means that built-in resilience is critical – and the boot camp also featured a session on self-confidence and self-affirmation, encouraging participants to find ways to manage the anxiety caused by the amygdala’s ‘fight or flight’ response to criticism. “Your monkey brain was designed for when we were cave people,” motivational speaker Louise Ladbrooke told them, “and now we have social media.”

“Women so often underplay their abilities, and so it’s good to find a programme that offers ambitious, hard-working, risk-taking women a network for support and expansion as well as a safe space to talk through their shared experiences and various approaches,” said Anna Hill.

“Diversity in technological development benefits all society – and the added competitiveness that it brings drives our economy.”