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Women in the US state of Indiana are receiving help to succeed in technology and entrepreneurship with the assistance of the WomenIN incubator, which was launched in October.
WomenIN is one of several projects emerging from academia to help would-be entrepreneurs. It is backed by the Purdue Foundry, which helps students, faculty and alumni at the eponymous university to monetise ideas.
“Over the past 10 years, the distinction between the types of support have blurred in a healthy way,” says John Hanak, the Foundry’s director of venture capital and funding resources. “Business incubation has taken on a larger meaning, which is anything that’s providing support to entrepreneurs.”
Dhruv Bhatli, co-founder of UBI Global, which ranks more than 400 incubation programmes in more than 70 countries, agrees: “In the old days, incubation programmes had buildings, infrastructure and labs.
“It’s moving to a service model, with coaching, mentoring and skill development. So the infrastructure becomes less relevant and the coaching and mentoring become more important.”
In Indiana, WomenIN members receive some of both. They can participate in workshops online and use educational tools, while entrepreneur-in-residence assistance and quarterly networking events are also provided.
“It’s really a decision to be deliberate in terms of providing support for women,” says Mr Hanak, who is also board chair at the International Business Innovation Association.
A physical space remains important. For example, university researchers creating biomedical spin-off companies need sophisticated equipment and laboratory space.
But the requirements for digital start-ups are simpler. “They need a good connection, a desk and — very important — a coffee machine,” says Celia Caulcott, vice-provost for enterprise at University College London (UCL).
Meanwhile, universities also recognise the need for other forms of support. While stressing the value of mentors, many in academia point to the importance of role models who can inspire women to follow in their path.
This means ensuring a gender balance exists in the make up of faculty and guest speakers. “It sounds trivial, but when women enter the classroom it’s very important that they see people like them,” says Fiona Murray, associate dean of innovation at MIT Sloan School of Management.
Perhaps the most crucial element is securing the funding that start-ups need to become viable. Some institutions are providing seed funding to students and faculty start-ups through competitions. For example, UCL’s Bright Ideas Awards help fill a funding gap for companies that have viable ideas but are not yet ready to seek venture capital.
While they can tap into such funding at university, it can be hard for female entrepreneurs to secure venture capital in an industry that is heavily male dominated.
Here, academic institutions have another powerful tool to offer female entrepreneurs. “Through their alumni base, they have access to experienced women entrepreneurs and businesswomen who are interested in advancing the funding of companies for women,” says Mr Hanak.
He also points to the rise outside academia of investors providing seed funding to female-led technology start-ups. “Ultimately, we hope to see universities doing something similar.”
App design challenges — also known as “appathons” — are an increasingly popular way to support technology development and entrepreneurship in universities.
For example, UCL backs the Rosalind Franklin Appathon, named after the pioneering British biophysicist. The competition promotes female leaders in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine.
The first challenge, open to women and men, was to develop mobile apps to encourage women in these subjects.
The winners were Ahrani Logan and Brett Haase, who developed a gaming app for boys and girls designed to challenge cultural stereotypes.
The winners of the second challenge — recognising women developers of apps for research, social benefit and enterprise — was the team of Pam Sonnenberg, reader in infectious disease epidemiology at UCL, which developed a web app that allows people to test themselves for chlamydia.
UCL supported the appathon, which took place in February, by offering its networks, marketing resources, and mentors.
Rachel McKendry, a UCL professor instrumental in setting up the event, says academia should support such activities.
“All the bright young students who become leaders come through universities,” she says. “So we have a key role to play in changing perceptions of women in science.”
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