Biomedical startups lack women

A Sept. report found that women receive less funding for biomed startups than men do.

Benjamin Farniok

Across the country, women performing biomedical research lag behind men in  funding awarded for biomedical startups, according to a recently published report.
While the University of Minnesota doesn’t directly fund startups, women are still a minority presence in the school’s biomedical engineering program.
The University has more women at the graduate level than other schools, said Kerianne Steucke, president of Graduate Women in Biomedical Engineering.
“There had been times where I was one of five women in a 200-student room,” she said, recalling her time as an undergraduate at the University of Washington.
However, as the level of education increases, fewer women are present in biomedical programs, a situation Steucke calls a “leaky pipeline.”
In the Department of Biomedical Engineering, three of the 21 tenured and tenure-track faculty are women, which Steucke said is not enough.
Dr. Robert Sege, one of the report’s co-authors and vice president for Health Resources in Action, said lower investments make it hard to start a career in biomedical science and may be the reason why women who get degrees leave the field at a higher rate than men.
“[If] one person gets an electric drill and another gets a hand drill to do the same work and they are both measured on the amount of holes they can drill, it is pretty obvious what is going to happen,” Sege said.
Tiffany Senkow, vice president for outreach for GWBE, said the report’s results don’t surprise her, but the gap between the lower numbers of female startup funding applicants may have been a significant factor in the study.
According to the report, out of a pool of 219 applicants for grants overseen by a nonprofit research organization in 2014, 127 applicants were men and 92 were women.
The University doesn’t directly provide startup capital to new businesses, but many of its patents are licensed to startups if they are not picked up by existing corporations, said Dale Nugent, venture development executive for the Office for Technology Commercialization. 
The University does provide some funding through the Discovery Capital Investment Program, which can provide as much as $350,000 to a startup, but only if the company also receives an equal or greater contribution from an outside source, he said.
Additionally, clinical research attracts more women and has a lower requirement for startup capital than other research that can require expensive equipment to get started, Sege said.
Molly Kupfer, who also serves as vice president of professional development for GWBE, said the lower representation of women in the field and other types of engineering could be a result of societal stigmas and stereotypes about gender in engineering.
“Implicit bias has become an issue,” she said.
The proportion of women studying biomedical engineering is also higher than other disciplines of engineering, like mechanical and electrical engineering, Steucke said. 
She said the percentage of female students in biomedical engineering sat at 33 percent between 1999 and 2012.
“There’s not that many people to look up to,” Senkow said.