Can women researchers overcome the obstacles to commercializing their research? Absolutely, the panelists agreed.
The keys, said Paula Fitzsimons, founder and owner of a Dublin enterpreneurship consulting firm, are recognizing opportunities--specifically, needs that a product or process can fill and that people are willing to pay for--and having the confidence to believe that you can succeed in business. Surveys show that women in every country studied express less confidence in themselves than do men.
One woman scientist who saw an opportunity, and built her research into a company with more than 4 million US dollars in contracts, is chemist Susanne Rostmark of Sweden. Her company, FriGeo, uses freeze drying technology developed during her Ph.D. research to reduce the volume of liquid substances and transform them into more managable solid materials. Applications include recovering objects and materials from underwater locations and disposing of nuclear wastes.
Meeting a woman doing similar work in Norway who was the mother of 4 children convinced Rostmark--also a mother--that she could succeed. Getting the company underway took great persistence, Rostmark said, partly in solving the problem of child care. Unlike employees, entrepreneurs cannot take time off, Fitzsimons noted, because when they do, customers go elsewhere. Rostmark hasn't finished her PhD; instead, she devoted her energies to establishing and building her company (and raising her children). She is considering doing the relatively small amount of work still remaining complete it, she told Science Careers, because having "doctor" next to her name would help impress clients during the bidding process.
Rostmark's experience illustrates the importance of role models and mentors, factors the panelists agreed are crucial to any entrepreneur's success. Women, research shows, tend to have smaller professional networks than men and less access to modeling and mentorship. Seeking the advice and counsel of experience people is therefore crucial, they agreed. Discussion groups where women entrepreneurs can exchange views on the issues they face, many of them particular to women (family issues, establishing authority in a masculine business world, handling expectations of colleagues, fellow parents, and others) are therefore extremely helpful, Fitzsimons said. Fitzsimons cited other Irish firms founded by women including one that does genetic analyses of thoroughbred race horses and another that produces sterile pacifiers for babies.
The takeaway message: Women can transform research into successful companies, and many more would find it personally and professionally beneficial to learn how.