The number of biotechnology companies founded by women is low but has slowly increased, and many are successful. Women have also received less funding than men when they did start businesses. The situation has improved some and continues to improve slowly. Women’s continued under-representation at the highest academic levels and within leadership in the biotechnology industry contributes to investors being less willing to support their entrepreneurial efforts.
Women Life Scientists Now Represent Almost Half of All Scientists
- Women comprise more than 40% of researchers (Elsevier, 2017). Women’s representation is highest in the health and life sciences out of all the sciences.
- Women comprised over half of graduating biology and agriculture PhD students in 2018–2019 (Perry, 2020).
- Women receive about half of all MD degrees in the US (Ceci and Williams, 2014).
Fewer Women than Men in Top Academic Positions, Fewer Publications
- Women were only 22% of the full professors at US research institutions (NSF, 2015).
- Women publish fewer research papers than men on average (Elsevier, 2017).
Fewer Women than Men as Leaders in Biotechnology
- Fewer than 8% of biotech CEOs are women (Simpson, 2017).
- Women comprised only a small minority of biotechnology boardroom members in 2016 (~11%) and chaired the board of fewer than 2% of companies (Simpson, 2017).
Fewer Women Scientists than Men Translate Their Research into Business
- Women inventors submitted only 14% of patent applications in 2015 (Elsevier, 2017).
- Women are less likely than men to license inventions made in academia to industry (Shane, 2012).
Despite These Low Numbers, a Slowly Increasing Number of Women Have Founded Biotechnology Businesses
Despite continued low representation in leadership positions or other indicators of success that might inspire investors to back a business startup, a slowly growing number of women are founding biotechnology businesses, and many are successful:
- A report describes 2,716 biotechnology companies with at least one female founder. With an average founding year of 2011, the popularity of these companies with investors has slowly but steadily increased over the past two years, and a substantial percentage have gone public (8%) or been acquired (8%) (2022 report prepared by Medtronic for Crunchbase).
- SBIR/STTR small business grant and contract Phase I applications submitted by women-owned businesses increased for the National Science Foundation from 2011 to 2018 (NWBC, 2022). In that time period, 17.6% of NSF Phase I awards went to women-owned businesses. For all government agencies providing SBIR Phase I awards, however, the number of applications and awards stayed fairly consistent—between 13% and 15%.
A Path to More Women-Owned Biotechnology Businesses
There are many opportunities for women to gain support for nearly every step of the process of starting a business. Funds and resources are sometimes set aside to support women entrepreneurs, and a number of organizations are dedicated to helping connect women scientists with these resources. Although some biases and barriers still exist for women life scientists with respect to entrepreneurship, there are ways to recognize and mitigate them. While investors as a group are still predominantly male, the number of female-founded venture firms is slowly growing from a low base, as are initiatives to support female entrepreneurs (Oxford Brooks, 2017).
Podcast: Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda.
“Despite many positive changes, women in science report continuing problems. When a colleague ignores your contribution, belittles your work, or even harasses you, what do you do? Women have been leading a revolution in science for many years, and their voices are now being heard like never before. In this special episode of Clear+Vivid, Alan Alda and his producers speak with pioneers in the revolution, their mentees, and some of today’s most outspoken advocates for professional women in the STEM fields.” This podcast interviews successful women scientists and promises “real insight about what works, what doesn’t, and what we can all do to secure a more equal and fair future.”
Ceci S, Ginther D, Kahn S, Williams W. Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 2014:1–67. doi:10.1177/1529100614541236.
Elsevier. Gender in the Global Research Landscape. 2017.
Lawton Smith H, Henry C, Etzkowitz H, et al. Female academic entrepreneurship: Reviewing the evidence and identifying the challenges | Request PDF. ResearchGate. May 2015.
Medtronic. Biotechnology Female Founded Companies. Crunchbase. 2022
National Women’s Business Council. Women’s Inclusion in Small Business Innovative Research & Small Business Technology Transfer Programs Report Summary for 2011–2018 data.
NSF, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015. Special Report NSF 15-311. Tech. Rep.National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Arlington, VA (2015)(accessed 11.07.17)
Oxford Brookes University. University Spinouts: Exploring Women’s Participation. Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice; 2018.
Perry M. Women earned majority of doctoral degrees in 2019 for 11th straight year and outnumber men in grad school 141 to 100. American Enterprise Institute – AEI. Published October 15, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2021.
Schintler L, McNeely C. Gendered Science in the 21st Century: Productivity Puzzle 2.0?. SSRN Electronic Journal. January 26, 2012. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1992402.
Simpson K. Liftstream Study Reveals Biotech Company Boardroom Diversity Still Far from Reality. Business Wire. Published January 24, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2021.