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Last summer, BioSTL launched the Bioscience & Entrepreneurial Inclusion Initiative. The goal was simple: Identify promising women and minority entrepreneurs and expose them to opportunities, organizations and connections to help them succeed. In turn, St. Louis’ bioscience ecosystem would get stronger.
Programming and events, like the Women in Science and Entrepreneur (WISE) Conference happening next month, demonstrated how vast the area of bioscience is for entrepreneurs (pharmaceuticals, medical devices and agriculture, IT and advanced manufacturing) and gave more than 200 women and minority entrepreneurs the opportunity to meet one-on-one with representatives in funding, facility, academia and the St. Louis community.
Program director Dr. Cheryl Watkins-Moore took some time to speak with us about her first year, the issues that the Inclusion Initiative is addressing, and innovation needs in the bioscience space.
What do you see as major roadblocks for women and minorities entering the startup space?
I think many women and minority populations may not have been exposed to entrepreneurship early on in their lives. This might be the first time that it’s occurred in their family so they aren’t familiar with the challenges and they aren’t familiar with the day-to-day.
For most populations, entrepreneurial endeavors have mostly been a white male focused arena. So having to understand that network, a network different from them is another challenge for a lot of individuals—especially in raising funds.
And then I think that there’s a huge emotional concern especially for women in the role of head of the household. In a corporate setting, it’s not only the bigger paycheck but the stability and the benefits. It becomes a scary proposition to many populations that we are trying to attract. They think, “I have to quit my job and go full in,” but depending on your risk tolerance, there are opportunities to get involved with different levels of risk. Then later it becomes the question of, “when do you flip the switch, leave the corporate world and go in head first?”
How have you seen the Inclusion Initiative work to help solve these issues?
When I took on this role, it was around, “how can we develop great programming to attract women and minorities to this startup ecosystem,” because there are so many opportunities to start or buy a company in the life science sector. In St. Louis we have wonderful assets in the form of the universities and life sciences companies. There are great opportunities for those who may not have considered doing something in this space. You don’t have to have a science background to have a company in life sciences. So spreading the word of our mission, that we are looking for great talent and great skills that individuals can bring to our life science area. If you have a great finance background, life sciences still needs those roles.
Increasing awareness about opportunities, developing those entrepreneurial-specific skills, and uncovering the connections and networks, that’s really why I got involved. I didn’t need to add more work to my plate, but I think it’s so important to get more people in and ideas included.
How can aspiring entrepreneurs help themselves?
For healthcare and even life science, when you look at the three big needs: feeding, fueling, healing the world, well those are some mighty, big hairy objectives from an entry standpoint.
When you look at great innovation, it comes from people who talk to the ones facing the issues. If you are starting out as an entrepreneur, it usually starts from the need for something. An issue comes from someone working in lab saying, “it’d be great if we had the efficiency of x,” or “I wish we had a tool that did this.” That’s the best, to hear from people in that area what’s missing, what will help them do something better, faster, or at a lower cost. It’s all about interfacing with patients, improving outcomes and improving cost because there is a lot of inefficiencies in healthcare, with pharmaceuticals and with patients. Even if entrepreneurs don’t have direct experience, there are certainly opportunities look in, focus on and improve things.
So I think we need to look at technologies that are being developed, how do they impact systems—at the end of the day it’s the patient being impacted and a life that’s being impacted.
What can we expect at this year’s WISE Conference?
So this is the second year for our Women in Science and Entrepreneurship conference. Last year’s event was great, with a balance of women across several spectrums academic, corporate and entrepreneurial. We’ve kept that balance this year, and it’s all about learning from women, their challenges and their obstacles. How do you collaborate effectively? How do you network? It’s a great opportunity to come together across the different fields and leverage the strengths of these different areas.
This blog was created in collaboration with BioSTL, a member of the EQ Network.