The number of women leading startups is on the incline, particularly in the tech industry (I highly recommend the film “She Started it”). However, in some industries the stark difference between men and women in leadership roles is still far too real.
For example, in Europe, the percentage of women who are Biotech board directors is as low as 3.8 in Germany, and still only around 15.5 in forward-thinking Scandinavia – known for its gender equality in politics.
However, the venture capital fund SOSV – the most active early-stage investor in the life sciences – is also the most active investor to back female founders.
And what better way to demonstrate this forward thinking in a male-dominated industry than in the latest RebelBio accelerator programme? Eight out of 15 teams in RebelBio’s fourth cohort are female-led, with women holding positions as either CEO, CSO or CTO.
“To solve global problems as complex as rising antibiotic resistance, resource scarcity and health, it’s imperative to foster an inclusive culture and unlock humanity’s full potential by empowering women,” explained Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio.
So we thought it’d be interesting to meet some of these leading female engineers, biohackers and visionaries to find out how exactly they wound up founding startups on the front line of biotechnology.
Mary Ward (US)
Photo: MisterKen Photography
After Mary, co-founder and CTO of Sex+, graduated from Texas with a degree in biology, she wasn’t really sure what the next stage was for her.
It was only after seeing the TED talk by Ellen Jorgenson, the co-founder of New-York biohacking lab Genspace, and making a trip to see another hacker lab – BioCurious – that Mary began to delve into the DIY bio field.
From here she went on to co-found Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, California, a community space which brings together people from a diversity of backgrounds to do real science that is too edgy or unprofitable for traditionalists in the industry.
“What is really incredible about community labs is that people from all backgrounds are welcome,” she told us.
“New questions are explored and asked because the community is not bound by discipline or book knowledge. This allows for ideas to be joined in completely novel ways – true innovation.”
Founding Sex Positive (Sex+) was also to do with breaking out traditionally confined tools in science and make them accessible to the communities that could benefit from them most.
The startup’s low-cost smart diagnostic for sexually transmitted diseases is to encourage a more positive attitude to sexual health and empower those who might not get themselves regularly tested out of shame.
Moving to San Francisco and getting involved with biohacking satisfied me more than I could have possibly ever dreamed. Now I am busy finding the next set of coat tails to catch.”
Anna Ramata-Stunda (Latvia)
Photo: Delfi Latvia
With over seven years experience in cosmetics consulting and as a researcher at the University of Latvia, Anna is now CEO of Alternative Plants.
Alternative Plants is using plant stem cell cultures as an eco-friendly platform for production of compounds used in cosmetics, as a sustainable alternative that saves land, energy and resources.
In Latvia, Anna was also co-founder of InCell, for which she now serves as a board member, and for four years has served as head of the Cell Transplantation and Research lab at P.Stradins Clinical University Hospital, Riga.
She told us that during her career she has of course had struggles, misunderstandings and underestimations of capabilities, but she’s found that they’ve rarely been gender-associated.
“Maybe just I have been lucky to not face any gender inequality, and although it’s true that in some industries the Baltics might be lagging behind, I didn’t expect this to be something women still have to fight for in the West.”
In the Baltic states women are generally well represented in boards, parliament and the startup community – statistically above the EU average.
“The biggest challenge for me has not been to prove that women are capable of performing as well as men, but to balance family life with a start-up life.
I had a lot of sleepless nights, but women from the local startup community in Latvia have provided lots of support and advice for this.”
Nusrat Jahan, Ph.D. (India)
Photo: Eros Matteo Venturini
Nusrat is an inorganic chemist from India who became a researcher into anti-cancer drugs after seeing her own father diagnosed with the disease back in 2001.
Since then and over 16 years of research experience later, including postdoctoral work posts in the Netherlands and Japan, she crossed into the biotech space to found CyCa Oncosolutions to translate her findings from bench to bedside.
CyCa is developing a novel biomolecular device to cross the membrane and deliver a range of molecules – including anti-cancer drugs – into living cells. But Nusrat feels she has broken more than just one type of barrier during her career.
“It would be wrong to say I have never faced discrimination as a woman in science,” she told us.
Despite this, Nusrat told us the number of women in research has really increased, especially since the Indian government has started promoting schemes to encourage women to return to science after taking a break for family.
“And i’ve still never thought that being woman as a disadvantage,” Nusrat continued, after being chosen as a key role model for women promoting mobility in science by the Marie Curie Fellows Association.
My brain is wired in a way that if I want to succeed I have to perform much harder, so I stand out beyond all biases.”
Rachel Major (US)
Photo: NASA Ames Advanced Studies Laboratory
By adopting existing technologies and nature’s nutrient recycling processes, Rachel and her team have pioneered an eco-friendly solution to waste treatment.
Her passion for bio-inspired engineering blossomed in 2012, when she worked at Biomimicry 3.8, the leading biomimetic consultancy.
She brought the idea of bridging biomimicry and sustainable technology to NASA Ames Advanced Studies Lab in 2015, which enabled her to take this innovative concept another step further. Rachel cultivated this DIY project with co-founder Ari Ochoa and the organisation NuLeaf arose. In 2017, the startup NuLEAF Tech was formed.
“You have to build yourself a good team that supports, listens, help you process the situation and find productive ways to communicate effectively,” she told us.
However, Rachel also told us most sexist remarks she’s experienced tend to be less outright malicious, but more subconscious.
“Just the other day I was laughed at in the hardware store when I told the man that was helping me that I am the CEO of a biotech company.”
Despite this, Rachel is now deep in the polytunnels at University College Cork’s community garden, gearing up the NuLEAF “plant-microbe hybrid” fuel cells for launch.
“Learn to leverage your differences as strengths. Hold on to your original passion,” she added.
Female founders are different, and while it doesn’t always feel that way, being different is a good thing.”
Karen Dunn, Ph.D. (UK)
Photo: Karen Dunn
Originally from Cornwall at the very southern end of the UK, Karen first studied biology at Cardiff University before going on to do a Ph.D. in Systems Biology at the University of Liverpool.
Here she was focused on the crosstalk between cellular signalling pathways implicated in a broad range of diseases. Following this, she completed two postdoctoral research positions at Liverpool and then Leeds, both investigating different types of cancer.
“I love how systems biology taught me to look at a problem not as a linear entity, but as a whole system,” she told us. “I particularly liked the interdisciplinary approach and working with people from many different backgrounds. To me it adds a dimension to biology.”
Now having co-founded Galactica Biotech with Alina and Jorge Valencia, the trio are developing an artificial intelligence based machine learning platform to speed up drug discovery, to get new medicines to patients faster.
“I have only had positive experiences as a woman. In fact, I feel being a woman has helped me get to where I am today. I’ve had access to many talks and experiences with inspirational female scientists.”
So rock those heels, be confident and make sure you have the knowledge to smash any of those stereotypes.”
More of the women leading RebelBio’s cohort of startups this year in the University College Cork lab (Left to Right): Karen Dunn (CSO) and Alina Valencia (Director of Business) of Galactica Biotech, Mary Ward (CTO) of Sex+, Myrka Rojas (CEO) and Diana Mendoza (COO) of Hemoalgae, Emilia Diaz (CEO) of Kaitek Labs, Rachel Major (CEO) of NuLEAF Tech and Anna Ramata-Stunda (CEO) of Alternative Plants.
“We are continuously impressed by the number of high quality applicants we are getting globally and we are especially delighted by the number of strong female founders coming through the programme,” concluded Bill Liao, Founder of RebelBio and General Partner at SOSV.
You can find out more about this year’s startups in our full-cohort summary here.