Meet the QUB women who founded spinout companies

  • Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) hosted an event last week celebrating some of its female professors that have founded their own tech spinout companies, with the aim of inspiring women in STEM research to explore opportunities at the academia-commercial interface.

    The ‘STEM Innovators’ discussion was led by Professor Karen McCloskey, director of QUB's Gender Initiative. It involved biochemist Professor Lorraine Martin, Professor Helen McCarthy also from the School of Pharmacy and Professor Su Taylor, the current Dean of Research for the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

    Prof Martin is the co-founder of ProAxsis Ltd, for which she won the NISP Connect 25K Award (now known as the Invent award from Catalyst Inc). The company uses patented ‘ProteaseTag’ technology in developing products to detect, catch and measure active protease markers of disease. 

    Professor Lorraine Martin

    Prof McCarthy has designed and patented three non-viral delivery systems for nanomedicine applications. Her current research projects include the regeneration of bone by increasing the bioavailability of ceramics. The widespread utility of these delivery systems has led to a spinout company called Phion Therapeutics.

    Professor Helen McCarthy 

    Prof Taylor is the first female Professor in Civil Engineering at QUB and she leads the Intelligent Infrastructure Research group. Her company, Sengenia Ltd is focused on bringing innovative sensing solutions for a range of sectors.

    Professor Su Taylor

    The audience also heard from Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas, the Head of Queen’s Management School and Professor of Innovation Management and Policy.  She addressed the fact that only 13% of active sinpouts had a female founder, with only 8% having gender-balanced boards, according to a 2016 discussion paper by Oxford Brookes University.

    She also pointed out that there are “massive gaps between females and males at professor level” as well, with bigger gaps in the biosciences, stating that this matters on a “social and entrepenruial level”.

    Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas

    When asked about things they might have done differently when becoming entrepreneurs, Prof McCarthy stated that the best thing for a woman to do when starting her own spinout is to "strip emotion from business and leave gender behind”. She encouraged the audience to call gender bias out at any stage.

    Prof Martin added: “You have to walk into male-dominated environments, deliver a message and engage them. You can’t take things personally. The benefit to an academic career is learning to communicate differently; in business you’re told to sell the product and there’s not enough of that in female academia. Own belief in yourself and what you can achieve when you face a challenge.”

    RELATED: Queen’s University recognised for positive gender equality practices

    Prof Hewitt-Dundas encouraged any students thinking of starting their own spinouts in the future to firstly, “don’t feel that you have to do it all at once, as you probably won’t. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, but if it doesn’t work you’ve learned along the way.

    "Get exposure to as many different situations and as many people as you can. Build up your networks and don’t take no for an answer. The extent of your own ambition is the only thing that’s going to hold you back.”

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