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Eureka! Female entrepreneurs succeed at Queen’s

QUB Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, Prof Emma Flynn discusses female entrepreneurial success at Queen’s and the role that women are playing to drive innovation in the University and beyond.

What drives innovation?

Skills? Yes.
Motivation? Of Course.
Support? Absolutely.

Such a question has been a thread within my research for a number of years, trying to establish how culture is acquired, transmitted and changed. More recently, I have been working with innovators in my role as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Queen’s University, Belfast. What has struck me in this role, and is clear from comparisons with the majority of other institutions, is how often I see successful innovations driven by my female colleagues, in areas as diverse as cyber-security, engineering, and biosciences.

While not always clearly documented, there have been female innovators throughout history. Names such as Marie Curie, Grace Hopper and Rosalind Franklin immediately spring to mind, but many features of our everyday lives have been innovated directly or with significant involvement of women such as word processors, the first computer algorithm, and wireless transmission technology. Today, learned societies and prestigious awarding bodies relating to research and innovation are beginning to change the faces within their Halls of Fame. Alongside this there are dynamic and inspiring examples of ecosystems that support and develop a diversity of entrepreneurs. The significant local and global challenges that we face today will only be addressed by a diversity of approaches and perspectives, drawing on a truly inclusive approach.

Painting of women walking

‘Out of the Shadows’ By Michelle Rogers. This image hangs in the Council Chamber at Queen’s. The women depicted represent female staff, students and alumni of Queen’s, and was commissioned by the Queen’s Gender Initiative (QGI)

In January this year a group of female innovators from Africa pitched their businesses to UK investors as part of the UK-Africa Summit, an event hosted by the UK Prime Minister aimed at exploring mutually beneficial economic opportunities for the UK and Africa. Ahead of the event, the UK's International Development Secretary Alok Sharma indicated that businesses led by women will be key to boosting Africa's economic potential. Similarly, the MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs points to necessity‐driven entrepreneurial activities which has led to a surge in female entrepreneurs in markets such as Uganda, Ghana and Botswana. Today, these markets have more women in business as a percentage of all business owners than any other developed market. The report also highlights women’s ‘ability to thrive as business owners and pursue opportunities even where cultural and social conditions are not optimal.’  

At Queen’s

As Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Research and Enterprise Directorate part of my remit is QUBIS, the commercialisation arm of Queen’s University. I am encouraged by the track-record of women-led businesses spun-out of the University. These are women who have made the jump from researcher to business founder, generating wealth and delivering impactful benefits to our society. Such an impact rings true of the recent report published by Beauhurst titled “Female Entrepreneurs: gender diversity across the UK’s high-growth ecosystem”. 

Female founders

QUB Female Founders: (L-R) Prof. Lorraine Martin- Proaxis, Prof Sheena Lewis- Examen.  Prof. Helen McCarthy-  pHion Therapeutics Ltd

According to this report, the percentage of female-led businesses remains stubbornly small, 25% of the UK’s high-growth companies have a female founder and only 11% of high-growth founding teams are all-female. Inspiringly, Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, performs above the UK average in starting female-led business (32% and 33% respectively). Even more encouraging is that Queen’s is listed in the Beauhurst report in the top 10 of UK universities by proportion of female-founded spinout companies. This is underpinned by successful female-founded QUBIS spinouts such as pHion Therapeutics Ltd founded by Prof Helen McCarty, ProAxsis co-founded by Prof Lorraine Martin, and Examen founded by Prof Sheena Lewis. However, whilst Queen’s and Northern Ireland are delivering better than average performance in this area, there is more work for us to do.

Economy and Society 

The gender-gap in business represents a massive loss for the economy, a critical drive within the UK Industrial Strategy.  In 2019 the government-commissioned policy paper The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship found that up to £250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men. The UK, and notably Northern Ireland, can’t afford to lose this potential economic value. Moreover, the type of businesses that QUBIS creates are knowledge intensive, exportable and high growth, as well as being key to securing the future of the NI economy.

"£250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men" - The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship

Sowing seeds

Through Incubator-style enterprise programmes such as the Seedbed programme for EIT Food and accelerator initiative NxNW ICURe (Innovation-to-Commercialisation of University Research) programme which is led by QUBIS and funded by Innovate UK, we have seen a year-on-year increase in applications from female researchers hoping to secure accelerator support. In fact, within the past two years, 50% of applicants to the ICURe programme who go on to make the transition to entrepreneurship, are from female-led teams. 

Whilst the increase in female founder success stories is encouraging, It will be crucial to feed the funnel of mentors and role models to encourage the next wave of female founders and continue to build on the work that has been done.

Building on our track record for commercialisation success as the UK’s 1st University for Entrepreneurial Impact (Octopus Ventures, 2019) and our leadership role in delivering UK and Europe-wide Enterprise programmes, we are designing our commercialisation processes in a way that further addresses the gap - and not just to support women, but to address the wider inclusion agenda. We have established an Enterprise Fellowship Fund designed to support emerging academic entrepreneurs by providing dedicated resources for the development of spinouts.

Creating the Future

Everyone at Queen’s is committed to addressing global challenges, and we know that this can only be done with diverse perspectives and skills. It is our role to develop and nurture the innovators and leaders of the future. We want to see innovators flourish, within both research and enterprise, whether they exist in our student and academic bodies, or our wider community. The Belfast Region City Deal, a £1billion investment in inclusive, economic growth, will be one further mechanism through which we support this goal, as Queen’s will be driving innovation projects in advanced manufacturing, data analytics, clinical trials and creative industries.

As we go forward into the 2020s it is my vision that Queen’s continues to play a central role in driving diversity and inclusion across our society both locally and globally.


Visit the QUBIS website.

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Photo: Professor Emma Flynn Professor Emma Flynn
Professor Emma Flynn joined Queen's in May 2019 as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise. A developmental and comparative psychologist, Professor Flynn is a leader in her research field, with multiple international and inter-disciplinary collaborations.
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