Women’s ingenuity dots the human landscape, from the external fire escape, to the word processor, to the first dishwashing machine to replace scrubbers with water pressure, to Kevlar, the lightweight, but supremely strong fiber used in bulletproof vests.
And yet statistics show that too few of their ideas successfully navigate the journey from concept to product. Indeed, some don’t make it over the early hurdles. Men with doctorates in STEM fields, for example, are nearly twice as likely to hold at least one patent as their female counterparts.
Backed by a $1.25 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a team of NJIT-led New Jersey scholars has set out to identify and eliminate barriers on university campuses to technology commercialization, such as patenting, licensing and the formation of startup ventures.
Treena Arinzeh, a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering at NJIT and the principal investigator (PI) for the grant, points to a recent study showing that 28.4% of men with a Ph.D. in STEM hold at least one patent, compared to 15% of women.
“It’s important to recognize and redress these inequities, not only as a matter of fairness, but also because the lack of diversity in entrepreneurship diminishes the diversity of new ideas and hurts U.S. technological innovation and economic competitiveness as a whole,” says Arinzeh.
“One of the challenges is overcoming implicit biases, such as assumptions about whom we should encourage and who the top inventors are likely to be,” adds Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, an associate professor in the humanities, director of the Murray Center for Women in Technology and a co-PI for the grant. “Women have absorbed these biases, and, in some cases, feel their project has to 100 % perfect before they even pursue a patent.”
Along with the New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology and NJEdge (the state’s non-profit technology services provider), NJIT’s collaborators in what is called the New Jersey Equity in Commercialization Collective (NJECC), include New Jersey City University, Princeton University, Rowan University, Rutgers University, Seton Hall University, Stevens Institute of Technology and St. Peters University.
The participating universities will start by gathering data on their own campuses on participation in entrepreneurship ventures, including applications for patents by gender, ethnicity and race. “The U.S. Patent and Trade Office itself has not collected this data systematically in the past,” Steffen-Fluhr notes.
The group will then conduct anti-bias training for the gatekeepers on campus, including the people who direct technology transfer offices, while calling for diversity in these pivotal posts. They will come up with strategies to broaden the inclusion of underrepresented groups from the whole institution to individual department levels, and implement plans to update their programs and portfolios to incorporate best practices, tools and resources, including data collection for evaluation and assessment. They will create entrepreneurship programs to encourage these inventors.
The group’s goal is to significantly increase the diversity of STEM faculty researchers in the state who become successful innovators and entrepreneurs, in part by establishing statewide network development programs, such as showcases and conferences, that encourage participation by underrepresented groups. Jeffrey Robinson, another PI for the grant, is an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at Rutgers University and the academic director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development. NJEdge’s Forough Ghahramani, also a PI, is an expert on the use of data and collaboration resources to promote diversity in innovation.
Arinzeh holds 15 patents. In 2017, she and two colleagues won an Edison Patent Award for a novel strategy for combining a piezoelectric scaffold with neural cells to regenerate nerve tissue in spinal cord injuries. Piezoelectricity is an electrical charge created by mechanical force that is also used in sonar and sound technologies, among others. Their technology does not rely on an external energy source or electrodes for electric stimulation, and can be fabricated into a fibrous form to provide additional contact guidance for cell attachment and axonal growth.
Of her experience, she recounts, “I didn’t follow the typical path in academia, going straight from graduate school into a post-doc research position. I worked first in industry and the mentality there is very much about commercializing innovations. I came to academia with a different mindset.”
She adds, “I also had great collaborators here at NJIT, including men, who prompted me to pursue my ideas. But I know that for some women it can seem like a black box, particularly if they lack mentors. We need to make sure they understand the value of commercialization and how it can contribute to research and help secure grants, as well as how to go about it.”
As part of the grant, the NJIT group will be working with Vincent Oria, a computer science professor, who directs a separate NSF-funded initiative to attract underrepresented groups to the field of cybersecurity.
In recent years, several new innovation and entrepreneurship programs on NJIT’s campus have succeeded in drawing women, particularly at the undergraduate and graduate student level. Judith Sheft, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology and a co-PI of the grant, was a co-founder of one of them, the NJIT site of the NSF’s commercialization-focused I-Corps program.
“A goal of the I-Corps program is to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in commercialization. Our recruitment of women – students and faculty – was deliberate and intentional,” says Sheft, who until 2020 directed several technology commercialization and regional economic development initiatives on campus.
“The Office of Research has also done a great job for many years inspiring women with initiatives such as the well-funded Undergraduate Research and Innovation program,” she adds. “William Lutz, the general manager for entrepreneurship at NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute, is working strenuously to ensure that ecosystem is open to women.”
The project’s leaders say its effectiveness will be assessed by an independent evaluator looking at both short-term and long-term successes.
“This will start with increased awareness of commercialization resources by women STEM researchers, as well as support,” Steffen-Fluhr says, “and it will culminate in a demonstrable increase in the number and diversity of women who are actually commercializing their research.”