How one program is helping empower women to bring their ideas to market


In 1955, Jonas Salk famously told an interviewer that the polio vaccine he helped develop had no patent. “Could you patent the sun?” he asked, succinctly expressing the feeling then widespread in academic science that patenting and commercializing research results violated such central scientific values as unfettered communication, openness, and service to the common good.

Clearly, ideas have changed since then. Today, increasing numbers of faculty members, postdocs, and students see grant-funded scientific research not only as content for journal articles, but also as sources of real-world technologies bringing practical benefits to society—and, potentially, financial gain to the inventors. University technology transfer offices help guide researchers through the complicated process of turning their findings into marketable products. Patenting and commercialization even count favorably in tenure and promotion decisions at some institutions, according to a 2015 report.

Despite commercialization’s potential advantages, female academic researchers are markedly less likely than their male counterparts to take even the first step: obtaining a patent. A 2006 study of more than 4000 university-based life science researchers found that 13% of the men held at least one patent, as compared with just 6% of the women. After accounting for factors such as productivity and field, the women patented at 40% the rate of “equivalent male scientists,” the study states. More recently, a 2015 study found women’s patenting increasing but still lagging behind men’s. 

“We have such a huge gap between women and men entrepreneurs—a huge untapped potential,” says Caroline Crisafulli, who spent 10 years collaborating with a male surgeon as co-inventor, co-patent holder, and company co-founder and vice president. She now applies her expertise to helping women, from graduate students through senior professors, at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus develop products and companies to produce them. Because women often see and understand things differently from men, Crisafulli believes, more women inventing and commercializing would mean a wider range of problems solved—not to mention advancement for the inventors.

Special challenges

“The challenges of entrepreneurship are huge for anyone,” Crisafulli says. Some, however, show up much more often in women than in men, she finds. First, a sense of perfectionism keeps many women from putting themselves and their ideas forward, Crisafulli says. Men, for example, are likely to apply for a job if they meet half the requirements, she notes, while women tend to think they don’t stand a chance unless they meet 100%. And when it comes to patenting and commercialization, “women are less likely to start the process unless they have all the answers.” But waiting for all those answers to emerge often means never moving forward. 

Beyond that, “men are more aggressive about getting networks together,” she says, which provides an important leg up for aspiring entrepreneurs. For example, networks help explain men’s greater success in obtaining early investment, a study of female entrepreneurs highlights. Beyond that, Crisafulli adds, networks can provide crucial support, encouragement, and information throughout a difficult process.

One frequent result is that women tend to be less familiar with industry and its culture, a difference that the 2006 study also found. “Most (but not all) women had few contacts in industry,” the study states, while men much more often had commercial contacts or collaborators. As we noted recently, skill at extolling one’s ideas, abilities, and accomplishments plays a key role in industrial culture. Crisafulli notes that many women find this alien and difficult. “Women are not nearly as accustomed to promoting themselves,” she says.

Real results

For biochemistry graduate student Ashanti Matlock, REACH gave her entree to a world she hopes to join but previously knew little about. Partway through her Ph.D. program, she explains, she saw that academic science was “not the right fit” for her. While working with her adviser on her Individual Development Plan, she realized that entrepreneurship was likely a much better match. With her adviser’s encouragement, she started gathering information, which led her to REACH.

Thanks to the program, she has learned to counter what she calls her tendency to perfectionism—a trait that she believes a number of other participants also shared. She and many others, for example, were “astonished” to learn that they could go to TCO with an idea while it was still quite preliminary. By helping participants examine their own approaches to challenges, furthermore, REACH encouraged Matlock to concentrate on “acknowledging what I’m good at and building on that instead of focusing on what I’m not good at,” she says. Finding appropriate partners and collaborators, she now realizes, will allow her to fill in for her own weaker qualities. After she defends her dissertation this month, Matlock plans to seek a job with a consulting firm to learn as much as possible about the business side of commercializing science. Her ultimate goal: heading a company producing a science-based product. 

Another participant, professor of electrical and computer engineering Betty Lise Anderson, came to REACH with more experience in patenting and commercialization, holding 18 patents developed through research funding and having participated in a startup that did not survive the 2008 financial crisis. Now, she has partnered with an experienced entrepreneur she met through consulting work to develop and commercialize another technology, an optical switch that can simplify signal routing on the internet. 

The business aspects of commercialization are not her primary interest in bringing her technology to market. “I just want to see my ‘baby’ used in real life,” she says. REACH has broadened her understanding of the process of making that happen. Considering herself neither very aggressive nor given to self-promotion, Anderson sees great value in having as a partner a businessman adept at selling. “He’s great at saying how wonderful everything is,” she notes. Though she jokes that she wouldn’t object to lavish profits, she sees potential investment funding as a supplement to the research grants that support her research. “If technologies get commercialized, that means I get to build more things,” she says. “That would be fun.”

Whatever participants’ motives, exposure to REACH has encouraged women innovators to move forward, Crisafulli believes. Of the 23 who have gone through the program in its first year, 14 have made invention disclosures to the TCO and four have filed for patents. As more women come to understand the process of bringing their research results out of the lab and into the real world, Crisafulli expects, they will increasingly opt for commercialization. 

“Women don’t need to make themselves like men,” Crisafulli says. “We need to embrace the wonderful attributes that we have.” Many women, she has seen, have a practical mindset that emphasizes figuring out what needs doing to solve a problem and then getting it done. “My personal opinion … is that women can be phenomenal entrepreneurs.”

Making the leap back to research

On an island, but not alone