Recapping Our Experiment with the SBIR Roadshow

One of the main reasons Teresa Nelson and I formed The Impact Seat was our mutual curiosity at the persistent gender imbalance in high growth entrepreneurship despite the high levels of academic achievement by women. If women get more bachelors degrees and PhDs (including in many science fields) than men, then why aren’t we seeing more women at the helm of innovative companies? There are no simple answers.

We are interested in identifying tools and strategies for women in life sciences and technology to create commercial ventures.

Recently, we experimented with a simple approach.

As a board member of the National Women’s Business Council (“NWBC”), Teresa provides policy recommendations to the White House on issues pertaining to women in business.

The NWBC advises the SBIR (which oversees the government’s grant making activity and about which I wrote here), and in 2016 for the first time, the SBIR planned a series of “road shows” to bring its program managers to local markets, Boston being one of them. Historically, the SBIR held one, centralized conference.

Teresa’s idea was to hold a day for women scientists and technologists who were interested in commercializing their research. We convened a small working group of women in Boston to shape the day. This working group consisted of venture capitalists, successful entrepreneurs, and high level scientists in industry.

Joanne Kamens, Executive Director of Addgene summarized our motivations in an open letter signed by our core group.

Our efforts were a tremendous success. I measured success a couple of ways. First, the registration filled up within the first week (and over a month in advance of the event), so clearly there was an appetite in Boston for our message. Second, the day of the event was full of tremendous energy. Everyone was engaged in the discussions and every break was full of the sound of women making connections.

Throughout the day we heard from technologists and scientists about their work. One scientist remembered the moment when she realized that she was never going have a boss again because she was going to be her own boss in her own startup venture. She realized that she was getting off the treadmill of academia and forging her own path. Many in the audience related to this sentiment.

Several of the companies in my portfolio have received some type of SBIR funding or government contract, and others are in the process of seeking it. Investors like me value government funding because it is a smart way to de-risk the technology in a startup. As I wrote in my previous blog post, the government provides more investment at the earliest stages of innovation than venture capital does. So it is essential that this pipeline of funding goes to the most innovative companies. This funding provides important capital to de-risk this innovation. Without it, this innovation will never leave the lab and make it to Main Street.


Barbara Clarke