Oxford Brookes University works to bridge gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based businesses

An initiative to find solutions to the gender gap in STEM researchers who become business leaders is taking place at Oxford Brookes University.

Only 18% of university spinout companies have at least one woman founder, according to research undertaken at Oxford Brookes University. Spinout companies are businesses formed within a larger institution, usually a university, to turn research outputs into commercially viable products.

In collaboration with Jenny Tooth, Executive Chair of UK Business Angels and as part of the Women backing Women Campaign, Oxford Brookes University is holding an event to bring together women founders of spinouts with women Business Angels. UK Business Angels is an organisation that aims to build and connect investors and high-potential entrepreneurs in the UK. 

Professor Simonetta Manfredi, Director of Research, Innovation and Enterprise and a Professor of Equality and Diversity Management at Oxford Brookes University, is one of the organisers. Professor Manfredi said: “Our research highlighted that a major challenge for women founders is to secure investments to develop their companies. This event will offer an opportunity for women founders and business angels to debate how to tackle this issue.”

One woman who is just 27 and the CEO of an Oxford Brookes spinout company is Dr Natalie Curtis. Dr Curtis teamed up with Dr Victor Bolanos-Garcia, a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Biochemistry, to establish the spin-out company Oxford Target Therapeutics to take their research to the next level.  

Drs Curtis and Bolanos-Garcia worked together to develop a potential treatment for triple negative breast cancer – the deadliest form of the disease which is often incurable. 

Dr Curtis first began working with Dr Bolanos-Garcia during her BSc in Biomedical Science at Oxford Brookes. “I loved the work and Victor suggested I do a PhD, so I decided to go for it,” said Dr Curtis, who has had a passion for science from a young age. She did not let low A-level grades deter her from following her ambitions and completed a Foundation Course at Oxford Brookes University. This gave her the qualifications she needed to embark on her BSc and she proved her scientific talents by graduating with a first class honours. 

Dr Curtis was then awarded the competitive Nigel Groome PhD studentship, fully-funded by Oxford Brookes University. This meant she could continue working with Dr Bolanos-Garcia developing small molecules to be used in the groundbreaking new cancer treatment. 

Her motivation to make a difference comes from her personal experience of loved ones suffering with cancer. “My dad and all of my grandparents had cancer and my nan had Alzheimer’s. For my dissertation project during my undergraduate degree I really wanted to do research into treatments for one of those conditions as I was particularly interested in a role researching new therapies as a potential future career,” said Dr Curtis. 

“To pursue interesting and fulfilling research in a highly competitive scientific field that I am passionate about has always been my ambition. To produce research that could have a fundamental contribution to people’s lives is so rewarding and enriching.

“The journey is only just beginning in terms of the company. Cancer touches everyone’s lives and if I can make a difference, that is fantastic. From where my PhD journey began and what it has led to, I could never have imagined. My ultimate goal is to revolutionise cancer treatment and improve the quality of life of cancer patients. I hope in turn this will inspire future generations of students to follow their passions and goals and that they too can achieve anything they aspire to.”

Dr Curtis and Dr Bolanos-Garcia were supported by the ICURe programmewhich is funded by Innovate UK – a government scheme that supports projects and enterprises that will have a positive impact on society. ICURe provides funding and training to support teams of academic researchers to turn their outputs into commercial products. This achievement was followed by a £300,000 grant award from Innovate UK to establish Oxford Target Therapeutics. 

Dr Curtis will be one of the speakers at Women, STEM and investment: closing the gender gap at Oxford Brookes University on Monday 5 June. 

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