In the world of innovation, creation and entrepreneurship, gender gaps or disparities should not exist. Science, whether undertaken by a man or a woman, is science, and should be judged solely on the merits of its findings. Yet, research reveals a number of barriers that prevent women from contributing to scientific endeavor and its resulting innovations.
According to a report by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, Processing Artificial Intelligence: Analysis from a Canadian Perspective, “At the international scale, there was one female identified for every three males involved in AI patenting. By comparison, for patented inventions containing at least one Canadian researcher, that ratio decreases to one female for every six male researchers.”
Similarly, data from WIPO reveal that “only 16.5 percent of inventors named in international patent applications in 2020 were women.” While this share “has increased by 3.8 percentage points,” progress is slow. WIPO estimates that, at the current pace, gender parity among PCT-listed inventors will only be reached in 2058.”
These ratios are concerning, as there is no doubt that women have and continue to be active contributors to the sciences, despite being identified in certain cases as “unsung heroes“. That is why it is important to encourage more women to engage with the intellectual property (IP) system so they can leverage the value of their work. When more women engage in IP, we all win because diversity in innovation means more talent, more new perspectives, and increased chances of finding solutions to the complex challenges we face.
The Forum International de la Propriété Intellectuelle – Québec (FORPIQ) promotes the uptake of intellectual property across Canada via its conference and support from its partner network, organizing committee and membership. In honor of World Intellectual Property Day 2023 and this year’s campaign theme, Women and IP: Accelerating Innovation and Creativity, FORPIQ wishes to highlight some of Canada’s trailblazing women inventors, creators and entrepreneurs. These individuals exemplify the “can do” attitude of women and their ground-breaking work.
Canadian women: Stepping over barriers
Improving heel-to-toe gait for improved mobility: Dr. Nancy Mayo, from the Division of Clinical Epidemiology, McGill University, became an entrepreneur in her late sixties. She founded Physio Biometrics Inc., in August 2019. Although no one was interested in her initial 2014 proposal, Dr. Mayo persisted in her biofeedback research to improve heel-to-toe gait for greater stability and improved mobility.
She has created a wearable sensor, Heel2ToeTM, which clips to the outside of a walking shoe. The device provides positive auditory feedback in real time when the wearer makes a “good step” – one that starts with a strong heel strike.
Today, Physio Biometrics has 135 prototypes of its sensor, all of which are on sale or being used in research projects with seniors and people with Parkinson’s disease.
To ensure development of the sensor and its associated algorithms, Dr. Mayo collaborated with a colleague to secure grant funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). This early funding opened up other opportunities to secure research funds from Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives (HBHL) and McGill Innovation Fund among others, to support innovation and provide employment for highly skilled people within her company. Additional revenue generated from workshops and the sale of the devices are being reinvested in the company to ensure the technology continues to evolve in response to consumers’ needs.
The challenge of being an entrepreneur
Dr. Mayo notes that becoming an entrepreneur can be difficult because “once you start, you can’t take your foot off the gas.” The role of entrepreneur gets added on to other roles that women scientists take on: researcher, educator, inventor, family caregiver. The competitive nature of being an entrepreneur can mean letting go of other important roles. When confronted with barriers, Dr. Mayo says you can either “step up or give up.” Giving up is not in Dr. Mayo’s DNA, as seen from her achievements, including the publication of over 300 scientific papers. Dr. Mayo continues to excel in her field.
Becoming an entrepreneur can be difficult because “once you start, you can’t take your foot off the gas.
Dr. Mayo’s words of wisdom to future entrepreneurs, are “learn your markets and consumers and provide them with the product that meets their needs,” especially when they need a device that allows them to walk better.
Diagnosing infertility in men: Dr. Sarah Kimmins works for the research center of the Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM), Department for Pathology and Cell Biology at the University of Montreal and the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill University. She is an epigeneticist, which means she studies how human behavior and the environment have an impact on the way our genes work.
Dr. Kimmins has developed a fertility diagnostic for men called HisTurn, based on biomarkers of the sperm epigenome (biochemical markers associated with DNA).
After reviewing and assessing Dr. Kimmins’ Report of Invention to the McGill Office of Innovation + Partnerships, the University took on the process of protecting the invention. McGill University also collaborated with Axelys to further support the development of the technology, with Axelys providing insights to support the technology transfer, implementation and commercialization of the HisTurn diagnostic.
According to Dr. Kimmins, the “clinical adoption of HisTurn will fill a technology and health-need gap by accurately diagnosing infertility in men and providing clinicians with actionable information to choose the most appropriate treatment plan.”
Patent agents provide invaluable support
Dr. Kimmins explains that she and the McGill Office of Innovation + Partnerships worked with a patent agent to determine the best IP strategy to adopt to commercialize the diagnostic.
“The support of our patent agent was invaluable, as it meant our team had access to the relevant expertise and understanding in the field of science in which I work, as well as deep knowledge of the law and patenting process, which can be tricky to navigate when including epigenomic targets,” Dr. Kimmins explains.
Challenges facing women in science
With respect to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Dr. Kimmins says, “studies have shown that world-wide women are less likely to be awarded the same grant dollars as men, are allocated smaller lab space and start-up packages, and have increased demands placed on them for mentoring, teaching and service. They are also less likely to have their publications accepted in journals with a high-impact factor. Consequently, women allocate less time and resources to commercializing their science. Until equity is achieved in science, women will continue to be under-represented in patenting,” she says.
Dr. Kimmins believes that more scholarships and financial programs should be awarded to underrepresented students (i.e., first generation migrants, low-income students, and others) to enable more talented people to take advantage of opportunities in STEM.
Until equity is achieved in science, women will continue to be under-represented in patenting.
Dr. Kimmins also believes that many of the skills learned as a principal investigator in the laboratory are transferable to entrepreneurial ventures. “Running a lab includes securing millions of dollars for its operation and managing and inspiring a team of researchers towards a common goal. You are also constantly presenting your science to different communities, including the public, clinicians and other scientists. So having effective communication skills is essential,” Dr. Kimmins explains.
“Programs that promote women and their successes are key to attracting more young women to the field of innovation,” Dr. Kimmins says.
Funding: a critical factor
Doctors Mayo and Kimmins agree that access to flexible funding to cover costs of patenting and to leverage matching funds to secure larger financial streams, is a key to translating an idea into a successful business. The two entrepreneurs applaud, McGill’s innovation fund (“MIF”), founded in Autumn 2021 to support entrepreneurial innovation by awarding grants to researchers seeking to commercialize new technologies and discoveries.
“The fund seeks to help researchers bridge the “valley of death,” that precarious interval during which an invention emerges from the lab and makes its way to the market. That’s when the need for financial support is most acute,” explains Dr. Mark Weber, Director of Innovation and Partnerships at the McGill Office of Research and Innovation.
Initiatives to support women in business
To further support women in business, in September 2022, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) launched a CAD 500 million Thrive Platform to assist “trailblazing women-led companies to succeed and become tomorrow’s global leaders.” The platform seeks to ensure that “women entrepreneurs have access to everything they need to thrive and have a lasting impact on the economy.” It’s unique offering includes early stage venture capital investment for women-led businesses, strategic investment in women-led and focused funds, as well as emerging models working alongside ecosystem partners to provide equity investments to women-led businesses at the earliest stages of development.
The Innovation Asset Collective also offers grants for women in IP, provided that eligibility requirements are satisfied. The Government of Québec has also invested CAD 8 million to increase the number of women in STEM, among other initiatives.
Promoting greater IP awareness among women scientists is an important step towards narrowing the IP and innovation gap.
A final reflection
Promoting greater IP awareness among women scientists is an important step towards narrowing the IP and innovation gap. But these efforts need to be complemented by a commitment to provide mentorship and leadership to younger generations in STEM. And that means changing perceptions and mindsets about innovation and IP well before young women begin their studies or pursue their academic careers.
Acknowledgement(s): The author would like to thank Drs. Kimmins, Mayo and Weber, as well as the BDC for their contributions to this article.
About the author
Me David Durand, B.Sc. (chem.), LL.L, lawyer and trademark agent, is the founder of DURAND Lawyers and co-founder of MVIP, the sitting president of FORPIQ, and is an advisor to the National Crowdfunding and Fintech Association of Canada (NCFA). Mr. Durand has appeared before the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance regarding crypto-assets within its statutory review of the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act and was invited to submit its co-authored brief titled “Don’t block the blockchain: How Canada can guard against money laundering while maintaining global competitiveness”. He has also participated in other consultations regarding the regulation of crypto-asset trading platforms (CSA/IIROC, IOSCO – CR02/2019 ), global stablecoin arrangements before the international Financial Stability Board (FSB), the modernization of Ontario’s capital markets (jointly with NCFA) and the transfer of personal data across borders (joint submission with the Chamber of Digital commerce) before the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. He has also recently appeared before the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research to talk about support for the commercialization of intellectual property (evidence).
Mr. Durand was recently accepted as a subject matter expert for the Standards Council of Canada’s Canadian Mirror committee ISO/TC279 on innovation management standards, as well as the IEC SEG15 committee on the metaverse. He has also taught courses on IP law at the University of Ottawa, and was recently published in Durand, D., Mulcair, C. (2023). What’s the Big Idea? The Crossroads Between Investment and IP. In: Bader, M.A., Süzeroğlu-Melchiors, S. (eds) Intellectual Property Management for Start-ups. Management for Professionals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-16993-9_8.