• Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

In Conversation With the Winners of the 2023 Women in Innovation Awards

ByIssy Clarke

May 8, 2023
Image of Lucy Fisher

On Wednesday, 8 March, Innovate UK announced the winners of its annual ‘Women in Innovation’ award.  Now in its sixth year, the initiative recognises outstanding contributions made by leading female entrepreneurs in the UK.  Amongst this year’s cohort of winners, five were from Scotland, with ideas including a cutting-edge mobile foot scanner to prevent amputations and deaths from diabetic foot ulcers and a knitting app.  Each of the women will receive a £50,000 research grant and one-to-one business mentoring.  The Student got in touch with three of them – Divia Bhatnagar, Tiffany Wood, and Monika Tomecka – to ask about how they have overcome barriers in their careers and the advice that they would give to female students interested in a career in STEM. 

Why are STEM industries still so male-dominated, and is this starting to change?

Divia Bhatnagar (DB):  I think this is because of a lack of role models and representation which supports the ridiculous idea that women are not suited to STEM industries. I’m very pleased to see the industry changing and grateful for many men and women supporting this change. I think the root of the reason for the under-representation of females in STEM goes back to when physical science equipment like personal laptops and machines were expensive (in the 1960s…), and men were given more access which then led to STEM roles being male-oriented. Whilst programmes like Women In Innovation and other policies help promote young people into STEM to balance the industry, there’s a long way to go. 

Tiffany Wood (TW):  When I joined my undergraduate physics degree in the late 1990s, less than 10% of students were females.  The numbers are much improved.  Interestingly some sectors have changed completely – older vets are >80% male, while younger vets are >80% female.   There is a much stronger appreciation these days of the pressures of caring for family, mental health and work/life balance which benefits both women and men in the workplace.

Monika Tomecka (MT):  There are already a lot of very successful female STEM professionals, but historically it is a male-dominated industry; therefore, there is still work required to change that and bring more women to STEM. I’m an active advocate for that change, and I’m always happy to advise women who consider progressing their careers in this direction.

What are some of the barriers that you have overcome throughout your career?

DB:  Although there are much less obvious gender inequalities in industry, I have found subtle discrimination is still present, and it’s harder the more you achieve. 

TW:  I think social norms create barriers for women when many of the lawyers, investors, accountants etc., are men.   Male CEOs often join business partners on weekend activities, rugby matches, dinners etc., and I observe the same opportunities are not offered to female CEOs.  I think the dynamic will change as more women are represented at all levels throughout business.

MT:  I’ve been very determined on my career journey trajectory and to go towards the solutions which I was passionate about. I truly believe that everyone should be able to do what they aspire to. Barriers are a normal part of life and career, but it’s important to learn how to overcome them one by one and not to get overwhelmed when we stumble upon them.

Who are you inspired by?

DB:  It has to be my support network, which ranges from female and male mentors who are global leaders to my 3-year-old niece. Everyone around you can inspire you in different ways, so I encourage you to surround yourself with the right kind of folk.

TW:  I find something inspirational in pretty much every person I meet or know.  Everyone has their unique talents that are visible to others, and I try to observe, learn and emulate what I can.   I cannot possibly name all the people who have inspired me, but here is a list of three impressive women I have spent time with: 

Professor Helen Gleeson – my MPhys project and PhD supervisor, one of only two female academics in the School of Physics and Astronomy during my undergraduate years, I admired her confidence and knowledge and appreciated her encouragement.   Helen has published extensively, helped invent new materials, received prestigious awards and advocates for equality, diversity and inclusion in Physics.   

Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne – Founder of Genius Foods and Chair of the Board of Scotland Food and Drink. Built a multi-million-pound business based on developing high-quality gluten-free bread.  She has a keen understanding of how science and business can be brought together to the best effect and is generous with her time driving forward important initiatives that help generate economic prosperity and food security. 

Alix MacKay – Life Sciences Marketing Strategist.  Alix was one of the trainers when I attended the Biocity Accelerator course (highly recommended!).   Her talent for asking questions that draw out golden insights from potential customers is incredible.   Her ability to adapt the pace of talks to the content and punctuate with actions is compelling and captivating. 

MT:  I derive inspiration from many people around me. My family, mentors and friends bring strong inspiration for my career choices and future directions. I’m also inspired by my co-founder. Having a person who shares my vision and pulls towards the same direction always gives me an extra boost of energy.

What advice would you give to any budding student female entrepreneurs?

DB:  My advice is to talk about your idea as a first step with your family, friends and support network. Talking it out can help articulate your mission, explain your idea and soundboard it out, and get questioned and critiqued (which is important in a safe environment!)

TW: Believe in yourself – many will struggle to understand your vision and fear for your chosen path, don’t let this deter you.

Learn continually – listen to everyone, especially potential customers.   What motivates them?  How can you improve their situation?  Think creatively to find solutions that work for both of you, and listen and watch their response.

Ask questions – as a teenager, I used to be very shy, and I soon learned that asking questions allowed me to avoid talking!   Turns out this was an excellent way to learn about other people.  Somewhere along the way, I lost my shyness.

Ensure you have a deep reason to care about the vision of your business that is fundamental to who you are.  Setting up and running a business is very hard work and relentless; you need passion and motivation to endure the hardships.

MT:  Don’t be afraid to try. There is a lot of potential in entrepreneurship so if you’re determined to work hard for it, I’m convinced you can achieve your goals. We’re living in times where a lot of support is provided to early stage entrepreneurs – don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are a lot of women who has been there before and I’m sure all of us are willing to share what we’ve learned through our journeys.

Winner Profiles:

Divia Bhatnagar, from Edinburgh, Co-founder of Medical Intelligence Group

Winning proposal:  A 3D foot scanner able to prevent and monitor life-threatening diabetic foot ulcers from a patient’s home.  Patients can scan their feet and send the 3D image to a remote team of clinicians for evaluation and early intervention, reducing the number of amputations and lives lost to diabetic ulcers.

Iris Quasar Grunwald, from Newport-on-Tay, Co-founder of Nvention

Winning proposal:  A sensor device that regulates and measures the flow of liquid and gases in pipes and tubes, detecting leaks, blockages and contamination.

Monika Tomecka, from Falkirk, a biomedical scientist and Founder of UFraction8

Winning proposal:  Cellular agriculture – producing meat products through protein cells rather than from animals. 

Lucy Fisher, from Aberdeen, Founder of Knit It

Winning proposal:  A digital interactive tool allows knitters to choose how they’ll follow a pattern, learn new skills and push the boundaries of their craft.  Making knitting simpler, easier and fun.

Tiffany Wood, from Edinburgh

Winning proposal:  A technological device, Dyneval, for vets and clinicians that accurately evaluates the semen quality of male livestock in dairy farms by measuring sperm motility. The average dairy farmer loses £37K each year to poor conception rates, which have fallen by 20% over 40 years.

For a full list of all the winners, visit the Women in Innovation website at: https://iuk.ktn-uk.org/programme/women-in-innovation/women-in-innovation-winners/

Images via press release