Women in the Newton Fund Programme – Turkey

Women in the Newton Fund Programme – Turkey

We talked to 5 women entrepreneurs and scientists from Turkey about the current innovation ecosystem, women in entrepreneurship, and gender balance in biotech and medtech.

Business is booming in the medtech and biotech sectors: there are over 5,600 life sciences companies operating in the UK, generating more than 24 billion GBP in exports and nearly 3,700 companies in the UK’s medical technology sector are spawning a turnover of 21 billion GBP. The UK biotech sector raised a record £2.2 billion from investors in 2018, nearly doubling up the numbers in the past year. However, gender balance is an issue, in particular when it comes to how funding is allocated to promote equality. Research by the British Business Bank shows that for every £1 of venture capital (VC) investment, all-female founder teams get less than 1p, while all-male founder teams get 89p. A study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor also shows that there are 7 women entrepreneurs for every 10 men entrepreneurs, and women are significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Behind the spotlight there are women in biotech and medtech, working every day for change whether through their outstanding scientific work, founding a trailblazing business, or lobbying for better working conditions. As part of Innovate UK’s Newton Fund programme T-DEB, we had the opportunity to meet 5 women doing just that in Turkey. As in the UK and other parts of the world, Turkey experiences underrepresentation of women in executive roles. We talked to women founders, innovators, managers and entrepreneurs in biotech and medtech who shared their insights on their career choices, aspirations and challenges they face in the sector. The main issues highlighted include lack of support in career aspiration, gender discrimination in business, and limited maternity leave support.

Nilüfer Afşar Erkal remembers her high school years, when she showed an interest in a career in science but received very little encouragement to pursue the subject professionally. But this did not stop her. She is now Business Development Manager at Mikro Biyosistemler a company that develops a detection system for the diagnosis and prognosis of cancer. Over the last 10 years, Turkish women have continued to close the gender gap in science and technology-related fields: representation of women in these sectors grew from 33.43 % in 2008 to 44.79 % and 2016, according to the 2018 Eurostat ‘Report on equality between women and men in the EU’.

Dr. Devrim Pesen Okvur enthusiastically remarks how biotech brings together curiosity to understand how living systems work and practical development of tools that work for our good. She notes that opportunities are scant in the private sector but universities in Turkey are increasingly providing support for R&D. Devrim is co-founder and CSO of Initio. Her company has developed and is patenting multi-functional lab-on-a-chip devices and is located within Technopark Izmir, that set up the first Innovation Centre supported by the Development Agency. Linked to this, Zeynep Öktem remembers the initial bill from 2001 that provided the legal framework for ‘technoparks’ (science parks), where commercialisation within universities in Turkey was rendered possible. Zeynep is the CEO of Nanobiz, a biomedical company developing user-friendly diagnostic kits, readers and analytical devices. She remarks that there are now many more women researchers, but not as many entrepreneurs or managers, pointing to the career break women face when they decide to have children. On this point, Dr. Devrim Pesen Okvur stresses the importance of flexible hours or childcare facilities in the sector, always facing the impossibility of being two things at once: mother and manager. A tremendous barrier remains: “taking maternity leave and returning to find your position replaced by a man is another issue; one has to navigate motherhood and work without ‘disturbing the man’” because paternity leave is close to non-existent in Turkey. 

Fortunately, successful women like Dr. Rana Sanyal, break these preconceived standards of business culture by hiring mostly women and early career researchers. Rana is co-founder of the next generation therapeutics company RS Research, which develops novel nanomedicines. As brilliantly summarised by Trailblazing Transparency: Mending the Gap report, “these businesses understand that giving women the opportunity to fulfil their potential is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for business”.

Upholding the values of the Official Development Assistance (ODA), T-DEB stimulates and supports innovation-focussed collaborations between businesses from the UK and Turkey, which further result in economic development and social welfare improvements in Turkey. In these brilliant women’s case, it means ‘enhancing the social and cultural development of nationals of developing countries’. And there are women around the world who are striving to change the state of play, especially in science and innovation. This is further supported by the innovation agencies of both the UK and Turkey, who are increasingly committed to show their support to women. Examples of this include Innovate UK’s ‘Women in Innovation Awards’, which support diversity and inclusion. In Turkey, KOSGEB, the small and medium industry development organisation, prioritises funding to women entrepreneurs. The Newton Fund project T-DEB has motivated and allowed these brilliant women to expand their network, improve the perception of business and entrepreneurship, and bring out the potential within to do innovation across borders. 

Political and regulatory support are important infrastructures to bring about change, but as these courageous women note, this work needs to be met with efforts from the ground up: striving for and working hard within the workplace for a change in culture that promotes more mentoring, equitable work/life balance solutions, and funding opportunities available to all women, while also lobbying for and establishing policies that enforce and mend gender balance across the world.

Authored by:

Derya Atlas

In 2018, she joined Tekiu as a logistics coordinator to plan and deliver workshops in T-DEB’s Phase 1, and later became project coordinator to oversee the project’s completion. In addition, she also coordinates a digital history project that she co-founded, aimed at capturing stories of women around Turkey and the Middle East.

Contributions by: 

Dr Cindy Regalado Lopez, Managing Director and Co-founder of Tekiu 

Dr Ted Fjallman, Executive Director and Co-founder of Tekiu

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