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Female-led start-ups smashing the glass ceiling at Accelerate Cambridge



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Female-led start-ups received just 2.3 per cent of global venture capital funding in 2020, revealing a significant shortfall in gender equality.

From left are Dewi Cortier-Agrawal, Rebecca Koh, Clara Chen, Jen-Yu Teng, Evelina Sliauteryte, Lluna Gallego Segrelles, Tanrada Pansuwan, Olivia Partington. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left are Dewi Cortier-Agrawal, Rebecca Koh, Clara Chen, Jen-Yu Teng, Evelina Sliauteryte, Lluna Gallego Segrelles, Tanrada Pansuwan, Olivia Partington. Picture: Keith Heppell

In the UK, women launch businesses with 53 per cent less capital on average than men – that’s pretty shocking, but does that hold true in Cambridge?

There are 10 female founders or co-founders out of the 13 start-ups in the most recent cohort on the Accelerate Cambridge programme at Cambridge Judge Business School. So how’s the breaking down doors, ceilings and barriers going for them?

An informal survey of these female founders revealed very interesting and sometimes startling responses.

Accelerate Cambridge has an incredible track record when it comes to pushing the entrepreneurship envelope, says Luther Phillips, programme manager of the Accelerate Cambridge programme.

“In May 2012, Hanadi Jabado and Christoph Loch conceived the idea of Accelerate Cambridge, with the first cohort starting in January 2013 and we’re now on cohort 28,” Luther says.

Since launch the programme has assisted 317 ventures, with a total of £496m raised. More than two-thirds of the companies are still in business, employing 1,270 people.

Luther Phillips is programme manager at Accelerate Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Luther Phillips is programme manager at Accelerate Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The programme runs three times a year, in autumn, spring and summer,” Luther continues. “It has 10-week terms. They start with a pre-Accelerate course. After that, if they’re still the right fit for both parties, they move to the Accelerate stage of the programme and they can stay with us for about 18 months.

“It’s pre-Accelerate, Accelerate and Accelerate-plus – that’s where they’re attracting significant investment and funding, they maybe need help scaling and growing their team, plus they could be facing the challenges involved in very fast growth. At that stage we’re making sure they have their legals are in place and really helping them to accelerate into the SME stage where the founder becomes the CEO and so on.

“That’s where the value is, to go from a founder to a CEO, to climb that ladder.

“Every term Accelerate Cambridge takes on between 10 and 15 new companies and loses 10 to 15, so there’s about 70 to 75 ventures on the programme at various stages.”

Accelerate Cambridge provides entrepreneurs with space for coaching, meetings and co-working.

“There’s more than 30 desks in this space and there’s the rest of the school too,” Luther notes. “The coaches, mentors and experienced practitioners and associates give their time for free: we don’t charge or ask for equity. It’s a philanthropic model to provide ventures and businesses access to the ecosystem and the ecosystem provides brilliant minds to help the entrepreneurs develop their craft.”

 Data Duoploy is building the “waze” for people in venues, using data and AI “to help people explore any venue worldwide”.

“We applied to Accelerate Cambridge to gain an introduction into the Cambridge entrepreneurial ecosystem and to have the opportunity to work with coaches to help take our business to new heights,” says Tanuvi Ethunandan, CEO and co-founder. Tanuvia reports “a supportive network around us throughout our journey so far” and says the key has been “to surround ourselves with interesting people who constantly challenge us to iterate and improve”.

 Joe McFadden and Olivia Partington of Generation Zero met on a Carbon13 climate accelerator last year. Their climate edtech platform is designed to help GenZ and their families to reduce CO2e household emissions.

Olivia has experienced “negative assumptions” about her capabilities which she attributes to her “relative lack of experience on paper” – and she’s okay with that.

Olivia Partington, Generation Zero. Picture: Keith Heppell
Olivia Partington, Generation Zero. Picture: Keith Heppell

She adds: “I think these are valid assumptions. It’s then my responsibility to listen, grow and respond to the criticism as quickly as possible. Fail fast, learn faster!”

For Olivia, stopping to weigh up all the options would have slowed her momentum. She concludes: “To be in a position where the learning never stops is – in my opinion – a privileged place to be. It’s like living on a rollercoaster – I’ve never felt so alive and so present!”

Clara Chen, NIRture. Picture: Keith Heppell
Clara Chen, NIRture. Picture: Keith Heppell

 Tanrada Pansuwan is a neuroimaging PhD candidate at a pre-Accelerate candidate with NIRture, which provides a real-time monitoring solution to accurately detect and alert early signs of post-surgical wound problems.

Rebecca Koh, NIRture. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rebecca Koh, NIRture. Picture: Keith Heppell

Tanrada and her colleagues, including Rebecca Koh, Clara Chen and Evelina Sliauteryte, pictured, love the process.

“So far, everyone we have come across has been very friendly, inspiring, and supportive. We think that Cambridge Accelerate has created a safe and stimulating environment that encourages growth mindsets.”

Evelina Sliauteryte, NIRture. Picture: Keith Heppell
Evelina Sliauteryte, NIRture. Picture: Keith Heppell

Any advice for other female entrepreneurs? “Please bring forward your ideas and join us!”

The Cambridge Independent reported on Choral Hub’s app, which is a fun way to learn and develop singing, earlier this year. Founder and CEO Xann Schwinn says prejudice is inevitable for female entrepreneurs.

She says: “I haven’t met a single female founder who hasn’t experienced prejudice simply because of their gender. As a female founder you often and almost inherently get asked questions that your male counterparts wouldn’t be asked. I have experienced and witnessed publicly women founders being spoken down to, spoken to as if they were a child, being asked how they can be sure there is product-market-fit after presenting irrefutable data and product validation... And that bias – implicit or explicit – exists almost anywhere you go in the world... which is why representation matters!

Xann Schwinn, The Choral Hub
Xann Schwinn, The Choral Hub

“When women are no longer the minority, there’s a shift in tone. There’s an opportunity for open, healthy dialogue where women can be challenged for their business ideas in a way that lifts them up, not pushes them down. That’s why I’m proud to be a part of the Accelerate Cambridge community. Strong female representation within the coaches and mentors, and with such a huge community of female founders on the programme, Accelerate Cambridge is a place where women can be challenged in a healthy way to build the most formidable businesses they can. If this is any indication of the direction the world is progressing then there’s a bright future ahead for us to build towards and look forward to.”

 WisFinit – motto ‘Give wisdom, to get wisdom’ – is a platform to improve career transitions. Co-founder Divya Dewan says: “We are rooted in a barter-based wisdom exchange where users ‘lift as they climb’.” Prejudice, Divya says, can be buried deep, but finds ways to be expressed.

“The strange reality of the world today is that prejudices no longer take the form of outright statements,” she says. “They take the shape of micro-behaviours and unconscious biases which often go unnoticed. As an immigrant female founder, I still see raised eyebrows when I say that I’m building a technology-first platform.”

Her solution? “Give yourself permission to fail, not once but a thousand times and keep on being the feisty phoenix you are. Second, something as tiny as a smile to a fellow female founder in the room can make a big difference. It says: ‘I know it’s hard, but we’ve got this’.”

 Carol N Ibe is CEO and founder of Africa Bio-Innovation Hub, which she describes as “a state-of-the-art knowledge and resource hub dedicated to solving the looming challenges hampering innovations in crop agricultural research and productivity in African nations”.

She says: “As a team of plant scientists by training, the Judge Business School Accelerate programme provides the perfect business-focused ecosystem we require for launching the Hub.”

Carol adds that “Accelerate has been a great experience so far”. She adds: “We haven’t experienced any prejudice in our journey so far. It’s been amazing to meet so many female founders in the Accelerate programme and we’re excited to continue to learn from each other in the upcoming months.”

From left are Nim Wichienkuer, from GoPivot; Tanuvi Ethunandan, from Data Duopoly; Emily Servante, from Africa Bio-Innovation Hub; Erin Morris, from Data Duopoly; Veena Adityan, from Smartbell; Carol Ibe, from Africa Bio-Innovation Hub; Xann Schwinn, from The Choral Hub; Divya Dewan, from WisFinite; Alice Wu, from Peace & Pure; Mobeen Kosar, from Consone AI; and Lucy Jung, from Charco Neurotech. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left are Nim Wichienkuer, from GoPivot; Tanuvi Ethunandan, from Data Duopoly; Emily Servante, from Africa Bio-Innovation Hub; Erin Morris, from Data Duopoly; Veena Adityan, from Smartbell; Carol Ibe, from Africa Bio-Innovation Hub; Xann Schwinn, from The Choral Hub; Divya Dewan, from WisFinite; Alice Wu, from Peace & Pure; Mobeen Kosar, from Consone AI; and Lucy Jung, from Charco Neurotech. Picture: Keith Heppell

 “ConsoneAI is an AI-driven platform to reduce the requirements of animal testing by predicting toxicity in multiple animal species and humans,” says ConsoneAI director Mobeen Kosar, adding: “This time next year, we will have raised investment, have collaborations arranged and we’ll be well on our way to our minimum viable product.”

Any advice for other entrepreneurs?

“Just go for it, surround yourself with people on the same journey or have been entrepreneurs or mentors, they will understand you in a way that other people can’t begin to comprehend, and will support and advise you to constantly be moving forward.”

 Alice Wu founded Peace & Pure after a series of troubling experiences led her to a place where mindfulness was at the forefront of her thinking.

“Peace & Pure is a premium beauty and wellness brand that promotes emotional wellbeing,” Alice says. The goal in the next 12 months is to “expand our product range, distribution channels and build broader brand awareness”.

Alice adds: “The negative assumptions are ‘we are in the beauty industry and it’s very competitive, so it’s very hard and we are unlikely to succeed, also we are a solo founder startup, therefore, it’s likely to fail’. These assumptions are very common and have their points, but I see them as limiting beliefs.”

Her advice? “Have faith in your vision and your dream, pivot when necessary but do not take other people’s no as an indicator or reference for your future outcome.”

 Lluna Gallego Segrelles is a co-founder of Vector Bioscience. This University of Cambridge spin-out is tailoring the best nanomaterials for drug delivery applications using a vehicle called a metal-organic framework – a shuttle delivering drugs where they need to go. The immediate goal is “working with regulatory agencies to translate our materials to clinic”, says Lluna.

Lluna Gallego Segrelles of Vector Bioscience. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lluna Gallego Segrelles of Vector Bioscience. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Unfortunately, being a woman comes with many prejudices and assumptions,” Lluna says. “Women’s capabilities and commitment are questioned and not taken as seriously. Our performance and our looks are relentlessly scrutinised.

A general effort is needed to change these and, in these regards, the increasing number of women entrepreneurs in this programme contributes to pushing these prejudices away and increases female collaborations.”

 GoPivot provides hyper-personalised and adaptive AI-powered learning journeys for employees, curate from multiple resources. Rather than address the personal dynamics, co-founder Nim Wichienkuer has identified that the landscape for entrepreneurial activity, at least in edtech, is skewed.

“One interesting stat,” she says, “that I came across while doing research for GoPivot is the fact that in 2021 around 3 per cent of VC funding in edtech in Europe went to female founding teams, and the amount raised is also significantly smaller – $1.8m against $8.3m for mixed founding teams and $9.4m for male founding teams, according to BrightEye.

“Although I’ve never experienced any prejudice myself yet, I do believe it’s going to be an uphill battle moving forward, but I’m also looking forward to being able to break the norm and contribute to the 3 per cent and grow it to something much more significant.”

 Spirea has found its feet as a drug discovery company developing a new generation of antibody drug conjugate (ADC) therapeutics.

Spirea’s technology facilitates a higher drug-to-antibody ratio, which means more drug is delivered to the cancer cell.

This week the company announced it has received funding of £2.4million with one of the investors, Abcam founder and Meltwind Advisory CEO Dr Jonathan Milner, saying: “By developing a highly customisable platform where drug payloads and targets can be altered as needed, the company is revealing the true potential of ADCs as a cancer cell specific, highly effective therapeutic option for a wide range of cancers.”

Myriam Ouberai, Spirea. Picture: Keith Heppell
Myriam Ouberai, Spirea. Picture: Keith Heppell

Spirea founder and CEO Myriam Ouberai has “not really” encountered any difficulties related to gender.

She says: “Cambridge is an inclusive environment supporting entrepreneurship and especially female entrepreneurs. However, I think it can be more challenging for a first-time female founder/CEO when interacting with organisations where there is a lack of gender diversity.”

Her advice is: “Build a strong network of supportive mentors and advisors and female founders with whom you can share the challenges you are experiencing in your journey.”

 Becky Cotton is the founder of Lumino. She’d been at Cambridge Judge Business School for an Executive MBA in 2015 and “when I founded my start-up in 2020, coming to the school to find my ‘tribe’ seemed like the right place to come!”.

Lumino’s goal is to reinvent how mental health treatment is delivered, through developing truly scalable, evidence-based digital therapeutic programmes.

Becky says “er, yes, I could tell you many stories” when asked if she has experienced prejudice. Rather than focus on her own experience, she refers to the Harvard Business Review report referred to at the start of this article which states that female-led startups received just 2.3 per cent of VC funding in 2020.

“About the same number of partners in VC firms are women,” she comments. “There’s a long way to go. What is refreshing about Accelerate is that each cohort is genuinely diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and also experiences of education. It’s such a fun and collaborative community to be a part of.”

Advice? “Find your tribe. And support your community – in return they will support you.”

The next programme starts on September 23.



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