Mar 07, 2023

IWD 2023: Cracking the Code

IWD 2023: Cracking the Code

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2023, UN Women Australia announced the theme for this year is “Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future”. This theme emphasises the crucial role that innovative ideas, inclusive technologies, and accessible education can play in the fight against discrimination and marginalisation of women across the globe. At MedTech Actuator we believe that by championing equality for all women in STEM, we can accelerate progress towards a gender-equal future. 

In conversation with two leading female Medtech entrepreneurs in Australia – Julie Von Grum Director of CROW Clinical and April van der Kamp, CEO and Co-Founder, of DFU Solutions – we uncovered their experiences, and challenges, as female founders in healthcare innovation. They share their insights on the importance of innovation for a gender-equal future and how MedTech Actuator is working to bridge the gap for female and diverse founders in the  pursuit of entrepreneurship and impact. 

Inspired by market opportunity and research commercialisation to become an entrepreneur

Julie – My journey began as a clinical engineer in the US, working in the medical device field. I moved into the clinical trial phase and gained exposure to the industry at the ground level. Over time, I worked with various startups and eventually established a team of field clinical engineers servicing Medtech startups in Australia. We saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between Medtech startups and CROs and started Crow Clinical. It took some time to establish our quality management system and expertise in clinical operations, but we are now a standalone, full-service CRO supporting Medtech devices. My journey has been organic and has required hard work and commitment to achieve our goals.

April – I was inspired to become an entrepreneur and start my own startup, DFU Solutions because of the need for better treatments for diabetic foot ulcers. My grandfather battled with the condition, which ultimately led to his passing. I wanted to make a difference in this space and bridge the gap between research and commercialisation to get solutions to the market. When I was introduced to a senior supervisor from my PhD, Peter Speck who wanted to develop technology for diabetic foot ulcers, we decided to do a startup. We got into the MedTech Actuator accelerator program, which made it all the more real for us. Ultimately, it was the sadness and strong connection to the people affected by this condition that drove me to become an entrepreneur.

Facing challenges and overcoming them

Julie – As a woman in the medical device industry, I’ve faced challenges throughout my career. Women establishing companies face unique challenges, especially in male-dominated industries like mine. There’s a lack of mentorship, and you often have to work harder to prove yourself. This is not unique to our industry, and I’m encouraged to see changes happening, such as increased female representation on corporate boards. It’s important to embrace diversity in terms of sexes, as it brings different strengths and approaches to problem-solving. While progress has been made, we still have a way to go, especially in terms of equal representation in the medical device industry. I hope to make a difference by mentoring and encouraging others, like April, and leveraging the network of support available. Despite the challenges, I’m inspired by the potential for a more diverse and inclusive future.

April – When I first considered pursuing a PhD and starting a business at the same time, some questioned whether I was capable of handling both. This hurtful comment made me question whether I could pursue my goals. Women are often held to a higher standard than men in many industries, and it can be frustrating to be judged solely based on gender. However, I have learned to take criticism with a grain of salt and use it as a point of reflection to improve myself. Surrounding yourself with supportive people and not letting negative comments bring you down is key. Ultimately, facing challenges is part of the journey, but with perseverance and faith in yourself, you can succeed.

Navigating Difficult Situations in Research and Business

April – We had a difficult situation where certain people’s roles in my PhD were changing and it caused a lot of anxiety and stress. It’s something that a lot of women have gone through in research environments but it’s difficult to speak out because of the fear of repercussions. Dealing with difficult people who could potentially cause drama made us unsure whether to speak up or not. However, we realised that getting out of the situation would make things more streamlined and make us feel more confident and comfortable in our position. Talking to other women who have gone through similar situations helped us make the decision to remove those people from our projects. It was a difficult decision because of the fear of consequences, but we realised that taking care of our mental health and progress was more important.

Julie – Making decisions in business always comes with some downsides, but it’s part of the course. It’s natural to sometimes struggle with decisions that we make, but we have to keep moving forward and hang on for the ride.

Incorporating Diversity and Inclusion in Company Culture and Decision-Making

Julie – While our leadership team is predominantly female, we value diversity and inclusivity in our organisation. Our COO happens to be male, and we do not discriminate based on any background. It’s all about finding the right person for the job. Currently, we have an equal number of male and female field clinical engineers, which happened by chance. I find it interesting that there tend to be more women in CRA roles, just like how there used to be more female teachers and nurses. However, I’m encouraged to see more female leaders and physicians within the healthcare industry. The gender gap is closing in many industries, but there is still work to be done. For example, I’m pleasantly surprised to see female electricians and builders breaking gender stereotypes. It’s important to acknowledge physical differences between genders and work to people’s strengths. Our organisation strives to be all-encompassing, ensuring that the focus is on the individual and their abilities, rather than their background or gender. We match the right person to the task at hand.

April – It’s important to emphasise that the right person for the job should always be the priority, regardless of gender or any other background. Discrimination based on gender or assumptions about maternity leave or safety concerns should never be used as reasons not to hire someone. All input and ideas should be taken into consideration, and decisions should be based on expertise and qualifications, rather than stereotyping or biases. When hiring, it’s important to look at a candidate’s fit for the role based on their skills and experience, rather than their gender or any other background. It’s crucial to avoid dismissing anyone as a potential employee based on their gender or orientation. In short, the focus should always be on finding the right person for the job and valuing everyone’s input equally.

Empowering Women and Promoting Gender Equality through entrepreneurship

Julie – Crow Clinical would like to continue to support initiatives like the MedTech Actuator Female Founder’s Award and continue our role in mentorship. We welcome the opportunity to offer guidance to those who may benefit from it. In the past, I have had the opportunity to speak to university audiences about the roles that women can pursue, particularly as field clinical engineers, which have traditionally been male-dominated in the US. I hope to continue doing so to encourage more women to explore the many career options available to them in this industry. Our goal is to help as many people as we can, and we believe that mentorship and education are crucial components of achieving this goal.

April – As the face and CEO of DFU Solutions, I often find myself in the limelight. I believe that this visibility helps to break the stereotype that a CEO should be male. Having more diversity and representation is important, just like in the case of people assuming that a scientist is male. To further promote this, I have joined an awesome group, the Women in Science and Engineering Club, which aims to engage with more people within science and engineering. Through this group, I share my experiences and network to encourage others to pursue their ideas and dreams in STEM. It is common for women to feel disconnected in STEM, and this group is a great way to connect with other women who are making a difference in their respective industries. I also use this platform to encourage students to explore various career options and not to limit themselves to research. We strive to engage with people and show them the broader network of women who are making significant contributions to the industry.

Expanding Your Network Beyond Local Communities and Promoting Women in STEM

Julie – Networking is a crucial aspect of success in any industry, and I believe it’s important to expand beyond just your local community and explore international organisations and conferences to meet with other professionals. As a member of various organisations, including those focused on women in science, I understand the value of subgroups within the industry particularly those focused on women in science, which can help connect people with similar expertise. Creating awareness is important, and organisations should acknowledge and promote women in these roles to encourage and support them in STEM fields.

Prioritising self-care and mental health

Julie – I feel fortunate to live near the ocean. It’s an important part of my routine and it keeps me connected to the land, which is a spiritual place for me. Maintaining personal boundaries is crucial for my mental health because it’s easy to overwork myself when I’m passionate about my business. However, self-discipline is necessary to prevent burnout and create a sustainable long-term strategy. At some point, you’ll no longer be a startup, and you need to establish yourself for the long term.

April – I see a counsellor every two months to have a sounding board, someone to talk to about feeling burnt out or overwhelmed. It’s helpful to have outside tips, like designated crying times or designated days off. I had glandular fever, which was a spanner in the works, but I’m slowly getting back to my routine of going to the gym in the morning, trying to sleep and wake up on time, and pursuing hobbies like gardening. Hobbies are important for mental health, and having a plant or pet to care for can be therapeutic to decompress after a long day of work. I used to work on Sundays, but I realised I needed time to myself, so I stopped. Spending quality time with family and friends is also important.

Creating impact for communities through their work

Julie – As a clinical research organisation, we have different roles we can play with different organisations, and sometimes we pull in resources from other places due to our network. However, I find that the projects we are most proud of are the ones where we are more active and involved, and this seems to result in a smart and smooth project with fewer issues. Within our industry, there are many ways to approach a project, and I believe it’s about doing things with integrity and within our regulatory framework. I am proud of our organisation because they are responsive and can change to accommodate the needs of the client.

There are projects in particular that I consider to be success stories because of the alliance we formed with the client. We fully understood what they wanted to achieve, embraced it, and were flexible enough to adjust our protocols or procedures to best suit their needs. It’s not about enforcing our own standard operating procedures on them but rather about finding the best way to accomplish their goals within the regulatory framework. Overall, I think these projects were successful because we were involved from the beginning and worked closely with the client to achieve their desired outcomes.

April – One of my most rewarding projects has been the ongoing project at DFU Solutions. When we started out, we didn’t think we would get this far, but I’m proud of how much progress we’ve made in less than a year. Going through the MedTech Actuator Accelerator program taught me the importance of learning what you don’t know and not being afraid of it. It has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of regulations, reimbursement, and other important aspects of the business. Setting up the business itself was a learning experience, with behind-the-scenes tasks I never would have considered before.

This project is special because of the potential impact it could have. By developing a product that could revolutionise treatment for Staphylococcus Aureus infections in remote communities, we could make a real difference in people’s lives. I’m excited to see how our work on isolating phages for my PhD could translate into this project as well. The idea of making a difference is what drives me forward. Ultimately, I believe that access to proper standards of care should not be a privilege, but a right for everyone, and this project is a step towards making that a reality.

Female Leaders and Mentors in STEM: Finding Support and Inspiration

Julie – I find political figures like Julia Gillard and Geraldine Kearney, very inspiring as well as my own team. It’s important to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who have integrity and share the same expectations of behaviour. Even competitors can be mentors and sounding boards if you share a philosophy of doing the right thing. I’m fortunate to have female business leaders who support me and are not trying to tear me down. However, I acknowledge that women can be competitive with each other to prove themselves, which can create challenges in the industry. That’s why it’s crucial to find women who are collaborative and supportive rather than competitive. I admire Julia Gillard’s altruism and look for similar characteristics in female leaders. Ultimately, we need to find the right people to encourage us and vice versa, so we can all grow and develop in this industry together.

April – In my current setting, we recently welcomed a new lab assistant, Dr Felisa Adams, who has been an incredible mentor and support system for me. Her experience and willingness to help have been invaluable in my growth as a researcher. It’s refreshing to have someone who is not competitive but rather collaborative, especially since competitiveness is prevalent in the academic world. Another supervisor, Belinda Martin, has also been a great mentor and advocate for women in STEM. The support and guidance I have received from these female leaders have been inspiring and motivating.

I believe that it’s important to have female leaders who embody altruism and strive to make a difference. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is someone who inspires me with her dedication to supporting refugees. It’s important to have leaders who bring people up with them rather than stepping on them to get ahead. Unfortunately, not everyone embodies this altruistic quality, but I’m grateful to be working with women who are committed to supporting and guiding each other.

Being in the MedTech Actuator program has been an incredible experience, and seeing women pitch their ideas at the demo day was amazing. Meeting other women in the field and feeling the energy and inspiration they bring is truly motivating. It’s great to see so many powerhouses making strides in STEM, and it encourages me to keep going.

Advice for future Women entrepreneurs

April – If you have the will, just do it. Don’t let one person’s opinion stop you. Ask for feedback from multiple people to create a larger data set on which to base your decisions. If the idea has been validated and you are willing to put in the time and effort, go for it. However, if it requires a significant financial investment, consider it carefully.

Julie – While having the will is important, it is crucial to have a well-researched plan in place to ensure success. This plan should include details about the competitive environment, steps to get established over a specific period of time, and a financial plan that is realistic. It is also important to have a dependable team or network in place to support you. By doing so, you can shift rocks more easily and have people to call upon for advice. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s not just about helping one company, but about growing the entire industry. For example, Australia could benefit from being on the map for medical device development, and we need to export our services more. By helping April’s company, we can help the industry as a whole as you know there are a lot of people waving the flag out there as well for us, like Global Victoria, Austrade and we have delegates going over as a part of trade missions and these kinds of activities. 

The MedTech Actuator actively fosters and encourages active participation across all its programs with diversity and inclusion at all levels regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, economic status and other diverse backgrounds. 

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