The European Commission is spearheading initiatives to boost women-led innovation, entrepreneurship and startups in the earlier, riskier growth stages of their enterprises, providing funding, mentoring, recognition and networking opportunities. 

Dutch entrepreneur Josefien Groot always dreamed big. Determined to be part of the generation that resolves climate change, she set her sights on a not so obvious business idea: yoga pants. Sure, these stretchy leggings may be comfy, but they are also, apparently, destroying the planet – releasing microplastic fibres in the wash and polluting the oceans.

Inspired to make the world a better place through sustainable products and practices at just 19 years old, Groot, a budding entrepreneur and go-getter, cofounded YogaChicks, selling yoga leggings made from recycled plastic bottles.

But it was her next joint enterprise, Qlayers, that really raised the bar of innovation, especially in the maritime industry.

This innovative robotic coating method uses shark-like microstructures to paint large industrial surfaces, such as ships, storage tanks, and wind turbines. It does so automatically, efficiently, safely and quickly, and it reduces the wasted paint that causes pollution. It’s a real game changer for large industries embracing the green transition.

Green applications

These high-tech green applications have won the startup many international awards and even won Groot the 2020 EU Prize for Women Innovators in the Rising Innovator category, given to the most promising women innovators under 35.

Launched by the European Commission in 2011, the EU Prize for Women Innovators is one of the best examples of the efforts aimed at boosting innovative women entrepreneurs, recognising their achievements and inspiring others.

To mark the European Year of Youth, the EU will be awarding not one, but three prizes of €50,000 in the Rising Innovators category in addition to three prizes in the Women Innovators category, each worth €100,000.

Looking back, Groot, says she is "honoured and grateful" to have received the Rising Innovator award, calling it "an absolutely great recognition", especially as she cofounded Qlayers while studying for her master’s degree in Complex Systems Engineering and Management.

When asked how gender inclusiveness in tech entrepreneurship has changed since her innovation journey began, Groot says she welcomes how gender-inclusiveness has become more mainstream today in her home country. "Our generation, especially in the Netherlands, is very focused on inclusion," she says.

"More and more people see the benefits of diversity when it comes to stimulating innovation and creativity. These days, companies really try to focus on diversity, where gender equality is just a part of it."

Now at 27, Groot continues to drive change through the power of innovative entrepreneurship.

"Innovation means change, and we need change in order to improve our world when it comes to sustainability, social equality and living in harmony with nature and our surroundings," she says.

Innovation means change, and we need change in order to improve our world when it comes to sustainability, social equality and living in harmony with nature and our surroundings. Josefien Groot, co-founder and CEO of Qlayers

Bridging the gap

Over the past two years, the number of women-led startups receiving funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC) has grown from 8% to 29%.

"My goal is 40% and I’m confident we can reach it this year," says Mariya Gabriel, the EU commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, marking International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, 2022. This annual international event promotes the full participation of women and girls in science in a world where a significant gender gap exists at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

The significant number of applications to the new Women TechEU call launched last year is evidence that the commissioner’s goal is within reach.

Riskiest time

To level the playing field, the Women TechEU programme provides grants to women entrepreneurs during the early stages of their deep tech startups, which is the riskiest time, as well as access to coaching, mentoring, and networking opportunities.

Deep tech is the kind of startup where significant engineer and technical breakthroughs overcome scientific challenges. It focuses on tackling societal and environmental issues.

Commissioner Gabriel announced the first 50 beneficiaries of the Women TechEU programme on March 1, 2022.

The selected women-led companies include a French startup developing new diagnostic tools to tackle sickle cell disease, an Austrian startup developing a transparent window film visible to birds that prevents them crashing into windows, and an Italian startup, building innovative machine learning applications, amongst others.

The 50 companies won grants worth €75,000 each, as well as mentoring and coaching through the European Innovation Council (EIC) Women Leadership Programme, in addition to other EU-wide networking opportunities.

While women represent half of the EU workforce and 41% (6.6 million) of the total scientists and engineers across the EU, they make up only a quarter of all those who are self-employed (own their own businesses) in particular in Information and communications technology (ICT), engineering and science in the EU, according to the She Figures 2021 report.

Unfortunately, despite many gains over the last decade (albeit with some pandemic-linked disruptions), women represent less than 20% of senior management in deep tech start-ups that have raised seed funding, with chief technical officer (CTO) positions stagnating at 1% for the past three years.

Gender-inclusive mindsets

Two projects funded under Horizon 2020 aim at eliminating inequality in entrepreneurship are already taking the initiative. EQUALS-EU is committed to promoting gender balance in the technology sector while promotes parity in the textiles sector.

It’s important to look at the details when discussing the barriers that women innovators experience in leading, launching or receiving funding for their own innovative business, says Dr Anthony Giannoumis, an associate professor of Universal Design of ICT at Oslo Metropolitan University and coordinator of the EQUALS-EU project. Kicking-off in 2021, it promotes gender-inclusive mindsets in STEM.

When it comes to specifications for jobs or funding, for instance, even with demonstrable leadership skills, "procedures around the world – such as the hiring process and many job ads – are often established in a way that are biased against women", says Giannoumis. He notes how job specifications often don’t take into account a woman’s absence from the labour market due to childbirth or child rearing, for instance.

Procedures around the world – such as the hiring process and many job ads - are often established in a way that are biased against women. Dr Anthony Giannoumis, project coordinator for EQUALS EU

Furthermore, usually white men will be given "the benefit of the doubt of either being able to learn on the job or having already known something that they may not have a firm grasp on or firm experience with", says Giannoumis, who is also the vice-rapporteur for the UN International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) subcommittee on ICT Accessibility.

Women may also face additional hurdles, such as a harassment culture, he notes. That "affects women and their opportunities", he says, quoting research from EQUALS Global Partnership, where he leads the research consortium of 19 organisations from a wide variety of sectors.

Now, EQUALS-EU is mapping the specifics of gender-inclusive innovation ecosystems across 15 EU Member States and associated and third countries, Giannoumis said. The project also provides mentoring and resources, rolling out dozens of innovation camps, hackathons and bootcamps on gender-inclusive entrepreneurship – helping grassroots advocates and entrepreneurs develop their ideas and pitch them to investors.

"We are reaching out to those who don’t have a seat at the table – in ways that go beyond a one-day hackathon," says Ayanna Samuels, an expert in gender equality in tech. The PhD candidate and assistant professor at Oslo Metropolitan University describes the impact of EQUALS-EU.

"Putting candidates in front of serious investors in a safe and supportive space can really make a difference for participants. Investors often also act as mentors, while funding can be transformational to candidates’ lives," she says.

Learning paths

"We believe that boys and girls are very familiar with innovation at a very early age," says Frédérique Thureau, the coordinator of the project focused on spurring gender-inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship.

Providing learning paths for girls and women – from the age of nine right up to university age and beyond – is crucial to keeping the flame of innovation burning, said Thureau.

The project also aims at boosting the production know-how of young generations of women in innovative and sustainable textiles and clothing, and later helping them start and grow their own business, providing an integrated innovation system.

Thureau’s goal for the project, which currently oversees 18 labs across 16 EU countries, is to make "more women feel entitled to become innovators", says Thureau, who is also a marketing and business adviser to SMEs. The system should make women entrepreneurs "feel empowered, supported, and feel that they are not alone".

Inspiring role models

Passion, vision, opportunity and inspiring role models are also key ingredients for Anaïs Barut, the CEO and co-founder of French medtech company DAMAE. The company has revolutionised skin cancer diagnosis.

Barut developed an unobtrusive, handheld procedure that dermatologists can use to screen for skin cancer on the spot.

Named one of the ten best French innovators under 35 by the MIT Technology Review in 2015, Barut is a role model for countless young women in Europe and beyond. She was featured in the #EUwomen4future campaign launched by European Commissioner Gabriel in March 2020.

Barut has numerous role models of her own, including Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Gisèle Halimi, Frida Kahlo and Hannah Arendt.

"They are all exceptional, strong, determined women whose commitment has had such an enormous impact on our history," says Barut. She is also an advocate of helping promote women’s access to entrepreneurship through inclusive training programmes "where projects led by women benefit from visibility, mentoring, and a close-knit and supportive network".

Barut added that "since figures for fundraising by women founders of startups also illustrate undeniable inequalities, there is a need for more inclusive investment practices in the market". Demonstrating the importance of bridging the gender divide, she also points to studies that show how embracing "gender diversity in business increases creativity, performance and growth".

Gender diversity in business increases creativity, performance and growth. Anaïs Barut, CEO and co-founder of DAMAE

To this end, the European Innovation Council (EIC) will develop an innovation gender and diversity index, providing consistent information to the EIC, other investors and funding bodies, market actors and policy makers across Europe.

Such information will include gender and diversity data for innovative start-ups and scale-ups as well as for investors and funds investing in such companies and should cover and be comparable across at least all member states and associated countries.

This information is currently missing or fragmented or collected according to different methodologies and definitions. Such an index will enable the identification of gender and diversity gaps, relevant measures to be designed, progress to be assessed, and better-informed investment decisions. It will also encourage diversity at all levels across the innovation ecosystem.

Looking back on her motivation for her own innovation journey, Barut describes founding her company following studies at SupOptique, the engineering Grande Ecole of the Institut d'Optique Graduate School: ‘My desire to deepen the entrepreneurial aspect of my training has always been strong,’ she said.

And the journey continues.

"Becoming an entrepreneur in tech and particularly in health has been a constant motivation to push the limits of science. One of the first steps towards making it happen was to meet a lot of people and to surround myself with profiles that are extremely talented," she says.