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10th October 2016

The rise and rise of women in medtech

Female-led teams are bringing game-changing inventions to patients. More of this please…

Edel Browne was just 15 when she founded Free Feet – an innovative technology start-up that aims to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease.

It began as a school project for a science competition but, four years on, the device is being developed with a view to launching it on the market. “The idea came about because my brother is a Parkinson’s nurse in the hospital in Galway, and my neighbour has Parkinson’s as well,” Browne says. “It was my project for the BT Young Scientist competition but we didn’t expect to do as well there as we did!”

One of the common symptoms of Parkinson’s is ‘gait freezing’. This makes it difficult for them to walk smoothly which significantly reduces their mobility and quality of life. ‘Free Feet’ is a laser device attached to patients’ shoes that acts as a visual cueing system for the brain. The laser light shines a red dot on the ground in front of the user, guiding their next step and reducing the severity and duration of the ‘freezing’ episode. Thanks to promising early test results, a handful of awards and a spell at a tech incubator in London, Browne is now running a crowdfunding project to help her small team refine a prototype.

Now a 19-year-old biotechnology student at NUI Galway University and start-up CEO, she puts her success down to persistence and time management. “A lot of people think you have to be naturally good at science and I do think girls get put off by maths,” Browne says. “I spent hours every evening doing maths.” Browne is also sharing her experience as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Blackstone Launchpad, a campus-based programme launched by NUI Galway where would-be young entrepreneurs can share their ideas, get feedback from their peers and benefit from mentorship support to help them bring their projects to life.

Rising to the top

Browne’s example illustrates the value of entering competitions, availing of mentoring programmes, and taking every opportunity that arises. She is just one of a growing number of young women taking medtech by storm. Whether it’s DIY dialysis, drug delivery or mHealth, the number of women on the medtech scene is growing – albeit from a low base.

With female students packing into labs and university science classrooms, the only question is why there are not more examples of women at the very top of medtech.

“There are two key pain points,” says Maxine Mackintosh, chair of HealthTech Women UK. “One is attraction into healthtech, and the second is career progression into senior roles.” HealthTech Women UK is a network that runs everything from events, mentoring schemes and speaker brokering for conferences, to support services for SMEs. “Having personally transitioned into tech through various ‘women-in-tech’ programmes and initiatives in London, I had first-hand experience of the impact such a community can have on one’s personal growth. It really is transformative,” Mackintosh told ThisIsMedTech.

“The power of well curated communities can be enormous, but there is not a single answer to solve the gender imbalance. It will emerge with more role models, more learning opportunities and more extensive professional networks.”

Supporting diversity

Mackintosh says attracting more men to the network will be an important step to building a more inclusive conversation about diversity. “We do not believe in standing up and talking about being women. We want to talk about the latest and greatest in health technology, we just happen to be awesome women.” Diversity, she notes, is central to developing health products that meet the needs of the population.

“Every single one of us will be users of healthcare at some point and given the personal and individual nature of our needs and preferences, it seems ludicrous that more people are not involved actively in the design of healthcare,” Mackintosh says. Supporting women to enter – or transition into – careers as medtech innovators is part of a larger push for diversity.

“We are starting with women, but our aim is to encourage every individual to take a more proactive approach to their health, thanks to technology.”

Photo Credit: Edel Browne in Free Feet Medical FundIt Pitch Youtube Video

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