The UK is a global player in the health arena. It holds a unique position at the sharp end of scientific discovery and the development of effective treatments. 

The country’s rapidly expanding life sciences sector has the potential to transform outcomes for millions of people whose lives are affected by a wide range of debilitating conditions and to deliver the strong growth that the economy needs in order to recover from Covid and the subsequent financial downturn. So why then would we slow this progress by refusing to fund promising emerging companies for the simple reason that their founders are women?

It sounds incredulous, but that’s exactly what is happening. Female-led start-ups are being left out in the cold, unable to gain ‘warm’ introductions to venture capital funds and turned down for funding in far greater numbers than applications from male counterparts.

And even if we aren’t at the level of Austria, where, in a recent report by Female Founders and Ernst & Young, not one euro of the €881m raised in venture capital during the first half of 2022 went to an all-female-founded team, we cannot be complacent.

A report published in 2019 by the British Business Bank showed that, at that time, all-female founder teams got less than 1p of every £1 of venture capital investment and that 83% of deals made by UK VCs had no women at all on the founding teams.

Has this position improved in the last three years? I’d like to think so, but without new data we cannot be certain that women are now getting a seat at the table. 

If we are to retain our position as world leader in life sciences, then we need to capitalise on every ounce of talent and that means we need to prevent the ‘old boys club’, some members  of whom remain deaf to ideas, input and requests for funding from women, from blocking the path to progress.

There are a handful of VC funds that are dedicated to backing female funders and while Discovery Park Ventures, which launched in May of this year, has no restrictions on applications, the fact that four out of four of its first investments have gone to companies with female founders is indicative of how committed we are to supporting exceptional science and talented teams without reverting to outdated ideas about who sits on the board of directors.

Those we have backed so far include Vitarka Therapeutics, formed by Dr Vineeta Tripathi in 2021 to create combination medicine using RNAi therapies for patients with late-stage cancers and, most recently, BoobyBiome, founded by scientists Dr Lydia Mapstone, Dr Sioned Jones and Tara O’Driscoll, to develop a novel product for babies who do not have access to the beneficial microbiome in breast milk. 

Uzma Choudry, Biotech/TechBio Investor at Octopus Ventures is also keen to see change.  She says: “In the UK, total VC investment in female founders is under 5%. Anecdotally, in biotech that number is far lower. People tend to invest in people like themselves. This is particularly a problem when investment teams across venture capital aren’t typically diverse on most measures and that is reflected in who they meet, the questions they ask (it’s proven that male founders are asked different questions to female founders) and where they invest.

“To ensure more diverse founders receive their share of funding and that we’re backing the best ideas and teams, no matter who and where they come from, we need to undertake the hard work of building teams that reflect a diversity of viewpoints and experiences. That means looking in new places for talent, implementing new hiring processes and treating differences as a strength by default. It also means VCs stretching ourselves to invest in the broadest and most inclusive group of founders by setting targets, changing our processes so no one is favoured and building ways to reach founders that we might otherwise miss.

“Octopus Ventures has started that journey – we’ve set clear targets for investing in diversity and we’re transforming our processes to ensure we find a wider diversity of founders and give them a level playing field for investment. We’re on the first steps of a long road but every step makes Octopus Ventures and the businesses we invest in stronger, because diverse founding teams create more innovation and better business outcomes.”

But it isn’t just at funding level that things need to improve. We need to attract a pipeline of female talent, from school leavers upwards, into the life sciences sector to ensure that we continue to achieve a balanced approach, with fresh ideas, input and new ways of looking at problems, influencing this business at every level.

Martino Picardo is Chairman of Discovery Park and a Director of Discovery Park Ventures