The German researcher and entrepreneur Saskia Biskup won the Women’s Innovators Award 2014 for her work on biomarkers that allow early prediction of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. The competition celebrates women who have combined their scientific excellence with a head for business to set up innovative enterprises. Dutch entrepreneur Laura van ‘t Veer won the second prize for MammaPrint, a preventive cancer test.
Although the proportion of female researchers in Europe is increasing, the under-representation of women in scientific disciplines and careers still persists. According to the European Commission, women represent only 33 percent of European researchers, 20 percent of full professors and 15.5 percent of heads of institutions in the Higher Education sector. Similar, on average, women make up 30 percent of the entrepreneurs in the EU, but often face greater difficulties than men in starting up businesses and in accessing finance and training.
“Despite some advances in recent years, women in research and entrepreneurship remain a minority. This is a waste of talent that we cannot afford. We have to foster gender equality and also raise the profile of successful women innovators. This prize does exactly that,” said Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
Translate high-impact research
Biskup’s work is not only highly innovative, but might also steer the future of medicines towards a more effective focus on preventing diseases instead of curing them. A change made by a relative small and young company instead of ‘Big Pharma’. “That can be explained by the fact that I see patients every day. When you have close contact with patients, you know their needs. On the other hand I also work with the latest technology and when you combine this, the results can be very fruitful,” Biskup explains to ScienceGuide.
“On one side you have big research institutes that do the sequencing of genes, on the other hand you have the actual doctors that have the contact with patients. It is not usual that both worlds meet under one roof, which is one of the prime advantages of a small company. It’s this combination of high impact research and close contact with patients is unique and makes it possible to translate technology in very useful products,” Biskup explains. “Previously, when a woman had breast cancer she had to wait ten months, now we have technology that can sequence the genes of the tumor in one night. This makes a huge difference to patients.”
Researcher versus entrepreneur
Although the prize is designed to stimulate female researchers and entrepreneurs, gender wasn’t an issue for Saskia Biskup. “It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, you need to have a passion, an idea and a very good team that helps you to make your dream come true,”Biskup says.
The question has been for a long time: how can the European Union help to remove some hurdles for female scientists? “It really helps to have strong network of female scientists across Europe, like the ERC does currently. It stimulates to get in contact with other researchers that might have already found an answer to your problem so they can share this information.”
The Women’s Innovators Award is a prize for women that do research and founded a company. If the company grows larger and Biskup has to choose between being an entrepreneur en being a researcher, will it be a hard choice? “Research is my passion. I have always worked at my company in such a way so that I could find free time to do research. ”
Biskup already has some plans for some future research. “I found that there are a lot of similarities between dying neurons in neurodegenerative diseases and tumors. When tumors are studied from this point of view, it might lead to new insights and new ways to predict and treat cancer.”