Program nurtures women in the sciences

Amanda Miller and Amanda Miller

Women scientists looking to turn inventions into profits have a new place to turn to at Northwestern.

In August 2002 the National Science Foundation awarded the Women’s Entrepreneurial Life Science Initiative, known as WELSI, a three-year grant, which will help the program support women-led life science companies. NU shaped and now runs this program in partnership with the Women’s Business Development Center and Illinois Technology Enterprise in Evanston.

Sarah Sykora, director of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Center at NU, which houses WELSI, said the program’s purpose is to encourage women in the sciences and innovation.

“You get someone with great, innovative ideas,” Sykora said, “but maybe she’s a scientist with no idea how to start a company.”

That’s where WELSI comes in, offering free services such as lab space and access to legal and public relations, as well as business consulting. WELSI also helps women scientists write grants and other proposals to fund entrepreneurial endeavors. Corporations and professionals in the community provide these services.

To become involved with WELSI, female life science entrepreneurs must complete an application process explaining their business ideas and their current stage of development.

Ellen Clough, who runs SCCD, a company that uses nanoparticles to target periodontal disease, is using WELSI for wet-lab space to develop her technology.

“Wet-lab space is the most important to us,” she said. “Technically, you don’t need the lab space before you can apply for a grant, but the application asks what kind of facilities you have, so it’s definitely a benefit.”

Wet-lab space is usually space containing sinks, a deionized water supply, ventilation hoods, and other specialized components.

Sykora said so far WELSI has seen six or seven applicants and is supporting two life science companies besides SCCD: Keracure, which is developing a product to ease foot ulcers, and Musworks, a company that supplies mice with specific genetic qualities, to researchers. These companies use WELSI for everything from lab space to marketing assistance.

WELSI focuses on more just than aiding women entrepreneurs in the life sciences, though. It starts supporting women in the sciences as early as high school, holding career days for schools in inner-city Chicago and in Evanston with discussions and mentoring sessions. These programs help young women to establish connections and explore their fields of interest.

“There are interesting women working in biotech from all levels, from students to CEOs, and WELSI has very distinguished people on the board,” Clough said. “That is a way for people to have some connections with well-established women. Being at the incubator in Evanston is a great spot for students to come and work.”

Last year WELSI helped Chicago’s Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, a school that focuses on math and sciences, start a business Sykora said. The business raised enough money to take the participating students on a trip to Mexico to test water clarity there.

Sykora said all of the branches of WELSI — the free service providers, the high school students and the scientists — are a triangle, with one branch at each point.

“They all feed into each other,” she said. “WELSI is a community of women who all want to see the women in the sciences take off.”