As we begin another year of exciting health innovation programming, H2i is looking back at its ninth year of operations. One highlight was the FemSTEM 2023 event series which was the biggest yet, with nearly 300 attendees in-person and online.
H2i’s FemSTEM series aims to grow a culture, practice, and infrastructure which accelerates women-led ventures within the health entrepreneurship space. The impact of FemSTEM over the years has been clear. When H2i first started, there was a stark disparity in the field, with a significant majority of founders in health innovation being men. In 2017, when FemSTEM launched, only 5% of ventures in the H2i network were women-led. This number rose to 28% in 2021 and, just two years later, 46% of H2i ventures were women-led by the end of the 2022-23 year.
H2i would like to thank the speakers and attendees of this year’s series for sharing their experiences and insights. A big thank you to sponsors Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and the Temerty Foundation, whose generous support makes FemSTEM possible.
Missed out on some of the series? Looking to reflect on some of the themes that came up? Click through the below recap of all our FemSTEM events this past year!
On January 12th, H2i began FemSTEM 2023 with a Kickoff Event and Panel Discussion featuring guest panelists Alexandra Assouad (CEO, Mind-Easy), Elsie Amoako (CEO, Mino Care (formerly named Mommy Monitor)), and Dr. Nardin Samuel (CEO, Cove Neurosciences). As relatively early stage ventures, each shared unique insight into gaining traction in the health entrepreneurship space and navigating challenges to successfully building their team, network and companies.
Emerging as a key theme, all panelists agreed that founders must have strong faith in their work, as results are not always immediate. Amoako encouraged new ventures to be confident about their idea, even when others may not show the same support, stating: “Don’t allow others to make you less confident about your business ideas, or deter you from your goals.” Amoako shared that she herself has been faced with a lack of outside support and reflected on being questioned from places of bias for having a business focused on women and those who give birth, and on the Black community. However, she learned to overcome negativity by having faith in the value of what her venture could bring to the communities it serves.
All three panelists emphasized that good team dynamics are key to success. Assouad encouraged all leaders to take care of themselves, “so that you can show up for you, and for your team.” For those working with multiple co-founders, Dr. Samuel recommended that all parties have legal agreements, so that “everyone sets themselves up for success, [while] protecting every party and the company.”
Assouad encouraged all entrepreneurs to, “be as intentional as possible with everything you do,” as the right networking opportunities can provide access to critical knowledge and resources, like mentorship and funding. It is important to have an idea of who you want to network with and why, so that you can focus your resources and energy on connecting with people who can genuinely help build your venture. “It’s imperative to build a strong network, including friends, business partners, and mentors,” Assouad shared. Dr. Samuel also addressed the importance of finding the right mentor. “Mentors are there to help you succeed, but also to pick you up when you fail. They help you learn from your past and avoid future mistakes.”
On February 1st, the first Fireside at FemSTEM was held with guest Evelyn Pau, PhD and was moderated by H2i’s Dr. Joseph Ferenbok. She shared insight into how pursuing academic endeavors led her to become the now Vice President of Investment Banking and Recruiting at Bloom Burton. It was while pursuing a PhD in immunology at the University of Toronto, that Pau knew she wanted to use her academic skills to break into the business of science. Pau shared that experiences from throughout her career have been used in tandem in her current role. For example, she credits the technical skills learned in her PhD for navigating her successfully through projects and urged the importance of having ideas backed up by data. As she stated, “data speaks for itself, and good ideas get funded.”
On qualities that have helped her succeed, Pau shared that, “as a data-driven introvert, you can make an impact by listening and making comments based on what you hear.” Pau recalled that a “humble, quiet, confidence” helped to earn the trust of those in health entrepreneurship and in venture capital, both of which were primarily male dominated when she first broke into the field.
In terms of advice to ventures from the VC perspective, Pau shared that propelling an idea comes down to knowing the right network for your pitch, knowing who would give the best advice, and who is most likely willing to invest. Doing research to see the kinds of ventures being funded by a particular investor can make all the difference. Pau encouraged the fostering of an environment where women help women through networking, as many are open to helping other women-led ventures succeed. Nonetheless, Pau noted how important it is to, “know your audience and know what your ask is–funding, advice, or just a simple connection.”
On February 15th, Fraidianie Sévigné was welcomed as this year’s second Fireside at FemSTEM guest, joined by moderator Amanda Dlamini, H2i’s FemSTEM Coordinator. With over 20 years of pharmaceutical industry experience and senior leadership experience, Sévigné has contributed to the commercial success of several products for Canadian, U.S. and international markets.
Most notably, Sévigné reflected on her experiences as a woman leader in the healthcare space and referenced Maya Angelou’s famous quote: “making a living is not the same as making a life.” In recognizing that many young women-entrepreneurs focus on occupational performance to make a living and bring their idea to life, Sévigné emphasized that, “to be a complete person, you have multiple facets balancing professional and personal life. You must be able to adjust and have introspection as you get started and throughout your entrepreneurship journey to fulfill your purpose.”
Sévigné discussed the reality of Black women entrepreneurs needing to overcome additional barriers to gender inequity. She discussed the systemic forces that have created stereotypes and biases based on gender and cultural identities, which have led to a ripple effect of financial inequity and difference in independence among those in the health entrepreneurship space.
The best way to overcome these barriers? Sévigné recommended building a strong network and finding the right allies and being an attentive leader. “Surround yourself with positive people. It can be helpful to connect with other women who may have shared experiences with challenges related to gender and learn from their success.”
Lastly, as a leader, it is vital to listen to your team. Sévigné shared that embracing what differentiates her allowed her to be a cultural bridge in negotiations; “I have used my abilities of being flexible to drive change in entrepreneurial and work settings. Assess your current strengths and weaknesses so you know where your gaps are and connect with people who will complete your team and ensure diversity of strengths. There are inspirational women everywhere, all around me, all growing through their individual journey.”
On March 7th, Lesley Gouldie, President and CEO of Thornhill Medical, was welcomed as the guest to the final fireside talk of the season which was moderated by H2i’s Sophie Stuart-Sheppard. The talk, held as part of University of Toronto’s Entrepreneurship Week, marked the first in-person FemSTEM event in over three years.
Gouldie has led and rapidly scaled the medical technology company to one of Canada’s top 10 growing companies, responding to the urgent needs of both the COVID-19 pandemic and medical needs in Ukraine. Throughout the fireside, Gouldie drew from this and other experiences in her career to share insights with the audience, aspiring and established founders alike.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gouldie and her team found themselves being asked to more than double operations to meet orders from the Government of Canada. Gouldie spoke of her team’s ability to be agile and to rapidly scale as being in part due to their collective, mission-drive focus. She spoke of leveraging relationships and contacts developed over years to quickly grow a strong team and network of new partners, who could immediately step in. Gouldie also discussed how, as a leader, she had to make sure to dedicate her focus to ensuring the safety of her staff, which included hiring someone to focus solely on wellbeing within the company as they responded to the COVID-19 crisis.
When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, Gouldie encouraged getting sales training, as every entrepreneur must be able to sell themselves and their idea constantly. Further, she said that with sales training, “when you get rejected you won’t get crushed because it teaches you to overcome objections and move forward.” On the note of training, Gouldie noted the importance of ensuring you have a solid understanding of financial matters, so you are well informed when dealing with financiers and accountants. She also encouraged young entrepreneurs to establish connections with senior leaders and mentors, and not be afraid to be curious and ask questions.
A timely moment of reflection, Gouldie commented on the importance of emergency preparedness and preventative measures. During a crisis, everyone can see the importance of this, but as a crisis recedes, we must ensure we continue to focus on emergency preparedness, and health innovation plays a large part in pushing this forward.
To conclude FemSTEM 2023, H2i’s annual pitch competition featured six women-led ventures, selected from a cohort of 19 applicants, who pitched their way to the top with innovative and inspiring ideas to revolutionize healthcare. This year’s competition had $40,000 in cash and in-kind prizes up for grabs, and on March 23rd, our six finalists pitched for their chance to win:
- CathGraft.; featuring Oksana Chunitska
- Cove Neurosciences; featuring Dr. Nardin Samuel
- DTPx Therapeutics; featuring Sumaiyah Rehman
- Mind-Easy; featuring Dalia Ahmed
- NorthMiRs; featuring Samantha McWhirter
- Neuropeutics; featuring Namita Multani
With five minutes to pitch their products to three judges; Kate Grant, Mira Backo-Shannon and Soror Sharifpoor, the competition was fierce as the top three pitches would win both funding and legal services, provided by Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP.
CathGraft pitched their real-time assistive navigation software that helps interventional cardiologists locate coronary grafts during bypass-graft angiography. Cove Neurosciences pitched their software platform for brain data processing and interpretation for precision neuromodulation that will support the advancement of identifying specific biomarkers for brain diseases. DTPx Therapeutics pitched their development of immunotherapy against drug-tolerant colorectal cancer cells to prevent tumor relapse and alleviate the financial burden on patients and the healthcare system. Mind-Easy pitched about their digitized mental health solution that delivers culturally adapted and clinically validated self-help mental health to organizations with diverse work forces. NorthMiRs pitched about their development in gene therapy to address the underlying immune dysregulation of sepsis. Lastly, Neuropeutics presented their innovative approaches to address protein aggregation and offer effective treatment options to those living with neurodegenerative diseases.
All ventures were phenomenal in presenting their developments in revolutionizing different realms of healthcare. Welcoming back Cassels Associate Kassandra Shortt to present the awards, H2i congratulated grand prize winner, DTPx Therapeutics; 1st runner up, CathGraft; and 2nd runner up, Cove Neurosciences.
Stay tuned for next year’s FemSTEM series, kicking off in January 2024 and launching its first international version of FemSTEM across the African continent, in addition to its Toronto cohort!
In the meantime, if you are a woman-identifying entrepreneur in H2i and would like to be paired with a FemSTEM mentor, please discuss this with your lead mentor or contact our FemSTEM Coordinator at email@example.com.