By: Vivian Cheung
SPARKED’s founder, Stephanie Buryk-Iggers, first heard of the Health Innovation Hub (H2i) at an event celebrating women entrepreneurs in early 2020. A Ph.D student here at the University of Toronto, Buryk-Iggers had an idea that could make checking for risk of heart failure affordable and accessible, she just needed a way to make it a reality.
Fast forward a year and in the midst of a global pandemic that has redefined what it means to work and innovate, Buryk-Iggers and her team at SPARKED won their very first pitch competition. They took home $8,000 in non-dilutive funding to support their work towards creating a saliva-based handheld detection device for cardiovascular disease.
The event Buryk-Iggers attended in the early months of 2020? H2i’s FemSTEM 2020 Panel Session. The pitch competition she just won? H2i’s FemSTEM 2021 Pitch Competition.
Talk about coming full circle.
SPARKED’s story of growth and venture development wasn’t the only one highlighted by this year’s FemSTEM program. Dedicated to engaging, inspiring, and celebrating women entrepreneurs in the health space, H2i’s FemSTEM program also saw DARA3D, a startup developing an immersive virtual reality training platform for physicians, win a Runner Up Prize of $4,000 after only a few months of mentorship in H2i. Elaya, another relative newcomer to the University of Toronto entrepreneurship scene, has been making waves winning prizes at the 2021 RBC Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship as well as ICUBE’s Pitch with a Twist before taking home the second FemSTEM Pitch Competition Runner Up Prize.
The afternoon of innovative excellence also featured HDAX Therapeutics, Toothpod, and Titan Bionics, ventures led by current University of Toronto students. These six finalists rose from a pool of talented women founders all focused on creating meaningful change in the lives of patients locally and globally.
Drs. Rabia Khan, Wendy Naimark, and Soror Sharifpoor returned to the FemSTEM program as pitch competition judges, reprising their roles as leaders and mentors from their activity early on in the program as panelists and guest speakers.
Alison Hayman, partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, also attended as a representative for Cassels and spoke about their promotion of women in business via the Cassels Fourlines Women in Entrepreneurship Fund. Hayman shared some warm words of support for H2i’s FemSTEM program and the University of Toronto entrepreneurship community:
“I’m very proud that we’ve been able to contribute to this fund and support U of T women in this way. It’s so important to have an environment where young entrepreneurs are connected with mentors, [training for] business presentation skills, funding opportunities, and potential access to investors.”
Even as a virtual event coming alive on our computer screens, the momentum of the moment and the FemSTEM program was inspiring. It is only through the continued support of groups like Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and the Temerty family through the Temerty Faculty of Medicine that this level of programming has been able to become a reality.
FemSTEM 2021 By The Numbers
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Women have been driving paradigm shifting innovation from within and beyond the University of Toronto community for much longer than just International Women’s Day and the month of March. H2i’s Fireside at FemSTEM, a multi-session interactive conversation series, highlighted this by bringing exemplary industry leaders together to share their experiences as women and entrepreneurial innovators.
Dr. Debbie Lin, Executive Director at the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund in Boston, USA, sat down with H2i Director Paul Santerre in mid-February to discuss the importance of being open to opportunity.
“Looking back over my career, things kind of build, experiences build,” Lin said. “Even though you might not think that a certain project, a certain job opportunity, is going to lead you to your goal, it all builds and your experiences help get to where you are.”
Lin also took a few moments to emphasize the critical nature of building a consensus-based, mutually aligned team. She spoke of her continued journey in ensuring she always ‘brings her team with her’, and the merits that come from supporting each other.
“I’ve been fortunate to be helped by men and women,” Lin said. “You need to do the best you can to get to where you want to go. Reach for whatever opportunities come your way that can help you.” When asked how her identity has factored into her career and growth, Lin added, “Don’t let labels keep you from reaching your dreams. Everyone evaluates you as to how much value that you are able to bring, so just show that value.”
Dr. Soror Sharifpoor, Director of Strategy and Translation at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and creator of the ECHO program shared much of the same in her Fireside at FemSTEM session with H2i Program Coordinator, Vivian Cheung. With startup experience of her own – she co-founded and served as CEO of Polumiros Inc from 2016-2020 – Sharifpoor also emphasized the importance of embracing uncertainty.
“A principle that I try to live by is summarized really well by a quote by Neil Strauss,” Sharifpoor shared, “An attachment to always being right is also an attachment to never growing. I feel like my fear of not growing and regretting not embarking on a journey overpowers my fear of failure.”
It’s a topic well-versed by many entrepreneurs. The nature of venture building is one rife with uncertainty and risk. Sharifpoor astutely notes that women in the space face additional hurdles as they navigate a world made even more uncertain by societal and internalized biases.
“Careers and paths have become more diverse, inclusive and equitable, so we’re improving, but until we live in this perfect world where there are no biases, I think there are things that we can do ourselves to help us move forward when we face either obstacles or failures.” Sharifpoor continued, “One of the key first things to acknowledge is that as women, we have certain unconscious biases ourselves with regards to our own capabilities – and the last thing we want to do is inadvertently feed into or adopt the biases in our society. These biases can really define the boundaries that we’re willing to push ourselves past – and I think we have to make a conscious effort to push the boundaries as much as we can.”
Dr. Wendy Naimark, CTO of Ripple Therapeutics, moves this even further by challenging audience members at her Fireside at FemSTEM session in February with H2i Associate Director Joseph Ferenbok to rethink the word entrepreneur and to understand that there is nothing inherently gendered about being one.
“This whole word – entrepreneur – you can either look at it as a very male word, or you can say let’s park that and say this is a word that applies to all of us. I want to say to you women: own that word. Get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m an entrepreneur, this is what it means to me’ and move forward. It’s a very powerful word.” Naimark notes, “In the last little while, I took a survey of women and none of them had actually thought of themselves – and these are accomplished women – as entrepreneurs.”
Audience members at her Fireside at FemSTEM session in late February were surprised to realize that they too, felt the same. After moments of self reflection, it became clear this simple but fundamental shift in self-perception and identity would be key in pushing the boundaries of innovation for women. One of the women in the audience that day was none other than SPARKED co-founder Stephanie Buryk-Iggers.
“I’ll start off by saying: I’m an entrepreneur,” Buryk-Iggers announced firmly when she raised her hand to ask Naimark a question about the necessity of industry experience in biomedical venture building. She continued with a small smile and a dip of her head, grateful for Naimark’s insight, “So, taking your note.”
With her Grand Prize win at the inaugural FemSTEM Pitch Competition only a month later, Buryk-Iggers most certainly has.
As we move into the warmer months, we begin to look to new beginnings: in nature, in academic classes, and in entrepreneurship. Our times of distance and self-isolation have made innovation more difficult but not impossible. The founders showcased at H2i’s FemSTEM Pitch Competition are only a few of the exemplary innovators in the University of Toronto entrepreneurship community.
Both Runner Up Prize Winners echoed Grand Prize Winner Buryk-Iggers’ recognition of the importance of the FemSTEM program. “It has been empowering to hear from and connect with other women entrepreneurs working to get their own transformative ideas off the ground,” Adriana Ieraci, co-founder of Elaya shared. Dr. Anne Agur, co-founder of DARA3D adds, “The FemSTEM program has taught me that it is possible to be a successful woman entrepreneur regardless of career stage. It is never too early or too late.”
H2i is dedicated to continuing to recognize and uplift women and others in underrepresented communities within the entrepreneurship space. It is a mission that is shared across the entirety of the University of Toronto ecosystem and is reflected by the wealth of resources available for both aspiring and seasoned entrepreneurs. You can find more information on programs that may be right for you under Important Links. There is also a rich community within H2i ready to welcome and support you should you be looking to embark on your own health innovation journey. In the words of H2i’s Director Paul Santerre:
“H2i is hoping that you are inspired by the growing community of innovators regardless of where you come from, how long you have been there, or whether you are a woman or man.
Start changing the world today.”
- Health Innovation Hub
- University of Toronto Entrepreneurship IP Education Program
- University of Toronto Campus-Linked Accelerators
- University of Toronto Libraries Entrepreneurship Support
- Ideation Clinic
- ECHO Program