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Like any entrepreneur, Emily Levy finds herself making tough choices.
One decision she’s been grappling with lately: Which of her six inventions she wants to patent.
Levy came up with her first idea as a sophomore in college. It’s a fashionable arm sleeve, called the PICCPerfect , to protect a peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC, which allows a patient to receive medications through IV long-term.
‘It’s harder to raise money as a woman.’
—Emily Levy, who patented a fashion sleeve to protect a long-term IV in a patient’s arm
Her invention was inspired by her need to protect her own IV. The 25-year-old, who has chronic neurological Lyme disease, struggled to protect her PICC. She required between two and five IV infusions per day as she shuttled between classes and her dorm.
Fast forward a few years and Levy runs a medical device company, Mighty Well, and has a design patent on the PICCPerfect, which designates its look as her intellectual property. She’s also hoping to get a utility patent on the device, which would protect the way it works.
But Levy and her team invented five other products that she’d also love to patent, but she doesn’t have the money. Depending on complexity of the patent, the cost of filing for a patent typically hovers around $10,000. So she must choose her patent carefully.
“It’s harder to raise money as a woman,” Levy told MarketWatch. Indeed, companies founded solely by women received just 2.2% of venture capital funding in 2017. With limited resources, “We just don’t have the funding necessary to file like I would,” Levy said.
Courtesy of Emily Levy
New research suggests that Levy is one of many women innovating and inventing, but facing obstacles to getting those ideas patented — a process that would protect them from copycats and can be crucial to commercializing inventions and attracting funding.
The number of patents with at least one woman inventor grew from 7% in the 1980s to 21% in 2016, according to an analysis released last month by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But there’s a long way to go: Women made up just 12% of all patent inventors in 2016.
Women are under-represented in STEM fields and they may not have the network and contacts available to help them navigate the patent process.
“There’s untapped potential,” said Amanda Myers, the acting deputy chief economist at the USPTO. “There might be very intelligent and creative women who are not accessing the innovation system. That has real consequences for economic growth as well as our global competitive position.”
The reasons why women are so woefully under-represented among patent inventors are complicated, but they likely mirror the challenges women face advancing in the workplace and — more specifically — in science, engineering and technology fields.
Gender bias, societal expectations and challenging workplace environments have made it difficult for women to break into male-dominated STEM fields, many of which also happen to be some of the most patent-intensive, said Jessica Milli, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
But this dearth of women in patent-heavy fields likely only partially explains the low percentage of women patent inventors. The USPTO report found that women account for a much larger share of the STEM workforce than they do patent inventors. That suggests the presence of other obstacles.
One theory: Because women have historically been under-represented in these fields, they may not have the network and contacts available to help them navigate the patent process or figure out how to sell their idea as a lucrative patent, Myers said.
Many employees develop patents for their companies or at universities as part of a team, and companies often decide what patents are worth filing.
Such networks are important. Many employees develop patents for their companies or at universities as part of a team, the USPTO report notes. That means some of the widely-cited challenges women face getting ahead at work can influence whether they have a shot at reaching that eureka moment and, ultimately, filing a patent.
“What is the process that dictates who is on the team?” Myers said. She also said companies often decide what research and development is worth elevating to a patent, and women may be subject to conscious or unconscious (explicit or implicit) bias.
Women may be working on and contributing to these teams, but their contributions may not be as widely recognized as crucial to the patent, Milli added. Women are more likely to take on “non-promotable tasks,” like filling in for a colleague or administrative work, according to a study in the Harvard Business Review. And that tendency can stall their careers.
Another potential problem: Work that women perform on scientific teams is less likely to get their name elevated to authorship of the paper, Milli said. Women might also be contributing to R&D, but may not receive sufficient credit to warrant having their name on the final patent, she added.
Work that women perform on scientific teams is less likely to get their name elevated to authorship of the paper.
There is evidence this is an ongoing issue: Acknowledged programmers or researchers whose names don’t appear at the top of a final paper, but who come up with computer programs, were overwhelmingly more likely to be women, according to a recent study in the journal Genetics.
Women face a challenge convincing the male-dominated venture capital community to believe in and fund their idea, Levy said. Female founders often tell stories about having to convince male investors of the value of an innovation. Rent the Runway, a company that allows you to rent designer clothes at a discount, is one such example.
“You have a bunch of people who are deciding the fate of your idea that don’t really have the same lived experience as you do,” Milli said. “It’s highly likely that a lot of innovation that’s taking place among women is getting overlooked.”
That could have consequences for the types of products that wind up in the market, Milli said. She cites the example of seat belts, which for decades, the auto industry tested only using male crash test dummies, putting women at risk.
A 2011 study published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health concluded that women wearing a seat belt were 47% more likely than men to sustain severe injuries. Women typically have different neck sizes and smaller frames than men.
“When you do bring in diverse teams and diverse ideas, you’re more likely to generate a more creative or larger innovation,” Myers said.