COMMENTARY: Female Entrepreneurs Rely on IP, Currently at Risk under the TRIPS Waiver Expansion 

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Nearly 10 years ago, American society crossed a gender rubicon.  In 2014, for the first time in history, more women than men graduated with a four-year college degree. 

by Natalie Buford-Young,  Springboard Enterprises

Yet while women are an ever-increasing presence in boardrooms and C-Suites, there is one critical area where things seem stuck in time. That’s venture funding for women-led startups, especially in tech. 

That’s why I’m worried about an upcoming decision at the World Trade Organization. Without meaning to, global policymakers could take action that makes it harder for women entrepreneurs – especially in the life sciences – to attract venture capital. 

In the United States and elsewhere, strong protection for intellectual property rights is key to innovation. That’s what start-ups start with — a discovery or invention that’s securely their own, either because they themselves own the patent or have licensed it on an exclusive basis. When a talented entrepreneur seeks investors, she is pitching her IP as much as she is pitching the idea that she wants to take from the lab to the marketplace. 

Right now in Geneva, the WTO is debating a petition to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-related therapeutics and diagnostics. Because many treatments being developed for COVID-19 have potential application to many other diseases and conditions, acceding to the WTO proposal could undermine the confidence in IP security on which venture funding depends. 

To inform its position, the U.S. is currently studying the anticipated effects of such a waiver. The study should reveal how damaging such a move would be. 

My organization, Springboard Enterprises, has been working for 23 years to help women entrepreneurs innovate in technology and life sciences through access to resources, sources of capital, and a powerful community of investors, industry leaders, and tech specialists. 

Venture capital financing for women-owned startups peaked in 2019 at a mere 2.8% of total venture funding. Since then, the level has actually declined, to 2.3%. There’s good reason for concern that a blow to the innovation economy, such as the TRIPS waiver extension, will hit marginalized groups such as women and minorities hardest. 

What a loss that would be. Despite the persistent funding biases against them, our Springboard partners have managed to build and scale companies making great contributions to the economy and our social well-being. 

For example, Springboard partners lent their expertise and agility to transform a home-testing kit for food sensitivities into one of the earliest and most widely available COVID-19 home testing kits. 

Right now, women entrepreneurs are working to decentralize clinical trials, allowing patients to participate from their homes or other remote locations, thereby reducing the burden of participation. Democratizing clinical testing by making trials more accessible and efficient accelerates research and improves patient outcomes. 

Springboard partners are also developing a proprietary platform for delivering therapeutic genes to treat diseases such as Pompe, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s. 

Many proponents of the TRIPS waiver seem to be focused on railing against large pharmaceutical companies. But the waiver would harm all innovators who are creating novel solutions in life sciences, therapeutics, and diagnostics — innovators like our Springboard women. The extension of the TRIPS Waiver would threaten the viability of their enterprises — and countless others innovating to make ours a better and more caring world. 

Natalie Buford-Young is CEO of Springboard Enterprises, a network of influencers, investors, and innovators dedicated to building companies at scale led by women who are transforming industries in technology and life science. 

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