The freedom of running your own company can make it easier to combine work with family. That’s according to human geneticist and entrepreneur Dr Saskia Biskup, the first-prize winner of the EU Prize for Women Innovators 2014. She is the co-founder of CeGaTGmbH, a leading German biotech company that conducts diagnostic testing for genetic diseases.
Do you think prizes like this encourage women to pursue research careers?
‘I hope so. I hope women hear about the prize and find it motivating, and I would hope it inspires them to pursue a career in research.’
What advice would you give to other women who are considering such a career?
‘I think it is very important to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Having this in mind, you have to choose your team members to be supported, especially where you are not strong enough. Clearly the success comes with interdisciplinarity, which includes especially someone with expertise in economic strategy, marketing, etc. when you are the researcher or scientist. This year’s winners shed special light on this as, for all three of us, the team is absolutely central.’
What are the biggest challenges facing women who wish to pursue a career in research?
‘Well, I don’t have children, but I don’t know how I would manage it all at the same time. It seems to me that running your own company might be the best option, rather than working for a place where you always have to ask your boss. The freedom you have with your own company should give you better options for your career and your family.
‘Among the finalists for this prize was one woman who had four children, and another has three. I think it can still be very difficult for women, but I think that it is possible if you organise yourself.
‘In general, and this applies to everybody, the most important thing is to have a very good network. You cannot run a company by yourself, you need to find the right team and put it together. The more opportunity you have to find these people, the better. They could all be in different parts of Europe, and you need to have access to those people.’
‘The freedom you have with your own company should give you better options for your career and your family.’
Dr Saskia Biskup, the co-founder of CeGaT GmbH
What about gender quotas?
‘70 % of my employees are female, but I didn’t do that deliberately. We don’t have a gender quota and I don’t believe in them. I do it because I wanted the best people, and the best people I could find happened to be women. My view is that you choose people because they are the best at what they do, and if that person has children then it’s in your interests to support her.
‘I employ 60 people and many of them are women who are in their mid-twenties and early thirties, and sooner or later they will want to have children. I feel that I have a responsibility to create an environment where they can have children and that we can still keep them because they are great workers. We have a huge vested interest in giving them a good opportunity to do the work and allow them to have their children.
‘But, on the other hand, I don’t have a limit in terms of employees, so I have the flexibility to hire more staff. If one of them has to stay at home because their children are sick, I have enough people to cover her. A clinic, however, has only a limited number of staff, and if half of them have children and they all get sick at the same time it could be critical. It’s less flexible. The same goes for patient care.’
You also won the German Founders Award. How important is this type of recognition for your work?
‘I have never thought much about prizes, it’s all about the work. But it’s true that the Founders Award brought us a lot of visibility in Germany, and this one gives us visibility on a European level. We won the Founders Award for being the most successful start-up in 2011. Before that nobody knew us, so that prize was great for raising our profile. But, ultimately, the most important thing is the research, and the team. You appreciate something like this if it comes along, and then you get on with your work.’
You founded the company with your husband. Is it bizarre that you alone are being recognised for this particular award?
‘It’s often like that in a business: someone is in the forefront while someone else takes more of a back seat, and their work is not equally recognised. My husband is an economist, and for the first three years he helped with administration while I ran the company. He joined fully in 2012, and since then he’s been catching up. He gives talks, he’s very familiar with the work and he can talk about the medical side of things like I can. He does a fantastic job supporting me. None of this would be possible without him.’
How will you spend your EUR 100 000 prize money? Will you use it to fund your research?
‘I can imagine using the money to start a foundation. We have many samples sent from all over the world and testing is still very expensive so we are thinking about supporting families who cannot afford to pay for testing themselves.’
Dr Saskia Biskup is the co-founder of German biotech company CeGaT GmbH, which produces diagnostic gene panels for patients with rare diseases. She received the top award in the EU Prize for Women Innovators 2014 at the EU’s Innovation Convention in March.
The prize recognises female scientists who have founded or co-founded a company and whose research has benefited from EU funding. The aim of the prize is to inspire young female scientists by providing role models of women who have turned a scientific discovery into a business.
The second prize was awarded to Dr Laura van’t Veer, the co-founder and chief research officer at Agendia NV, a personalised health company producing diagnostic tests that predict the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
The third prize went to Dr Ana Maiques, the co-founder and director of Starlab, a research and innovation company that is focused on the fields of space and neuroscience.
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