New Jersey Equity in Commercialization Collective (NJECC)
The number of women pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields continues to grow, yet men still dominate the STEM workforce, with women representing only 28% of those employed in STEM occupations.1 Facing obstacles and stereotypes as early as elementary school, girls often feel discouraged by social and environmental factors and become less likely to pursue these disciplines. When looking at scientific research and innovation, women in STEM fields file proportionately fewer invention disclosures and patents than their counterparts: female inventors account for just under 13% of patent applications globally.2 To help address these equity issues and identify and eliminate systemic institutional and entrepreneurial ecosystem barriers, a team of successful innovators have joined forces to form the New Jersey Equity in Commercialization Collective (NJECC), funded by a 3-year National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE Partnership grant (HRD-2121941). The NJECC will be partnering with universities and organizations throughout New Jersey and will focus on two program areas: Gatekeeper Training & Support and Inclusive Ecosystem Network Development.
The NSF ADVANCE program provides grants to enhance the systemic factors that support equity and inclusion and to mitigate the systemic factors that create inequities in the academic profession and workplace. Since 2001, the NSF has invested over $270M to support ADVANCE projects at more than one-hundred institutions of higher education and STEM-related not-for-profit organizations.3 This program aims to facilitate a broader adoption of gender equity and systemic change strategies and drive a regional and national transformation of the STEM academic workplace. NJECC Co-Principal Investigators currently include Treena Livingston Arinzeh, Ph.D. (PI), Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT); Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, Ph.D., Director of the Murray Center for Women in Technology at NJIT; Judith Sheft, Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission of Science, Innovation and Technology; Forough Ghahramani, Ed.D., Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs, Edge; and Jeffrey A. Robinson, Ph.D., Professor and Prudential Chair in Business, Rutgers Business School.
Eliminating Systemic Barriers
Before joining NJIT, Dr. Arinzeh began her career at a stem cell therapeutics company after receiving her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and masters and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. “I was one of the founding faculty members in the department of biomedical engineering at NJIT, and I’m coming up on my 20th year in the program,” shares Arinzeh. “Over the years, I’ve seen STEM programs change, and there are substantially more opportunities now that introduce students at a very young age to engineering and other STEM-related fields. There is much more awareness and effort toward exposing the next generation to scientific career paths. I’m part of a larger center at the University of Pennsylvania, where we provide summer activities for high school students where they gain hands-on lab experience and learn how to pursue an advanced degree in a STEM field.”
By starting out a biotech company, Arinzeh says she gained a valuable understanding of the importance of patenting inventions and discoveries and carried this idea with her when she entered academia. “At a fairly early stage in my career, I was able to file invention disclosures and patents, which gave me a closer look at seed funding programs and the whole commercialization process. I’ve been able to participate in various activities that are involved in translating your technology out of the lab, licensing technology, and creating a startup company, and I understand the process of patenting an invention. The challenges that can arise as you develop these technologies include not fully understanding the market and the level of competition that exists today. You must be well versed in the level of players you’re up against and how to navigate the whole commercialization process. University technology transfer offices (TTOs) can provide general guidance, but some of the specific details of the technology may require more of a time commitment and deeper understanding of the environment, the market, and developing effective strategies for further development. A TTO can help identify key business partners and mentors with necessary expertise and match you with entrepreneurs who are looking to help you develop technology.”
To help a greater number of researchers to achieve their innovation goals, NJECC looks to broaden participation of academic faculty in research at their respective institutions and pair these individuals with the investors, TTOs, and organizations that can provide supportive funding and guidance on their commercialization journeys. “The NJECC fosters a partnership across the State to address equity issues and propel academic technology commercialization,” explains Arinzeh. “We aim to eliminate systemic barriers that may prevent women and underrepresented minority faculty members from developing their technology. We are putting a number of programs in place to address equity issues in patent, licensing, and startup creation. Through benchmark research, NJECC is identifying hurdles and creating strategies for overcoming these obstacles and increasing the diversity of faculty research at an institution.”
“We have engaged an external Advisory Board for the NJECC, that is comprised of a distinguished experts with strong backgrounds in research and development, technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, coupled with deep expertise and commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion. The NJECC advisory board members provide input and feedback on the strategic direction and progress of the project initiatives. The NJECC Advisory Board will also serve as ambassadors for the NJECC project in the community connecting the NJECC to a greater constituency at the state, regional, and national level.” says Dr. Forough Ghahramani, Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs for Edge.
“Over the years, I’ve seen STEM programs change, and there are substantially more opportunities now that introduce students at a very young age to engineering and other STEM-related fields. There is much more awareness and effort toward exposing the next generation to scientific career paths. I’m part of a larger center at the University of Pennsylvania, where we provide summer activities for high school students where they gain hands-on lab experience and learn how to pursue an advanced degree in a STEM field.”
— Treena Livingston Arinzeh, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering,
New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT)
Engaging the Experts
NJECC’s Gatekeeper Training & Support initiative will engage academic departments, tech transfer offices, venture/entrepreneurship centers, and angel and venture capital groups to address obstacles to inclusive entrepreneurship. Institutions will be able to work with these gatekeeper groups to cultivate culture changes, including curriculum design and implementation and evidence-based decision making across the organization. “We also have Inclusive Network Development programs which will connect women faculty and gatekeepers at events and conferences to help them build relationships and support each other’s initiatives and goals,” says Arinzeh. “Co-PI Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, Ph.D., is the Director of the Murray Center for Women in Technology at NJIT and brings a breadth of knowledge in diversity, equity, and inclusion and general guidance on how to support activities and programming. Judith Sheft is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission of Science, Innovation and Technology and has gained extensive expertise in commercialization and understands the New Jersey landscape and the various participants involved in this area.” Notes Dr. Steffen-Fluhr, “One of the challenges is overcoming implicit biases, such as assumptions about whom we should encourage and who the top inventors are likely to be. Women have absorbed these biases, and, in some cases, feel their project has to be 100% perfect before they even pursue a patent.”
Further, elaborates Sheft, “NJECC is trying to address the equity issues in academic, technology, and commercialization, including patenting, licensing, and start-up creation.” She continues, “We will focus on identifying and eliminating systemic, organizational barriers, including stereotypes and cultural perceptions, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to commercialize their innovations and introduce new products and services that can benefit society. The Commission on Science Innovation and Technology is focused on providing technical assistance and funding to early stage innovation intensive startups. Increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities is a strategic imperative that will improve economic development outcomes for the state. Involvement with NJECC’s initiatives particularly intentional outreach to innovators, gatekeeper awareness training and robust statewide innovation participation metrics will further drive desired results.”
Also aiding NJECC’s mission is the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), which looks to drive innovation by helping more institutions gain access to NJIT’s resources and industry and government relationships. “NJII has extensive knowledge of technology development and commercialization and offers a large variety of training and activities, including hosting some of NJECC’s Gatekeeper Training & Support sessions,” explains Arinzeh. “Our University and Organizational Partners will also be instrumental in the strategic direction of NJECC by helping gather institutional benchmark data, speaking at events, and participating in training and inclusive network development programs. These institutions are providing valuable insight into demographic data, including who is submitting invention disclosures and commercialization activities. With this information, we can identify any weaknesses and gaps and develop the programming needed to increase the number of researchers involved in New Jersey’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.”
“Increasing efforts to diversify the STEM fields, particularly by improving access for women and people of color to enter STEM careers and thrive, is key to economic competitiveness,” shared Ghahramani, whose research focuses on the intersection of women, STEM fields, innovation, and the important role of institutions of higher education in promoting pathways for women innovators. “Women, whether in academia or the corporate world, are not participating in patenting at the same rate as their male colleagues. Having researched this topic for many years, I realize that it is not enough just to do research and study this area, advocacy is also important for impacting change. I have had the opportunity to work with peers across the nation through the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) Women Inventor SIG (AUTM WISIG) community to identify actions we could take to alter the statistics. We have been successful in helping to move the needle by raising awareness on the importance of collecting and reporting data by gender for patent applications and invention disclosures. We need to track and measure to motivate what is important. If we don’t measure, we don’t see. Accurate and consistent data is going to be incredibly important to tracking progress over time and evaluating the effectiveness of the different initiatives. It is encouraging to see a greater focus and attention at the national and international level in increasing participation of women and people of color in innovation activity. However, we still have a long way to go. According to a US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) report, women are 51% of the population, yet only 13% of inventors listed on patents are women. At the current rate of progress, women won’t reach parity in patenting until 2092. NJECC aims to address systemic obstacles throughout the innovation and patenting process resulting in creating positive impact, raising economic competitiveness, and increasing talent and contribution to the STEM innovation enterprise.”
Turning Challenges into Opportunities
As a consultant bringing in-depth knowledge in diversity programming, Heather Metcalf, Ph.D., Director of Research and Constituent Relations for the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) will help to inform the direction and focus of the NJECC. Through her own experience and challenges as an undergraduate and grad school student, Metcalf was inspired to help others and create a cultural change that would empower the next generation of women and minorities. “I began my undergraduate studies in applied mathematics and computer science, and through the mentoring and support I received from a faculty member, I pursued my master’s in computer science,” shares Metcalf. “While in the master’s program, I experienced many very difficult situations, both based on class and gender. Moving from a teaching-focused undergraduate institution to a large R1 institution was a bit of a culture shock and I was assumed to be an administrative assistant most of the time. At that time, the population of women in the program for graduate school and undergraduate school combined was only around 6 percent.”
“The harassment I experienced and the scarcity of women pursuing this degree made me wonder what I could do to make the program more inclusive and welcoming to a greater diversity of students,” continues Metcalf. “I became involved with an existing program at the University that created outreach and awareness at K-12 levels to encourage more girls to explore computing, but I noticed there weren’t parallel efforts happening in the department to make the culture a healthy space for these students to enter into as undergraduates. Instead of taking a job in the industry upon graduation, I decided to pursue a second master’s in gender and women’s studies and a culture study of the computing department became the focus of my master’s thesis. We focused on the issues that foster a sense of inclusion and belonging and explored the issues that led to exclusion and isolation in the department. The University actually instituted some of our recommendations for improving the experiences of women and people of color among their students.”
Later after receiving her Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Arizona with a focus on science and technology policy studies, Metcalf joined the Association for Women in Science as a director of research. “Throughout the six years in that role, I found that my work was able to have a larger impact. My goal was always to make STEM fields a more welcoming, inclusive space, where people would not have to experience what I went through early in my education. I have been able to testify before the Office of Civil Rights around issues related to harassment in STEM. Being able to see that my voice can have a larger scale impact ultimately led me to working for Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) as director of research and constituent relations. I’m involved in conducting research that focuses on systemic change that creates a culture where people feel included and valued. WEPAN as an organization is committed both externally and internally to engaging in positive, healthy, and cultural practices that foster inclusion, diversity, equity, and social justice.”
Through their engagement with policy work, WEPAN partners with allies and advocates across the engineering and STEM industry to equip members with research and evidence-based recommended practices that can create positive change in their environment. “My current work is applied research focusing on intersectional gender equity in STEM workspaces,” says Metcalf. “I explore what systemic factors influence women’s experiences, including when they’re getting hired, receiving recognition or awards for their work or contributions, or in terms of salary and pay equity. We look at the patterns in careers where women are trying to commercialize their work or start up a company related to their research. We aim to identify the systemic opportunities and barriers that women are encountering on their STEM career pathways.”
“Working alongside my fellow NJECC team members and other advocates in the diversity and inclusion space makes me very hopeful that we’re making big strides in the right direction. We are seeing many people eager to engage in change-related work and who are open to critical reflection and taking accountability for the barriers that exist. We are currently at a huge turning point and as more organizations create inclusive cultures and encourage their inventors to engage in these initiatives, we can further tip the scale; giving women and people of color an equitable opportunity to pursue their passion and thrive in New Jersey’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.”
— Heather Metcalf, Ph.D.
Director of Research and Constituent Relations for the
Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN)
Engaging the Greater Community
Recently, WEPAN became the new organizational home for the ADVANCE Resource and Coordination (ARC) Network. Funded by an NSF grant, the ARC Network seeks to achieve intersectional gender equity for faculty in higher education STEM disciplines. “We look to broaden the community beyond the NSF ADVANCE-funded organizations and foster connections between different stakeholders who are conducting research or creating interventions in the space,” explains Metcalf. “Through this collaboration, we can push research initiatives forward, reduce the duplication of efforts, and further build upon the work that has already been done. WEPAN has a resource library that serves as a knowledge base for researchers, practitioners, and change agents. We also have research and practice dissemination activities through webinars and newsletters, and different curation activities to connect researchers and change makers with the resources that they need.”
WEPAN hosts several workshops that bring together key stakeholders to give presentations, engage in roundtable discussions, and share insights and experiences with each other. “By engaging leaders and innovators from around the industry, we can explore the state of knowledge, identify gaps in that knowledge, and pinpoint several critical research areas and implications for practice moving forward,” says Metcalf. “The NJECC program also looks closely at the region’s commercialization space and ways we can infuse this industry with equity and inclusion. Through partnerships with TTOs, stakeholders, and other gatekeepers in New Jersey, we can discover how they’re working on diversity, equity, and inclusion-related initiatives and then create custom workshops for these stakeholders to help them successfully achieve their goals.”
Accelerating Time to Market
While at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), Metcalf created the STEM to Market initiative, which combined the scientific expertise with the mentorship and community needed to help navigate the world of commercialization. “The initiative was based on existing research on entrepreneurship experiences around gender and race in STEM,” explains Metcalf. “We found there were three unmet needs. This included that existing entrepreneurship support programs weren’t meeting the needs of a diversity of women in STEM. There may have been gender-based accelerator incubator programs, but they weren’t STEM focused, or you might have STEM-focused accelerator-type programs, but they didn’t have intersectional equity as a component. The second gap identified by the group was that critical gatekeepers, like investors and TTOs, were not engaging in important conversations around diversity and inclusion, and lastly, many networks occupied by gatekeepers lacked STEM trained women altogether.”
Metcalf continues, “We created accelerator programs to address these issues and bridge the gaps between the networks and the entrepreneurs and gatekeepers. I believe this is the first initiative of its kind—with around 67-percent of our participating entrepreneurs identifying as women of color, about a third who identified as LGBTQ, a quarter who identified as women with disabilities, and about a quarter who are first-generation college graduates. I’m really proud of this initiative and how successful the programs have been in creating changes and supporting these women in their entrepreneurial efforts. The lessons we learned from STEM to Market and the research that we conducted as part of the project, play a huge role in how we are thinking about the gatekeeper training initiative for the NJECC project.”
While Dr. Ghahramani was doing her dissertation research, she reached out to Metcalf to discuss equity and inclusion issues in the entrepreneurship and commercialization space. “Dr. Ghahramani has a wealth of knowledge, experience, and practice in this area and has been a strong advocate for women in STEM and innovation,” says Metcalf. “We both are part of a group called Invent Together, which is a policy coalition that addresses these diversity issues. She does a lot of work putting her rich knowledge to practice on the advocacy side and this support and experience is incredibly valuable to the NJECC effort.”
Also instrumental in the STEM to Market initiative, Erin Kelley, Co-Founder, Hexalign, is a consultant specializing in inclusive STEM commercialization and entrepreneurship. Currently, Kelley leads an NSF-funded project to develop a platform for equity, diversity, and inclusion audits, education, and guided best practice implementation. “With a background in curriculum development, Erin’s experience was invaluable in developing the curriculum for the STEM to Market accelerator program, and now in the gatekeeper training side of NJECC,” shares Metcalf. “We first met when she was working on the National Women’s Business Council and the SBA’s office of Advocacy had just put out a report that explored the gender disparities in patenting, inventorship, and startup activities. We ended up working together on a panel at an SBIR/STTR conference and having roundtable discussions to engage people in more systemic change activities based upon the findings of that report. She’s been doing work in this space for quite some time and I’m grateful for the knowledge and expertise that she brings to the NJECC program.”
“One of the challenges is overcoming implicit biases, such as assumptions about whom we should encourage and who the top inventors are likely to be. Women have absorbed these biases, and, in some cases, feel their project has to be 100% perfect before they even pursue a patent.”
— Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, Ph.D.
Director of the Murray Center for Women in Technology,
Creating a Roadmap for Change
Joining in a similar mission as NJECC to help researchers gain valuable insight into entrepreneurship and starting a business, the NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program looks to help innovators reduce the time to translate a promising idea from the laboratory to the marketplace. “I-Corps will be very helpful in addressing some of the gaps that we know exist in the participation of entrepreneurial activities,” says Metcalf. “I’m currently part of an initiative with I-Corps that reviews an institution’s program through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. For example, we examine the outreach and recruitment materials and processes and the data being collected around people’s experiences while they’re in the program. We see if there are any disparities in those experiences along gender and race-related lines. We also explore inclusive examples used in the curriculum and identify any exclusionary activities. With all this data, we can help create a roadmap for change specific to the institution.”
“Working alongside my fellow NJECC team members and other advocates in the diversity and inclusion space makes me very hopeful that we’re making big strides in the right direction,” continues Metcalf. “We are seeing many people eager to engage in change-related work and who are open to critical reflection and taking accountability for the barriers that exist. We are currently at a huge turning point and as more organizations create inclusive cultures and encourage their inventors to engage in these initiatives, we can further tip the scale; giving women and people of color an equitable opportunity to pursue their passion and thrive in New Jersey’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.”
NJECC co-PI, Jeffrey Robinson, an associate professor at Rutgers Business School and academic director of The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development, also serves as the Research Lead for the NSF I-Corps Hub: Northeast Region and spearheads entrepreneurship research on both deep tech and inclusive innovation as co-investigator on the grant.
“Inclusive innovation is the idea that the visionaries, entrepreneurs, and gatekeepers of technology innovation should be as diverse as our nation. This diversity leads to brilliant ideas, new companies, and international leadership in innovation,” said Robinson. “The I-Corps Hub: Northeast Region offers us a unique opportunity to study how the diversity of our area can be harnessed for regional development and national competitiveness.”
“Diversity is a key driver of innovation and a critical component of success. In the innovation process, women and people of color are woefully underrepresented as inventors. NJECC is working with institutional partners focusing on identifying and eliminating systemic institutional and entrepreneurial ecosystem barriers and increasing the diversity of STEM faculty researchers who participate in New Jersey’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. Accurate and consistent data is going to be incredibly important to tracking progress over time and evaluating the effectiveness of the different initiatives. We need to track and measure to motivate what is important. The community we build will be an important part of the process as we band together for collective action, contributing to systemic change initiatives leading to equitable academic technology commercialization in NJ and beyond.”
— Forough Ghahramani, Ed.D.
Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs,
Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a multi-university $15-million, five-year grant, the Hub will be led by Princeton University with Rutgers University and University of Delaware as partner institutions. The new NSF I-Corps Hub: Northeast Region will strengthen a growing regional and national technology commercialization ecosystem while connecting diverse resources and networks available within a consortium of universities. The Hub will also include five initial affiliates in the network: New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Rowan University, Lehigh University, Temple University, and Delaware State University. More affiliates are expected to be added each year to broaden opportunities for university researchers by creating new ventures and entrepreneurial endeavors in sectors such as healthcare, robotics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, clean energy, and the environment.
“Innovation is a hallmark of American culture, fostering societal growth and development while also stimulating the economy,” says Ghahramani. “Diversity is a key driver of innovation and a critical component of success. In the innovation process, women and people of color are woefully underrepresented as inventors. Creating more equitable opportunities will require inclusive and proactive policies and programs to address the barriers that women and people of color face at every stage of innovation and patenting. Without education about and exposure to innovation and patenting, many inventors do not have basic knowledge about the patenting process. Working through patent drafts, developing relationships with intellectual property attorneys, and responding to feedback from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are all necessary steps for success, but can be intimidating for a new inventor. In addition to formal education on the process, engaging with a mentor and expanding one’s network are key steps in gaining valuable feedback, advice, and support for years to come. The pillars of NJECC address educating the gatekeepers, as well as developing professional networks. NJECC is working with institutional partners across New Jersey focusing on identifying and eliminating systemic institutional and entrepreneurial ecosystem barriers and increasing the diversity of STEM faculty researchers who participate in New Jersey’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. The community we build will be an important part of the process as we band together for collective action, contributing to systemic change initiatives leading to equitable academic technology commercialization in NJ and beyond.”
The NJECC project team looks forward to sharing the progress of the NJECC, and more importantly the outcomes and impact as a result of the project. We invite you to join the journey with us by participating in NJECC events and conferences. Save the date for the first Annual NJECC Conference on October 27, 2022. Please visit the NJECC website njeccadvance.com for additional details and updates.
The NSF Advance Partnership New Jersey Equity in Commercialization Collective is funded in by the NSF award HRD-2121941.
1The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. AAUW. Accessed April 28, 2022.
2Gender profiles in worldwide patenting: An analysis of female inventorship. Intellectual Property Office. October 2, 2019.
3ADVANCE at a Glance. National Science Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2022.