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How I became a top EU women innovator

Recently, I was awarded one of this year’s EU Prize for Women Innovators. Naturally, I’m very thankful for this recognition, especially considering that the projects from other candidates were exceptional and it must not have been easy for the European Commission to select the winners.

The process stipulated by the European Commission to select projects consists of two stages: a written assignment and an interview. In the written document we had to explain three things: what innovation we have brought to the market, its impact and our leadership skills.

Many people have shown curiosity in knowing how the journey went, so I’m going to highlight some of the steps, hopefully to encourage other women to showcase their innovative projects.

The first part was easy. After all, writing about innovation and its impact has always been a part of my responsibilities as CEO. At Zymvol we offer solutions for the development of biocatalysts (enzymes) that can be used in a multitude of industries to accelerate chemical processes and thus improve a wide variety of products and processes. But what really sets us apart and brings real innovation value is the use of computer simulations, which allow these new biocatalysts to reach the market more quickly and economically.

The impact of our work is clear if we consider that the use of biocatalysts is a much more sustainable alternative, as they can replace more traditional, polluting and environmentally unfriendly chemical catalysis. That’s why we always say our company is democratising the use of green chemistry in the industry.

Without a doubt, my biggest challenge was the third point, to demonstrate my leadership skills. As many of my entrepreneur peers may know, creating a company is not an easy task and is only possible thanks to the efforts of many people. The support of my co-founders was fundamental, but also that of the whole team. Without the Zymvol team, it would not have been possible. Given the difficulty of talking about one’s own merits, I preferred to write about the collective achievements to date:

Creating stable jobs in an environment where personal and professional growth is a priority.

Promoting equal opportunities. Currently, we are 16 people from 7 different countries, 56% of which are women.

Putting value on training. 78% of our team members have a doctorate and we promote continuous training in all levels of the organization.

Once the first challenge was overcome, I was notified that I could start the interview process with a panel of experts from various areas. After a 20 minutes presentation, a round of questions began where I was inevitably asked: How did you manage to have so many women in a Deep Tech company?

It was not the first time I had been asked this question and the answer is always the same: “In our company we always select the best qualified person for the job, regardless of gender. In fact, when we open vacancies, we receive a large number of applications from women. I have heard more than one candidate say that she applied because she was following the path of Zymvol and mine, and she felt identified with what we’re trying to achieve.”

Personally, I spent more than 15 years working as a researcher in computational chemistry, a male-dominated area, but I had never felt any kind of discrimination for being a woman. However, since I started leading a start-up, I did notice that in the business world there are certain differences. And, indeed, there are a small number of women in management positions.

That’s when I decided I had to do something. I felt the need to promote the role of women in the industry and to motivate others to embark on this adventure.

I don’t think there is a single formula for achieving gender balance, but I do think you have to lead by example. As a scientist, I like to use data in my arguments: percentage of permanent contracts (for a stable job), percentage of women (for gender equality), percentage of doctors (for reducing loss of talent), etc.

For me, the Women Innovators 2020 award is a huge incentive to follow my path. It has shown me that when we really want something, with ideas, motivation and work, everything is possible.

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Maria Fátima Lucas
Written By

Maria Fátima Lucas is co-founder and CEO of Zymvol, a biotech startup specialised in computer-designed industrial enzymes through molecular modeling. She has a doctorate in Computational Chemistry and over 20 years of experience in protein science. Her goal is to democratise the use of computer simulations in the development of green chemistry.

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