Women can switch the gears to innovate!

Meet Dr Lesley Scott, IPA’s first female winner, who believes that women are great innovators and have a critical role in business and entrepreneurship through innovation …

In May 2015, Dr Lesley Scott, a South African innovator and university professor, made history as the first female to win the Innovation Prize for Africa’s (IPA) Special Prize for Social Impact, receiving US$25 000 for her innovation, Smartspot that examines the accuracy of machines used to detect tuberculosis (TB).

“SmartSpot is about checking the quality of test machines that are used to diagnose people with TB. New TB tests are now being implemented globally to diagnose people more rapidly, even diagnosing at the bedside; however, if the test is not accurate, then a wrong result may be given to a patient,” she said.

This could mean that a patient can die, is sent back to the community with the likelihood of spreading the disease – or given treatment that is potentially harmful. Checking the quality of the machine before testing patient specimens is critical to individual, community and global health.

Thus, SmartSpot has positive impacts on TB health care globally. SmartSpot for TB is already being used in 22 countries, and 13 are in Africa.

“I was overwhelmed when they called my name, and also rather stunned. The whole week’s build up to the event, up to when the winners were announced was a great experience. It was a special trip which I will remember forever. It was an amazing feeling going from an idea to a product which has an impact on people’s lives, and then being acknowledged for the work – especially making a big deal out of the fact this was developed in Africa,” said Scott.

“I too was humbled by the presence of other innovators – their ideas and willpower to succeed is admirable, and I was glad to be selected as one of the 10 nominees.”

Scott encouraged women innovators, saying they too can contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship: “I have never been concerned about being a woman in the potentially male-dominated world of innovation. I believe the idea is what is more important, but it struck me at the (IPA) competition that not many women have the opportunity to participate, and yet they are a stronghold in communities and continually facing increasing difficulties – and more often out of necessity, are making great innovations,” she said.

She added that women must not shy away from innovation and that it is possible to effectively balance their time in order to raise a family while pursuing their innovations.

“Women must realise that they too can contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship. I managed to continue my career and develop the IP for our project at the same time as having a family. In fact, after my son was born, I found my work was more focussed as I had less time and therefore worked even harder during my actual work hours, and then completely switched off when I was with my family,” she said.

According to Scott, balancing family and work allows women’s brains to switch gears – something that few men are privileged to do. However, she emphasized the importance of a strong support system.

“I must add that I have a supportive family and would not have managed to get this far without a great husband and a good research team – it was not a sole journey,” Scott said.

Scott explained that the process of submitting her application to the IPA competition led her to develop a business model. She would have never thought of doing a business plan were it not for the requirements of the competition that encourage innovators to think through how to take their innovations to the marketplace.

“I learnt a great deal about business, marketing and definitely pitching. The prize money was put into spinning the business out of the university, and allowed us to hire a managing director to further expand the business and allow me and the research team to continue innovating,” Scott said.

Scott said that women need not be deterred by the fact that the innovation space is currently dominated by men: “Women must innovate and believe in their ideas … and believe they too can achieve their end goals. We always seem to multi-task and juggle lots of balls; this energy should not exclude innovative thinking and securing ideas through business and entrepreneurship,” she concluded.

By Masimba Biriwasha, AIF social media contributor

Find us on the Internet:

African Innovation Foundation

Innovation Prize for Africa

Facebook: InnovationPrizeforAfrica and AfricanInnovationFoundation

Twitter: @AfrinnovFdn and @IPAPrize