The Australian icon that bridges science and commerce

A career in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is often seen as the road less taken by women, and it’s not for lack of trying. Women in STEM face many barriers to entering and remaining in the field, and continue to be excluded from full participation in the industry compared to men. Globally, only 30% of global researchers are women, and less than a third of female students choose to study subjects like math and engineering in higher education.

While there is still a long way to go to level the playing field, many women are making their own mark in the industry to disrupt the status quo. One such figure is Natalie Chapman, one of Australia’s leading figures in STEM who has decades of experience in science and commercialization under her belt. His award-winning company, gemmaker, aims to bridge the gap between research and industry to bring to market brilliant innovations that improve the lives of others.

Knowing the courage and rigor required of women in a male-dominated field, Chapman is passionate about empowering women and girls to enter the STEM industry. We caught up with her on the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to learn more about her work and achievements:

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role.

My name is Natalie Chapman. I am currently managing director of gemaker, a science and technology commercialization agency. I started Gemaker 10 years ago after spending a decade commercializing technology and building businesses at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO).

I have a degree in chemistry, as well as a master’s degree in marketing and an MBA. For over 20 years, I’ve been helping researchers and innovative companies take their technology out of the lab and use it to help people, the planet and industry. We cover every step of the go-to-market journey, including fundraising, market research, intellectual property protection, and marketing and communications.

When did you realize your passion for STEM? Have you always wanted to pursue a career in this industry, or was there a defining moment in your life that drew you to science and technology?

I have always had a passion for STEM since I was young. My stepfather was a chemist and my mother was a math teacher. My stepdad had a chemistry kit – not one of those child safety approved kits. It was about four times bigger, with an array of chemicals that could blow your head off! We loved experimenting on the dining room table. My mother took my sister and I to Questacon in Canberra when it opened, and we visited science centers frequently.

In years 11 and 12, I did as much science as I could, studying chemistry, biology, math, physics, and engineering science.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I went to college, but I knew I wanted to do something in science. After graduating from university, I decided I was in the best position to help people understand the benefits of new technologies.

Women in STEM are still vastly underrepresented. From your experience, what were the main challenges you faced in a male-dominated industry?

Networking and chatting. It may seem small, but it is not. Establishing professional relationships is important for progress and doing business. I found that many men in the industries we worked in were comfortable talking about sports with each other as an icebreaker and a relationship builder.

Not being interested in sport has always been a struggle. I find that now that I am in my 40s, my generation is also comfortable talking about their children and what they are doing, which makes it much easier for me to converse with them.

“More STEM internships and in-school cadets for colleges specifically for girls would be incredibly helpful.” Credit: Natalie Chapman

For women, earning a STEM degree does not necessarily translate to success in the job market. What are some of the changes that need to happen within the STEM industry to create the right conditions for women to thrive in their careers?

Having women at the board and senior management level allows for a female perspective on things. For example, some men find it difficult to write a job description for roles in order to attract more female candidates. Often, the language used is deterrent to women.

I think we need more male sponsors of women in the industry. Having a respected man offer us projects and dates helps level the playing field. (Yes, there’s a sports reference in there!) How many men still interview women of childbearing age? and think, “I’m going to choose the male candidate because they won’t need maternity leave at some point. I’ve been on committees where this has actually been raised, and I’ve put my two cents in there. The woman was hired on her merits.

You are passionate about bridging the gap between research and industry so that scientists can better interact with industries. While many men still hold leadership and board positions in companies, how are women researchers affected differently than men in finding investors for their innovations?

To change that, we need more women in the pipeline and in leadership. This is finally recognized and supported by recent Women in Government in STEM leadership programs. Ongoing support for the Superstars of STEM program also helps female researchers with their profiles and leadership.

We also need more investments specifically targeted to female founders and academics in entrepreneurship, and more training for women in industry engagement and marketing.

Women in STEM: three women standing together on a stage

Chapman’s work at gemaker focuses on commercialization pathways for science and technology research. Credit: Natalie Chapman

The gemmaker team has varied educational and professional backgrounds. What are your thoughts on diversity (e.g. nationality and background) in the workplace, especially in a field like STEM?

When I started in commercialization 20 years ago, the path to becoming a commercialization professional was to complete a doctorate in STEM and then join a technology transfer office at a university as an associate.

Then you worked your way up, with an MBA needed for the executive position. The reason was that to help researchers commercialize, you had to have been a researcher yourself to sympathize with them and have their respect.

This has slowly changed over the past 10 years, but it is still a belief in some academic fields. To commercialize technology, you need to understand what technology is, but not at the PhD level. You need to be able to build relationships and market them, which doesn’t require an MBA either.

In 2016, gemaker conducted market research to define the skills needed to successfully commercialize Australian research, which requires a diverse team of people with different skills and backgrounds.

Our team at gemmaker reflects this diversity and is continually on the lookout for talents different from ours.

Finally, how can STEM education be done differently at the school and university level to encourage more women in the field?

First, there must be a bridge between STEM and Commerce subjects with innovation subjects, mixing soft and hard skills to change the world.

It is helpful to have innovation topics at all school and university levels to educate students on technology commercialization. They need to showcase more problem-solving innovators and provide the topics as pathways to these careers.

More STEM internships and in-school cadets for colleges specifically for girls would be extremely helpful. We also need to normalize and support parental care so that both parents can share parenting responsibilities.

It will reassure many women to enter STEM if they know of organizations like ours, where we all do high-impact work on incredibly important projects and bring awesome Australian innovations to market, while working part-time or on a flexible at home.

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