Video games to help children with dyslexia, chips that allow testing drugs without using laboratory animals, intelligent sensors that detect volcanic eruptions and data analysis to improve e-commerce are technologies developed by four Spanish entrepreneurs. These experts in engineering and computer science stand out in a field clearly dominated by men.
Luz Rello, CEO of Change Dyslexia (at the center), along with two women from her team: psychologist Camila de Ros (left) and María Herrera, head of operations of the firm / Job Tomás
It's no secret: the technology industry has a diversity problem. The work environment in places like Silicon Valley with endless hours and sometimes discriminatory manners make women look for opportunities in other less hostile sectors. This may be one of the reasons why the presence of women in careers such as computing has decreased in Spain and in the rest of the world in the last decade.
Large corporations such as Facebook and Google receive every year criticism for their gender policies. In fact, Google acknowledged in its latest internal report on diversity that 70% of its employees are men. The TechLeavers study, published in 2017, analyzes the reasons why many women leave this industry, which is criticized, among other issues, for a sexist and humiliating treatment.
However, there are women who dare to undertake in this world dominated by men. They are engineers and computer science experts of the millennial generation, who have developed breakthrough technologies in fields such as artificial intelligence, micro fluidic devices, and the Internet of things or data analysis.
This linguist and doctor in computer science works as a researcher at the Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). In 2015, she founded the social company ChangeDyslexia in Barcelona. "My goal," – she tells Sinc– "is to develop tools to help the detection and treatment of dyslexia, in cooperation with speech therapists, pediatric psychologists, educational psychologists and teachers."
The desire of Luz Rello (Sigüenza, Guadalajara, 1984) to improve the lives of people with dyslexia –starting with early detection– has a personal origin, since she suffered this problem being a child.
Luz Rello, founder and CEO of Change Dyslexia. / Julio Gonzalo
This entrepreneur, who lives between Pittsburgh and Spain, is not thrown back by challenges; quite the opposite. "I decided to study linguistics to challenge my problems with language, and investigate in dyslexia because I can contribute with my own experience," she says.
"The research we do at Carnegie Mellon University –she explains– is later integrated in applications that we license to ChangeDyslexia". The CEO says that until now her team has developed two applications. The first is called Dytective, a free test based on artificial intelligence, which takes 15 minutes to analyze more than 200 variables and reports whether there is a risk of dyslexia with 90% accuracy. "It has been validated scientifically with 10,000 individuals and is intended for families, professionals and schools," she stresses.
After completing the test, the user receives a detailed report with the results, "which is not equivalent to a diagnosis", explains Rello. "From ChangeDyslexia we always say that it is a mere indicator of risk; then you have to go to a professional to make a final diagnosis".
The other application, DytectiveU, is a tool helping overcome dyslexia. "It is a videogame with exercises that are adapted according to the user´s weaknesses and strengths to improve reading, writing and understanding of texts in the most personalized and rigorous possible way," she explains.
The tool chooses which of the more than scientifically validated 35,000 exercises are the most appropriate, based on the skills that need to be reinforced. According to Rello, "playing 15 minutes a day you can see the evolution of your reading and writing skills in the reports generated by the tool and help to get that rough diamond that every child with dyslexia has inside".
ChangeDyslexia has a team of ten people. In addition, they work with volunteers to validate the different applications "It is a very vocational company because many of the people in the group have this disorder," says the CEO.
Her plans now are to make her company sustainable. So far, she has managed to finance the company thanks to awards, like the Princesa de Girona in the social category, Innovators Under 35 of the MIT Technology Review, and the European Young Researcher Award and also with money coming from her own pocket. Now she hopes to accomplish profitability with the sales of DytectiveU.
At the moment, she is developing, together with Maria Rauschenberger, a researcher of her team, a universal dyslexia detector that will not use linguistic elements, but visual ones and that will be based on artificial intelligence. "It is a very ambitious project –she stresses– but in research, if you do not dream, you are left behind".
Regarding the difficulties to undertake, she says that the main problem she has found has been seeking funding. "It's easier to ask for money from venture capital funds if you're a man, I think they do not need to justify that much," she concludes.
Eleven years ago, Alicia Asín (Zaragoza, 1982), computer engineer, founded Libelium together with her partner David Gascón. The company's flagship product, which was born as a spin-off from the University of Zaragoza, is its Waspmote hardware platform, capable of wirelessly monitoring any environmental parameter and sending information to the Internet.
"This technology –she explains to Sinc– incorporates 120 sensors that can be used for the most varied applications, like the detection of fires, the control of the air and water quality or the creation of parking systems that inform the driver of the availability of seats parking lots.”
Alicia Asín, co-founder and CEO of Libelium, after collecting the Jaime I prize. / Diario de Levante
Among the most outstanding projects of this company from Aragón is the predictive control of eruptions of the Masaya volcano of Nicaragua, with the aim of establishing warning systems for the evacuation of the population. In Indonesia, the world´s third largest producer of cocoa from family plantations with few resources, Libelium has carried out a plan to improve crops through the temperature, humidity and solar radiation measurements, which allows acting and preventing infections and stop deforestation.
In addition, the Libelium platform was used after the Fukushima nuclear accident to measure radioactive contamination, and has traveled to space on the ArduSat satellite.
When Asín and Gascón created the company, they were 24 years old. "We started with 3,000 Euros and three people and we closed 2017 with a turnover of six million Euros, 60 people on our payroll and an investment in R&D of 1.7 million Euros. Around 90% of our sales come from exports to more than 120 countries," declares the CEO.
Last year, this manager received the Jaime I Award, in the Entrepreneur category. Asín believes that it is necessary to make women who work in technology more visible also for the market itself. "Right now, we get very few computer curricula because there has been a reduction in women who decide to study these careers," she declares.
However, she points out that the Libelium management committee is composed of three women and three men. "This is merely a coincidence, because we focus on the talent, not the gender. But if you apply policies that reflect that you really believe in equal opportunities, that you favor conciliation and put talent above anything else, it is normal to reach this equality".
The innovation developed by Rosa Monge (Zaragoza, 1984) is contained in a plastic chip that recreates a biomimicry environment, that is, the closest possible environment to the one that cells have when they are inside a living being, but in the laboratory.
Chosen among Spain´s top 10 talents under 35 by MIT TechnologyReview, this industrial engineer is R&D manager and co-founder of Beonchip, a spinoff of the University of Zaragoza, in whose Applied Mechanics and Bioengineering research group of Aragón-I3A Engineering Research Institute the idea was forged. The company started operating in February 2016.
Rosa Monge, R&D manager and co-founder of Beonchip. / Courtesy of the company
According to the manager, the micro fluidics devices for cell cultures that she has developed "are like a kind of Petri dish, but more advanced. By their design, they allow reproducing the environment in which cells live inside the body and can be used for experimentation and drug testing without the need to use animals."
The interior design of these devices "allows placing the cells in the same way they would be in a living being: cell structures in 2D, 3D, inter-cell communications, etc. You lose all that in a Petri dish," she adds.
In these plastic chips –she explains– "several wells and channels divided by membranes are included, depending on the environment you want to reproduce."
The organs that the company recreates with its technology depend on the requirements of the scientist or the pharmaceutical company that places the order. The structures in two or three dimensions are repeated in different parts of the body, such as the kidney or blood vessels. "Depending on the cell type used by the researcher, we will reproduce one environment or another." In addition –she highlights– "we have successfully imitated the cellular structures of a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) and those of metastasis."
Beonchip is now participating in several European projects. One of them seeks the development of a platform in which to reproduce the environment of bone cells to test drugs against osteoporosis. Another outstanding initiative is the development of a heart on a chip.
Among the plans of this entrepreneur is to make the leap to the European and the US market. All this, despite the fact that the company has only five employees on its payroll –four female engineers– and one financial and organization manager.
Monge points out that the fact of having four female technology specialists in the team has not been deliberate. "We hired them for their talent, but I'm happy. I think it's very important that girls have models in these fields and that they see it as a natural option for their future careers."
In 2011, this aeronautical engineer stopped her PhD studies in computational mathematics at Stanford University to create Jetlore, a digital marketing company that uses algorithms and data analysis to create customized content for companies such as eBay, PayPal, Uniqlo and Inditex. The firm, based in San Mateo, California, has recently been chosen as one of the fastest growing start-ups in Silicon Valley.
In addition to co-founder, Montse Medina (Valencia, 1984), is the operations manager of the company. As she explains to Sinc, "through the use of artificial intelligence, the Jetlore software associates the behavior of consumers with the attributes of a product catalog in real time. Attributes include elements such as size, color, fit and style preferences, brands or favorite materials."
Montse Medina, co-founder and director of operations at Jetlore. / Courtesy of the company
Then –she adds– "the platform generates customized content in e-mails, websites and other channels and shows only the products that are most relevant to each user: what we do is extract the valuable information and remove the noise," she stresses.
Medina indicates that this structured information has allowed major retailers and large e-commerce brands using their technology to increase their sales between 30% and 80%.
Jetlore, which has a staff of 40 people, almost all computer engineers and experts in data science, has managed to raise 10.6 million US dollar (about 9 million Euros) from venture capital. "We are going to use this financing to grow faster," says the manager.
Like Rosa Monge, Medina has been selected among the Spain´s top 10 talents under 35 by MIT TechnologyReview. In addition, she has been a finalist in the Stevie Awards for Women in Business, one of the world´s most prestigious awards that recognize female entrepreneurs and executives and the organizations they lead.
Montse Medina says that being a woman has not represented any inconvenience in her career, although she admits that investors usually prefer to deal with men. "But I do not let these things distract me, I continue doing my task, which is to place my firm among the best software companies in the world," she concludes.