Women of Innovation Awards showcase Connecticut’s tech talent pipeline | Crain's Connecticut

Women of Innovation Awards showcase Connecticut’s tech talent pipeline

Between her sophomore and junior year in high school, Ayana Klein of Fairfield, Conn., took an architecture class at Columbia University in New York that would help determine the trajectory of her life.

“I was surprised and inspired by the realization that math and engineering, which are my academic strengths, can work with art and design, which is my passion,” she said.

Klein talked her younger brother Ethan into putting in sweat equity to launch 3Duxdesign, a startup that designs architecture kits that integrate math and science with art and design. The kits are made with 3-D printed connectors and paintable geometric cardboard shapes that enable children as young as 3 years old to “imagine, design and create anything,” Klein said.

Klein, 18, is among 50 finalists in the Connecticut Technology Council’s (CTC) annual Women of Innovation Awards, which were to be celebrated March 28 at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville.

Finalists included biologists, geneticists, aviators, engineers, pharmacists, youth inventors, entrepreneurs, tech program coordinators for women, coders, surgeons, professors, and high school instructors, including an automotive instructor at a local high school and community college, and a molecular geneticist.

“We looked for leaders who will have a lasting impact on the Connecticut tech ecosystem and tech talent pipeline,” said Taylor Van Antwerp, manager of Talent and Workforce Programs at CTC.

Hartford, in January of 2018, was ranked the fourth-best city for tech jobs by Fortune. Young entrepreneurs say they are drawn to the research centers in nearby New York and Boston, and to the growing startup communities in New Haven and Hartford.

“I came to high school with some experience in programming, but wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with these skills besides making fun games and applications,” said Shobhita Sundaram, a 17-year-old senior at Greenwich High School.

An internship at the Institute for Computational Biomedicine led Sundaram to observe first-hand how researchers were using computational methods to find new drug targets or predict drug toxicity – complex problems that are otherwise incredibly difficult for researchers to address. Over the past four years, through her school's independent research program, Sundaram began to focus on the intersection of artificial intelligence and medicine. Specifically, how artificial intelligence applications can screen vast amounts of medical data and generate new insights.

“Last year I built a tool that analyzes specific proteins in a patient's blood data to predict if they will develop pancreatic cancer in the future,” Sundaram said. “It achieved an 80 percent diagnostic accuracy, whereas previous efforts had only achieved accuracies in the range of 50 to 65 percent. I have also developed a tool capable of detecting Alzheimer's in its earliest stages and predicting future progression with a 92 percent accuracy, far outperforming prior research.”

Artificial intelligence — especially its applications in medicine — is advancing rapidly, with Silicon Valley at the epicenter. But hubs of tech innovation are rapidly developing across the world, including Connecticut.

The challenges?

“Computer science is absolutely a male-dominated field,” Sundaram said. “I have been lucky to have incredible mentors and role models to inspire me, but when I was just starting out in this field, I often had to deal with the discouragement that comes with being the only girl in a room.”

Connecticut’s brain-drain of educated youth and the aging of experienced boomers motivated Candace Freedenberg, an engineer who previously worked at IBM and Kodak, to launch Untapped Potential Inc. The Connecticut-based social enterprise uses technology to enable professional women to eliminate barriers at the workplace following a career break for caregiving.

“While attending an event full of educated women with previous high-caliber careers, I thought it was an economic loss if they were sidelined for the remainder of their potential years because they couldn’t ‘fit’ in our outdated industrial-age work plan,” Freedenberg said.

The goal is to return women to the workforce in STEM and growth industries such as additive manufacturing, green technologies and digital or optics-based fields.

“Whether women participated in STEM prior to opting out to raise their children or not, they have equal capability to learn tech skills, contribute to manufacturing or other non-traditional roles,” Freedenberg said. “But women, relative to men, are at an uneven playing field in the workforce. And women who have opted out of the workforce are at a greater disadvantage.”

Untapped Potential offers programs and events to build experience, and a network of connections to help overcome inequities.

Ashley Kalinauskas was 23 years old when she founded Vernon, Conn.-based Torigen Pharmaceuticals, which creates personalized cancer immunotherapies for the veterinary market.

“We are in the process of commercializing our technology and have helped nearly 250 animals to date,” she said.

Kalinauskas, now 28, said age more than gender has led to greater challenges.

“When I walk into a room, I have to convince veterinarians, investors and business development individuals that not only am I passionate about what we do, but that I am becoming an expert,” she said.

March 28, 2018 - 3:06pm