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Chilean Government Seeks to Boost Female-led Start-ups

Participants of the "Start Up Chile" program work at their headquarters in Santiago, Aug. 10, 2015.

Drawn in by equity-free financing and promises of hands-on mentoring, dozens of female entrepreneurs will head to Chile in the coming weeks to participate in what the government says is the world's first state-run start-up program solely for women.

It's not the first attempt by Chile to catalyze its start-up scene. Since 2010, the government has awarded over $40 million in seed capital to thousands of up-and-coming innovators, according to its own statistics.

But The S Factory, part of a larger government incubator called Start Up Chile, is the first to specifically target female founders.

"We looked at the data, and only 15 percent of the applicants were women," said Patricia Hansen, Start Up Chile's operations manager.

"So we got a bunch of female entrepreneurs together and asked, 'What do we need to do?'"

Most participating start-ups are tech-oriented, and navigating the jargon-filled world of code and venture capital will be among the skills taught.

And unlike other Start Up Chile programs, S Factory participants can come in with an idea in its embryonic stages.

At 12 weeks long and with $15,000 funding per project, the program's duration and financing are relatively modest compared to other schemes.

But organizers say they hope the chosen start-ups will develop enough during the program to receive additional government grants, all of which allow founders to maintain ownership of their companies.

Among the first participants, who hail from nine countries, are the founders of an Albanian app that monitors the health of chronically ill children and a U.S. crowd-funding website for academic researchers.

Chile's status as a start-up incubator has grown in the last five years largely due to government-led programs like Start Up Chile, academics say.

But as the path for entrepreneurs has become more defined, so have the challenges, notably the nation's small venture capital community and geographic isolation, according to analysts.

Supporters contend that initiatives like Start Up Chile and The S Factory have the potential to spark a larger movement, creating the infrastructure within Chile that start-ups need to succeed.

Private organizations such as Women Who Code and Entrepreneurial Women also are present in Chile to try to tackle gender equality issues.

"Most Chilean women, of course, are not participating," said Hansen, surrounded by young entrepreneurs clacking away at laptops in Start Up Chile's workspace in downtown Santiago. "But we hope this shakes our economic ecosystem."