Daisy Allington is the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Cognitant – a health-technology start-up that aims to improve patient education. Cognitant have designed an online platform using novel technologies, involving mobile gaming and augmented reality, that allows patients to understand and take control of their own health.
The company, currently a team of 15, aim to use this technology to relieve pressure from the NHS by helping to support long term self-care plans. Their ultimate goal is to have doctors and GPs prescribe digital links to their well curated platform content.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I never set out to be an entrepreneur, it just happened organically. I didn’t in fact believe that I was one, because I didn’t come up with the idea for our company. What I now realise is that part of being an entrepreneur is making sure that your idea comes to fruition and that is what I brought to the table when we founded Cognitant.
My previous role leading the commercial and operations team at a global tech company set me up well with the inter-personal skills I needed to build and manage our Cognitant client base.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship isn’t just having an idea but being able to bring that idea to fruition with the help of your clients. An entrepreneur should strive to build something long term and set it up in an agile way so that it can respond readily to changing customer needs.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
We knew our idea was good enough when we got validation of it from the four key groups our business is concerned with; these are the investors/stakeholders, our staff, the paying customers (NHS/pharmaceutical companies) and the end users (healthcare professionals/patients).
In the same vain, before we roll out any new developments, we make sure they meet the needs of all four groups.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
The main one is humility; if you are egotistical, then you are limiting your own growth. You must be open to feedback and constantly adapting to ensure the needs of the groups are put first. You must also be humble to foster a business atmosphere where people can grow as individuals.
Emotional intelligence is also a required skill; you need to be aware of how your team, users and investors are feeling and responding to the fast paced, ever changing work environment.
Self-confidence is also a must. If you don’t set out with it, you could struggle and be constantly doubting yourself.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite thing about being an entrepreneur is that I was able to set the standards and culture for my business from day one. It felt like a real opportunity to start afresh and be accountable for fostering an environment where there is a career for everyone.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
In terms of who I’ve been inspired by, there are so many! I am part of some amazing networks of female innovators and founders, and I work with some extremely talented clinicians and life sciences experts. From an entrepreneurship stance, someone that helped me to get where I am today is Jessica Chivers. Jessica was my mentor and coach when I took my first senior leadership position, and is a champion for female leaders. Jessica herself is a business owner, local councillor, mother, and author of the book ‘Mothers Work’: a must-read for all women returning to work after maternity leave. She inspired me to keep pushing on with my career as I became a mother myself, and use my new skills to the benefit of my business.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Jessica and I would need more than 5 minutes! But I’d love a chance to reflect with her on how she continues to balance her work and family with such a thriving career.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
It was last year when we were awarded the “Pharmaceutical Marketing Society Award for Patient Programmes”. This sent a buzz through the whole team and made us realise that we had developed something that was genuinely impactful. It also felt like a big stamp of approval for our business which was a great feeling!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
We realised fairly quickly that having a rigid business plan is not very feasible. It expects you to have all the answers on day one and this is very rarely the case – sometimes you might not ever have the answers. Instead you need to work closely with your customers to develop your offering, and constantly seek and respond to feedback. By doing this we were able to commercialise our product within the first year, and have long-standing relationships with our early clients.
How have you funded your ideas?
My co-founders and I bootstrapped the company for the first year. After that, we brought clients on board who helped us develop and commercialise our products and services. They took a big leap of faith in us considering we had no prototype at the time of the first sales. This worked to our advantage however, as we were then able to work alongside them and gain feedback when developing our ideas.
Since then, we have secured three “Innovate UK” grants which have enabled us to expand and test new capabilities.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We have been awarded several industry awards but they haven’t helped in a financial sense; instead they have helped improve our visibility nationally to both the private and public sectors. The first of these was in 2019 when we were lucky enough to win the “Oxfordshire Business Award for Technology Excellence”. More recently, we won the “Pharmaceutical Marketing Society Award for Patient Programmes”. This was a huge stamp of recognition for our business especially as we pride ourselves in putting the clients first. We are actually up for the same award again this year!
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
There is a really nice vibe for start-ups in Oxford, especially in the health technology sector. We have found that many companies in the area are really willing to collaborate and explore different ideas. Through the Oxford University Innovation (OUI) hub, we were able to work in partnership with OUI to develop cutting edge technology that has since been used to educate healthcare workers in low-income countries on how to manage medical emergencies. The respect and recognition our business gets for these collaborations with the university is unparalleled.
It has been harder than expected to collaborate with the NHS in Oxfordshire. However, we hope our recent work with The Hill will mitigate this problem in the future.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
The Hill in Oxford is an excellent resource for health-orientated start-ups. They are very well connected and will support you in expanding your network by arranging meetings with other companies and like-minded individuals. They are also a great source for feedback which is essential for a business to progress!
Innovate UK are also a great source of funding and support. If you are lucky enough to awarded one of their grants, you will be assigned a monitoring officer. They are always there to offer advice and support but they can also help with expanding the commercialisation of your products and services further down the line.
LinkedIn is a great platform to use to meet and communicate with potential clients and investors. For a more informal environment, I would recommend the “Women at Work” Facebook group. It is a closed network for women, with thousands of current members. In it, many positive news stories, blogs and podcasts about women are shared and discussions cover topics ranging from starting new businesses, managing teams, asking for feedback and going back to work after maternity leave.
A final word on this is that whatever sector you are in, get out to pitches and conferences. By constantly talking about your products and services, you will become aware of emerging competitors and possible partnerships.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge I have faced is recognising that I too am an entrepreneur! And building the confidence to get out there and pitch our idea to as many people as possible.
I remember saying to myself a few pitches in: “I have got this”!
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I would definitely recommend the inspiring podcast that I am currently listening to; it is called “How I built this” by Guy Raz. In it he discusses the stories and innovators behind some of the world’s best known companies.
I would also suggest getting in touch with a mentor, who either is or works closely with, female entrepreneurs. Listening to and getting advice from others who have succeeded with their own businesses can only help to propel you forward.
The Knowledge Transfer Network, facilitated by Innovate UK, is also a great resource. They have developed a “Women in Innovation” community which has frequently been a useful source of information and ideas for me.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think networking events are the biggest piece of starting a new business and so if the university could provide more of those that would be fantastic. Meeting real life women that have managed to start their own business can give others the confidence they need to go out and do the same. It can also help women not to feel out of place in male dominated fields.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Finding a team of people that you are comfortable to work with is crucial! Our core team had 10 years of experience working together before we started Cognitant. You also need to realise that you, personally, don’t have to do everything – make sure your team is multi-disciplinary so that the skills you lack can be brought to the table by someone else.
If you believe in yourself, and your product fills a genuine gap in the market, you can make it happen!
Any last words of advice?
Not to copy Nike but “just do it”! Also, try to work with clients as early as possible to get the validation you need for products and services.