Dr Assia Kasdi is a Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who pioneered a nano-material catalyst made of Earth-abundant materials. The material behaves like platinum and acts as a nano-catalyst for hydrogen electrolysis and fuel cells. She has received much guidance from OUI (Oxford University Innovation) who gave her team industry insight. At present they are completing the pitching stage with approximately £1 m in investment and £600k in a grant from Innovate UK. They have also recently won a spot at the creative destruction lab, a very competitive programme for promising start-ups.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I completed my Masters in France and the course was very industry-focussed highlighting the technical and commercial applications of Physical Chemistry. I had done a couple of internships in chemical companies and I knew that although the research was exciting and the corporate world was appealing, a career in industry would not fully satisfy me. I therefore embarked on a PhD programme after my Master’s degree. I loved the idea of creating my own research and developing my own idea. Being independent was really something I enjoyed during my PhD. However, I did not fully enjoy the world of academia. During my PhD, I ( like most of PhDs) got interested in consultancy until I realised I did not enjoy it. After my PhD, I had the opportunity to explore different career pathways. I worked in a wide variety of sectors ranging from cosmetics to aerospace. It was actually while working as an innovation manager for a governmental space agency that I finally realised that what I really enjoyed was that short space in the middle of research and industry where the innovations burgeon into products mature enough to transition to bigger industries. My vision of entrepreneurship is that it allows you to forge your own ideas and bring them to life. I understand that it is difficult to do that when you have no experience, no resources, no teams and it took me a year to learn the skillset. Therefore, when I saw this Wonder-Woman series being promoted, I wanted to take part so that hopefully other women would benefit from my experience.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I think the best word to define entrepreneurship is generosity. You have something and you give it to the world in a sincere and genuine way. Entrepreneurship is very humbling and involves sincerely believing that your ideas will help people and the world.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I knew the idea was good only when OUI suggested that we should patent the material I have created, in 2017. I actually synthesised it back in 2015 but it took me a while to realise that I have created something nobody else has ever invented. I looked at several articles in my field and travelled to a series of conferences to validate my hypothesis. It was only at the very end of my PhD ( I just had 3 months left!) that I could confirm experimentally my hypothesis by using expensive and restricted equipment. I could analyse only 2 samples out of the hundreds I have created and luckily one of the two had the novel and unique properties I was looking for.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Number one is to be open, a good listener and accept that you will encounter more people teaching you things than the other way around which can sometimes take the form of negative feedback. Two is that you have to be generous. I have noticed that every entrepreneur I have worked with is incredibly willing to help others and extremely sincere. So, I recommend making a habit of giving away your information, your ideas, talk to people about it. I know that academia pushes us sometimes to be protective of our ideas, but you can talk about them without giving recipes or trade secrets. Lastly, being authentic and passionate about your ideas. The ideas you got are what you are going to submit to investors so if you don’t fully embrace them, the magic spark will not occur.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The fact that every single day you learn something new. I have worked in industry; I have done a PhD which can be extremely taxing. However, I have learned much more in a single year as an entrepreneur. There are not many careers that can give you that.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
It may be a cliché but I would say Elon Musk and Space X. I’ve worked with space agencies before and there are really only about five organisations in the world who can send people into space. He holds on to his idea despite the negative feedback he had received and that he would never manage. He is a visionary and I admire that.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss
Fuel cells, he has called them fool cells in the past and I’d love to debate with him about that.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
For a while, I was not well-versed enough in commercial and business terminologies. I managed to overcome this by working hard for about 6 weeks. I took specific business classes, networked with fellow entrepreneurs and joined every free workshop I could find on entrepreneurship on the net ! Bit by bit, I gained some confidence and understanding which allowed me to provide constructive comments and criticism on key documents for our company such as the pitch deck or the business plan. It was a real omg moment for me as 3 months before I wasn’t able to understand a cap table. I also realised I had a real, tangible vision that I could make happen by submitting my ideas to investors. This prompted me to write and eventually win an IAA grant that encapsulates my vision of the technological roadmap I would like our company to take.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
One of the common issues I noticed is that people lack the confidence when they are starting out which leads them to listen too much to others and ignore their own voice. For instance, I was not open enough at the beginning to give my own thoughts and opinions on key elements of the business and relied on the experience people around me had, thinking they knew better. I started gaining more confidence when I engaged with a wide variety of people such as academics, investors, successful entrepreneurs … I encourage everyone who wants to embark on the journey of entrepreneurship to do that: it is really worth talking to people so you gain perspective and, these days everyone is accessible via zoom so please take advantage of that!
How have you funded your ideas?
Through university grants.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
UCSF (University Challenge Seed Fund) funded by both Oxford University Innovation (OUI) and Oxford Sciences Enterprise (OSE) is dedicated to entrepreneurs and specifically spin-outs. Winning this grant contributed to my return as a researcher at the university. We’ve also had advisory support from OUI which is helpful in reassuring investors. IAAs (Impact Acceleration account) are definitely something young researchers need to invest more in. They are dedicated to expanding your academic research into industry. IAA pushed me to reach out to 200+ people on LinkedIn to gain industrial support for my research. As a result, I gained a crucial academic collaboration and several supports from industrial partners. The Innovate UK grant we obtained was pivotal in the sense that we are now ready to spin out from the university.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The university name carries a lot of weight, having the word ‘Oxford’ when reaching out to industry immediately raises their interest. In addition, they have an excellent network of investors who are willing to hear your pitch. Most of the funds come through this network of investors via the university. The downside is equity, but I think they are looking in ways to change it. In all honestly, it’s not very good compared to other universities, particularly in the US. The difficulty lies with investors ( especially in the US) who are a bit taken aback with the amount of equity the university takes.* On the other hand, I don’t regret doing it as I see many more advantages than inconveniences.
*The university has announced a change in its equity split.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
If they are scientists, then I would greatly recommend them to join an accelerator or a start-up programme such as Wilbe. I have enrolled at their BSF programme back in March 2021 which totally changed my perspective on fundamental aspects of a spin-out such as business, entrepreneurship, product development. The Wilbe programme is great because it gives excellent insights on how to be an entrepreneur when you know nothing about entrepreneurship or do not think about entrepreneurship as a career. I have seen a shift in many of the Wilbe fellow postdocs who expressed an interest in commercialising their ideas just after 8 weeks in the programme . I think there is also wisdom in doing at least one accelerator. I enrolled at Entrepreneur First a year ago and have learnt so much. I would also advise to connect with academics and industries, investors (LinkedIn is great for that), join webinars: listen, talk and ask questions and do not be scared to sound stupid. It is an extremely valuable exercise. What’s more, finding a mentor is extremely useful, my own has helped me so much to flesh out key strategies for our business.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
The first that comes to my mind is not related to a woman issues in particular: the fact that English is not my first language is a hindering factor I believe. My co-founder’s native language is English so it is sometimes easier for her to explain especially to the investors who are in majority males over 50 years old. Globally my experience with investors has been extremely positive. Our company has received soft commitments from a wide variety of angel investors and a few Investments Capital (IC) groups. I am extremely happy with all of them. Some investors keep on reaching out to me, introducing me to other people in their network or sharing scientific papers or opinions they have read. I really appreciate being part of a group of interesting people who are interested in what I do at a scientific level. I am also impressed by the level of technical knowledge some investors acquire in a very short time. So, it pushes me to be constantly challenged but in a very constructive and positive way. At the beginning of this journey, back in January, I have encountered however, two disappointing experiences with potential investors who patronised me and basically told me that a woman can’t build a company on her own especially if that woman is a foreigner. Although it can be difficult to hear, I think that this experience with prejudice and infantilization was beneficial because it showed me that I could control my emotions in front of people who challenged me in a negative way and, let their comments pass over me. In the end, these two people decided not to invest and even if they wanted to, my cofounders and I could have said no to them. This is something to bear in mind: you can always say no to investors.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I wish they were more! I would recommend to members of the university to reach out to their supervisor and/or college advisor for support for that. This is a starting point that can open some networks already available at the university. OUI is active on creating more support for future women entrepreneurs. Innovate U.K has an innovation award solely dedicated to women that is worth applying to, in order to gain access to their network. I personally created a network on my own by joining webinars. I would write down the list of speakers and immediately reach them out to them stating my position, that I was interested in entrepreneurship, that I had an idea and if they were willing to talk to me in a call to discuss this further. As a female CEO, I also got the opportunity to be introduced to other female networks. For instance, Barclays Eagle Labs are creating networks of women and they organise weekly workshops. It was actually through them that we met some of our potential female investors.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think doing what Barclays Eagle Labs does which is creating a vibrant community of female founders, angel investors and at the same time providing support for female founders in their community. Wilbe through their programme, organised a series of workshops on learning key elements of building a start-up. This should be also a source of inspiration for the university. To be fair, I think there are a lot of initiatives within the university, but they are still not well known by the wide variety of females aspiring to be entrepreneurs. The thing with entrepreneurship is that it can be really intimidating at the beginning. What I wish the university would do is to inspire more women to consider entrepreneurship as a valid career pathway for them. I think the entrepreneurship programme has to become as proactive in Oxford as the consultancy one for instance. I believe that most of us in Oxford have at least once considered consultancy as a career. Can the same be said about founding your own company? I doubt it. Ideally, I would like to see a comprehensive entrepreneurship course or programme in Oxford. One of the most interesting webinars I have attended was a workshop on how to dissect a patent as a patent lawyer. Patents are a core part of any deep tech company and understanding how they work is fundamental. In an hour, I have learnt a lot and I am still utilising this knowledge. So, if the university could create a series of workshop targeted on key aspects of founding a successful spin-out with core courses such as creating a pitch deck or even organising mock pitches, working on business and financial plans, or drafting a patent. These would be very beneficial in the long term.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
It is not as intimidating as you think and being a woman does not mean you have less chance to succeed, quite the contrary!
Any last words of advice?
Definitely more communication: talk to people, sharpen your idea and speech and don’t be scared of negative feedback, it will make you stronger.