Dr Cathy Ye, an Oxford alumna (DPhil, 2005), is an Associate Professor in Engineering Science as well as the co-founder of Ivy Farm Technologies. Founded in 2019, Ivy Farm Technologies aim to mitigate the environmental pressures of the animal farming industry by synthesising and commercialising cell-cultured meats. The company now boasts 30 employees, roughly half of whom are female.
Cathy’s research developing biomaterials and bioreactors to culture human stem cells, as the foundation for therapeutic agents, proved vital and transferable to the culturing of animal cells. Her work thus forms the basis of Ivy Farm Technologies.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Since a very young age I have been aware of the pressures of large scale animal farming (i.e. climate impact and disease outbreaks) as my father is a Professor of Veterinary Science. I have always been open to the idea of helping to alleviate these problems but I didn’t realise that my current research could help until I had initial discussions with my co-founder and business partner, Dr Russ Tucker.
It seemed possible that in-vitro cultured meats may be realised a lot sooner than most of my stem cell therapy research and this really excited me. It seemed like a way of giving back to society what they had given to me through research funding.
As a result, Russ and I worked together to develop our initial business plan which we pitched at the University Challenge Seed Fund (UCSF). We were fortunate enough to win the competition grant and used the money to do initial proof of concept testing.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship to me is being innovative in commercialisation. As an academic researcher you need to be innovative to develop practical solutions to real world problems; but entrepreneurs need to be just as innovative in transitioning these solutions and ideas to the commercial market.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
My business partner came to me, after a few years working in the commercial sector, describing the obvious demand and environmental need for a product to alleviate the pressures of the meat industry. Also, having investors who are keen to work with your business is good validation of your ideas.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
First and foremost you have to believe in yourself and your idea. You must also be able to confidently present to others as you will have to convince investors that you have a pragmatic solution to their problem. People skills are also vital; I feel fortunate to be based in Oxford as we are able to attract excellent students and post-docs. However, in order to build a successful team, you must work with your employees on a personal level to develop their own skills bases and career prospects.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
To know that my idea and vision will, in the future, generate a product that can benefit society.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I am very inspired by entrepreneurs who are really innovative and push the boundaries of what we know. One example that comes to mind is Elon Musk who alongside his main business has pursued projects exploring space and the brain-computer interface.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would want to discuss his vision and how he intends to push the boundaries of science by fulfilling his own goals and ideas. I predict that it would be quite a technical conversation (that would probably last more than the five minutes!) where we discuss how some aspects of my work trying to create models of the brain relate to his work with Neuralink.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
It was when we had developed our first two prototype sausages and a chef came in to cook them for us. Seeing them on a plate was a magic moment – like seeing your baby for the first time! Oh and they tasted delicious too!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
One key thing that I have learned is that you really must engage and have clear streams of communication with your investors. They might not necessarily understand the technical background of your project and therefore you don’t want to give them false expectations about how adaptable and/or scalable your product might be.
In our case, we had to clearly explain that we are unable to control the biology of the cells we use and therefore cannot reduce the time it takes for them to culture in the reactor. We did however manage to optimise the reaction conditions in terms of pH, nutrients and gas environment to ensure that the cell culturing occurred as efficiently as possible.
How have you funded your ideas?
My business partner, Russ, and I developed the initial business plan. The Oxford University Innovation hub then helped us to make connections with potential investors. After attending various conferences, including the Angel Networking event, and pitching our idea over 40 times, we managed to secure enough funding (£18 million) to sustain us for the next few year
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
As I mentioned earlier, we won the University Challenge Seed Fund (UCSF) which gave us the money to do proof of concept testing using pork cells. We also scored highly on our application to the “Innovate UK Smart Grants” but the competition was fiercer than ever, as a result of the pandemic, and so we just missed out on their funding.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
There is nowhere better than Oxford in the UK! It is in the “golden-triangle area” with easy access to high quality researchers and graduates as well as good transport links to other important locations such as London. Also, as an Oxford University spin-out company, we continue to get support and advice, via a board member representative, from the university. One final benefit of being in Oxford is that the business is very close to my academic research lab!
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
If they are part of the university, I would most definitely point them in the direction of the Oxford University Innovation hub. They are a good starting point because they have a reservoir of professional managers to match up start-ups with potential investors. There are also local (and regional) business networks that allow entrepreneurs to share ideas with other like-minded individuals.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Personally no, as I am not involved in the day to day running of the business. However, I do believe that the challenges faced by women are similar regardless of their profession and as long as women have the brain power, drive and network, they can overcome anything.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
For women who want to develop a career in a similar field to my own, I cannot recommend the “Women In Engineering (WiE) Network” enough. They organise talks and social events that aim to support and connect the community of women engineers.
Any last words of advice?
You need to know yourself: what you are good at, passionate about and capable of. If you don’t have all the necessary skills to start a business on your own then go out and find the right partner for you – one that can fill the gaps in your skills repertoire.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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