Dr Yige Sun is a research fellow in the Materials Department at the University of Oxford, an Enterprise and Innovation fellow in MPLS, a research fellow in Faraday Institution, a David Cockayne Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, and a project leader in Advanced Manufacturing Robotics Society in Oxford. Her expertise includes 2D material, energy storage devices, 3D printing, and microscopy.
Before she came to the UK, she completed a Ph.D. in a combined programme run by the National Institute for Materials Science and the University of Tsukuba in Japan and a master’s at Tsinghua University in China. She is passionate about building things from scratch and loves trying new things.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
My background is material science and engineering. I decide to become an entrepreneur, because I enjoy the community, which is always full of amazing people and amazing joy!
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
When I can find a practical application. In theory, ideas can do many things, so I need to know that it can be actionable and useful in life.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Be resilient. We all need to make peace with ourselves and reality, because there are some things that we can’t control in this world. But resilience helps entrepreneurs to remain strong and continue this journey, which isn’t easy at all.
Secondly, be open to success and failure. More than half of enterprise companies might not succeed in the first round and most people will experience failure. It’s important to really digest the feeling before you can be the person who is going to continue and push your ideas forward to make them happen.
Lastly, I would say that you should be able to enjoy what you’re doing. At the end of the day, we are the ones who evaluate what we do and what we achieve. You need to put a lot of energy into it, but you’ll also get a lot out from it, so it’s best to enjoy it.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Meeting new people from different disciplines and different backgrounds.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
My mom. She always ask really good questions. Sometimes hard to answer…
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
What’s for dinner…
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
There are two moments that come to mind. The first one happened 10 years ago, when I first got into enterprise. It was a big moment when our team won the prize as student enterprise. The whole team was new on this journey. It was a challenge, but it was so rewarding. The other satisfying moment happened when I was recently working on a robotics project. are building a robotic arm together from scratch. The moment that we put the last screw onto the project, and then take a lot of selfies, was amazing…
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I’ve realised that there are two sides to enterprising. One is how you create your ideas and build your team. The other part is how you brand yourself, which is a totally different thing to learn. I’m still learning. I find it difficult to define a ‘mistake’, because I think everything is a part of the journey.
How have you funded your ideas?
Most of my projects are funded by the university. With my robotics project, I’ve initiated a collaboration with a company, which sponsors the project.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Since 2021, I started serving as one of the MPLS enterprise and innovation fellows. It is eye-opening. I gained a lot of support from the MPLS division and the materials department. We are able to make impact on the community. The trust to yourself that you are able to make a little bit difference on even a small community (as a starting point), is good.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
In Oxford, I’ve met many people with the passion and the skills to really push ideas. A bunch of people sitting together, brainstorming ideas, is a bit crazy, but it’s not something that’s weird in Oxford. Instead, it’s something fabulous here! I also like that we highlight the importance of enterprise here at Oxford – we support and structure it to be more actionable. Enterprise is such a big, sometimes distant concept, which I’m still learning about. The downside of being an entrepreneur in Oxford is that people come and people go. It can therefore be quite challenging to keep momentum and gain success. It’s easy to start something but it’s also easy to let it go.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
If a scientist approached me, I would recommend the Enterprise Training Courses at the University. I benefited a lot from doing them and can particularly recommend the innovation leadership course. I would also recommend the BSF (Become a Science Founder), which encourages you and helps you understand how the mechanisms of the enterprising journey work.
The Ideas2Impact enterprise programme by the Said Business School is great. I met new people, expanded my horizons, and got a different angle of the world. After the course, there were various follow-up events in colleges, pubs, and WhatsApp groups, so there was a supportive community to keep in touch with.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Personally, I haven’t experienced any.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
In Oxford, the MPLS enterprise team is very good. You can just send them an email, asking to have a chat over coffee, and they’d be happy to do it. Beyond Oxford, Women on Board is quite useful. From what I’ve observed, everything is online, and we don’t have a lack of resources. The tricky part is to find one that meets your pace and your requirements, and to continue with that. There are hundreds of different communities, but with different engagements, so you need to find what works for you.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs
I think a mentoring program would be very useful! Enterprise is a long journey, which goes from having an idea and building a team to the financial aspect and choosing a stakeholder to pitching your idea. After a few years, your team might change, with different people having different impacts along the way. The focus isn’t on just one person, but on how to make this business work. A mentoring program can’t cover the whole journey over these 5 to 6 years, because we don’t have that capacity or time commitment. Instead, we need to break it into small digestible parts.
I would want a mentoring program where you can touch the pinpoint of someone’s challenge to make it more useful and time efficient. Otherwise, communities and networking are also good ways of supporting women in enterprise. I can’t help but think of the quote ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ I’d like to think it’s a helpful timing. I hope more initiatives like this Wonder Women series will spread throughout the University. Let’s make the best use of the current momentum!
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Not sure it is an advice. I think it is more observation and my understanding at the moment: do not let yourself be defined by the sounds outside. I love suggestions and questions, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who decides the path I choose and how I make it happen. In enterprise, especially, we invite people to give us feedback and suggestions, but it doesn’t mean we have to please everyone. We can’t.
Any last words of advice?
I’m still in the process of learning, so I don’t know if I can give any ‘advice’ per se, but I can share one of my observations: we never know if we’re going to succeed or not. There’s not a definitive outcome, but try to enjoy it, while knowing that it may or may not succeed