Fiona Story is the University Relationship Manager for OUI (Oxford University Innovation). Fiona joined the OUI team with a background in Medical Microbiology and Molecular Pharmacology research, as well as a career in pharmaceutical and biotech industries.
OUI is a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Oxford that manages the University’s technology transfer, venture formation and consulting activities. What this effectively means is that OUI is the innovation wing of the University. It supports researchers, students and staff across the University enabling them to translate their research and ideas into real world applications that benefit society. OUI oversees a huge range of projects, supporting social enterprises, startups and spinouts, with a portfolio of about 250 businesses.
Having spent her first 3 years at OUI as a project manager in the life sciences team, Fiona’s current role as University Relationship Manager means that she spreads the word about the work OUI does within the University as many people are unaware of the level of support OUI staff can offer. Fiona helps network and reach out to researchers, explaining what OUI does, what Intellectual Property is, what types of IP there are and what they can do with it. This is achieved in a variety of ways – a lot happens in person, from holding small to large networking events, seminars and training programmes. OUI also produce marketing collateral, such as newsletters, creating both hard copy and electronic content.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
After working in the pharmaceutical industry in QA and QC, I studied Medical Microbiology at Edinburgh University. I then completed an industrially sponsored PhD in Molecular Pharmacology at Glasgow University, the first year of study taking place at AstraZeneca’s research facility.
I then went into business, working in a variety of roles. I speak French and Spanish, and provided technical, marketing and sales support for Invitrogen Ltd.’s (now part of Thermo Fisher) European team, eventually working in direct sales which really helped me understand the fundamentals of how a business functions.
I had never heard of ‘tech transfer’ before a recruiter recommended my current role but having moved to OUI (then called Isis Innovation), I absolutely love it. The researchers and people are a wonderful, supportive team and the work is so interesting and varied. Working purely in business I had really missed scientific research so this role is brilliant in marrying the two together.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
The literal meaning from the French ‘entreprendre’ would mean ‘to undertake’ which I think is quite a good way of looking at it. Whether you think of it in business or in the broader sense, entrepreneurship is undertaking a project on your own or in a team, and starting something new. It means taking responsibility and being innovative.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Networking is essential. You need to have the tenacity and energy to take risks. And never forget “the bottom line.”. You need to understand finance – you have to know how money moves around.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I love guiding people and getting to watch researchers discover the level of support OUI and the wider ecosystem can offer and thriving because of it.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many I could name. Steve Jobs is inspiration because he was such an amazing communicator, marketeer and storyteller. Melinda Gates is often in the shadow of her husband but has made the most of her own significant talents in humanitarian work. Then, of course, Rosalind Franklin, who was overlooked despite her incredible and crucial contributions to work on the structure of DNA.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d love to hear Rosalind Franklin’s story from her perspective. What was it like to be in her shoes? What was it like to work in scientific research as a woman, all those years ago. And what was it like to make those critical scientific connections and then have the glory taken by a couple of men who would have probably had nothing without her work? She sadly died before the Nobel prize was awarded to Crick and Watson.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I love teaching and explaining to researchers how they can think about their projects from a different, maybe commercial perspective. That moment of realisation, of explaining something so that someone else can suddenly see a completely different benefit is very satisfying. Ultimately, the best moments are getting to see both the positive impact you’ve made not only for researchers, but for the health and wellbeing of society.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned supporting entrepreneurs?
I think it’s hard when you have to learn to accept things you can’t change. There are sometimes mindsets or attitudes some people have that you want to put your energy into changing, but it just isn’t possible. That’s hard to come to terms with. But ultimately, you accept it and move on.
How have you helped entreprneeurs fund ideas?
An important part of OUI’s role is helping to secure funding for spinouts, startups and social enterprises. Typically, we aren’t involved in securing the basic funding for research although we can be involved in finding industrial collaborators. Instead, we help acquire the funding needed to get an idea through testing and maybe even clinical trials, securing proof of concept and commercial viability. This is known as translational funding.
There is a vast amount of funding available from different places with different criteria, including Angel Funding and VC funding (venture capital). Part of the purpose of translational funding is to answer the preliminary big questions about the risk an investor might be taking on a certain project.
In terms of how our own marketing is funded, we are fairly dependent on sponsorship for our larger events – so networking is really crucial in every aspect of our role.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Recently, there is no better place to be than Oxford. Entrepreneurial support has just mushroomed, both in the University and locally.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
It’s amazing that there are so many opportunities in Oxford, but sometimes the sheer amount available makes it hard to navigate the innovation ecosystem. I’d say find someone who can help you navigate these networks from the inside and get stuck in. It’s through that process that you’ll find your mentors.
OUI is a great source of support but limited to Oxford University researchers, staff students (and alumni in the incubator) so if you aren’t connected in those ways you need to look to the local ecosystem instead. That being said, there are a lot of helpful resources and videos on the OUI website. I also always recommend Enterprising Oxford to everyone because it is such a fantastic starting point.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Before I came to Oxford, I had experienced challenges because I was a woman and sadly situations like that do still exist in some industries. But the University of Oxford, OUI in particular, has been incredibly supportive and egalitarian in my experience. I’ve always felt safe and respected. We are seeing more and more female founders and CEOs; however, issues of imbalanced representations of gender is still an issue in some areas, particularly in the spinouts that we work with which often involve a lot more risk. There is generally an issue of low numbers of women in more senior roles, and this is also the case in the University. Women still make up the majority of those employed in lower grade roles. I haven’t seen enough evidence to comment on how we’re doing on “equal pay for equal work” but this should definitely be addressed.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I think the same resources I would recommend for any entrepreneur, but we are starting to see more support emerge that directly tackles the challenges that women might face. It’s important to address these directly if we’re to increase the numbers of female founders and CEOs.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I currently chair the internal inclusion, diversity and equality committee in OUI. We look at internal practices with the ultimate goal of addressing our external facing programmes and initiatives. We have discussed ways we could create funding specifically for women in the past, tackling the issues they particularly face. For instance, by the time research has developed to the point where a woman might consider a spinout or leading a group, she may also have a young family, maybe putting her career on the backburner for a time, which makes these business ventures more challenging.
However, it’s difficult to design a suitable and equitable programme. Of course, some men also need childcare support like many women do – equal opportunities mean different things for different people as everyone has different challenges, and that makes it hard to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
We’re also trying to understand the disparity when it comes to spinouts and different ways men and women can view risk. Typically, men approach job interviews by talking about what they might have the potential to do in the job (only maybe fulfilling 60% of the actual job criteria) while women feel the need to be able to fulfil all the criteria to show they are the right candidate. We’re looking at ways we can address these different layers and change the process, or expectations to encourage more women to get involved with spinouts, but it is tricky.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
The advice we give doesn’t really differ depending on whether it’s a man or a woman we’re working with. However, I always want to encourage more women to put themselves forward and be in that pool. I’d say don’t be afraid to talk about the issues that affect you. If you don’t raise those issues constructively then ultimately the situation won’t change.
I’d also say, find your champions and supporters. In Oxford you have the possibility to find the most incredible people involved in entrepreneurship. Your supporters are out there; you just have to find them. Get people on your side that you can trust implicitly and that really believe in what you’re doing as you embark on this roller-coaster of a journey. Also, recognise the skills that you don’t have but that you can find in others. Don’t try to do everything alone.
Any last words of advice?
I would stress again the three traits I said earlier: you need to be committed to networking, risk-taking and have a strong grasp on finances. Also, find your mentors. They will make all the difference.