Nessa Carey is a Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at Oxford University. She works with individuals at all levels of the academic community, from PhD students to professors, on creating impact from medical research. With her background in both academia and industry, Nessa facilitates the route to impact through scientific research, specialising in supporting people in the early phase of the innovation journey.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I began my career in traditional science roles in research departments, investigating human genetics as an academic at Imperial College London. I’m a breadth, rather than a depth, person, so I knew academia was a career path that wasn’t going to serve me well. As the very defined projects and problem-solving aspects of a career in industry appealed to me, I chose to move into industry work ultimately specialising in epigenetics, where I started building collaborations with academics and companies. My role was to identify new research at the cutting edge of science, go out and build relationships with academics, and then identify any commerciable or translatable opportunities. I’m a much better problem-solver than creative thinker and I’m good at seeing connections between ideas, so I now specialise in training people in translatable research and consulting for universities and institutions on how to develop powerful strategies from individual technology projects.
The great thing about working in science is that there is space for everybody – both subject specialists and generalises who can see opportunities across the research/industry border.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship for me is seeing creative solutions to problems people might not even know they have.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Having a strong network of people is absolutely key. Networking is a really easy skill to learn – you can pick it up through a few practical techniques, and is simply about treating people with interest and respect. It’s an essential skill to become successful at anything, but it’s particularly important in entrepreneurship: you need people to support you, and to invest in your idea with confidence. People are often obsessed with the idea that entrepreneurship is about the technology, but for it to work, it’s about the people.
Communication skills are also crucial. For example, in my role I have to be good at explaining ideas to people and helping them think things through. Being organised is also important to success in any career: if you deliver on what you say you’ll do, and do it when you say you’ll do it, you’re ahead of most people already!
You have no idea where your life and career are going to take you, so these kinds of highly transferable skills will be incredibly helpful no matter what you end up doing.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
That lovely moment when you’re talking to somebody, and you can say that one magic thing – and it’s different every time – that makes their brain switch to a different way of thinking. You can see them considering an opportunity that they haven’t thought of before, since they have a different way of seeing things, or realising they need to go about their project in a different way. In that moment, you know you’ve made a difference not just to their project, but to how they’ll approach their ideas in the future.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
I find the rise in social enterprise very inspiring. There are more and more imaginative young entrepreneurs who have recognised a particular problem, and want to solve it: they use their IT skills or people skills they’ve picked up at various points, and say to themselves, ‘this is how we’re going to make the world a better place’. They’ve realised there are other ways of creating impact than through spin-out companies or making megabucks in industry – they can set up these fantastic social enterprises as well to create a bit more equity and fairness. I’m impressed by the really innovative responses to Covid-19, and the way people are coming up with new diagnostics really quickly. These are entrepreneurs who have seen that the old normal doesn’t work, and so want to leave the world a little better than they found it.
There’s a business model called ‘Lost Stock’ that has been particularly inspirational. Since the drop in fashion sales due to Covid-19, factory garment workers in Bangladesh have carried the brunt of the loss. At ‘Lost Stock’, you pay £35 for a random box of new, unlabelled designer clothes, and through this purchase a family in Bangladesh can sell the stock and be supported for a week. It’s a genius idea – it keeps the workers solvent, solves the problem of surplus stock, and makes the world better. It didn’t need new tech, it didn’t need a huge infrastructure – social enterprise isn’t necessarily about technological innovation, but business model innovation.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would ask them what their ambitions are, and how far they see the project going. Is it a stand-alone social enterprise, or is it a way of driving open a much bigger dialogue, or finding opportunities for community-based work? I would also ask what constraints are on them, as this is something I may be able to help them with.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I’m a big believer in the idea that you have to become comfortable with failure. Oxford is one of the worst places in the world to learn this, as it’s a very high-success environment, but you have to be prepared to fail. If you never fail, you’re probably not doing anything terribly original. Learning when to stop is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s absolutely vital. There are these narratives around entrepreneurship on the internet that perseverance is all you need – but there’s a fine line between persistence and misguided stubbornness. Sometimes it won’t work, and you have to take the lessons learned from it and move on.
How have you funded your ideas?
There weren’t so many funding opportunities available when I made the move from academia to industry. I wish there had been more opportunities as an academic to engage with the industry in a more meaningful way, as for me it was a jump in the dark. These days, there are schemes by Research Councils, the Royal Society, and the Wellcome Trust, where you can go and work in the industry and get a feel for it. This is important, as academia and industry are very different cultures, and I would have made the move between them earlier if I had had access to these schemes.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford is full of innovative people. There is an enormous enthusiasm for doing things at Oxford, for wanting ideas to make a difference. People here are non-competitive and non-territorial – there’s a ‘more the merrier’ attitude in terms of providing support and engagement – and there’s so much fantastic innovation that it’s more than enough to keep everybody busy. People now also want their research to have an impact outside the world of academic papers, particularly younger people and PhD students. It’s really encouraging to see that they’re now taking much more control of their futures and careers than my generation could.
However, Oxford has the same issues as other universities of its type. It’s a very devolved environment, which means there’s a lot going on but it can be difficult to find centralised and integrated information. As a result, it has a fantastic community of researchers who are great at what they do, but they may not know much about the commercial world. That’s why I like connecting these people with each other, and helping to improve their skillsets.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
For sciences, the Translation Research Office is staffed with lovely people who are very willing to help. People often worry that their idea isn’t advanced enough to starting talking to others about it, but just go and talk to people – they’ll be delighted to have made contact with you, and will already be thinking about the impact of your research. Oxford University Innovation is also a great resource for people with innovation ideas at later stages. The OUI can help with steps such as licensing, patents, or spin-out companies. If you reach out to a part of the organisation that isn’t quite equipped to help you, they’ll point you towards someone else who will be – so just talk to someone!
In my role as the Entrepreneur in Residence, we’re also getting together a set of training videos which will guide entrepreneurs through each step of the process. This won’t replace the help from the TRO or OUI, but it might help people develop confidence in the type of questions they want to ask.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Women and people of colour are massively under-represented in scientific innovation. As a woman, you get used to the idea that you have to over-perform to get onto the same playing field as men. This is really dangerous – for the individual, because there is only so much you can do, and for society in general, because it shouldn’t be this way. I’ve also had battles around equal pay. These were never about wanting more money, but wanting equal treatment. People always talk about being patient with progress, but we’ve been patient for over 150 years! My patience is wearing thin – it’s tiresome having to fight that all the time. But there’s still a long way to go. It’s just a matter of human rights – guys should be supporting equal pay and representation too.
However, I’ve also benefitted from white privilege without a doubt. The number of black female professors in this country is shockingly low. We all have a responsibility to make it better for everyone. I just want it to be less crap for the next generation!
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Find mentors. I think the biggest mistake I made was not finding one. You want them to be more experienced and advanced than you, to have seen problems and found ways around them. Be explicit that you want a mentor, and be strategic about it – you’ll probably want one in your own organisation, and one entirely independent of it.
Also – don’t be shy! When seeking investment, women on the whole ask for less money on worse terms than men do. Look at what the norms are in the sector in terms of investment or support, and ask for it. Ask yourself: ‘what would a man do?’ and focus on the things you can do (not those you can’t do), and sell them with enormous confidence.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I tend not to recommend business or science books, but those in the ‘help’ genre – materials which help you to think about yourself and your motivations. If you want to work out what you want from life, you have to be clear on what it is you want, not what other people’s expectations are of you. It’s important to distinguish between core values and aspirations, and things we’ve just inherited. There are questionnaires online to help you with this. Sometimes people who say ‘I want to be an entrepreneur’ really mean ‘I want to be famous’ – but fame is a by-product: successful entrepreneurs are motivated by a specific idea they want to do, not by image. So it’s important to start identifying those inner motivations.
Any last words of advice?
If you’re faced with two opportunities, and one of them is riskier and more outside of your comfort zone – take the riskier one. If you keep doing the same stuff, you’ll never identify the things that you can be spectacularly good at. So, as long as personal circumstances allow it, think ‘which one will make me more different at the end of it from where I am now?’ and take that one.
Never be scared of change. Or even if you are, do it anyway.