Hagan Bayley is the Professor of Chemical Biology at the University of Oxford, and his research has produced two spinout companies, Oxford Nanopore and OxSyBio. He has studied and worked at Harvard and MIT, coming back to Oxford in 2003.
What is your background? Why are you doing this?
I studied Chemistry as an undergrad here in Oxford, but I was always interested in working from a more multi-disciplinary perspective. I was fortunate enough to have a great supervisor who encouraged me to study in chemical biology, and I moved with him to America to finish my PhD, staying on to study and work until 2003. We were encouraged to patent our research in America, but it was only once I came back to Oxford that I decided to commercialise the research.
From my academic point of view, entrepreneurship is commercialising basic science. It is being multifaceted, and being committed.
I have always been very interested in basic science. There is so much to discover, but it would be a shame if the work wasn’t used. While I am certainly more interested in the science than commercialisation, the business side of things and the people involved in it are much more interesting than I thought they would be!
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
From my perspective, you need to have a worthwhile idea. There are lots of different ideas out there that make people money, but I think the basis of a company needs to be something worthwhile, in other words able to contribute to society. Next, you must be a good people person, to work with investors, and the management team, and have the ability to find top colleagues! Being persistent and totally committed is also a key skill, as investors are often more interested in the people than the idea. They want to see that you will stay the course and actually execute something interesting.
It is very fulfilling, seeing your work translated. It’s like excellent teaching or research; often very tough, but highly satisfying. I wouldn’t say it is fun, but it is rewarding!
I think small spinout companies are inspiring, because they are doing things that will make a difference. Big companies can get bogged down by procedures and processes. Startups often advance amazing ideas, and have to act quickly and intelligently.
While the usual questions, such as how do you manage people, funding, work space and so on are interesting and worth discussing, I would rather hear about the science behind their ideas, and how their product will change the world.
Seeing companies formed from my research is exciting. Watching Oxford Nanopore grow and push forward the frontiers of genome technology, and being able to start a second spinout (OxSyBio), with a largely hands-off involvement, has been marvellous. My real love is basic science, but being able to see it commercialized by a great team is wonderful.
Hmm, that’s a tricky question, mainly because my involvement in the day-to-day management of the companies has been limited. I would say the key is to take risks, and accept the failures, but remember, there are no mistakes!
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford is an excellent place to find support, with plenty of people who can help you with advice or mentorship. We had superb support from IP Group with funding, and from Isis Innovation. Oxford has accessible science parks (which are pretty full, so you can tell they are good!). I guess things can always be improved, but nothing sticks out as bad or disastrous here.
It really would depend on what sort of person they are and what sector they are in. There are plenty of courses and conferences to attend. Go to Isis, talk to IP Group, and find people in your field who have already formed spin outs.
Just go out and do it. But don’t give up the science! Know enough to understand the process, but get experts in to run the business.