Simon Hombersley is the CEO of Oxford Flow, an engineering innovation business developing industrial technologies, including pressure reducing valves based on the inventions of Professor Tom Povey. The company of 9 engineers and commercial experts spun out of Oxford University in 2015, and was the first investment by Oxford Sciences Innovation. Simon is a serial entrepreneur, having previously founded various engineering innovation businesses, including the compressor company Lontra.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I’m not sure people decide to become an entrepreneur, it’s more about recognising in themselves that they are an entrepreneur, and finding the opportunity to pursue it. I started my first business at university, and worked for someone else’s start-up in my 20s. I’m a commercial person, not technical, so when I found the right business partner, I jumped in – we created Lontra, which has done pretty well. I’ve been involved in various other companies and projects since, some successful, some not so successful, all based on innovation.
Entrepreneurs are simply people good at getting things done. To me it’s an attitude: entrepreneurs shape the world around them rather than accept it as it is.
With Oxford Flow, it was an easy decision. I’m familiar with the markets and industries from previous experience, and the advantages and commercial potential of the technology are obvious. Then it becomes a question, for me, of the inventor. Is this someone I can work with? Do our respective skills fit? Not every Oxford professor has the right stuff for a spin-out – Tom Povey definitely does.
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Flexibility is essential. Start-ups, particularly in the early stage, can be chaotic. An entrepreneur needs to be strategic and plot a course to the top of the mountain, but they also need to be capable of changing course – sometimes finding a different mountain. Persistence is also key – building businesses is hard. And the third is less a skill and more a practical point. Entrepreneurs need to be in a position to take the risk. Often the time when an individual recognises their potential to be an entrepreneur coincides with mortgages, serious relationships and children. Entrepreneurs need to be realistic about whether then can carry all their commitments, including the all-consuming new business.
I love the creativity, the process of actually making something exist that wasn’t there before. Whether it’s a product, or a business, or a team of great people, it’s immensely satisfying.
Josiah Wedgwood was a pretty extraordinary human being. A craftsman and scientist, who also understood the value of commercial innovation. He changed his industry, and still found time to become a leading anti-slavery campaigner and to found the Lunar Society. When faced with a high level of breakages transporting products from the factory to showroom, some people might design a new packing case or new springs for the carts. Wedgwood built a canal network. I like his thinking.
“So, Josiah, climate change……”
So far, seeing one of Lontra’s compressors running on a client site, with the screen demonstrating over 20% energy saving. Compressors consume 10% of industrial electricity, globally. It’s a clever bit of engineering that is really making a difference.
Being an entrepreneur is a very personal process, and naturally you learn a lot about yourself. Like most entrepreneurs, I’m naturally a jump-in-with-both-feet sort of person. But perhaps now I’ve learned to check the depth of the pool first.
How have you funded your ideas? Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Smart money is of course the best – investment or development projects from industry, as development partners or lead customers. Successful tech developments have industry engagement – it provides validation for other investors. Angels have an important role, alongside the funds. Horizon 2020 is a big opportunity, and UK companies should focus on grants from Europe if they can.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The Oxford brand is a good one – in many parts of the world, people know little of Britain beyond London, but Oxford and Cambridge are recognized. Oxfordshire is well located overall, with good connections to the Midlands and with the Thames Valley technology companies on the doorstep. It’s a great place to live. The downsides are mainly that the price of housing limits who can move here, and it’s a little short on engineers. But then, the whole country is a little short on engineers.
There’s a good ecosystem that has built up over the years, so although work is needed, there are plenty of routes to support if required. A number of my colleagues would suggest that a couple of evenings propping up the bar at the Kings Arms would generate all the contacts you’d need….
Pace yourself. It’s going to take longer than you think.