Stephanie Lesage is an entrepreneur with a broad scientific career ranging from a medical device background to biological sciences and textile engineering. Before completing her studies she lived in Cambodia and started a textiles company there. Having learnt about bacteriophages Stephanie saw the importance of integrating these natural bacteria killers into technology to reduce the risk of surgical site infections. Oxford Silk Phage Technologies was founded in 2020, and is pioneering an antimicrobial biomaterial technology that combines bacteriophages and silk. Stephanie has also co-founded a non-profit called Phage UK which brings phage therapy to UK patients more widely.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. When I was in Cambodia I set up a more traditional silk textile company. I finalised my studies in France specialising in medical devices and biomaterials and then joined the company I was working for in Oxford. This was where I learned all the ropes of leading and building a company.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship means multitasking, learning on the go, never knowing what’s coming, high risk and uncertainty. There is a unique enjoyment to the process of learning and overcoming challenges.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
When I learned about bacteriophages I immediately knew that this was what we needed to do. It makes absolute sense to use what nature has evolved best for killing bacteria and to use that to prevent or treat infections.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience is key as you constantly face challenges. You need to believe in your idea and know that you will get funds at some point. Adaptability and flexibility are important as you’re initial plan will not be the one you implement. I like to develop very detailed plans early on but am always prepared to change in the face of new information or a better opportunity. Risk-taking is also a given as you need to be able to jump in and handle uncertainties.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Probably constantly achieving new tasks that I’ve never done before and don’t even know where to start. When you look back at what you achieved it’s really satisfying to see how you’ve constantly grown and developed. Every time we get new lab results that exceed our expectations I feel amazed at our progress
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
One person who has inspired me recently is Diane Shader Smith. She is a very big advocate for antimicrobial resistance. Sadly she got into the space because her daughter Malorie had cystic fibrosis and passed away in 2017. She’s been advocating for the phage therapy developments that came too late to save her daughter ever since. She is the strongest woman I can think of and I admire her very much for what she has achieved in a small time period.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’ve been lucky enough to meet Diane. We organised a screening of the film she worked on ‘Salt in my Soul.’ It was the most inspiring film I’ve ever seen. I’m sure we will organise more of these screenings with her. We’re lucky in the Oxford Sector to be connected to a lot of people and companies so I get to ask inspiring people questions all the time. There are so many questions that I ask “How often did you think you were going to fail” is something I always want to know, and “how did you get over that every time?”
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
It’s always so satisfying getting a successful grant. When that congratulatory email pops up it’s a magical moment for a business owner. When we fully grasped that we had received two grants in addition to investment and our plan could go ahead it was a great moment.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
We make little mistakes but we always learn from them. In my case it was always for the best and ultimately lead to a better outcome. In fact I would call them obstacles that have redirected us instead of mistakes. It’s hard to pinpoint a single lesson but any questions I couldn’t answer well in early investor meetings caused me to accumulatively improve my answers and my strategy.
How have you funded your ideas?
I took a year and met many investors. My pitch changed a lot throughout those early meetings; as you answer questions you refine your pitch and strategy. We ended up raising more than we needed, from a combination of fundraising and two non-dilutive grants.In my previous job, I was very successful and received practically 100% of the grants I applied for. In this new company, it was slightly demotivating at the start. You have to answer the application questions so precisely so you spend many hours working on a four-hundred-word section. You have to do your budgeting very carefully and check it against your cash flow. It’s very intense.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
I applied for the NIRH (i4i) and an Innovate UK biomedical catalyst grant expecting to get one but ultimately receiving both.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I love the city. It’s one of the most beautiful cities without being biased! The varying networks are good and the scientific environment is thriving.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Grow your network. Speak to people and have mentoring. Mentoring is one of the most important aspects. In 2021 I joined The Female Founders Club and I’ve had met an incredible mentor who helped me throughout my fundraising. We were meeting every fifteen days and she gave me so many leads and so many insights.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Having three children at home in a pandemic while your business goes on in the background is very stressful. We had to go on furlough but I worked one week a month and would pack everything into that period: documentation, grant applications, the lot. The mental strain of balancing that was probably the most challenging obstacle and had been completely unimaginable two months earlier when we founded the company. Motherhood generally can have many moments of guilt and self-doubt as an entrepreneur. I don’t know if women feel naturally more guilty about prioritising or if every parent has the same struggles, but it has certainly been an emotional challenge for me.
When I started in Oxford 13 years ago I was pretty much on my own, a younger woman interacting with much older men. Luckily there are much more women in entrepreneurship now but having been in a male-dominated environment for such a long time I have to adapt to communicate with other women and don’t feel as comfortable networking with them. If I’m speaking to a woman investor the personal connection has to be stronger and more immediate than with a man. Of course, that’s a great problem to have as we continue to correct the gender divide more broadly but it’s an issue to be aware of.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I’m not sure about any specific approaches but as a woman in both science and entrepreneurship I think measures have to be made to empower women from a very young age. The belief that you can do anything needs to be engrained in girls from the first stages of education. My daughter is only six but I’m making sure that her (and my boys) are as confident as they can be.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
My experience of entrepreneurship has been full of constant overthinking and imposter syndrome and I can’t help but expect that these experiences are far more prevalent in women than men. It is a necessity to recognise and actively resist this obstacle in your thinking. You just need to bulldoze your way through. I always imagine a ploughing machine, just shut down those thoughts and keep ploughing onwards.
Any last words of advice?
Maintaining a balanced routine, particularly one that includes active challenges, helps me to feel my most productive at work. For me that’s a balance of enjoying time with my children, working hard, socialising and doing sports. I like to kayak, mountain bike and road cycle throughout the seasons. In the summer months I lead a networking cycling group called the biotech bikers which combines work with socialising and