For Cath Spence, Head of OUI’s Incubator, it is not just a team she is looking to build; it’s a family.
“What I love about the incubator is that it’s a place where everybody is able to gain and contribute,” explained Cath Spence, Head of OUI’s Incubator. “You have people from across OUI and the University, the ecosystem and beyond all getting involved.”
The embodiment of this collaboration is the Student Entrepreneurship Programme, known as StEP. One of the most generous student entrepreneurship initiatives globally, StEP offers Oxford students access to OUI’s IP vault, a month of mentorship, a £1,500 stipend and investment opportunities. A partnership between OUI, The Foundry (the University’s student entrepreneurship hub) and investor Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI), StEP invites students to form teams with the goal of taking projects from OUI’s IP portfolio and turning them into companies. The winner of the competition goes on to receive investment from OSI – although the process has been trickier than OSI imagined, according to OSI CEO Jim Wilkinson, who said of the last cohort that every opportunity presented was investable.
The winner of the first cohort, Quantum Dice, is continuing to blossom and has even come back to help guide fresh intakes.
“StEP was my introduction to the Oxford ecosystem and was a great experience, whether or not you intend to actually do a startup,” said George Dunlop, Quantum Dice’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Although post-StEP, I suspect the ideas you’re presented with will encourage a good amount of people to come into entrepreneurship.”
Of George’s original team of seven, six are still working on Quantum Dice, a random number generator for quantum-era cybersecurity based on the work of former Oxford Pro-Vice Chancellor Ian Walmsley. The team has been working with Licensing & Ventures Manager Marco Palumbo and the Incubator team in OUI on further defining its business plan, identifying numerous applications beyond just quantum.
At time of writing, the company is still finalising the spinout process and its first funding round to complement the £600,000 it has already received from Innovate UK. It’s also built a collaboration with Bristol’s Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre, which covered the team’s salaries while the company was getting built, and has joined the internationally renowned Creative Destruction Lab for quantum startups.
It is not just Quantum Dice coming back to the incubator to help out, but other older startups such as travel app Esplorio. Cath thinks it’s precisely this family feel about the incubator that keeps people coming back – something she is encouraging with “cappuccino sessions” to help everyone involved get to know each other better, and “espresso sessions” where people have one minute to say what they are doing and who they are looking for to help them get to the next level.
“This reach is leading to me getting calls from all over the world,” said Cath. “We had one serial entrepreneur on the US west coast hear about us through word of mouth and gave me a call, he’s now coming on as an investor and mentor.”
The Incubator has now expanded to the point where it can support over 40 teams a year and has incorporated five new firms over the past twelve months. One of the resident teams comprises Ricardo and Eduardo, co-founders of Collegia.
“We have different backgrounds, Ricardo in startups and engineering, myself in investment banking,” said Eduardo. “But we were brought together by a shared goal of wanting financial products to make sense and a love of pasta.”
For Eduardo, the thinking behind why you need a financial product is rarely clear.
“You want to buy water and drink it because you are thirsty – the reason you are buying it is clear. But that’s not so with finance, so we wanted personal finance to make sense again. We want the product to meet a need rather than creating a need for a product.”
The penny dropped with the Italian founders when confusion arose over the University’s new pension policy. The pair were surprised by the misconceptions they found, and decided that there’s a need to understand pensions better.
“Collegia does two things,” said Eduardo. “We thought that workplace/personal pensions are too complicated, and what would be better is a pension that combines the two and gives people more control over how it is invested. First and foremost though, it is a retirement planning tool. It lets you pick the sort of lifestyle you’ll have when you retire, and how you get there.”
The pair came to OUI because they found our focus on the why of innovation rather than the flashiness of it alluring, but mainly because of Cath, who they found approachable and down to earth.
“The incentives and support you receive are great. OUI helped us with our pitch, introduced us to investors and our mentor, who became our lead investor and chairman,” said Eduardo. “But they also give you the hard feedback you need.”
This feedback helped Collegia refuse a tempting investment based on the grounds of their shared ethics.
The Incubator family in action
Perhaps the strongest example of the Incubator family in action has been the journey of Ani Haykuni, founder of Vann. The company is developing an app to support cancer patients through chemotherapy, allowing them to log the effects of the drugs and their mental wellbeing throughout. This allows clinicians, who typically have only minutes every few weeks with their patients, a much deeper overview of how they are responding to treatment. It can also provide invaluable information in the development of therapeutics for cancer.
Ani’s motivation for Vann is personal. In 2015, she developed breast cancer, which prevented her from joining Oxford for her MBA. During her downtime, she established a cancer foundation to support fellow cancer patients in her home country of Lithuania where costs of battling the disease can be crippling. Through her work, she met thousands of cancer patients and incorporated their feedback into her thinking behind Vann.
Eventually, Ani would make her way to Oxford for her MBA, still battling the disease. She eventually received the all clear and continued to reside in Oxford. In August 2019, she learned it was back.
“After receiving the diagnosis, I decided this was the project I’d like to work on,” said Ani. “My previous experience with Cath is why I applied to the Incubator. I found her really supportive and trustworthy. She and the incubator were the first thing I thought of when considering where I want to start from.”
Ani began the project and her treatment at the same time, working from the Incubator as often as she could.
“I’d go get chemo then run to the Incubator,” said Ani. “The Incubator team would try to get me not to rush, but I knew I wanted to do it. It was tough with treatments, but was invaluable in terms of getting experience and gathering knowledge. But most importantly, every time I went to the Incubator, it felt like family.”
Ani received support from other teams within the Incubator, and provided it back. She also received support from many at OUI, introducing her to people who could help her realise her vision and connecting her to people in big data.
While writing this report, Ani got in touch with OUI to let us know that she was now cancer free, having successfully beaten it twice all while building a cancer foundation, attaining an MBA, and building a company to help other cancer patients.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Ani. “You’ve got great people in OUI, especially while going through an unusual and serious time. You can save someone’s life with a single word – the way you talk to a person can have a massive impact. The incubator’s been a great place for that. And in this whole situation, Cath’s role has been so important. She talks often of wanting to create a family here, and she’s definitely succeeded in that.”
The Incubator team would try to get me not to rush, but I knew I wanted to do it. It was tough with treatments, but was invaluable in terms of getting experience and gathering knowledge. But most importantly, every time I went to the Incubator, it felt like family.