When can I call myself a science entrepreneur?

I first set out to write a piece about how entrepreneurship and business training has helped my career so far. Full disclosure: I finished it and gave it to my partner to read - he said “I don't like it; it isn’t personal enough” - so I thought a bit more about what I wanted to say, and why I wanted to say it. I found the problem: I don’t know what my 'career' is. I don't even know if I have a 'career' yet. At the moment, when asked, I call myself a research scientist but I think I am in the process of defining what ‘career’ I want. How do you even know when you have started your ‘career’?

So, this piece has turned into my story; where I am now, and how I see my path developing from where I am, as a Post-Doctoral scientist, to where I am try to get, a key member (perhaps co-founder) of a science start-up, which (hopefully) makes the world a little bit better. What I do know is that I am passionate about science, technology and innovation and their place in tackling the challenges that surround us.

After struggling with undergraduate Chemistry for 3 years, I came dangerously close to losing my spark for science. I felt bogged down by a need to remember facts and take exams. My love of understanding everything around me (to the extent that I drive many of my friends crazy) was lost on trying to understand things that I couldn't always find a use for. For my undergraduate research project (Part II) I applied to work with Prof. Kylie Vincent - her research interests centre on understanding energy cycling enzymes. This was both completely new and fascinating to me, and combined topics I felt hugely passionate about. [Good decision number 1!] I fell in love with research. Kylie gave me a high-risk high-reward project: to stick enzymes onto carbon and use hydrogen gas to convert a molecule called NAD+ into its more expensive version, NADH (maybe I'll cover this in another blog!). Basically, I was trying to make NADH. For months there was no sign of this elusive NADH - but I was driven by knowing that the science behind it was sound; it should work, and it was my job to make it work. Occasionally, if I squinted for long enough and stood on one leg, I could convince myself there was NADH in my final UV-vis spectra, and this was enough to keep me trying.

I remember the day it worked (convincingly!) for the first time. I was wearing black tie (very Oxford, ready to run to a guest dinner), standing at the glove box (in the dark, under a blackout sheet, because someone else’s experiment in the lab was light sensitive). I started recording a UV-vis spectrum of my final reaction mixture. The spectrum popped up on a screen that I couldn't see from under the sheet. Kylie walked in and said
- "What’s that?"
- "What’s what?"
- "That spectrum of NADH?"
- "It worked!"
Cue hysteric shouting, laughing and jumping up and down (all very professional). It had worked, and from that day on, it continued to work!

Things moved fast from there. We knew there was some industrial potential of this research, and so Kylie and collaborators submitted a patent. I was fortunate that Kylie won funding, in part, to continue this work and even more fortunate that she was as keen as I was for me stay on for a DPhil (OK, maybe not quite as keen, but pretty keen!). [Good decision number 2!] After the patent, we published the results, started presenting at conferences and generally talking about the research. We started to realise how useful our science (henceforth ‘technology') could be. Meetings with representatives from industry increased our confidence further as the need for our technology became apparent. I realised that we were at the start of an exciting road, but that I did not have any of the skills I needed to support the business side of the project. If I wanted to be involved, I was going to have to learn the right skills, and fast! I went to all the intellectual property lectures I could find (mostly organised by the Department of Chemistry and Isis Innovation), as well as the ‘building a business’ lectures series and a work shop on seed funding. I also enrolled on an entrepreneurial course at the Saïd Business School. Not only did these ignite my excitement for business, innovation and entrepreneurship, but they threw me into completely new situations. I learnt a huge amount about creating new markets and staying competitive in an ever-changing environment, the nature of interactions between industry and academia and between big companies and small companies. Equally importantly, I met MBA students and other DPhil scientists who were passionate about entrepreneurship. I had to develop a new style of communication, a different way of looking at my research and a new set of skills for investigating how to push our technology forward.

Towards the end of this training, our technology got through to the finals of the Royal Society of Chemistry's Emerging Technology Competition in 2013. Kylie and I went to London, to 'pitch' our technology and business plan to a panel of technology business experts in a Dragon's Den style event in front of an audience. I was terrified, but so excited to be involved, to see where it might go, and to be standing on the stage, pitching a technology that was based on my results. We were quizzed on our business plan, and with the training fresh in my mind, I felt confident. Our technology, HydRegen, was the overall winner. We won a package of mentoring which increased our interactions with industry. This was the turning point for me, so perhaps this is when I started on the road to being a science entrepreneur? 

It’s been just over 2 years since then. I have finished my DPhil and spent a year as a PostDoc split between Kylie’s Group and a Fellowship in Germany. I support and guide the amazing and rapidly growing team behind this work and have made sure we can make NADH without my hands (strangely hard at first!). However, I have also presented at national and international conferences, been invited to speak at a conference in India, given presentations to industry, taught myself to write in HTML and designed a new website, helped developed our business plan and most importantly, been involved with writing grant applications. Kylie and I were recently awarded a large round of research funding that will take this research towards market and I will be project managing this research for the next 5 years. I am excited to take on the challenge of commercialising this technology - this technology that first started in my undergraduate research project. We have assembled a hugely experienced set of people to surround us, and guide us. I continue to train myself in the new skills that I will need. I repeatedly throw myself into uncomfortable situations. Most importantly, I love what I do. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. And I think I might start calling myself a science entrepreneur - I like how that sounds!


I’m Holly, (now) a scientist entrepreneur in the Chemistry Department!

I grew up on a Farm; that’s where I developed my love of understanding how things work. I spent hours taking apart engines, helping to fix things and learning from my hugely inventive and encouraging family.

Outside the lab I love meeting people, talking (a lot), any kind of adventure, tractor driving and when there’s time, relaxing on the sofa!