Sue Rees in conversation with Sarah Haywood
Sarah Haywood is the Managing Director of Advanced Oxford, a not-for-profit membership group for innovating and disruptive businesses with strong ties to Oxfordshire.
Describing herself to me with a smile as a “failed scientist”, Sarah has a biology degree from Oxford University, has been an NHS manager, Head of Operations for a neuroscience discovery unit, and led the DTI Bioscience Unit. This self-confessed science geek has gained an enviable reputation for facilitating collaborations between – and support for – tech and science businesses and entrepreneurs.
Not one for a quiet life, Sarah is also an executive board member of MedCity (which she set up and where she was the founding CEO for its first 5 years) and is one of a select group of mentors in a Newton Fund collaboration programme with the Royal Academy of Engineering supporting entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Sue Rees: Sarah, thank you so much for your time. We’ll talk about Advanced Oxford in a moment, but tell me a little bit more about your other roles?
Sarah Haywood: Leading Advanced Oxford takes up about two-thirds of my time at the moment, and the rest is split between MedCity and the RAEng mentoring programme. I helped set up MedCity in 2014 to position the South East of England as a world-leading, interconnected region for life sciences R&D, manufacturing and commercialisation. Although I moved out of the CEO seat I remain an executive director, and my real passion there is working with companies to help them find the right investment and financial advice to grow and develop.
I’m also very proud to be one of a pool of mentors in a programme delivered by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Oxentia called Leaders in Innovation, and it works in a number of developing and emerging economies to support academic innovators there helping them to think about how they can commercialise their research. I’m currently working with a small group of mentees in Thailand.
SR: That’s very inspirational! Tell me more about Advanced Oxford and what its aims are?
SH: Advanced Oxford is a group of senior leaders from the area’s major knowledge-intensive businesses who are working together to support the long-term development of the Oxford region as a dynamic and prosperous place to work and live. It’s a research-led organisation and we aim to provide insight, analysis and a united voice for members on the key issues affecting the local innovation ecosystem. Although we look to champion Oxfordshire, we also work across regional boundaries, with organisations in the public, private and third sectors, and with governments at a local and national level.
SR: What inspired you to get involved with these different roles?
SH: Although they are quite different, there’s a common thread that ties them all together – innovation. One of the most interesting aspects of what I do is being able to support academics to become successful entrepreneurs.
Fundamentally, I love science! I studied biology at university, although I never actually worked in the field which is why I describe myself as a “failed scientist”. As a real science geek, having the ability to speak regularly to fantastic scientists and engineers and see some of the world’s most cutting-edge labs and best new technologies is amazing.
But I also love building relationships that get things done – what I value most is engaging with people, building teams and getting sometimes disparate groups working together. It’s important to me that what I do can make a difference, and all of these roles allow me to do that in different ways.
SR: What are some examples of great innovations by Oxfordshire companies that are exciting you at the moment?
SH: There are just so many. I’m very lucky that most of the companies that I work with are innovators and disruptors. Taking something from new science or new data is what they do, so they are all innovative at heart.
Some great examples that come immediately to mind from recent experience include a company that’s spinning out from the Chemistry department at Oxford University right now called HydRegen. They have built technology that uses enzymes to catalyze industrial reactions in a cleaner, more sustainable way. It’s led by two fantastic women, and as well as the science being really interesting, this is a great example of founders who have gone through the journey from cutting-edge academic research, successful results, and how they now begin to commercialise it.
Another fantastic company is Enara Bio based on the Oxford Science Park. They are developing targeted cancer immunotherapies and have recently announced a big collaboration and licensing deal with Boehringer Ingelheim that was put together through the pandemic – a great example of continued growth, development and investment in Oxfordshire innovation despite a challenging year.
A final example – and I really could give you dozens more – is autonomous vehicle company Oxbotica. Founded in 2014, they have recently announced the completion of a $47M funding round. Their autonomous systems are showing amazing versatility and will be deployed in commercial and industrial uses as well as urban transport and consumer vehicles. This is another example of academic research successfully spinning out of the university and of an academic-led startup developing into a potentially world-beating tech business.
SR: 2020 has been tough for many businesses. What are the particular challenges being felt at the moment by the innovative organisations you support through Advanced Oxford?
SH: There are a few, and they change depending on the age, size, and heritage of the businesses. However, the primary concern that I hear most is the challenge of finding, attracting, growing, and retaining talent. That seems to be a universal feeling across most businesses at the moment.
For some of the younger businesses, the need for investment activities to continue is key, and of course, 2020 threw up quite a bit of uncertainty at first.
A couple of issues specific to Oxfordshire are around property. Finding the right workplaces with the right facilities at the right price – and right when they’re needed – can be tough. Some companies are also still unsure what their actual needs for premises and space will be in their post-Covid operations.
Another factor is the cost of living in the county – particularly the cost of housing. A lot of businesses are finding that attracting top talent from other areas of the country (or from abroad) can be made tougher by the additional costs people face moving to the area.
And finally, what does the “new normal” look like for business as the country opens back up? What will the balance between working from home and being on-site look like? What physical changes or protections will need to be in place?
So yes, there are lots of challenges for all companies, not just innovators and spin-outs.
SR: I specialise in advising the life sciences, biotech, and pharmaceutical sectors in Oxfordshire. From your point of view as someone talking to innovators here, how do you see these sectors developing over the next few years?
SH: From an Oxfordshire perspective, we have a very vibrant corporate ecosystem for the life sciences. We’ve got a very good pipeline of early-stage businesses in the county that’s constantly being added to. However, the biggest challenge for any company that is in the pre-revenue stage is still winning the right investment.
In that regard, I think Oxfordshire companies involved in cell and gene therapies are definitely ones to watch. Also, until 2020, vaccine research was a little bit of a “Cinderella” of the sector, but now they are certainly having their time in the sun!
Away from the test tubes and fume cupboards, I think there’s a fascinating move towards looking at how artificial intelligence and other data-driven developments are going to help tackle health and life science questions using modelling. I think we’ll see innovative companies in these fields start to shine in the near term.
And then we’ve got some really exciting “leading edge” technologies like quantum computing that have the potential to massively affect the life sciences field. There’s a strong base of research in these technologies here in Oxfordshire, and of course, plenty of potential customers for them when they come to market.
SR: Talking about new technologies and innovations like those, what do you think investors into the sector are looking for when they make their decisions?
SH: You know, when it comes down to it, the team behind it is as important as the tech – and in some instances, perhaps more so. Having the right people in place gives confidence that there’s a good business behind the innovation.
The other thing that’s crucial to ask is what’s the exit strategy? Of course, investors are motivated by the bottom line, so there needs to be a clear route for them to see how they are going to make money. Having a demonstrable market for your products is critical, as, therefore, are things like having the freedom to operate, a sound intellectual property strategy, and so on.
SR: You mentioned the importance of the corporate team to investors, but how important do you think a company’s culture is when they are looking to attract the best talent?
SH: It’s essential. Commercialised science is a team sport. And it’s not just about internal teams. You need to fully engage with external suppliers, collaborators and customers. Everyone needs to fit into the team, understand the vision and buy into it.
That’s why having the right culture is fundamental. It doesn’t only help build your team, it can really make the difference for people when they are deciding if your company is somewhere they want to work. On the other side, the fit of individuals to the organisation is also hugely important. If it’s not right, then integrating them successfully into an existing team becomes almost impossible.
At the moment, it’s a really competitive labour market out there. Talented people with sought-after skills are enjoying a buyer’s market! So your corporate and team culture can play a crucial role in attracting the best people.
SR: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted Advanced Oxford and your work?
SH: Well, in common with almost everyone else, our plans for 2020 had to change. We were planning a great project on skills but decided to shelve that until 2021 because – let’s face it – corporate HR and leadership teams needed to be focused on just keeping businesses going and reacting in the best way to the immediate challenges that arose.
So, we decided that from March to July 2020 we would refocus entirely on understanding the impacts of Covid on businesses so that we could share those insights with members, stakeholders and policy- and decision-makers. An example was looking at some of the support funding mechanisms that were put in place such as the Future Fund from the British Business Bank and giving our opinion on how useful these really were. We also looked specifically at the impact of the pandemic on the local innovation ecosystem.
From a personal point of view, my way of working shifted quite a lot. We are still a relatively young organisation, and so a substantial part of my role still involves getting the word out about what we do and building relationships with government and other key organisations at both local and national level, as well as existing and potential new members. As someone who revels in relationship building and face-to-face meetings, it’s been a big change! Traditional networking models just don’t work if you’re in lockdown, of course.
Still, we’ve learnt to adapt, as have our members and other Oxfordshire businesses. It has been particularly pleasing to welcome 3 new members to our ranks in 2020, despite the challenges we all faced, and we’ve also had another new joiner in early 2021. So despite the radical shift, we’re still getting our messages across!
SR: Sarah, thank you so much, it’s been fascinating speaking with you. As a final question, what would your advice be to a first-time CEO starting out here in Oxfordshire?
SH: Well of course you’d expect me to say “engage with us here at Advanced Oxford”, wouldn’t you? But in all seriousness, we do have a really good and constantly developing overview of what’s happening in Oxfordshire. So even if membership isn’t right for you at the moment, do reach out. We can signpost you to various sources of help, we can make introductions, and help you build new connections to people, resources, facilities, and even mentors.
In general, don’t be afraid to reach out to people anywhere and ask for help, advice, or support. In my experience, people are more often than not very generous with their time, so you should always ask. The worst that could happen is they say no, and the best is that you gain some really valuable advice and/or make a fantastically useful connection.
Keep building teams, not just inside your business, but outside it too. We all want to see Oxfordshire innovators succeed and there’s always something we can learn from each other.