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In conversation with Sue Rees

How Oxford University Innovation and its portfolio businesses have risen to the challenge of Covid-19

Sue rees in conversation with Simon Gray, Head of Marketing at Oxford University Innovation Ltd (oui)

I recently spoke with Simon Gray, Head of Marketing at Oxford University Innovation Ltd (OUI). Simon manages the Marketing Team and leads on promotional and communications activities for OUI. He’s responsible for creating opportunities for engagement with researchers, industry, investors and key influencers in the media and government. I want to find out how his organisation has responded to the huge changes that COVID-19 has brought to businesses in Oxford and beyond.

Simon Grey

Simon explains to me that OUI is owned by Oxford University and the company is the official route for commercialising new inventions or ideas that come from research anywhere in the University.

A major part of its activity is to assess whether or not there is scope to license new IP to existing commercial companies and examine opportunities for building new businesses.

“In many cases we licence the IP to established companies, but if there’s potential to form a new company to exploit it, we’ll look at that very closely,” he says. “Our job then is to assess the appetite from the academics and potential investors to create a spin-out business.”

Having launched more than 200 spin-outs, OUI is in a unique position to have an overview of how the pandemic has impacted business in Oxfordshire. I ask Simon how the businesses the University has shareholdings in were faring.

“It’s been a mixed picture,” he tells me. “There hasn’t been a ‘standard impact’ among the portfolio businesses. Some companies with technologies or products are directly relevant to the pandemic, and of course, they have done very well in terms of winning new funding and gaining publicity around what they do. For them, it has been full steam ahead and they may even be ahead of where they expected to be pre-COVID.”

“Some of the other companies have been able to successfully demonstrate that their offerings are still relevant and important in a COVID and post-COVID world,” he goes on. “They’ve been able to continue broadly to plan. Others haven’t been in that position, or they have been dealing with investors who pulled back for a while and they haven’t been able to achieve their funding goals.”

But Simon is keen to point out that the picture overall is far from one of doom and gloom. “OUI has been instrumental in creating a large portfolio, and that gives us the opportunity to see a ‘big picture’ view. There hasn’t been a significant negative impact on the portfolio as a whole. We’re also still seeing a strong pipeline of new IP coming from the university, so Oxford’s researchers are still hard at work.

One thing that all businesses have had to do is adapt – particularly under lockdown. I want to know if the pandemic had thrown up any positive surprises from Simon’s point of view.

“I think a big surprise was how well Oxford’s knowledge-based companies performed without anyone being in the office. For a large number of them, it has literally been business as usual, with remote working having very little impact on performance.”

This extends to OUI itself. “For us, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easily we have adapted,” Simon tells me. “In fact, we wouldn’t be having the positive discussions we’re now having about how we operate as a business without lockdown.”

Remote Working

As someone who helps businesses to put the right people in senior roles to help them achieve their goals, I wanted to know how OUI was managing staff engagement and motivation in this new world of remote working.

“We’re really fortunate in having a hugely motivated team,” Simon says. “Actually, we’ve had to spend time ensuring people aren’t overdoing it rather than chivvying them along! However, we are thinking carefully about how to bring new people into the business – it’s much harder for new hires to assimilate our culture when there isn’t an office environment”.

This is key for a lot of businesses at the moment. Selecting new team members – particularly at a senior level – who already have the right cultural fit will make the new world of remote recruiting much more likely to end up with a great hire.

I wanted to know a little bit more about how OUI communicates with its staff. Simon tells me that managers know what’s going to work best for their people. “We gave the leaders of our internal teams free reign to set up the kind of contact plan that works best for their teams. Some, for example, hold daily team video calls, others feel that a weekly catch up works best for them.”

But what about communication from the senior leadership team? “We decided early on to do all-staff video briefings once a week, mainly for reassurance and to keep people fully up to speed with what was inevitably going to be a rapidly changing picture,” Simon tells me. “What we found was these quickly metamorphosed into a really useful ‘town hall’ experience. It turned out that people aren’t shy in bringing forward their ideas or concerns in a remote meeting like this, whereas previously they would have been the quiet ones at the back of the room in a traditional get-together.”

It’s an interesting side-effect of the pandemic that those with quieter personalities can feel emboldened by the virtual nature of meetings enough to get their ideas across – ideas that previously may never have seen the light of day! Many of my clients are having similar experiences where new ways of working are letting previously hidden talent shine through.

It all seems to have gone swimmingly at OUI, but I push Simon to let me know where things have been more challenging.

“A big part of our marketing strategy has always been to hold live events,” he tells me. “There’s nothing quite as effective as meeting like-minded people face-to-face to stimulate new ideas and opportunities.” But as you’d expect from a hub of innovation, OUI’s marketing team aren’t content with just converting events into webinars.

“Once we realised that live events were going to be unable to happen for the foreseeable future we didn’t panic – we just decided to move everything online. Whether that be talking with investors, mentoring, board meetings of portfolio companies, or anything else. For some types of activity, it actually becomes a little bit easier. Attending a remote meeting cuts out a lot of dead time travelling. You can talk to an investor wherever in the world they happen to be. But we know that turning events into online meetings – where, most of the time, one person talks and everyone else listens – doesn’t allow the level of engagement that make our live events so successful.”

Simon’s team are actively researching new ways to build engagement into online events, and they will be partnering with a technology provider who can give remote events a much more interactive element.

Finally, I ask Simon if there is anything that the move away from ‘handshake business’ is going to impact in the short term?

“I think there will be some investors who will hold back on new investments until they can get in front of people again,” he remarks. “There are definitely investors out there who need to spend time with the people behind the business and who put great stock in getting out and seeing the operation or getting a real feel for the founding team. They may feel safer focusing on their existing investments, and that could be great news for new ventures that have performed well and who are now looking for second or subsequent round funding.”

For Simon and Oxford University Innovation Ltd, the key has been to embrace the “new normal”. Having a really strong senior team in place who can make the right decisions quickly is vital in this, but so is having the right corporate culture and people who embrace it and are given agency to do what they need to do to further it.