Dr Jane Jin, COO of OXCCU

Dr Jane Jin photo

Dr Jane Jin is the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of OXCCU, which is an Oxford University spinout company. OXCCU are developing technologies and processes to convert carbon dioxide into sustainable aviation fuels, chemicals, and biodegradable plastics. Currently they are a relatively young company, made up of 16 people, but with prospects to expand. Jane was a part of setting up and founding the spinout after she led ClimateTech at Oxford University Innovation.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur? 

I’m glad to talk about my background because my time at university feels like a long time ago! I did have an entrepreneurial interest from quite early on. I started my undergraduate degree in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Leeds in 2002. I wasn’t that interested in entrepreneurship when I first started – I just wanted to be, what I call, a molecular architect. This is essentially someone who design molecules and synthesises drugs to improve people’s health. This was my initial dream! My interest in entrepreneurship really started in the third year of my undergraduate degree when I spent the industrial placement year working for Pfizer, one of the big pharmaceutical companies. They used to have a global research side with around 2000 employees, so quite a large research department. My experience there expanded and developed my understanding of how company works, as I was working with multiple different businesses with different business functions. In a broader sense, it taught me how the industry and the market worked, and how drugs are developed for patients to use. My initial interest in entrepreneurship started with that placement year in Pfizer. I was keen to understand how a large company takes discovery to a clear result and then develop it to a product. As a trainee, we had lots of different visits to different sites and business units, which really sparked a curiosity within me.

After that, I came back to university and finished my final year, my masters. I decided to do a PhD and realised I had two choices: I could either do a PhD in chemistry, or a Masters in Bio Enterprise at Cambridge University (this was a joint programme with MIT). This was a degree to help those who had a science undergraduate degree to pursue a career in the industry or outside academia. In the end I got both offers, but I didn’t end up picking the Bio Enterprise offer as it was one year in Cambridge, and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after that! The knowledge and experience weren’t strong enough to support me in starting my business at the time, it was more of a general foundation course. I made a visit to Cambridge, trying to seek out what other courses they offer to help people like myself – with a scientific background and an interest to pursue a future career in entrepreneurship. I found out they have different kind of programmes, not just masters, and tailored towards all kinds of students. Whilst doing my PhD, I spent a lot of time learning about entrepreneurship – it was very challenging due to the limited amount of time I had! I had the opportunity to do many different evening courses and other training courses, they also had a very good entrepreneurial ecosystem including talks with local entrepreneurs. I managed to complete my PhD and finish my thesis, but at the same time I was involved in lots of Cambridge’s entrepreneurial programmes. 

I founded the Cambridge University Consulting Society, which was a great insight into how to set up a business, how to manage people and express your ideas to them, and how to raise funds. I didn’t necessarily want to pursue a career in management or consultancy, but I just used my knowledge of spot opportunities in the market to set it up. We went to firms like Deloitte, McKinsey, BCG, to request funding for our new society. It was all a very good experience, I must say - almost the same as setting up a business but requiring very little skill and high protection. I was the president of the society for a year and then I stepped down to being an advisor for another year. I learnt many transferrable and practical skills during that period of time.

Business is not like fundamental sciences, so you can actually just read books. I read many books and then I started a module online which was part of a bachelor’s in economics and management. I got a job in an innovation consultancy as an analyst. I learnt all the skills needed as an analyst, including helping large companies to identify technology opportunities. I did that job for four years and that gave me a very useful skill, my gut feeling! I used that gut feeling to see if the technology could the commercial in the current market, after I did around 80 projects. I think everybody would have a strong gut feeling after that many projects!

For me, I considered it as another degree. I didn’t really see it as a job. At the same time, I was still looking for business opportunities to see what I could go into. I really wanted to work for technology transfer commercialisation at the university, as you could to get access to all the great technology. I briefly worked for Queen Mary university in their tech transfer offices but found that they didn’t have that many technologies there on the chemistry side. They were much stronger in the biomedical sciences than physical sciences or chemistry, where I felt most comfortable. Then I applied for a job in Oxford at Oxford University. Oxford University Innovation at the time (and still now) is the world-leading technology transfer company. They are very good at translating initial results to business opportunities to start-ups and spinouts. I worked there for 7 years; the first few years were a lot of learning, for example about IP commercialisation, and the later years are when I was leading the ClimateTech initiative. I remember my line manager asking me what I’m passionate about, and I said I'm passionate about clean tech, and she told me to go back and think about a definition of clean tech and from there we can see how to move forward with it. I started looking across all the technology portfolio at Oxford University, identifying which areas the university should focus on in order to create more results and create more impact from the research. There were many different ideas, of course some of them were at very early stages, and others were at a later stage. I helped the company to develop initial results further, so we could do more research on it. Together we cofounded our company, and that's the whole journey - from a student 20 years ago to now! 

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
OXCCU logo, blue text on white background

Entrepreneurship is a commitment to transferring intangible to tangible impact. For me, if you only want to do something a small amount, it really isn’t worth the effort. If you develop ideas that are too early in their development, or too risky, then perhaps you might fail. But you learn again and again from your mistakes. At some point, all entrepreneurs must take a risk. I like taking risks but it definitely has to be measurable and evident-backed. But in essence, entrepreneurship starts off as a commitment and finishes as a positive impact to society. 

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it? 

The most challenging part of being an entrepreneur is identifying a business opportunity. I have done my training, so I accumulated experiences to be able to evaluate ideas, at least at the best of my ability. When looking at an idea, you need to see how big it is and what the impact is. A long time ago, I watched a TV programme where they interview billionaires. I don’t really remember much, except when one of them said, ‘If you want to create a big impact then you have to work on a problem big enough to create that impact.’ For me, I want to utilise my chemistry background. I spent eight years in chemistry, so I want to use my knowledge in the field, to do something with a positive impact. 

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why? 

Interpersonal skills - you need to work and talk with people, whilst understanding many things that may be beyond your own expertise. The interpersonal skill is on the top of my list! 
Curiosity – you need to have the curiosity to step back, think, and ask why. For example, during COVID, many people stayed at home. If you’re an entrepreneur you would think, what does it mean? What opportunities are here? Does it mean that I should do more home delivery, as more people are staying at home? Immediately you should always have a pause and step back. What is going to happen to normal lifestyle? During COVID, we saw companies set up to provide solutions and adjustments to the many changes that COVID caused. Many companies changed their business models. It is the curiosity that leads to “constantly doing” and you can train yourself to think in that way. 
Risk-taking – There are key differences between people who take the risk and don’t take the risk. It doesn't matter if you don’t know how to do something, it is important to take certain level of risk and then learn along the way. Take the initiative! Sometimes the difference between being successful and not being successful is just being early enough. You need to spot an opportunity and grab it. If you don't grab it, someone else will do it so you have to be quick! 

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur? 

Having the opportunity to do something meaningful with a great positive impact on society is the best part. I’ve always wanted to work on something that could help to improve our world. Initially I was focused on improving people's health. Life is too short to only do something with little impact. I’d much rather put my head down, roll up my sleeves and work on something big, in the hope that lots of people in the world could benefit from it. I think this is why I didn't start my business earlier – there were times when people came to me and we were thinking to collaborate on an idea, but I don't think those were big enough. 

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why? 

There’s definitely a family influence. My mum started her business when I was a one-year-old, so she was an entrepreneur herself. It wasn’t a big business - she started with hair and beauty, which she developed into a hair and beauty shop, and then later she also opened a school to teach other people how to do hair and beauty. She took on the social responsibility of opening a school and providing education. But it was never my interest to do anything like that - I know nothing about giving a haircut! Because my mum was very busy, I lived with my grandparents. My grandad is a chartered civil engineer who designs and oversees construction projects He was always interested in me pursuing my career and developing myself academically. My family really wanted me to go to a good school and to do well in my academic performance, perhaps do a PhD – so that sort of career path. I think gradually I started to review bit by bit what it is that my mom does, gaining insight in the time I spent at her shop in the summer holidays. During these summers as her shop assistant, I learnt how she ran her business. That was a big influence for me.

But I think the real interest in business did not come from that, it came from my industry placement. My industry placement was very interesting - I think I was the only person from Leeds University to be picked for the placement with Pfizer. There was one time at a social gathering with trainees from other universities, when we were talking about what we all do in our different departments. It was an amazing opportunity to talk to people like myself and understand the business in general. That was the point I start to become interested in business. 
One time, I was listening to a radio and Richard Branson was speaking at the time. He was talking about changing the music industry from CDs - this was back in 2005, so a long time ago! He said he had was this idea where people won’t need to buy CDs anymore because everything will be digitalised. I remember thinking wow, that is bit crazy! How could that be possible? At the time I was really doubtful about it. But nobody did anything until Steve Jobs invented iTunes. I was really interested in trying to understand what these big businessmen were doing, and why they were doing it. It definitely created lots of questions in my mind. I kept thinking about it, so I started following up Richard Branson and Virgin to see what he's up to. That could be the reason why everything started, from the seed of interest 20 years ago. 

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss? 

Branson wasn’t necessarily a role model, but at that point in my life, I wanted to gain insight into how big businesses were being run. As a young student, I was very interested in this, even watching entrepreneurial TV programmes. That was kind of trigger point for me to want to follow someone who I believe is doing something really interesting. If I had 5 minutes, I would like to ask him what he could do something differently, if he knew Steve Jobs would launch the iTune to the market. 

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business? 

The growth of my company. This time last year we were 8 people, and now we are 16 – we doubled our size in a year! We only founded the company 2 years ago, so we’re quite a young company that started out with only 4 or 5 people. In my opinion, the reason we’ve grown quite rapidly is because the market interest in sustainable aviation fuels and the regulations, also interests from people. More people with relevant industry experience and even recent graduate students would like to work for a company like us, be part of the team to develop sustainable technologies for the future. We still have the plan to recruit more people next year, so we hopefully might be 24 or 25 people next year. Very exciting! 

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur? 

When I considered setting up my own business, I realised my PhD didn’t have anything commercial, because I was only studying making drug molecules. I tried to identify a good market opportunity, but found it very challenging. I saw that lots of successful entrepreneurs had knowledge in many different domains – so if you study science, you need to understand the overlapping areas around science or other areas such as business or marketing, as it is these multidisciplinary areas that create opportunities. For example, if your study area is chemistry, you do not understand what the market needs. It is like two different languages; a barrier stops people from communication. Yet, in the overlapping of these two fields, you can see something neither of them can see, and recognise gaps and opportunities I found this very interesting. 

How have you funded your ideas? 

It started when I was leading the ClimateTech initiative at Oxford University Innovation in 2020, when the UK government launched its Ten Point Plan for a UK green industrial revolution. I could clearly see the challenge and market need to decarbonise aviation industry. The aviation industry, which accounts for 2% of global emissions, is one of the most difficult industries to decarbonise. One solution is to wait for the engine technology to develop, using either hydrogen or electricity, or hybrid. However, engine development itself takes many years, in particular the one used for long-haul flights, so another solution that industry could adopt is to use sustainable fuel. Essentially this is alternative fuels, not from fossil-based resources but instead from sustainable feedstocks that reduce carbon emissions.

I found one really good technology developed from Chemistry Department at Oxford University at that time, and luckily, we had a really good angle investor when we started, who believed in our technology. We were also very lucky to get initial seed funding from IP Group, which is a leading UK cleantech VC company. This year we raised £18 million Series A, perhaps one of the biggest series A fundraise in cleantech. You can clearly see there's a good appetite in this area from investment community, and hopefully our technology solution could be adopted as a leading solution to decarbonise aviation industry worldwide.

Also, two weeks ago we have won a £2.8M government fund from the Department of Transport. They have a specific funding called AFF - that stands for advanced fuels fund. This is the government’s money allocated to support the development of sustainable aviation fuel production plants in the UK. We are very proud of be part of it. 

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad? 

I have to say Oxfordshire has a very good innovation eco-system. There are also entrepreneurial programmes designed for women. When I worked for Oxford University Innovation, I supported the RisingWISE as an acilitator, an entrepreneurial learning programme designed for women scientist and engineers in Oxford and Cambridge University. Also, another initiative called Enspire, formally called Enterprise Oxford. In addition, there are over 300 Oxford spinouts companies located here. You could meet other spinout companies at different stages in their growth journey. It is a great opportunity for networking and learning. There are also many experienced advisors, business angels, investors, and people looking for jobs in Oxfordshire. With its proximity to London, you could also benefit from what London has to offer too. 
Having Oxford University in its centre, there is a lot of very good technologies coming out of the University. You’ll never find a lack of ideas at Oxford, there are always some good results developed by researchers here.

The downside is lack of growth fund. Dependent on your sector, sometimes business may find it difficult to recruit people in Oxfordshire. The local area hasn’t got many large corporations around it. 

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? 

I would say make use of all the support systems that Oxford University offers, including Oxford University Innovation and Enspire Oxford. 

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them? 

I actually didn’t particularly find that there was a big difference being a woman entrepreneur. I think it's about the personality and commitment in the end. I can't see a big difference between men and women entrepreneurs with regards to that pursuit, having that dream and the drive to become successful. One of the concerns that women sometimes have is about when to start a family, some women may feel this could stop you from setting up a business. I have a 6-year-old, and I think it’s all about the planning. I don’t think it was particularly challenging or there was a critical point that ever stopped me pursuing entrepreneurship. With regards to starting a family and having kids, it is about timing and how to arrange the childcare. 

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs? 

Talk to other women entrepreneurs, see what they have done and how they have done it. 

Any last words of advice? 

This is a marathon, a commitment. You may have passion, but at some point, you may also doubt yourself, and you may not want to follow your pursuit anymore. My advice would if you have a dream, follow your heart. If you want to do something, you need to believe in yourself! But even this isn’t enough – you also need to be surrounded by people who can help you and who believe in you. That could be a mentor, a business partner, or just another person who believes in what you do.