Dr Mairi Gibbs, Interim CEO at Oxford University Innovation (OUI)

mairi gibbs interim ceo oui

Mairi Gibbs is Interim CEO at Oxford University Innovation (OUI). The role of OUI is to maximize the global societal impact of Oxford’s research and expertise. They approach this goal through licensing and venture formation, supporting entrepreneurship, and providing consultancy services.

What is your background? What made you decide to work in providing professional support for entrepreneurs? 
I trained as a chemist, with a degree in chemistry at New College Oxford, and then a PhD at Bristol. I spent a few years in the fine chemicals industry, then I realized that I didn’t want to be doing lab work forever, but I did enjoy the science, so I was looking for a role that would enable me to still be connected with the science. I was also looking for something that was more values-based, with a clear purpose so that I wasn’t working purely for shareholder value. As soon as I heard about university commercialization work I thought it sounded great. I started work in Oxford in 2002 as a licensing & ventures manager, working with the academics, filing patents on their IP, trying to do licence deals and making spinout companies happen. I came with a three-year plan, but I was having a lot of fun, so I kept on staying. After quite a few different roles over the years I ended up as Chief Operating Officer, and I’m currently Interim CEO.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
OUI logo

I think entrepreneurship is an energy and a drive to make things happen, to produce a practical effect. It is not theoretical discussions about “should we”, but the practical work that comes through thinking “let’s actually make something happen, solve the problems that come at us, let’s try to be a bit nimble”. 

How and when do you know if an idea is good enough to develop? 
OUI makes decisions every day about the ideas that come in from the academic community. We try to give everything a chance because it’s really hard to pick the winners. You can put a lot of effort into it, and you can do some sensible diligence to weed out things that would obviously fail; but for things to be massively successful, they need the right people, the right funding, the right business model, a pile of luck, and they need to be at the right time for the market sentiment. Sometimes all of that happens and something wonderful comes out of it. 

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

  1. It is essential to have drive and energy. Entrepreneurship is really hard work, and if somebody doesn’t have a lot of drive and energy, they might think it’s too difficult and seek to do something easier.
  2. As it is possible to be energetic in a completely wrong direction, the successful entrepreneur has to have some vision of where they’re trying to get to, and strategic thought about the best path to reach the goal.
  3. They have to be able to build a team around them. Being an entrepreneur is never ever a lone-wolf type of activity. Although we have the myth in this country of the sole entrepreneur, it is not true. The people who are great entrepreneurs are self-aware - they know their limitations and are able to build a great team around them so that collectively the team has everything that is needed.

What is your favourite part of your work?
I am a complete addict to solving problems. I love puzzles. Something that is perpetually satisfying about this job on a day-to-day basis is you never quite know what is coming. There’s a steady flow of new and interesting puzzles to work out, and that for me is rewarding. On a longer arc, I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the practical effects of research and expertise in the world. I like being able to potter about my daily life around Oxfordshire, and see our spinout companies with their logos on the sides of buildings and people going in and out. That is good evidence of the real-world impact of entrepreneurship. And it’s a privilege and a daily joy to work with so many incredible people with strong passion for what they do.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I get inspired by all sorts of people and all sorts of things all the time. The people I admire are able to get to where they want to get to, with grace and the ability to bring other people with them. Recently I went to a super music workshop in the Bodleian library with the Oakstone Trio, and they were talking about finding your groove, planning and deciding on your intent, going for it, observing how you’re getting on and removing the things that are getting in the way – they were talking about playing tunes, but as a mindset I think it’s equally applicable to entrepreneurship.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss? 
I like to ask people how they manage their time, because people who are energetic and driven and highly capable always have more stuff flying at them than they have time to be able to deal with. How they decide where to put their energy would be a good question. I also like to hear about people’s paths and choices; the question “tell me your story, how did you get to your current role?” always results in an interesting conversation. 

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business? 
The single point in time that was emblematic of it was when I got my first AstraZeneca covid vaccine shot in my arm. Often our work has economic impact in Oxfordshire or more broadly through companies making money through selling services to other people. This one had a direct impact on me personally, right there in my arm, through what we have done in this university and with help from OUI.

Of course, it was a whole university effort that made the vaccine happen - hundreds of incredible researchers, all the people behind the scenes at OUI, in research services, legal services, clinical trials units. I myself did not work directly on the vaccine development and the licence negotiation; my colleagues were doing that work, and my role during that part of the pandemic was to keep the rest of OUI going so that they could concentrate on vaccine work. I’ve been more involved in the post-licence management.

The vaccine made a huge contribution to global health and is estimated to have prevented over 6 million lives from being lost.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned? 
There are so many. Perfection is not possible,  everybody does the best they can on the information that’s available to them at that time. I remember quite early in my career feeling really proud of a licence deal I’d concluded, as I worked hard on the deal and felt it was the best deal I could do. And then living with that deal some years later, I realized that there was a hole in it. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and more experience, there were loads of things that I would have done differently. It happens, and you learn from the experience. 

I also remember being very pessimistic about the prospect of one technology which later turned out great. It’s a good thing my colleagues supported it!  I’ve been right about plenty of projects, but I’ve also been wrong, and that has taught me to not try and cherry pick the winners, but to give as many things as possible a chance. 

At OUI we try to learn from mistakes and near misses, and plug the holes so that we don’t do it again. Over time we steadily get tighter and better about what we do. We take a team approach to decision-making to limit the impact of bias and to try to be as fair as possible.

What is good and bad about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?
It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur in Oxford and Oxfordshire right now. Right now, there is more interest in entrepreneurship, and more resource for it, than there has been at any point through Oxford history. Oxford’s EnSpire programme launched this academic year and is providing a focus for entrepreneurial activities and skills development training. Then through OUI’s Incubator we’re really proud to support the practical work when the entrepreneurs get to the point where they want to build a company to enact their ideas. We’ve expanded capacity in order to take far more teams through the incubator. It’s exciting that the university now has the focus that EnSpire brings to entrepreneurship. 

Outside the university, we’ve got Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE) and links to lots of other investors around Oxfordshire. Seed and growth capital is critically important for new businesses, and businesses with a coherent, quality plan do usually succeed to raise funds. 

The space is a bit limiting around Oxford – space is expensive, and there are more high growth companies being created than current capacity in business parks. There are lots of people diligently working to improve the situation, for instance innovation space is emerging in former retail premises, but we’re a long way from the level of incubator and expansion space that they have in some of the big entrepreneurship hubs in the US. We are not going to turn Oxfordshire into Silicon Valley of course - we can’t - we’re growing an Oxfordshire ecosystem in our own unique way and thinking carefully about sustainability and inclusion. 

Another limitation is people – there are a lot of wonderful startup initiation ideas, but to build really world class companies, you need lots of great people, experience, plus leadership. Finding those people and bringing them to Oxford is a really important activity, as is training those who are here already. 

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? 
I would always send them to EnSpire. There are so many resources and training opportunities there. I would encourage them to make the most of it - there are many experienced people and fantastic events, and it’s a safe environment where you can explore your ideas and get lots of good advice from mentors.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur?  If so, how have you overcome them?
I was a female chemist, and the field was quite male-dominated. I was part of the 11th year of women coming to New College, and at that time 11 years seemed like ages to me - more than half of my 18-year-old lifetime. Now I think 11 years is almost a blink of an eye in an institution as old as New College (established 1379).  College was great fun and my peer students were mostly lovely; I had a super time though I was definitely a minority in my subject. I didn’t experience the overt harassments that many women have reported. In my working life though, I can definitely recall networking meetings with some men having un-inclusive conversations where they talked to each other literally above my head, as they were tall and I am not. There are plenty of tall people who do not exclude in that way. As I’ve got older, I’ve also become more aware of how I’m limiting myself. It took me a long time to think: you know what, I’ll let my light shine, and it’s up to them to decide how they’re going to react. 

What resources would you recommend for other women?
There are some books that I found really helpful, not specifically on gender issues, but helpful in terms of how to manage my own head and emotions. Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman is a classic. The Antidote by OIiver Burkeman has also been really important for me. They both teach about metacognition – observing how you think, paying attention to what is going on in your mind rather than just existing through fleeting moments, having an internal debate rather than assuming that your thoughts are reality.

I would recommend talking to other women, and be open about the challenges you’re facing. People love to help, and if you can be brave enough to be open about finding things hard, you’ll find that there’s a whole crew of people out there who have dealt with similar challenges or are also finding things hard and will help you. 

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I don’t think we know the answers yet but we’re working on it. With the IDEA programme, we’ve been looking at the data, and we know that our female entrepreneurship ratio has risen over the last five years. This is great, and we know that it’s better than the UK average for entrepreneurs which is also great, but it’s not yet where I’d like it to be. I would like to understand why it has been rising over the last few years, and I would like to understand what still gets in the way. My sense is that we need to find a way to encourage everyone to think that entrepreneurship is something they could aspire to. 

I am determined that OUI’s services within Oxford should be there for everybody, and I hope we make it accessible. The support is there for them if they want to use it. Maybe we can be more encouraging and inclusive in the way that we talk about it and of course implicit bias is very hard to avoid. The venture capital industry is very male dominated, which makes it harder for women entrepreneurs to raise capital. OSE has done a huge amount of work to build a diverse team, which is great for our Oxford entrepreneurs going to see them.

I think there are some issues of aspiration and some practical blockers. Establishing an academic career and family (for those who want this) through those early career years is clearly challenging, and then we are asking to add entrepreneurship onto that as well. There are practical questions about how you manage to squeeze entrepreneurship, which is challenging, into a life that is already very full and busy. 
We have some absolutely incredible role models that show it’s possible, and I’d like to see it being possible for many more women. Prof Kylie Vincent, who was the IDEA Academic Champion for Women in Diversity until recently, has a spinout company, Hydregen, and a young family, and an incredible academic career. Holly Reeve is the CEO of Hydregen; she came out of Kylie’s academic group. Ilana Wisby finished her quantum physics PhD and is the founding CEO of Quantum Circuits. 

Any last words of advice for entrepreneurs? 
Well done, first of all, for wanting to do it. It’s a super exciting and rewarding thing to do, and it’s really hard work. If you’re willing to set off on that journey, hats off to you and I wish you every success.

My advice is to just start, and be willing to fail. The first idea is quite unlikely to be the one that’s going to make the big money and big success. It’s quite rare for somebody to set out with the moonshot idea and just go single-mindedly to success in that one direction; there are rather few people like the famous US tech entrepreneurs. I think a more pragmatic and accessible way to build a business is to try and be willing to learn as you go. Even if you’re working on one area of technology, there are so many alternate business models that you could develop. I think you need to be willing to experiment and to seek feedback, and to course-correct then iterate.