Harriet Lester, co-founder of VitaeGUM

Photo of Harriet Lester

I am the founder of VitaeGUM, a vitamin infused chewing gum that provides essential nutrition and improves oral healthcare in refugee populations. We are a team of 5 graduate students. We currently have a prototype made and are looking for funding for a pilot study as proof of concept

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I volunteer for a few refugee charities and whilst working in the Calais jungle I noticed that most refugees had very poor oral healthcare and nutritional deficiencies. As a biochemist, I am interested in using science technology and innovation to solve humanitarian issues. I decided to set up VitaeGUM as a novel way to provide both nutrition and oral healthcare using my science background and practical skills from working in the camps first hand.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Taking an idea and making it into a successful business

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

After speaking with several refugees and volunteers on the ground who all thought it was a really good and viable idea. These people know the environment really well and what works and what doesn’t. I knew the science was solid but getting confirmation that VitaeGUM was popular with people in the community really pushed me to make it a reality.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Research skills: it’s really important to understand the market and the science behind your start up.
Networking : you need to be able to meet people who can help you set up the business, lots of opportunities aren’t openly advertised and you miss out on many opportunities if you don’t take the time to meet people!
Determination: being able to keep working when things aren’t going well is essential

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Thinking about the bigger picture and how our product has the potential to help so many people.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Care4calais, The first refugee charity I worked for was very inspirational for me to start VitaeGUM. They help thousands of refugees every day and are incredibly determined to provide as much support as they can offer. I was inspired by how hard they worked and even when everything was going wrong they still managed to somehow provide for people.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
We speak a lot! I have taken a lot of inspiration from their distribution model and how to provide VitaeGUM to thousands of refugees with only a small start up team

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Making the VitaGUM prototype

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Being inpatient and getting frustrated when things take a while to happen.

How have you funded your ideas?
We have won some competitions and have a little bit of funding so far. We are looking to get funding for our pilot study.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We have won grants from the following:

  • All innovate (Oxford foundry)
  • Oxford hub social enterprise award
  • Oxford inspires
  • Oxford interdisciplinary bioscience impact award for enterprise and innovation

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The best thing about being in Oxford is the opportunities to meet other entrepreneurs. There are so many events and competitions to meet people at.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Oxford social entrepreneurs OSE. I advertised my start up idea there and recruited my whole team through them.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Sometimes in group settings people will speak over you, you just have to be confident and loud. I also find that people don’t think I have any scientific knowledge, even though I’m doing my PhD in biochemistry. I just make sure I am super knowledgable on whatever I’m talking about.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
The best thing is to meet other female entrepreneurs and learn and support each other

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
More women entrepreneur social events

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Do it! You will learn so much about yourself

Any last words of advice?
Work life balance is important, you can’t start a successful business if you’ve burnt out