Dr Angela Russell, Co-Founder of MuOx and OxStem

Angela Russell photo

Having converted from Biochemistry to Chemistry as an undergraduate at Oxford University, Angela has remained there ever since. Able to seek different experiences and change within the same institution at every pivotal decision-making point, she found there was always something new to explore at Oxford, and today holds a unique position at the University, with one foot in both the physical and medical sciences.  

Towards the beginning of her postdoctoral research, she was looking at the development of a drug which could aid in the repair of muscle in Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare neuro-muscular disease. Her novel approach and desire to commercialise this drug, and get it to patients and clinics, triggered her involvement as a consultant, then later a partnership with the company now known as Summit Therapeutics in 2004. Today, it is a billion-dollar company on the US stock exchange. The first company which she spun out as a founder, MuOx, was based again in DMD, but having looked for other molecules and mechanisms, they spun-out the company. Summit then bought MuOx, setting equity for Angela, in recognition of her contributions. MuOx still sits in Summit Therapeutics, but unfortunately no longer operates in DMD research.  

This marked the start of an expansive entrepreneurial career, in which Angela has led on the spinning-out of over ten companies. 

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

My entrepreneurial spirit was born from a desire to pioneer. Although I was somewhat naïve at the beginning, I went along for the ride in pioneering my ideas, mentored by recognised industry members who had successfully founded and run their own businesses, a common experience amongst upcoming entrepreneurs. These strong, dynamic role models influenced the decision to spin-out my activities. Of course, there was also the prominent question of how I can make an impact on healthcare, and see that my ideas will make it and really be useful.   

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

Over the years I have become more strategic in my approach to when is the right time. I have taken on money to build businesses, or partner with different investors, at different stages of an entrepreneurship opportunity. For example, going in early, as I did with the second major company that I spun out, OxStem, required partnership with more altruistic and long-term thinking investors. Other times, with an investment that is further down the line and closer to the clinic, there is less risk, and so you may work with people with a more short-term view on their return.  

How did you fund your ideas? 

Unfortunately, there is a widespread conservatism in conventional academic funding routes. People throw up every barrier as to why something wouldn’t work. You rarely see money going into projects that are very risky but may also have incredible returns if they do work, especially 20 years ago. Our funding often came through the investment sector, where there is a different perception of reward, risk and failure. If I had it my way, I would really like to see more of a meeting of minds between academic and entrepreneur industry sectors.  

What is good about Oxford as an entrepreneurial space?  

The Oxford entrepreneurial space has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE) have been instrumental in changing the landscape of entrepreneurial space in Oxford. Even before OSE, in 2000 IP Group funded a third of the construction of the Chemistry building, and in exchange received half of the equity in any spin-out company in Chemistry, for the following 15 years. This was the forerunner of what happened with OSE. IP Group realised that they could not sit back and wait, but put analysts and people who could help build businesses in the Chemistry department, to talk to people at an early stage to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset, which worked well. We saw progress in the department from three or four to over 20 companies being spun-out over a period of five years. This momentum still exists, despite the deal expiring with IP Group back in 2015/16, as the OSE fund was created by the same people behind IP Group. This time, however, the investment fund was going to be university wide. This effort has been transformative. What is good about it is that it does not affect the company founder, but creates a fund that not only sees your opportunity, but crucially also puts cash in it. This opportunity is not always found in other universities. This has been transformative in how creative we can be in setting up and attracting investors to these businesses. This has fuelled the network and support systems between large, medium and small companies in Oxford.  

This being said, however, we are an order of magnitude below the US. To begin with, the investment coming in is simply not enough. There is also not enough of a forward-thinking attitude in Oxford and the UK more generally. Rather than thinking about growing and funding a company for the next three years, we should be thinking about the next 20 years, and not just a short-term ambition to sell it, but rather grow it into something standalone. But, in this country, funds are not there to match this ambition. For example, Illumina, founded in Cambridge, was bought early on and is no longer a UK company. To grow and retain these businesses is not what we do very well in Oxford, and this is UK wide. I can tell you that many other entrepreneurs feel like this. I can see it is changing, we are starting to interact more with US investors, and are remaining UK based. This is something I am trying to be more involved in: the growth of the investment and entrepreneurship sector in the UK.  

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?  

For me, entrepreneurship is having the capacity to have a bold, ambitious vision and understanding what it takes to realise it. As an entrepreneur, you are at the centre of your business. Take the phrase ‘every drug needs a champion’; every business needs a champion, and so does every idea. As an entrepreneur you are that champion. To be successful, it is critical that you recognise and take hold of that vision, and also be honest with yourself about your own weaknesses or gaps, as you can't take it forward as an individual. Even me personally, I sometimes struggle to do my own tax return, let alone manage the finances of a complex company!  

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

Creativity, adaptability and a strong work ethic. To be an entrepreneur, by definition, you need to be creative and have a vision. It is also hard work being an entrepreneur, and you must understand how things fit together. You need to have that flexibility to allow things to grow, evolve and be created as a result.  

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

I love building teams, that has been one of the most satisfying things. I remember setting up OxStem back in 2016, and we had, at that time, the largest funding into any seed-round, we brought in just under £17 million, so we knew it would be big. I remember at our first Christmas dinner in 2017, I walked into the room and there were 100 people. Looking around at all those people, whom I knew personally, and in whose lives our company, something I had created, has served as stepping stones in all their careers. For me, this was truly a moving and career-defining moment. As well as this, that moment when you have successfully translated an idea into something impactful, which makes it into the clinic, is very satisfying. I have done this twice in the course of my career so far, one of which was in DMD. The buzz of getting that to children for whom there wasn't any other solution, and the promising interim clinical data we got, was a huge high. Unfortunately, that ended sadly because it didn’t give a lasting effect and failed at the end of the clinical trial. We tried again, however, during Covid, with a start-up company called Raphael Labs. We took a prophylaxis nasal spray for Covid into clinical trials back in 2021, and that did work. It’s in these moments, that buzz when something does work, that I think ‘this is why I am doing this’.  

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

Fundraising has been an interesting experience for me. As a female founder of a company, to walk into a room to pitch an idea and not see another woman can be challenging. In hindsight, sometimes you look back and wonder if you would have been listened to differently if you were a man. You question whether you are being taken as seriously as you may have been if you were a man… perhaps not. We certainly did a lot of trawling through different investors before we got the funding. It is hard to say, as it is a tough thing to do in any case. That said, investors like OSE, with their health and biotech teams being more than 50% female, make such a huge difference. I will say that, now, there are more and more women represented in leading roles and companies. Women were certainly far more scarce in these sectors even 7 or 8 years ago. 

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?  

Efforts to bring women together are highly important; at the end of the day, what drives successful business and allows successful entrepreneurship is the networks, and connections between people. This is why, as a minority, it has been difficult in the past. But as female representation grows, and the connections between women grow, it all becomes easier. I would like to see this continue to grow, because I think that is the way to improve things for everybody.  

What resources around Oxford would you recommend for other women? 

IDEA, and people like Leah Thompson who are so passionate about all of this are important, and it’s great to see efforts like these. I have been part of schemes encouraging women to remain in Science like GrowWISE and RisingWISE. I have also been involved in Nucleate, not as a participant, but as a mentor. These are all things which have grown, and did not exist when I was first starting. There are now tremendous opportunities allowing for representation in this area which was not possible before. I am working to create an entrepreneurial PhD. I have, for many years, been a director of a Wellcome Trust-funded studentship programme, and the interface of physical and medical science. Ideas came out of this which could have value as enterprises or companies. And so came the idea as to why entrepreneurial training is not properly embedded within PhD training. At the moment, all the resources I have mentioned are ad hoc; you have to go and seek them out yourself. What if you could complete a PhD programme to which all these entrepreneurial skills are integral? So that, at the earliest stages, you think about what your idea might look like as a company at the end of the day. I want this to be a recognised qualification, integrating rigorous science training, but also entrepreneurship training. I am hoping that this will be transformative for people with that entrepreneurial mindset and who know that this is what they want to do.  

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

The most important thing is to be bold and ambitious, and not be afraid of failing. Failure is embraced in the entrepreneurial space: when you fail, you learn how to do better. If you have bold ideas, not all of them will work, but when they do, they will be incredibly powerful and impactful. It’s how you pick yourself up from failure, recognise what isn’t working, and think well at least you got there and you tried. My advice would be to embrace this attitude.