Katherine Laney, DPhil student in chemistry and aspiring entrepreneur

katherine laney headshot

Katherine is a final year PhD student whose research focuses on developing hydrophobic coatings for food packaging. Her research is driven by a deep desire to make a positive impact on society and find innovative solutions to global issues. Katherine is part of a multi-disciplinary team that is dedicated to finding solutions to global challenges related to plastics , zero carbon, and the circular economy. In this collaborative setting, Katherine brings her expertise and unique perspective to the table, and works closely with her team members to develop innovative solutions that can help address some of the most pressing issues facing our planet today.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur? 
I completed my undergraduate and master's degrees at Cardiff University. After finishing my master's, I joined Oxford University to pursue my PhD. I am grateful for my PhD experience as our research group was funded by industry from the very beginning, which meant that our research always had a practical application. This approach helped me focus on how my research could have a positive impact on the world and not just be limited to academic papers. Initially, I worked on an idea that was suggested by the company funding our research. However, when I came across the Jamie Ferguson Awards, I came up with a new idea for my research, exploring super hydrophobic coatings to enhance the efficiency and output of renewable energy sources such as solar panels. This idea stemmed from my industrial background and funding, which encouraged me to explore new ways and areas of research. It also gave me the opportunity to network with people from different fields, including chemistry and business school, which helped me adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

One of the key traits of successful entrepreneurs is having an open mind. The entrepreneurial journey is often unpredictable, and you never know where it will take you. Your original idea for a product or company may evolve into something completely different over time. Therefore, it's important to remain adaptable and open to change. It's also important to be willing to learn from others, and to be willing to pivot in response to feedback or changing market conditions. 

Another important trait of successful entrepreneurs is effective communication skills. This involves being able to articulate your vision and goals clearly to others, as well as being able to listen actively to feedback and criticism. Effective communication skills are also essential for building and maintaining strong relationships with customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders. 

Finally, successful entrepreneurs are those who are willing to take calculated risks in order to achieve their goals. This means being willing to invest time, money, and resources into a new venture, while also being able to weigh the potential risks and rewards of different courses of action. It also means being resilient in the face of failure and being willing to learn from your mistakes in order to improve and grow.

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

I believe the turning point for me was when I won the competition. Prior to that, I had a lot of doubts about my idea. Nevertheless, I decided to present it to several investors and at a number of events. To my surprise, the response was overwhelmingly positive, and they found my concept to be very intriguing. It was not just me who believed in my idea; even the chemistry professors in my department appreciated it. Their support and encouragement gave me the confidence to pursue my idea further, and winning the competition made me realize that I was on the right track.

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

As per my understanding, being an entrepreneur requires a combination of skills, which include effective networking, communication, and the ability to admit when you don't have all the answers. One must have the courage to overcome their own limitations to gain knowledge and expertise in specific areas. Apart from that, flexibility is another essential trait. Ideas and research can change rapidly, especially in science-based industries. So, it's crucial to be open-minded and adjust to new perspectives and situations. Flexibility also means being adaptable and willing to pivot if necessary.
Moreover, being an entrepreneur requires a high degree of organisation and self-motivation. You are solely responsible for meeting your own deadlines and achieving your own targets. Therefore, it's essential to plan ahead, set goals, and prioritise tasks to ensure that you stay on track and meet your deadlines. At the same time, it's crucial not to overwork yourself and remain realistic in your expectations, so you don't risk burning out.

Being an entrepreneur requires a unique set of skills, which include effective communication, networking, adaptability, organization, and self-motivation. With these skills, one can navigate the challenges and uncertainties of entrepreneurship and build a successful and fulfilling career.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur? 
Throughout my experiences, I have been fortunate enough to meet a diverse range of individuals and engage in various activities that have been incredibly inspiring. However, one aspect that I find particularly enjoyable is pitching ideas and presenting. It's an exciting opportunity that takes me out of my comfort zone, but I relish the challenge. What makes it even more thrilling is that it is very different from my daily scientific pursuits, which is a refreshing change of pace.
Pitching and presenting require a unique set of skills and a different approach to communicating ideas. It's a skill that I am always eager to develop and improve. I find it incredibly rewarding to be able to explain complex scientific concepts in simple terms to individuals who may not have a scientific background. While it can be a challenge to tailor my communication style to the needs of different audiences, it's a challenge that I embrace wholeheartedly. Through these activities, I have learned how to communicate my ideas more effectively and how to tailor my message to suit the needs of my audience. 

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

The company that has inspired me the most is Hydregeen. This remarkable company was founded by two women who have demonstrated a high level of expertise and innovation in their field. They have set a great example for women entrepreneurs, especially in the male-dominated field of chemistry. The company is run by a highly accomplished chemistry professor who has been an invaluable mentor to me. I am grateful for all the help and guidance she has provided me with, and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from her. Hydregeen's success is a testament to the power of hard work, determination, and innovation. I am inspired by the company's commitment to excellence and its unwavering dedication to advancing the field of chemistry.

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

One of the most fulfilling experiences I've had was when I won a competition. It was a moment where all the hard work and dedication I put in finally paid off. Another memorable experience was when I gave a talk during Green Impact Week. The opportunity to share my research with like-minded individuals was quite exhilarating. The Q&A session that followed was equally interesting, as it allowed me to engage with the audience and answer their questions. Being able to discuss my research with others was a satisfying experience, and it gave me a sense of purpose and direction in my work.

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

I am currently working in a laboratory setting where there is a lot of pressure to get our research to a certain stage. During this time, I was working on a specific application idea for our research, and I was really focused on making it work. Although I wasn't exactly burnt out, I was so focused on this one idea that I didn't take the time to explore other potential applications that could have been beneficial to our research.

In retrospect, I realised that there was a whole world of other applications out there that I could have utilised. This made me more aware of the importance of keeping an open mind and being prepared to pivot when necessary. I am now able to be more flexible in my approach and am always looking for new and innovative ideas that could potentially improve our research outcomes. Overall, this experience has taught me the value of being open to new ideas and perspectives, and I am excited to continue exploring new possibilities in the future.

How have you funded your ideas? 

As a PhD student, I am currently engaged in research that is fully funded by our industrial partner. This means that all of my work related to the research project is covered financially, including any external activities such as attending courses at universities. The university is also providing additional funding for any activities outside of the scope of the industrial partnership.

I am now at a stage where I am seeking postdoctoral funding to continue the research in the lab for 1 year with the aim to spin out after, the postdoctoral funding I am seeking will focus on the commercialisation of the idea.

This is an exciting time for me, as I am eager to continue my research and explore new opportunities to bring my ideas to fruition. I am confident that with the right support and funding, I can make significant strides in my field and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in my area of expertise.

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

Living in Oxford has been a great experience for me. One of the reasons I love staying here is the sense of community and support that surrounds you. Everyone here is so knowledgeable and willing to lend a helping hand if you reach out to them. It's amazing how many people you can meet and interact with, and the wealth of knowledge available to you.

However, I have also noticed that sometimes there can be added pressure attached to the Oxford name. As a student or researcher, you may feel like you're expected to be perfect and have everything figured out all the time. This can lead to imposter syndrome, where you feel like you don't belong or aren't good enough. Sometimes, the pressure can be self-imposed, as you may feel like you need to have a fully formulated and perfect idea before sharing it with others.

Overall, the benefits of living in Oxford far outweigh the drawbacks. The community here is so supportive and welcoming, and you can learn so much from the people around you. However, it's important to recognize that there may be added pressure associated with the Oxford name and to not let it hinder your progress or confidence.

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

In my opinion, one of the best ways to gain knowledge and expertise in a particular field is by attending courses. Therefore, I would recommend sending them to the same courses that I attended, as they were extremely beneficial and informative. These courses offer a comprehensive curriculum that covers all aspects of the subject matter, as well as hands-on experience in the field. 

Moreover, these courses provide an excellent opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals who are also interested in the same field. By interacting with people within the courses, they can gain valuable information and insights, as well as build relationships that can be useful in the future. These individuals can also direct them to other people who can provide them with additional help and guidance, which can be extremely beneficial in their professional development. 

Overall, attending courses is an excellent way to gain knowledge, build connections, and advance your career. Therefore, I would highly recommend sending them to the courses that I attended to help them achieve their professional goals.

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

I am not sure if I have faced any direct challenges yet, because I am studying in a very protected environment within my chemistry department. I am still within the Oxford-protected bubble, I suppose. However, I have noticed that sometimes I might be the only woman attending certain courses. There is still a significant gap between the number of men and women involved in this field in particular. Nevertheless, I believe that it is getting better and I think this is partly due to the efforts made around Oxford and the many inspirational people here. It is not necessarily a direct disadvantage, but I would say it is a shame at the moment. However, I believe that Oxford is trying to improve and create more balance.

What resources would you recommend for other women?

I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to attend a women's retreat at King's College University in London. The retreat was a wonderful opportunity for me to connect with other women and learn from their experiences. Throughout the course of the retreat, I received a wealth of valuable advice and resources that have helped me to grow both personally and professionally. The speakers were knowledgeable and inspiring, and I appreciated the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with them and my fellow retreat attendees. Overall, the retreat was an unforgettable experience that I am grateful to have been a part of.

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

I think the university has been doing an exceptional job in creating an environment that supports and empowers women. The movement is being driven by a group of inspiring and determined individuals who are dedicated to promoting gender equality and creating a safe space for women. The university has shown its commitment to this cause by taking various initiatives such as organising workshops and seminars, hiring more female staff, and creating policies that ensure gender equality. Overall, the university's efforts are making a positive impact and creating a supportive and inclusive environment for women. I believe that with continued efforts, the university will be able to create a more equitable and just society for all.

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

My advice to you is to take a leap of faith and go for it. Don't let self-doubt hold you back. Instead, be confident in your abilities and take part in these courses. They offer a wealth of opportunities for personal growth and learning. It's important to be open-minded and willing to embrace new experiences. By attending these courses, you'll have the chance to meet new people who share similar interests and passions. This could lead to exciting collaborations, new friendships, or even potential job opportunities.

Taking the first step can be scary, but it's a crucial one. You never know where your next big idea or connection might come from. By immersing yourself in these courses, you'll have the chance to learn from experts in the field and gain valuable insights that could help shape your future. 

Don't be afraid to seek advice from others. Whether it's from fellow attendees, instructors, or industry professionals, there's always something to be learned from others. Keep an open mind and be receptive to feedback. Who knows where it might lead you? The possibilities are endless and that's what makes this experience so exciting.