Katherine Ward, permanent Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE)

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Katherine Ward is a permanent Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE), an independent billion-pound venture fund that has a partnership with the University of Oxford.  OSE was founded in 2015, and the EIR programme brings experienced entrepreneurs to help build businesses across Oxford. Katherine, who works in the Health Tech team, primarily focuses on venture building. She oversees spin-outs of multiple companies a year and supports the spin-out processes by taking on the role of an Executive Chair until the CEO comes into play and then takes a Chair role. Her job, essentially, is to “poke around the Oxford ecosystem to find cool things in the health technology space,” she says. If anyone has a product, license, or piece of research related to healthcare — whether that be in sociology, medical life sciences, or engineering — she dives in to find potential investment and spin-out opportunities. 

Katherine has more than 30 years of experience in healthcare. She started her career in public service, working for the NHS for 15 years. Then she spent 11 years with UnitedHealth Group, where she was the Chief Executive of the UnitedHealth UK. After becoming the Chief Growth Officer at Optum, a branch of UnitedHealth, she transitioned into the startup world. She became the Chief Commercial Officer for Healthy.io, a health tech startup that offers home-based clinical testing using smartphone technology. She currently remains a Growth Advisor for Healthy.io. She is also a mother of three children. 

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

My first degree is Classics, ancient Greek, and Latin. Although it is not very vocational, it was a very good liberal arts education. I studied a whole range of different subjects — history, literature, language, politics, archaeology, art, and philosophy from 5th century BC to 5th century AD. But apart from being a classics teacher, there wasn’t an obvious path from that. I did a summer internship for a Regional Health Authority, which was part of the National Health Service (NHS) system. In those days, you applied for jobs by ploughing through lists of jobs that were advertised in the newspaper. I then realized that there was a whole world of NHS management that I didn't know existed. Then I applied for the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme, which still exists today.

The NHS employs 1.3 million people. There are a lot of opportunities. I imagined that I would be a lifetime NHS manager and I worked there for 15 years. I then ran a project with UnitedHealth Group, which is a Fortune 5 American for-profit healthcare company, who came to the UK to test whether managed care principles that were used in the US healthcare system would apply in an NHS environment. I worked with an amazing group of clinical managers who were using data to drive decision-making, motivated by quality, and extremely expert in change management. It was fascinating, all coming from a for-profit, private healthcare system. I had an amazing time for 18 months, being a Programme Director for that project. Afterward, the US company set up a company locally in the UK and said, “Would I come and work for them?” I thought, “Okay, I'm going to come back after 18 months to the NHS.” I ended up moving to UnitedHealth and staying there for 11 years including as CEO of the UK company and the Chief Growth Officer of Optum International.

I had a moment where I realised that in the 15 years, I'd been in the NHS, I become quite institutionalised — which you expect because it's a large institution. I then did it again at Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth but then a LinkedIn recruiter came through and said, “We have a startup, we’ve seen your profile, we'd love you to meet the founder.” I went to meet this founder, Yonatan Adiri, and he turned out to be the former Chief Technology Officer for Shimon Peres, the former Israeli Prime Minister. He'd been traveling the world pushing to put Israel at the forefront of technology and had realised that the biggest investment in technology is the smartphone camera because the 8 billion selfies get uploaded to the cloud every day and he had worked out that if you could bring that into healthcare, you could potentially get change to happen more quickly.

Adiri was a very inspiring man who had created the first product for a urine test that could be done at home by a patient with a pot, a dipstick a colour board, and an app that helps you through the process. He asked if I would come on board as the Chief Commercial Officer to take this thing global. So I dived into it and went from being Employee Number 456,006 to being Employee Number 23. I was the first employee outside of Tel Aviv. Over six years, I managed to build up a contract with the NHS for 850,000 people at risk to have their urine tested for chronic kidney disease. We managed to get FDA approval in the US and to close a strategic deal with a big national payer in the US. I decided this time that I wasn't going to get institutionalized. I was going to keep an eye on what I wanted to do next a little bit earlier and had been wondering whether I could have any impact on the investor side. I knew I didn’t have the experience to be a pure investor but in an EIR-type role, I would probably be able to add value with my experience in delivery and potential to help other entrepreneurs get their ideas into reality. I was very fortunate to meet Heather Roxborough, who's a Senior Health Tech partner at OSE. We had both worked at Optum previously but not at the same time and lots of people suggested that we would work well together, This EIR opportunity, which I had thought would be an ideal job but never imagined I would be able to easily find, just materialised through meeting Heather. That was earlier this year. I started in October.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
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It's a state of mind and attitude more than it is a job. Although funnily enough, I have it as a title now (which is pretty unusual). You have to have resilience and fortitude. You’d have to keep going even when you get dips in the road. It's like a roller coaster ride that you have to be ready for the ups and downs — and the downs are like three times a day. You’d have to have an optimistic outlook and believe that you're going to make it happen in the end. If you get put off by the fact that it’s going to be hard, then you will never make it. Also, you'd have to have some vision about what is possible. You can be an entrepreneur then without necessarily having to be in a startup — you can be an entrepreneur inside an institution.

How have you funded your ideas? 

The huge privilege of my job is that I sit inside the investment fund. I will have to create a very strong and compelling business case, but if I can do that, the Investment Committee of the OSE will potentially seed fund the idea that I find, and maybe lead the series A as well. It's a completely different situation to being a conventional entrepreneur who's out there on their own, trying to go around all of the different funders to find an investor. They are looking for me to bring them something that they can invest in. So it's an incredibly fortunate position to be in. It's a dream job.

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

Oxford University Innovation Limited  

EnSpire Oxford 

Said Business School

We work closely with the Oxford University Innovation (OUI), which is the technology transfer office. OUI is the group inside the university who are in charge of the patenting and the licensing, so they will work closely with an individual who has an interest in being part of a spin-out. EnSpire Oxford is one resource where there might be some future entrepreneurs with great ideas and they run a number of programmes to support budding entrepreneurs. Said Business School also has courses in business and management and a lot of networks for people with business ideas.

We also look at what the top problems are in healthcare. Where are the hotspots for investing that other companies are talking about a lot? Can we take those macro problems and find something at Oxford that could solve them?

How have you managed this career and being a mother of 3 children? 

I took three maternity leaves in the 10 years that I worked in Bristol for the NHS. I have a secret weapon, which is what the Americans term a “stay-at-home dad.” My husband has been looking after the kids since my eldest daughter was six months old. He was a primary school teacher by training and said that he would be interested in taking on the childcare once I went back. When I had my first maternity leave, I was climbing the walls like “Get me back to work.” He stopped teaching and started full-time looking after kids. I was so privileged that he could identify in that role and didn't feel it was a threat to his identity or his self-worth.

In fact, he's done that job for 24 years. My youngest daughter just left home about three weeks ago. It has worked so well for us. At one point, I was in Brazil every month, Singapore and Australia every quarter, and Minneapolis every six weeks in the same job. We set rules for what balance would look like. I was probably harder on myself than a lot of men who were in my position of doing the big job. But it was a balance that worked for us. I look at the people who both have careers who are juggling and negotiating and I think that's a lot harder. You appreciate that you have one of you who's prepared to do the other job or the job with the kids. I was just very fortunate that Simon wanted to do that. 

Any last words of advice? 

Just go with it. Go with your instinct, enjoy what you’re doing. I think for too long people see work as work. It’s hard and people do call it “work” for a reason! But if you can find something that you enjoy and you’re interested in, work-life balance becomes a different question about needing to put your boundaries in place rather than having a sense that my work is just forcing me to do loads of things I don’t like doing. If you love what you’re doing, that balancing becomes a lot easier.