Martine I. Abboud, founder of Creo Incubator

Photo of Martine I. Abboud

Martine is the founder of Creo Incubator; a start–up that provides gamified and interactive entrepreneurial and business know-how education. There is a special focus within Creo Incubator on women and individuals from underrepresented communities. Martine established Creo Incubator in August 2020 with the central aim of making education and skills training more fun and engaging and more accessible and equitable.  

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I grew up in Lebanon and I’ve always been fascinated by science. I decided to pursue a career in biology and chemistry. I’ve worked on, for example, antibiotic resistance, oxygen sensing, and brain tumours. After completing my PhD in Chemical Biology at the University of Oxford, I attainted a Junior Research Fellowship from Kellogg College. It was at this point that I started to explore my interest in entrepreneurship. I had come to realise that it’s actually quite difficult to translate our scientific findings into actual start-ups and innovations because there is a gap between the skills you have as a scientist and the business knowledge needed to start your own company. We, as scientists, have the scientific method – but then how do you translate this into business knowledge? How are you going to do your market study? I started to identify what is actually needed on this front and how to bridge the gap. Through my scientific work, I have been capable of witnessing first-hand the diversity of innovations that could come to life if only young generations and ambitious entrepreneurs were equipped with the guidance that they are often too lost, afraid, or disoriented to seek. Oxford is a very privileged environment: I had access to lots of different resources and I was able to explore my interest in entrepreneurship, along with accessing the skills and training. However, this is not the case in most other places. This led me to establish Creo Incubator to make this knowledge more accessible in a fun and engaging manner. Creo continuously strives to provide upcoming generations with the network support needed in order to overcome the barriers that still exist between science and entrepreneurship. To do so, we have always adopted a very interactive method: our teaching is based on gamification and micro learning. In fact, we plan to expand micro-learning and gamification methods to different topics as we aim to reach new generations of entrepreneurs and equip them with the knowledge and skill to solve some of our time’s most complex problems.  It’s similar to Duolinguo – but for entrepreneurial skills and education! 

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Creo Incubator Logo

Entrepreneurship is about being able to take on the journey, while keeping your vision always aligned with your values. The standard definition is take risks and attain gain. The risk you are taking is important and is itself a challenge. You’re in a completely different mindset when you have a guaranteed salary at the end of the month to when you don’t. But we shouldn’t only be focused on the risk elements. Your challenge is also to figure out the different steps of the business – such as legal, accounting, hiring, and onboarding – as well as managing your team and an appropriate culture. At the same time, how is that going to be aligned with your longer-term vision, which can be forgotten when you’re so focused on the daily operations.  

So, for me, entrepreneurship is about really being able to bring your skills on board and being okay with risks or uncertainty in general. In most cases there will always be that 20% that you don’t know. You should be comfortable with not knowing and figuring out how to deal with these things while being aligned with your values and what you want to achieve – whether that is social impact or equitable education as it is for me in this case. 

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

Curiosity is always a driving force because you have to be interested in getting to the root cause. So really understanding that if we have a problem, why is there this problem? Curiosity then drives you to the next level of developing a solution and understanding if your solution is working. So, for me, curiosity is always the top one that you need to have as an entrepreneur. Across different occupations, you need to be curious to be good at your job. You need to have the sufficient interest to walk into uncharted territories and explore possibilities that haven’t been considered in the past, even if you’re the first to do it. That starts with asking questions! It’s often the things we don’t understand rather than the ones we do that produce the best ideas.  

Focus and discipline 
It is very important to be disciplined even when things are not going well. You need to stay focused on your vision and on your work, not shying away from the resilience you might need if you’re faced with failure. Granted, when you’re tackling a problem from a new perspective, or starting a one-of-a-kind initiative, there is no textbook on how to think critically and navigate hardship because it’s all very new and so still uncertain or unknown. What will certainly drown your initiative is the self-rejection you inflict in yourself when you decide to fold. You will experience rejections, for example, not every supplier may want to work for you, and you may not get every funding you apply to. So, you need to be disciplined and keep up the hard work. 

Whenever you’re not feeling at your best, don’t forget why you started. Be passionate and have fun! Always remember your values because this is what really drives your journey. So, know your values, connect with them, and make sure that your company and your mission are always aligned with them.  

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The best part is when you see the outcome and how you’re influencing and empowering people. This loops back into the mission and why you started this in the first place, so for me, this is the nicest part. Something I really like is that we measure the impact by the number of ‘aha!’ moments you generate, rather than just how good or bad something was. For us, having these ‘aha!’ moments is quite important because you realise that you’re saving the trial and error for your entrepreneurs that are going through the journey.  

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
For an organisation, having been at Oxford, I am very much inspired by the work that is being done here and the different initiatives, for example, IDEA, I2I, OUI, Enterprising Oxford, and RisingWISE. All of these have really shaped my perspective and enabled me to go to the next level. Just as these environments have done for me, I want Creo to be the go-to resources for young entrepreneurs for know-how and guidance.  

For individuals, it might sound cheesy, but I am very much inspired by pop singers or sports people. For example, Taylor Swift – I really like what she has done for the industry, how she has stood up for the rights of other artists, and the way she is really owning her recording labels. It takes a lot of guts and courage to go through this journey. And guts and courage is exactly the type of drive we want to instil and steer in our entrepreneurs as they troubleshoot their way into impactful initiatives.   

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would ask these individuals about how their journey changed their perspective and how they know that this was the right course of action. We are often taught things and we just take them as a status quo. Sometimes it’s very basic like don’t talk to strangers, which we say to kids for their own safety. But many times we grow up and keep thinking this, however, sometimes the best way to build your network is to talk to strangers and to go to conferences. It’s like a learning journey: we are always learning, unlearning, and relearning. This shapes your perspective in a better way, every time figuring out how you can be contributing to the world to make the world a little bit of a better place – what can I be doing as an individual? 

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I don’t want to repeat myself, but it is always seeing the impact that we have on the different entrepreneurs. I’m also proud of what we have developed: the products, the interactive elements, the journey, etc. It makes me so happy to be presenting this to prospective clients and universities to make it more accessible. I really want this to go very big, so I am quite ambitious on that side. I want almost everyone to be going through the Creo experience.  

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
The biggest lesson I learnt, although it may sound cliché, is to think big, start small, and adjust often. This is something that I didn’t do well at the start. The way was to step back a little bit and figure out what the differentiating factor was for us. This is when we started to be more focused on the gamified and interactive education that enabled the startup to go to the next level and seek funding from investors. Many times it’s important just to start small and make sure you make it to that stage, and then you can start thinking about the bigger stage, rather than trying to do everything at the same time. These are exactly the valuable lessons we aim to teach at Creo to both save – to the extent that that is possible – trial and error phases, and also provide support, guidance, consultancy, and a network for our projects to lean on when things don’t go as planned.   

How have you funded your ideas?
I decided to bootstrap the company, and I have been doing so for the past year. We have also had different clients on board, which brings in revenue. This is the right approach for us currently because we want to have control over what specifically we want to achieve with the company. This also circles back to staying aligned with established values. As I’ve mentioned earlier, sticking to our original vision without falling into the trap of prioritizing profit while maintaining the necessary revenue, the same way we aim to enable our entrepreneurs to do, is an essential part of our work.  

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
I was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list and I’ve also represented the University at the Lindau- Nobel Laureate Meeting. Having access to all of these networks has been a huge benefit and really opened up the horizons for Creo. An award does not happen in isolation, it’s about the people you connect with and the community you become part of after you win that award. For example, from the Forbes network, I was able to connect with different entrepreneurs and many of these attended one of the first events we held at Creo. These are the type of services we aim to provide for our Creo entrepreneurs. Creo is an educational hub, yes, but networking is a skill too. The same way we’ve had the opportunity to have access to all of these resources, I realize that many don’t and it is exactly why Creo also offers the type of service and community that empowers people to maximize their potential and implement impactful plans.   

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
There’s definitely a lot of good things! The first is the people and the network. Many of the people share a similar life, culture, intellectual stimulation and set of values. Most are driven by very similar journeys. Through being connected with them, you can exchange and bounce around ideas, seek their advice, and gain expertise. They act as connectors and enablers of innovation. It’s an ecosystem there – I really like this – you are always contributing into it and getting out of it, so it’s like a two-way street.  

Oxford is an institution that hosts very ambitious individuals. The sheer potential and volume of ideas and initiatives that could possibly emerge if everyone had safe spaces to learn and make mistakes without intimidation of failure and with correct mentoring can make a huge difference and possible advancements whose benefits all of us will reap. Embedding an entrepreneurial culture from the top will help to bridge that gap.   

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
If the person is at Oxford, there are so many good initiatives that I have personally been a part of. It depends on what the person is looking for. For example, if they are looking to get a better understanding of strategy and connect with people to widen their network, then the Ideas 2 Impact (I2I) programme at the Saïd Business School is an amazing opportunity. I know many scientists that actually ended up making the jump because of this particular programme and to us! To Creo Incubator!

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
There are different challenges I have faced as a woman, both as a scientist and an entrepreneur. Being able to see and connect with women role models is important. Visibility, like though this IDEA Wonder Women Series, is amazing and so important to have. At the same time, it is so important to have a good support network and wide access to funds. Acknowledging these challenges and their source is essential to overcoming them. This shouldn’t be an obstacle today and only imagining the number of phenomenal initiatives that were never implemented whether it be because of lack of material resources, or more importantly, lack of visibility and self-doubt is saddening and unfortunate for all of us.  

What resources would you recommend for other women?
There are so many different websites and initiatives out there for women. RisingWISE is a great initiative if you are in the Oxbridge network. There are other networks that are not specifically female focused but are still very beneficial. For example, Enterprise Nation has been doing a very good job connecting young entrepreneurs in different parts of the UK. The Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and Innovate UK are other amazing initiatives that are supporting entrepreneurs in different places.  

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
There are a few things. One is providing accessible entrepreneurial training for aspiring women entrepreneurs at Oxford. Some of the programmes, such as the MBA, are expensive, so it would be good to have part-time or funded programmes that can take you from A to Z. I also think there needs to be better support for women with kids because it is very difficult to balance it all and, even with subsidised nursery fees, it is so expensive. There are different incentives and support that can be created by the government or private institutions for women. Practical support like better nursery subsidies or more focus on paternity leave are needed. Flexible hours and remote working could also be very helpful for some people if it’s taken forward beyond the pandemic.  

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
As women we always want things to be perfect before we take a leap. It’s important to know that perfect is just the opposite of undone. If you’re going to wait until everything works out, you will probably never end up doing anything. That being said, make sure that it’s not only you that’s validating your idea – don’t forget to do your market study!   

Any last words of advice?
Don’t be limited by your own perceptions. Some of the biggest challenges are self-induced. So don’t be scared to go out of your box – there is no box! Connect with yourself and be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. You can always develop your skills and acquire knowledge, just don’t be scared to put yourself out there. It’s also important to surround yourself with the right people so that you have a good support network.