Dr Nara Orban, Chief Operating Officer of Phaim Pharma

Photo of Nara Orban

Dr Nara Orban MBBS MEd (Surg) DIC MRCS(Eng) DLO is an adult and paediatric ENT surgeon and honorary senior clinical lecturer at Barts NHS Trust and Queen Mary Univerity London. She qualified at Imperial College and Charing Cross Hospital and is a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. She is passionate about research having studied for a PhD at Imperial College and has considerable expertise in autoimmunity particularly nasal. She jointly founded and is director of The Congenital and Children’s Heart Centre providing private medical and surgical care to children and adults with congenital heart disease. Dr Nara Orban is the Chief Operating Officer of the Phaim Pharma Ltd and is responsible for the regulatory, tax, compliance, communication and accounting aspects of Phaim Pharma Ltd.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I have always enjoyed taking on new challenges, I have always looked for things that are interesting, rewarding, novel. I wanted to make a difference. We are actually a family company, and the idea for Phaim Pharma Ltd arose from talking about it at the dinner table. Both my parents were in science, and these ideas just bubbled up to the surface. It was very daunting, we were just a bunch of doctors, with no VC or financial background. However, this was a ground-breaking idea, there was the potential to take away distress and morbidity from this disease. The big challenge was how to take this idea to something tangible. There is a great feeling of fulfilment in taking an idea from beginning to end.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Phaim Pharma Ltd. Logo

I would say passion is absolutely the cornerstone of entrepreneurship. Your idea has to set a fire in your belly. The road is long and bumpy, but what gets you through is cherishing the idea of getting to the end. Not only does it have to be a great idea, but you also have to believe in 100%. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will. It is the feeling of: I want to take this passion, hold it close to my chest and carrying it all the way past the finish line.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
That is a very difficult question – how do you measure success? I have always looked to make things bigger, better, stronger, faster. One obvious measure is commercial success and that can be a good barometer. But there are other measures of success, particularly when you are looking at a potentially curative drug. I think for me, success for this project will be having the therapy available, not just on the market, but to be given by doctors and diabetic centres so that it can make a difference, that is the aim.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I think it goes back to having that passion. The road is not what you think it will be. Therefore, I think the first and foremost skill is flexibility and the ability to adapt. You have to work quickly, adapt early and look out for windows of opportunity. Always be outward looking, connect with other people, go to meetings and seek out contacts and opportunities. Listen, learn and be flexible – if you don’t have that, your company might have an abrupt end. Secondly, passion and drive are important. You need that fire in your belly. Finally, there has to be a very strong element of self-reflection. Whether it is going badly or going well, try to make them learning moments. It is so important to examine things as they go along. You are constantly learning and constantly growing. It is an exciting time, and we evolve.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Doing what you love. This isn’t a job, this isn’t a 9 to 5. You get to do something you are passionate about, that’s the joy. It is difficult, don’t get me wrong, it is not a smooth ride – but what is better than that? Perhaps this is slightly philosophical, but we have each been given a little bit of time on this earth. It is too short to not being doing something you love.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – I think they are an absolutely fantastic team and they have taken their vast wealth to do something positive for the community and create a lasting legacy. I really respect that. They have also done it really well, they took malaria, which is the number one killer of children under the age of 5, particularly in the developing world. They decided that they would move the needle on this disease, and they have. They have saved millions of lives. They also have such clarity of vision and clarity of process and through that, they have been able to change the world.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would like to learn about their process, how they did it to get to the other side. I would love to delve into their thinking and practical skills. How do you take a single idea and have that clarity of vision? What does that journey look like?

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
When you have a drug development study, you go through animal models first. When the results of our animal study showed that our drug was not only safe, but successful, that was a real win. I am looking forward to our upcoming human trials.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Early on, the difficult part is the balance between what you want to do and what you can do. It is not likely that you will have all the funds to do what you would like to do. You are left with this situation where you realise: I can’t do that, but how do I ensure that the compromise is an acceptable compromise? I think any entrepreneur will face this challenge. Certainly, looking back, there are things I could have done better, but none have been fatal or even near-fatal mistakes. That’s learning, that’s part of the process. My suggestion is to look for people who have been there before, relatively senior people who are happy. For the most part, humans are a helpful bunch, particularly when you are at the top of your game. Make those connections and bring them into the fold if they want to be part of the journey. I am good at knowing when I am not good at something. I always try to bring in the expertise that we need. It is all part of the process, part of your personal growth and your company’s growth when you come out the other side. Then you have the power of knowledge and insight that you can leverage to something else.

How have you funded your ideas?
We are a private family company. A lot of biotech companies that are funded are so-called spinouts – they start off anchored in an academic institution, then are taken out as a commercial enterprise. We didn’t have that and that was a choice. At the very beginning, you need to define what you want to be and where you fall on the spectrum. It helps you to place yourself in the genre. We decided that we would look at it all. There were early approaches to buy us out, with very comforting sums of money – but we didn’t think that was satisfy our desire to see our project through. In the end, we raised equity through individuals, friends, family and angel investors. Always have conversations with people. They may say no at one point, but one year later, the flavour of the conversation may be different.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We are currently writing grant applications now. Applying for these large grant bodies can be very helpful. They are difficult to get, but just the process of writing grant applications can help consolidate your ideas and knowledge surrounding the company.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford is very good at being outward looking. They have the mentality of here we are, let us all learn together. They recognise there is a huge amount of power and knowledge within the community.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? There is so much out there that it can be difficult to know where to go and what support there is. The Innovate UK website is very helpful, you can get an idea of what there is hunger for at a governmental level. The Enterprise Europe Network is slightly changing because of Brexit, but it is still there and it provides support. I would highly recommend connecting with the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) – it’s a great place where you can attend workshops and seminars, as well as connect with people. Keep your eye out on LinkedIn. You begin to realise that you are only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from people.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I have four children. Bringing them up during those early years whilst having the company and being a trainee surgeon – that was very challenging, at times. It goes back to that idea of loving what you do. If you love what you do, then some of the sacrifices you have to make are easier. That is not to say you should sacrifice yourself though, it is a balancing act. If you love what you do, you can see for what it is and not a burden. Your business has to be something that you are passionate about. With four young children, you also have to be incredibly organised. My advice is to not let things slip or build up, try to keep on top of things. Have an internal regulator – if you have said “yes” too many times, it is fine to give some of those things back. No one will think less of you. You need to decide what is important to you and don’t measure yourself by any other standards. Look after yourself, set targets that are realistic and enjoy it – that’s the whole point. Enjoy the work, enjoy everything that wraps around it. Do what you enjoy – go hiking, cycling, running if those are things that you like. Use that as a source of strength and springboard. We can have it all, just maybe not all at the same time.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
My greatest female strength has come from other women who have gone down the same or similar path. It could be a completely different journey or subject, but I find huge amounts of strength from listening to other women. I have also built strong friendships through this journey. There is a real strength to speak to other women who have been through something similar and that you can relate to in some way. Seek those people out and tap into that female camaraderie.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
These Wonder Women interviews are an exciting initiative. I think there is great opportunity for cross pollination and connecting these women together. We are all part of this journey together. Institutions can also connect female entrepreneurs to funding. We know that there are many differences in how men and women are funded. I would be really interested to see what female-specific funding would look like.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Firstly, I would suggest that you pinpoint what you want to do – you need to have incredible clarity about what you want to achieve. Know your target, know your aim. Secondly, ask yourself: what is the vision? Where do you want to be? What does success look life? You will have to communicate this a lot to other people. Finally, form your team and surround yourself with people who share the vision. If you have those three things, you are good to go.

Any last words of advice?
Go for it. The reality is that it is hard, but it is also great fun and immensely fulfilling.