Nicki Campling, Director of Innovation and Operations for The Oxford Trust

Nicki Campling photo

Nicki Campling is the Director of Innovation and Operations for The Oxford Trust, working across three programmes – innovation, education and public engagement – to encourage the pursuit of science. Through the Trust’s two innovation centres, Nicki supports start-up science and tech businesses on their path to growth and success in the Oxford region. She also oversees operations for Science Oxford, the Trust’s public-facing brand, including the Science Oxford Centre, supporting them with program delivery and activity, as well as maintaining the day-to-day oversight of the two centres in general.  

The Oxford Trust is a charitable trust that was formed in 1985 by entrepreneurs, the late Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood. They set up Oxford Instruments Ltd in their garden shed many years ago. It is an extremely well-known business in Oxford and arguably one of the first, and most successful, Oxford University spin-out companies.  

Following the Wood’s success and passion for science, they wanted to give back to the local Oxfordshire ecosystem. The Oxford Trust was formed and now has two innovation centres: he Wood Centre in Headington and the Oxford Centre for Innovation in the city centre.  

In addition to supporting science and tech start-ups through the two innovation centres, The Oxford Trust set upScience Oxford to deliver their education and public engagement programmes. To fulfil the Trust’s mission to “encourage the pursuit of science”, the team run STEM programs and activities for primary and secondary school children across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. During the week, primary schools can visit the Science Oxford Centre, giving children a hands-on science experience, making use of the Exploration Zone and 15 acres of woodland surrounding the Centre, so they can do integrated indoor-outdoor learning – all science based! There is also a Science Oxford outreach program, which delivers STEM-focused workshops and shows in schools, CPD and science kit loans to local primary schools. They also run a STEM Careers Programme for secondary schools, sparking that entrepreneurial spirit in teenagers and young adults.  

On Saturdays, the Science Oxford Centre is open for Family Days so families can come and enjoy the 20 plus hands-on exhibits in the Exploration Zone and have access to the woodland all day. They also run regular STEM Clubs in the Centre on Saturdays, including Nature Club, Science Club and Creative Computing.  

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?  
The Oxford Trust logo

Prior to my role at The Oxford Trust, I had a varied career background. I spent approximately 9 years working for Barclays Bank. I initially worked in retail and then moved into the business bank – I guess that’s where my love of growing businesses started.  I worked across various industry sectors, including agriculture, High Growth and landed estates. I had portfolio of innovative businesses, not only science & tech but in hospitality, retail and logistics – so a diverse range of industry experience. Then about 3 years ago, I had the opportunity of joining the Barclays Eagle Lab network, which is a division of the bank in the innovation space. The Eagle Lab network was launched to support very early-stage start-up businesses, who perhaps only have an initial business idea. I would work with them through to their minimum viable product, then gaining traction, supporting them with access to funding, looking at their commercial model and helping their business grow whilst providing co-working spaces to create a like-minded community. This is important because when you’re a business founder, it can be quite isolating and to enable creative ideas with like-minded individuals across your sector is helpful and collaborative. 

An opportunity arose to launch a Barclays Eagle Lab in Oxford, at the Wood Centre for Innovation (owned by The Oxford Trust). Barclays Eagle Labs entered into a partnership with The Oxford Trust to launch the Oxford Eagle Lab, 3 years ago during COVID! It was challenging as everyone was working from home, so I was reaching out, expanding the brand and marketing to raise awareness online! Networking and meeting people was difficult, but an interesting. It was a success and when lockdown lifted, we were able to open fully. We had a good initial member base, and my colleague and I continued to expand on this. 

A couple of years ago, an opportunity came up to work for corporate banking in Barclays. It was an area I hadn’t worked in before, and I am an opportunist and believe that things happen for a reason. I went and worked in the corporate bank and supported my own portfolio of mid-sized corporate businesses across Thames valley. Again, it was very sector diverse, and I had lots of different businesses in the portfolio, manufacturing logistics, agriculture, retail, but my favourites were always the life science innovation businesses, the biotech and medtech. I did that for a couple of years before I felt I needed a change. Working for a big corporate organisation is really rewarding and fulfilling, but it has its challenges in terms of the level of autonomy you have and the level of impact you can have due to the industry. My core values align with adding value and making a difference. I didn’t have a level of autonomy to visibly carry out difference. 

 I’ve always maintained relationships in the networks I have built. I think that knowledge and experience that you can glean from your network is so important; you can use these connections to reach out to people when you have an issue yourself, especially when you’re trying to resolve something on behalf of somebody else. If you don’t know the answer to something, the chances are that somebody in your network that you already know will do. I think it’s vital to surround yourself with a varied network.  

Since working for Eagle Labs, I have always maintained contact with The Oxford Trust. I had a chance conversation with somebody in my network about thinking of a career move and needing a change. I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing. We spend a lot of time at work so it’s important that you are excited about what you do and that you enjoy it. Fundamentally, it should make you happy. During the conversation that day it became apparent that there was an opportunity with The Oxford Trust. I reached out and the discussion that followed was for the position that I do now. I was invited to apply and selected for an interview and subsequent second interview – I was successful! It’s fantastic because it aligns with all the things I love in the innovation space, it aligns with my core values, making a difference and doing good in a smaller charitable organisation. This enables agility and flexibility in supporting The Oxford Trust’s mission and strategy. We’re a charity that fundamentally does good in encouraging the pursuit of science within the local community, and I am a part of that. I can impact change which is an amazing position to be in and I feel very grateful to have been given this opportunity.  

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

My definition of entrepreneurship would be following an idea and a passion that you have that is unique that will make a difference, one that has some kind of impact.  

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

If I had a business founder approach me with an idea for anything, the first and most important thing is that the idea needs to be solving a problem. I think sometimes, it’s difficult when you’re passionate about something, it’s your idea so personal to you. Therefore, it is easy to stray into the area of not solving a problem but creating a problem to solve. If you’re creating a problem to solve, it may not be viable because you’re creating a problem that doesn’t exist. This may have a detrimental impact in terms of your commercial viability, and overall proposition.  

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

The biggest skill or attribute that an entrepreneur needs to have is resilience. Resilience is key to longevity and determination, because the journey will never be straightforward. There will be times where you want to give up and there will be times where you’re on top of the world. The whole journey is a real rollercoaster so if you haven’t got a level of tenacity, I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult.  

The second skill is to be creative, and by that, I mean having both creativity and flexibility. You may have an idea, it could be the best idea in the world, but there could be something along that journey that means that you must revisit your original proposition. It could be that you need to consider a pivot, you need to slightly adjust your product after designing it. So, having that creative and flexible outlook will help you be prepared, no matter how passionate or determined you might be.  

The third skill is personality. Personality is key. If you find relationships and confidence a challenge, this could hinder your development and impact the business. I don’t think it is essential as mentoring and coaching support would help this, however it may make things more difficult for you. You need to be the sort of person that has the confidence to reach out and ask for support, put themselves out there in front of people and pitch their business proposition and talk to investors. All these things are likely to be more of a challenge for somebody who naturally finds those things difficult. I think it is a useful skill to have, if you’re naturally one of those people that finds building relationships very easy, it will help on your journey in a positive way. 

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?  

One of my favourite parts about my job is the variety. No two days in my job are the same. The privilege of engaging with innovative business founders, who have the most incredible ideas and business propositions that will fundamentally have such a big impact on society. It’s just a complete honour and I’m in awe of the business founders that I engage with. 

The two-fold part of that is the rewarding nature of what The Oxford Trust does in terms of STEM education and engagement. I've been out with our Science Oxford outreach teams and observed them delivering a programme on forensic science to Year 6 primary school children, and it was fascinating. I was honoured to be there and it’s something that not everybody gets to do.

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

I think it would have to be the founder of Tropic Skincare, Susie Ma. Tropic Skincare is an amazing skincare brand that is all about using natural and sustainably sourced ingredients. Susie started off selling her body scrub using her grandma’s recipe in a market stall in London. She was only 15 at the time, and over the next 6 years she continued selling her scrubs on weekends alongside studying full-time. Eventually she went onto secure an investment from Alan Sugar. That funding has been used to grow her business to where it is today. I love what they do in terms of the global community too - when you purchase their products, they inform you that you’ve provided so many hours of education to third-world schools for underprivileged children. They have lots and lots of initiatives like that which I'm passionate about. If I'm going to choose to buy products from somewhere, that will always be a big consideration for me. Not only are the products just amazing, but the whole proposition aligns with my values. 

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?  

I would want to ask lots of things! I’d like to ask what was the one of her biggest challenges and lowest points when she started her business, and at that time did she ever consider giving up?  

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

Clearly there's been lots of them and some of them I've mentioned already! When we launched the Barclays Eagle Lab in Oxford, one of our first members was a start-up business. There were two business founders who had developed or were in the process of developing software for workplace optimization. For example, if you were a retail business, this software used an element of AI machine learning to determine things like the number of staff that you would need on any given day of the week or determine the best time to launch a particular promotion. In the time that I was there, they grew the business, so the team became a team of 4, and then became a team of six, and then a team of 8. I connected them to various parts of the Barclays Eagle Labs network and introduced them to various parts of my network to support them. As part of the Eagle Labs proposition, any members have access to one-to-one mentoring which is delivered by an external company called Codebase. Codebase deliver one-to-one mentoring for their business and the mentors are all successful serial entrepreneurs of exited businesses. The mentoring that the CEO and founder of this business received whilst they were with us, opened lots of other opportunities and one of them was an introduction into Costa and an introduction into Nike. The Oxford Trust also work closely with Oxford Innovation and together provided additional business growth support. From this, the business was able to carry out some trials, develop and tweak their software. The trials turned into contracts and towards the end of last year and they were acquired by UKG, they exited and became part of the UKG core team. In this division, they still develop their product but obviously now they have huge global reach. I would say that is probably one of my most satisfying moments from the innovation side. I still see the CEO founder because he sometimes comes into the Wood Centre, to work in the Eagle Lab! So, I get to see him and maintain that relationship I have with him – he’s almost like a dear friend of mine.  

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

When you first start out in your career, your understanding of yourself is not as matured as it is when you are older. One of my biggest mistakes was trying to fit into a role type that didn’t suit my characteristics because of a choice between availability of work and what you enjoy. It is rare to be in a position where you love your job, but by following what interests, excites you and makes you happy; you may get close. 

How have you funded your ideas?  

We do have a small amount of funding via grants due to the work that we do. But most of the funding comes from our centres. How the model works is the revenue that we generate from our innovation centres, through business occupancy of offices and lab spaces; we fund the Science Oxford Centre and all the STEM education and engagement we do. 

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

Grants have come from individuals who have some kind of relationship with the trust, so it could be from a business perspective or perhaps they were a trustee in the past or they’ve had some kind of link with the trust. We’re not government funded, it’s the influence of the trust itself that provides us with a small amount of funding through grants.  

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

Perception is a big disadvantage of working in Oxfordshire. There’s a huge perception that Oxfordshire is blessed with an element of wealth, and therefore it’s viewed as being one of those geographical areas that doesn’t need additional funding. This isn’t the case, there are many underprivileged areas across Oxfordshire, but certainly the perception of Oxford city centre, Oxford University, and properties around Oxford dominate the overall perception of Oxfordshire. 

Secondly, in Oxfordshire we have such a rich ecosystem we’re blessed with. We have so many organisations that are there to support the growth and therefore contribute to the wider economy. However, the disadvantage of this is the fact that it’s so complex! Sometimes as a business founder you don’t know where to start, you have no idea how to navigate it, there are so many organisations that don’t always collaborate, although they could be more powerful together in terms of their delivery. Business founders don’t have the benefit of time, they’re time poor and simply don’t have time to navigate the ecosystem themselves.  

We are fortunate to have such a rich ecosystem and lucky to have Oxford University as an establishment in terms of what they give to the wider community, and how they get involved with the wider community.  

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

Aside from us, Barclays Eagle Lab, because that opens such a big network to them. Places like the IPC, Enspire, the Oxford University initiative, Oxford University Innovation, Said Business School in their Creative Destruction Labs, OxLEP (at the moment – they are changing their business model) are all great! Various Oxfordshire business networks depending on their sector can be very useful too. I’d probably also connect them with outside organisations as well, including Future Space in Bristol – the more that you can connect them to, the better. For science and tech start-ups looking for workspace, I would send them to The Oxford Trust’s innovation centres as there is an amazing community of entrepreneurs and we offer 1:1 business support. 

Any last words of advice?  

Don’t give up as there’s always a way through, be prepared for that flexibility, and listen to the experience and the support around you in your network and peers.  

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

This wasn’t really a challenge but it’s interesting from a female perspective. I was at a meeting a few weeks ago, with senior leaders and other directors from 3 organisations. I walked into the room, and I realised I was the only female in the meeting, which is fine; I have no issues with that whatsoever. I thought I can either choose to sit on the side of the table, or I can choose to sit at the head of the table. As the only woman there, I sat at the head of the table proudly and reflected on how some aspects of diversity have changed. I guess that was a bit of a challenge in the sense that certain level positions can still be male-dominated, and that meeting aligned with that. It is changing and there are lots of amazing women in high level positions in their careers, however we still need to drive it! 

What resources would you recommend for other women? 

In the Eagle Labs network, we have a whole female founders initiative which celebrates all female founders – that would be one direction for support. Another would be business networks that are female led, and networks for women in business, be that an entrepreneur founder or someone like me who works in the innovation space but doesn’t run their own business. Business networks that are perhaps sector specific and have a good diverse representative of females would also be on the list. I would also connect them to really inspiring female founders that I know within businesses in my network too.  

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

I think these Wonder Women interviews are a great initiative to support women, it celebrates women and puts them in the spotlight which is a great thing. In terms of Oxford University, I feel Irene Tracy seems pro-active in supporting the innovation around Oxford and Oxfordshire. In terms of strategy, I think it sounds positive and what Oxford needs. I guess what could be done is have a female founder led events initiative. Balance generic events with female led and celebrate female founders to showcase them directly.  

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

Surround yourself with like-minded people who can provide the support that you need to develop and grow your business, but also provide an element of personal support. Build those relationships with people that you align to on both a personal and business level. People are your biggest asset.