Dr Olga Kozlova, Director of Innovation and Engagement at Oxford University

olga kozlova photo

Olga Kozlova is currently Director of Innovation and Engagement at Oxford University. She started her career by founding a biotech company, screening for novel antifungal drugs, following her PhD in Cell Biology at the University of Edinburgh. After this, she founded the Converge Challenge, a national programme in Scotland, aimed at students and staff at universities, helping them to develop their entrepreneurial ideas and create profitable companies. This helped over 500 entrepreneurs and developed over 300 companies. Before coming to Oxford, Olga worked at the University of Strathclyde as Director of Innovation and Industry Engagement. 

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

It’s quite interesting because when I was growing up, I had absolutely no one who was entrepreneurial around me, and I don’t even think that’s a word I had really encountered. By the time I started my PhD, I’d already done about five years of lab research, and I kept thinking, “There’s more to it than this,” and I couldn’t envisage myself spending another twenty years working in a lab doing experiments. I was a lot more interested in how this research could be translated into a product or service. I was lucky in the sense that I managed to secure an enterprise fellowship from The Royal Society of Edinburgh – what they did was support junior researchers who had an idea by providing training and support towards company creation. This really opened my eyes to this opportunity and provided me with the knowledge and network and a little bit of financial support to actually make it a reality. That was my first foray into entrepreneurship.  

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

It was quite challenging to be a scientist without a business background to start going to business conferences and exhibitions. I had to put my shyness behind me and approach people, saying, “Hi, I’m Olga, and I have this project that I’m commercialising.” I suppose a really pivotal moment was when I started to enjoy the process and talking to people about what I wanted to do with my idea, and people seemed to be really interested. That’s what gave me that buzz, when you think, “OK, I can do it.” Also, when I met people really keen to support me, the encouragement really helped me. I often talk about mentorship and sponsorship and the difference between them – with mentorship you give advice, whilst with sponsorship you give practical help and opportunities – I found people willing to offer both of these, with people going out of their way to help me with investment, for example, and I think that’s when I thought that it would be possible for me to actually make it.  

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur? 

For me, what really excites me is making a difference. When you see a gap or an opportunity in a situation, and you turn it into something new, something that wasn’t there before, it gives you a huge sense of accomplishment. As a business grows, and you build up a team, it’s not just what you’re doing, but what you can accomplish as a team, and the impact you can have – I think that’s what really excites me.  

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

Perseverance, enthusiasm, and collaborative spirit.  

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

I would say that The Royal Society of Edinburgh made the difference, because without them I don’t think I would be here. When I was involved in my initiative Converge, there were two people who inspired and supported me. One of these was Deputy Principal of Heriot-Watt at the time, Professor Alan Miller, who helped me get in touch with all the right people at different universities to help my ideas get off the ground – without him I don’t think they would have been successful. The second person is my first Chair, Mervyn Jones, who helped me learn the importance of governance. Often, when you start a business, you don’t really realise the importance of your board, because there’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of people who you might not value at first. He helped me see the value of these people advising you, and he taught me how to use these people, how to use the board members, and how this process helps you when there are challenges. Challenges will always arise on an entrepreneurial journey – it’s how you deal with them – rather than making it personal and internalising it, you need to have a process, which can make a huge difference.

I think there were also a lot of female role models around me – women who were really successful in their careers, and I learnt a lot from how they went about creating success for themselves. They were really supportive and great colleagues, whilst dispelling the myth that in order to be a successful woman in business, you need to be really cut-throat – they were really great female role models for me at the time.  

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

Yes, that’s something I’ve been reflecting on recently because I’m asked quite often what the secret to success is. You do quite often end up in rooms where you’re the only woman, or perhaps the only junior woman. I think that for me, having the confidence to speak up in those situations was quite hard, because I’m naturally more of a shy person, but the way I overcame this was by being very prepared. I prepared a lot so that I knew my ideas inside out, which gave me the confidence to speak up.

The second biggest challenge is probably building a family at the same time as building a career. I give a lot of credit to my husband for his support, because I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have achieved without him being there for me as a partner. As an entrepreneur you need that backing, so that when you have to do late nights or evening events, there’s always someone there to support you. You need someone to support you unconditionally – when my first business failed, it was really hard, and getting that moral support was really important. Sometimes you need to just vent your frustrations or your concerns, and you just need someone who will listen to you, and you don’t need to worry about what you say and how you say it. I think sometimes we try to bottle it up, thinking we need to be strong, but for me, that doesn’t help – you need someone who will listen without any judgement.  

What resources would you recommend for other women? 

I would try and find a peer network. When I did the fellowship, we were a group of ten fellows, and that really helped because we weren’t competing with each other because we all had different projects, but we were all going through similar things. Having a peer network was really helpful. Secondly, I had good mentors, and they were worth their weight in gold, in the sense that they had already gone through something similar before, so they were able to provide the right advice. As time went on, one of the things I found was that it would be helpful to have a business coach, because as a business grows, as founders, we often get caught up in all the different advice we receive from our accountant, our lawyer, all our different advisors, but we forget that we still need professional support and advice individually. You’re so busy too, you’re always on that treadmill, but to be successful you need to step back and look at your business from a bird’s-eye view, and think, “Am I still doing what I wanted to do? Am I going in the right direction? Where do I want to be in three to five years?” Quite often, we don’t give ourselves time to do this, so I find that when you have a coach, it forces you to step back. I also find that there’s often a good online community – LinkedIn can be quite helpful, maybe follow people who you find interesting and who provide useful advice – make sure you don’t feel alone. 

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

Oxford of course has the IDEA programme, which is really helpful due to the importance of peer mentoring, as I’ve mentioned. Oxford also has a platform to promote role models – that’s what I think is really important – you need to see people who are running their own businesses and listen to their advice. But I think we can potentially do even more, in terms of supporting our colleagues, early career researchers, students, and staff, to open their horizons and emphasise that entrepreneurship is absolutely a credible career path. It’s also probably one of the best learning experiences you can have, because if you start, like me, as a STEM graduate, or essentially a post-doc, you have expertise in your respective scientific field. But when you start a business, you learn to negotiate, you learn about intellectual property, you learn about business development and sales and marketing – all these sorts of things. After I started my business, and even when my business wasn’t successful, my career opportunities absolutely opened up in so many different ways. I think we don’t really talk about this – I would like Oxford to maybe focus more on this type of storytelling and promotion of entrepreneurship as a credible career path. Being a parent myself, I understand the desire to promote safe career journeys, but the world is rapidly changing, and jobs for life don’t really exist. People who are graduating now will probably work in several different industries as part of their careers, so I think it’s important to promote the entrepreneurial mindset of spotting opportunities, not being scared of failure and being agile, because these are all very important skills to develop.  

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

In addition to “Just absolutely do it!” my advice would be to try and find support networks. You don’t have to do it alone; there are a lot of support networks which are available in Oxford University as well as other places, so make use of them, because they will help you advance more quickly and to make less mistakes. For example, EnSpire has programmes like ‘Build a Business’, and different Divisions at the University offer other support, so find out what’s available and absolutely use that support. My second piece of advice would be to make sure you have people behind you who will support you. Finally, don’t forget to have fun. That’s the biggest thing. I find that in life, because of the way our brains are wired, we tend to focus on the negatives, especially when things are hard, and entrepreneurship can be lonely. But nobody talks about how much fun it can be to work with like-minded people and to make something that could change people’s lives, which didn’t exist before, and to celebrate your successes. With entrepreneurs, there’s always milestone after milestone – you think, “I’ll celebrate after I raise my investment,” or “I’ll celebrate when I sell my first product,” but your goalposts are always just going to keep moving forward, and you’ll never end up celebrating. Absolutely celebrate your successes. 

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

There are a few moments in your life that you absolutely cherish. For me, I think it was when I ran Converge for eight years. We started with 18% female participation and when I left, we were almost at 50%, so that was quite a moment. In addition to that, when I left, my deputy took over from me, and she’s been running it ever since, and I’ve seen it go from high to high. This is what I take pride in – I’ve built something that is now going from strength to strength without me being there, and it’s an incredible thing to watch.  

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

One of the things that I found challenging was when my first business didn’t work out. The reason it didn’t work out was that I was so focused on developing the technology – I really wanted it to be perfect before it went out to market and started really in-depth conversations with my customer group. What I discovered was that because of the time I spent on this, because of the emergence of microbial resistance, companies weren’t really interested in new antifungal drugs, but were more interested in using a cocktail of existing ones. So, essentially, even though my technology worked, the window of opportunity wasn’t really there. I suppose the lesson that I learned was that not engaging with your market early enough is what kills a lot of businesses, and it’s better to know earlier whether there is actually space in the market. It’s never too early to talk to customers.  

How have you funded your ideas? Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?  

I had the enterprise fellowship which I already mentioned, but afterwards I got a Smart Award – that really helped. Plus, I got early-stage investment from a bank – at the time there were banks who did this – so those were the big grants which helped me set up, and they were really useful. I also worked a bit to deliver some screening services to a few customers-that was the best way to fund my business.  

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

Oxford is a really vibrant ecosystem: there are so many accelerators, incubators, and so many opportunities and networks and events. I think that’s really positive, and I think Oxford’s brand as well is also really helpful – at some point you probably want to graduate from it, but it initially gives you credibility. The challenge is maybe the flip side of the benefits – there’s so much going on, that it’s difficult to choose the right support for yourself, and that’s what my team and I are working on at the moment in Oxford. I think we also need more early-stage investors in Oxfordshire, and I would love to see the female-focused business angel syndicate, Women Backing Women, because it would really benefit female entrepreneurs to have something like that dedicated to them.  

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

If they were linked to the University, I would definitely send them to EnSpire, Oxford University Innovation, and also to Oxford Science Enterprises if they are involved in science. Also, Oxford Seed Fund, which is primarily aimed at students and the Oxford Investment Opportunity Network (OION, pronounced as ‘onion”), which is more of a business angel group. Advanced Oxford also has very interesting reports around the entrepreneurial ecosystem, sort of highlighting how it works. Online, I listen quite a lot to Simon Sinek, because some of the things that he talks about are very interesting. If you’re looking at something specifically for life sciences, there is BioEscalator in Oxford, which is located at Old Road Campus and for any engineering project Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub and Fellowship offer great support.  

In terms of books, there are just so many that it’s difficult to pick one, but I would say Guy Kawasaki ‘Art of the Start’ and “Founder after 40” by Glenda Shawley!  

Any last words of advice? 

I think our world lacks kindness. We’re not very kind to ourselves, and particularly as women we’re very critical of ourselves. We’re also unkind to the world. I’m trying to teach my children to first of all be kind to themselves, because you need to celebrate your successes, and you should control that inner critic. We also need to be kind to others and be positive. I was taught very early on that when you smile at people, they’re likely to smile back and help you. People will generally respond with a smile if you smile at them first.