Sarah Haywood, Managing Director of Advanced Oxford

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Sarah Haywood is the managing director for Advanced Oxford. This not-for-profit company is a membership group which brings together companies, institutions and organisations which all have a focus on innovation and knowledge-related business, and are based in Oxfordshire. Both the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University are also members. Advanced Oxford is therefore an academic science network which provides a united voice for the innovation business community on issues that impact the development of Oxfordshire.  Advanced Oxford wants to ensure that Oxfordshire is a great place for companies to start, scale up and grow within the region, and feel they can continue to work here.

Advanced Oxford accomplishes this in two ways.  Although it is not a networking organization, it inevitably provides business with a networking advantage, purely by bringing them together. Its main role, however, is to be a voice for the innovation business community and to contribute to policy, decision making, and strategy development. It works with policy makers in local, regional and national government. Advanced Oxford contributes evidence and insight to projects that are initiated by other organisations, and also undertakes its own research and thought leadership..

The company was set up in 2017 and Sarah joined it in 2019. Although she describes the company as being in its start-up phase, it now has twenty one members and is growing rapidly. Advanced Oxford has a small team but draws on support and resources from its member companies.

What is your background? What made you decide to become involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
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When I left Oxford after graduating I actually had no idea what career I wanted to go into. I ended up getting a maternity leave cover job within the NHS, which was an administrative role that I really enjoyed. I got a place on the NHS general management training scheme and continued to work in the NHS for a number of years as a manager, running hospital services. What I hadn’t realised before this is that the NHS is a business like any other. My work there gave me a fantastic grounding in operational and business management. I had to manage big budgets with an expenditure that was difficult to control, big teams of people and facilities, and a demanding client base. I was given a lot of responsibility early on in my career, and it really allowed me to understand how a business works. After that I moved onto work in the pharmaceutical industry, and I was the operations lead for a drugs discovery unit. As I was interested in the public sector I joined the civil service and became a senior civil servant in the Department for Business. By this point I’d had lots of experience with working in industry, I’d engaged with lots of businesses and knew a lot about the business environment and policy framework around them. I decided to leave the civil service and set up a company on behalf of medical schools in London, called MedCity, which is a joint initiative with the Mayor of London. MedCity focused on facilitating how the health and life sciences industry could engage with the NHS and academic base – it was a way of promoting London as a city which is open to engaging with business. In doing this I worked with many small companies on a range of issues – investment, collaboration, work spaces, growth. I knew I wanted to continue to work with policy-makers, to give a voice to businesses and understand the issues surrounding them. Advanced Oxford was ideal for this, with its mission of supporting Oxfordshire as a place for innovation companies to operate. When I was a student, however, I could never have imagined I would have this immense variety of opportunities. I’ve just always followed what I’ve been interested in, maintaining a focus on life sciences, health, and people management. That’s what led me to become involved with supporting entrepreneurs as part of Advanced Oxford.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s having the hunger and passion to take a risk and do something that you personally drive forward and control. Entrepreneurship can be in any sector, but it’s about seeing an opportunity and having the motivation to seize it and do something about it, putting your vision into practice.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
1) Good relationship-building skills. You need to be willing to reach out as widely as you can and form relationships, whether it’s with investors, people that can help you, customers, markets, or supply chains. Entrepreneurship is all about being able to create effective relationships.

2) Be prepared to take risks but have strong judgement when doing so, to avoid taking unnecessary risks.

3) Team-building. It’s important to recognise your own skills and where you need to supplement them by bringing in other people. You also need a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get involved with the less appealing work. Even when I’ve led big teams in the past, I’ve occasionally still been the ‘tea girl.’ You should be able to get stuck in and get things done, even if you’re in a higher position in your business.

What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I really value building relationships and engaging with people as widely as possible. I’m very extroverted so I get my energy from bouncing ideas off other people and discussing them, which I currently get to do a lot when working with entrepreneurs, which is great! I love hearing what their ideas are and what they’re trying to do, it feeds my own thinking and creativity.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
The Harwell Campus, based near Oxford, which is a science and innovation campus and houses a number of big government-funded investments and infrastructure. I’m excited and inspired by them as they epitomize everything that is really important for entrepreneurship and innovation. They’re grounded in expertise and knowledge; they’re multidisciplinary and they have lots of different people working there in different sectors. There’s a great mix of companies and academics based there, conducting research. It’s just a fantastic melting pot of academia, industry, infrastructure, and a desire to really help people share expertise and find new opportunities for collaboration. The Harwell Campus incorporates everything that’s really needed to drive forward new ideas and opportunities, from an innovation perspective.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would want to talk about what we can do to encourage people to get out of their usual offices and labs, and meet other potential collaborators. One of the challenges for us all as human beings is that we’re very territorial creatures, we have particular animal behaviours which means we value our comfort zones and the safe spaces which we’re used to. However, this is a massive inhibition to collaboration as we’re reluctant to leave these spaces and work with new people and places. I would therefore want to talk to the Harwell Campus about how we can design buildings which encourage people to meet others that they normally wouldn’t be able to, people with whom they can then potentially collaborate.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
When I was running MedCity we had an investment programme which helped companies to connect with angel and early stage investors and secure investments from them. This is such a critical thing as so many innovation-based companies are equity-backed, and I got a huge sense of achievement from creating those opportunities for them.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
I think one big issue is that it’s easy to forget to focus on the market and the opportunity to sell what you’re doing. I found that the NHS was a market that was really hard to break into, and that lots of companies didn’t understand how it worked. When we started setting up MedCity in 2013, we failed to really focus on the challenges of breaking into the market. While we did a lot to support entrepreneurs and companies, there wasn’t enough attention placed on helping them with that, specifically.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Companies have all sorts of different issues so each one has something specific that it needs help with. As I’ve had a lot of experience in business now,  I often share my personal knowledge with companies, and recommend places like the Harwell Campus, the Oxford Academic Health Science Network, and the Local Growth Hub, but it really depends on what the issue is. If companies are starting to think about fundraising, I would tell them to have a look at the UK British Angel Association website (UKBAA). They list all their members there, with lots of information on them and how companies can contact them. It’s a great source of information about the Angel Networks and is a UK-wide association.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman who supports entrepreneurs?  If so, how have you overcome them?
I don’t think I’ve personally faced any challenges because of it, but I do think women are much more likely to undersell themselves, to suffer from imposter syndrome, and to lack self-confidence, than men. I think I quickly learnt how to stand my ground and be assertive, from having a lot of responsibility early on within the NHS, which has helped massively. From the beginning I realised I shouldn’t undersell or undervalue myself.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
If you have an idea and it’s a dream and you have a passion for it, follow it. Also don’t be afraid to ask for help. What’s great about Oxfordshire and the UK as a whole is that there’s a great willingness to help people, with advice or even just a chat. Make the most of this! Most of the time if you ask someone for their time and advice they’ll be willing to give it, and the worst that can happen is that they’ll say “no,” and if that’s the case just go to somebody else for help. This networking skill is particularly useful for building confidence and overcoming imposter syndrome. Make sure to find people who can mentor you, act as a buddy, or informally coach you – use them as a sounding board and to help you build your personal brand.

What resources would you recommend for women entrepreneurs?
For companies involved with the life sciences I would recommend the Bioindustry Association (BIA) which has a series of events and activities for women in biotech. There’s also a report published every year called the Movers and Shakers Report, which announces roughly fifty women every year who are making an impact in the life sciences area. The 2020 Report also included an alumni list of all of the people who had been included in previous reports, which is a great starting point to see which women are important in the sector. I myself have been included in this report and I’m sure most of the women on it would be very open to people connecting with them, both online or in real life, to give them advice. There’s also a group called TechTonic, in Oxford, which is a group of senior and experienced women who are interested in how women can be supported.

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I have to say I don’t know too much about what specific programs they have, but there is still a huge problem with female representation in entrepreneurship in Oxfordshire. If you look at start-ups and spin-outs across the region, the number of them with at least one female founder is still very small. This can’t be because women simply don’t have great skills or ideas; there’s a deeper issue. We need to encourage women to take forward their ideas. This issue of a lack of confidence is massive, and the University needs to continue to champion opportunities and give women a safe space to talk to someone about their ideas. The Oxford Foundry already does some work in this area, but we need more of it.

Any last words of advice?
The first step has to be getting started and being prepared to see whether your idea has potential or not. If you have an idea, just talk to somebody about it and see what they think – reaching out to get advice is so important. Try and find a range of people to talk to, particularly at the start. Diversity is all about having different perspectives and ideas, and this is essential to get something going.