Author: Isabel Wassing Edited by: Luiz Guidi
It is rare to meet an Oxford researcher with a lot of free time on their hands. It is even rarer to meet one who uses this precious free time to start a company. However, if it were up to Anne Miller, manager of the Enterprise programme at MPLS, there would be many more. Together with Leah Thompson, manager at Enterprising Oxford, Anne’s mission is to involve more academics in entrepreneurship. After all, the skills necessary to make it in the academic world are exactly those that make a good entrepreneur – careful planning, collaboration and, most importantly, the curiosity and daring to follow up on new ideas.
But is it really possible to start a company alongside the busy commitments of academic research? Anne introduced us to two student entrepreneurs who incontestably show that, yes, it can be done: Alina Rakhimova, CEO and co-founder of Enzbond, and Irina Fedorenko, co-founder of BioCarbon Engineering and BubbleNut Wash. Both women started their respective companies as DPhil students at Oxford, and spoke to us about their experience.
While working on her DPhil in Biochemistry, Alina was approached by fellow DPhil student Robert Simion with the idea to develop an algorithm to design enzymes in silico. Countless processes in industry rely on enzymes for catalysis – from the production of paint, to the development of drugs. Given the need for increased speed and efficiency of the industrial process, there is a constant demand for enzyme optimisation. However, the search for better and faster enzymes is not very efficient itself. In fact, 1 kilogram of useful enzyme can generate up to a ton of waste! With an in silico approach, laboratory-based generation and testing of enzymes is replaced by a waste-free computational process in which virtual enzyme structures are screened for predicted enzyme activity prior to experimental validation of promising candidates.
In their free time, Alina and Robert developed the initial idea into a technology that was significantly faster and more accurate than existing in silico approaches. However, it would take more than two years until they converted their promising technology into the biotechnology company Enzbond. The students themselves searched for funding and pitched the idea to potential investors. However, given that the development of the technology was done independently (without the supervision of an experienced academic) the response was initially sceptical. ‘The process was very hard’, says Alina. However, going through these difficulties was also extremely educational, or as Alina puts it: the best business school you can go to. In the end, Alina and Robert were rewarded for their efforts, as they received £350,000 in seed funding from Oxford Sciences Innovation. Having completed her DPhil, Alina is now fully concentrated on Enzbond. For those that are tempted to follow a similar path, Alina warns that starting a company is not for everyone: ‘you need to truly love your idea to make it worth it.’
For Irina, starting a company is almost an exciting new hobby. As a fourth-year DPhil in Geography and the Environment, Irina has already co-founded two different start-up companies. At BioCarbon Engineering, a drone-based reforestation technique was developed in an effort to scale up and automate current reforestation techniques. BubbleNut Wash is a 100% natural alternative to laundry detergent in the form of soapnuts – the soapnut fruit (which, in fact, is not a nut!) contains a natural surfactant that can replace chemical-based detergents. The social enterprise hires underprivileged women in India to harvest and prepare soapnuts for use, effectively doubling their regular income. Irina feels that being a DPhil student may actually take away some of the stresses of starting a company, as her livelihood does not depend on it yet. Indeed, being a student at Oxford provides a secure environment from which to attempt an entrepreneurial adventure – most of us are guaranteed to find a job after graduation. From this privileged position, we shouldn’t let the fear of uncertainty keep us from trying: ‘if not us, who else can do it?’
Importantly, neither Alina nor Irina developed their business ideas directly from their ongoing DPhil research. Indeed, rather than encouraging researchers to commercialise their academic research, Anne and the team at Enterprising Oxford want to promote general enterpreneurial thinking, which can be applied to any new idea. To this end, the Enterprise programme offers several courses (half-day courses, as well as more intense week-long training) on topics ranging from market research to intellectual property – and everything in between. Several social meetings and frequent ‘mixers’ are also organized to promote interactions between like-minded people and foster the collaborations required to set up a successful business. In fact, there are many events and workshops involving entrepreneurship happening in Oxford, in addition to those organised by the team at MPLS. Luckily, Enterprising Oxford provides a digital platform from which to get an overview of all the available resources and events relevant to entrepreneurs. Have a look and get inspired!