Enterprising Women: An Insight from Dame Carol Robinson

Dame Carol Robinson. Image courtesy of Medical Research Council, http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2014/10/14/working-life-carol-robinson/

Dame Carol Robinson. Image courtesy of Medical Research Council, http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2014/10/14/working-life-carol-robinson/

Author: Sandra Ionescu Edited by: Luiz Guidi

The lunchtime workshop 'Enterprising Women' held at St. Anne's College in Oxford featured an inspirational talk from Professor Dame Carol Robinson. She is a Royal Society Research Professor at the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Oxford and the Dr. Lee's Professor of Chemistry Elect. Dame Carol shared her insight on combining academic and entrepreneurial achievement, with a focus on women in enterprise.

In the first part of the talk, Carol discussed her experiences with her own startup, Oxford Mass Technologies (OMass). According to her, every startup begins with a 'good idea'. But what does a good idea entail? One of the most important attributes, according to Carol, is the ability to harness commercial interest and speak to a particular audience. For the Robinson group, based in the Chemistry Research Lab at the University of Oxford, that good idea came in the form of membrane protein analysis. Membrane proteins make up over 50% of approved drug targets and are of great interest to pharmaceutical companies worldwide. However, the area is lacking in terms of research and understanding because the nature of membrane proteins makes structural studies notoriously difficult. Carol's research group works on evolving existing mass spectrometry methods to enable the study of intact or near-native proteins and protein complexes with a technology known as native mass spectrometry. The technology allows for a fine-grained understanding of membrane protein structure, the structure-function relationship, interactions of proteins with their environment (such as lipids), and protein-protein or protein-drug interactions. The lab's success in developing the technology and discovering new applications led to the launch of OMass in 2016.

To develop into a successful business, a good idea needs the right team. Carol stressed the importance of extensive communication among team members and the value of making every person on the team feel like they are important to the company's success or, as she put it, 'like they play an essential role in the company fabric'. Following the establishment of a good idea and a cohesive team, the company must work to build partnerships with industry. OMass has fostered a close relationship with companies including Waters Corporation, Roche and Oxford Nanopore Technologies; a DNA sequencing company spun out from research in Prof Hagan Bayley’s research group in 2005. When starting out, Carol found that establishing the value of OMass's services when negotiating contracts was one of the most difficult tasks, and she almost always found herself undershooting.

Carol also touched on how to brand a company. She mentioned thein her eyesexorbitant amount of money OMass had to pay in order to end up with the perfect logo, which ultimately involved sticking a dot in the middle of the 'O' in OMass. The branding company assured her that establishing an attractive brand with an easy yet memorable logo is critical. The O with the dot would become especially useful as a small logo for downstream development of phone and computer apps.

`The Omass logo

`The Omass logo

On the more technical side, starting a company involves the issue of intellectual property, including securing patents and negotiating contracts with external entities. Carol found it difficult to negotiate contracts through the University during the period it owned OMass’s intellectual property, which was developed within university confines. In a timely move for OMass, the University reached an agreement with Oxford Sciences Innovation plc (OSI) in 2015 for the funding and development of spin-out companies based on research from the MPLS and Medical Sciences Divisions. Working as the University's technology commercialisation subsidiary alongside Oxford University Innovation, OSI invests and develops spin-out companies at the seed-funding stage and beyond. Under the agreement, set to run for a minimum of 15 years, OSI holds the right to acquire 50% of the University's founder equity acquired in each spin-out company while the University retains a protected 5% equity stake in OSI. While some may not agree with the hefty price tag in terms of ownership, Carol said that the mentoring and support provided by OSI was invaluable and feels that she made the right decision for OMass. In addition, OSI funds research within the University or by students without requiring a money-back guarantee, reducing monetary risk. Carol also discussed some of the main obstacles in straddling the academia-industry divide, such as data protection and dividing time between the lab and the company.

In the second part of the talk, Carol reviewed Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which is advertised as a helpful and inspirational guide for aspiring female entrepreneurs. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, draws on her own experience of working in some of the world's most successful businesses. She discusses what women can do to help themselves and make the small changes in their lives that can bring change on the universal scale. Learning to 'lean in' is about tackling the anxieties and preconceptions that restrain women from reaching the top.

Carol briefly went through the chapters in Sandberg's book and touched on some of the ideas that resonated most with her. In Chapter 2, “Sit at the Table,” Sandberg emphasises that as entrepreneurs, women should not be afraid of voicing concerns about their company and that one should trust their gut feelings A company leader should feel free to speak their mind without the fear of looking stupid and realise that an industry outsider or company advisor is not always better equipped to make decisions. Carol mentioned that she was often afraid to speak up during company meetings, often assuming that other people knew more than she did, but soon found her voice and realised her insight as a founder is just as valuable as that of an 'expert'.

Chapter 3 of Lean In delves into the issues of success and likeability, highlighting the importance of accepting that you cannot please all people all the time and standing up for yourself when needed. Sandberg ends the chapter with a quote by Mark Zuckerberg from her first formal review at Facebook: "If you do please everyone, you are not making enough progress." In a later chapter entitled “It's a jungle gym, not a ladder,” Sandberg discusses how in the startup world you do not follow a straight upward path, but instead zig-zag your way forward, with the occasional backwards slide. This sort of ricochet between success and failure should not be viewed as discouraging but as part of the process of establishing a successful company, a point Carol emphasised with examples from her own experiences with OMass. Of course, the road to success is paved with uncertainties and difficult moments, and having a mentor can make the difference between giving up and going forward.

The chapter “Are you my mentor?” focuses on the indispensable advice others provide as we advance in our careers and how we can pay it forward. Carol cites Graham Richards as an important mentor in her life. Richards was formerly Head of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and helped establish Oxford University Innovation—Oxford's main technology transfer company. He was also a co-founder of the first academic spin-out, Oxford Molecular, which was launched in 1989.

Other chapters in the book that Carol mentioned focus on debunking the myth of doing it all in terms of raising a family and being successful in your career, discussing Sandberg's experience with balancing the work-family relationship. Sandberg emphasises that both men and women need to become more comfortable with women leaders and that women should not be afraid that their success will decrease their likeability, as she talks about in her chapter “Success and likeability.” Sandberg envisions a future where "there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders."

After Carol's insightful and inspirational talk, her first foray into presentations about spinning out a company, we all sat down for a delicious lunch trumped only by the interesting conversations that accompanied it. In the middle of each table was a white sheet that was split up into four sections focused around the topic of 'Enterprising Women', to guide our discussions:

  1. What is great about Oxford for enterprising women?
  2. What works best for women?
  3. What discourages women to join in currently?
  4. What is missing from the wider Oxford enterprise ecosystem?

At my table, we agreed that Oxford's value to women comes from its diversity in terms of culture, experience, and opportunity. Other groups believed that the Oxford brand was particularly useful in terms of advancing a woman's opportunities, although agreement was not unanimous. We also discussed how the Oxford enterprise ecosystem can be improved, including better family support, improving awareness of available resources, and providing more avenues to facilitate discussion in a comfortable setting. I had a particularly interesting conversation with a PhD student from the Saïd Business School who was researching differences in negotiating tactics between men and women. The lunch session helped identify some positives and negatives for women in enterprise and entrepreneurial ventures. The discussion over lunch was part of a broader consulting project that aims to identify what Oxford can do to better support its researchers to succeed as entrepreneurs.


The afternoon session, organised by Anne Miller, the Enterprise Programme Manager of the MPLS division, was part of a series of talks on the transition from academia to business. More information on upcoming events and women's networks and resources can be found at: https://www.mpls.ox.ac.uk/equality-and-diversity/resources-and-further-information. There are two good avenues for women looking to receive advice or socialise and voice their problems in a comfortable setting: the MPLS women's network, which hosts termly lunches, or the Oxford Women's Network.