Enterprising Women: How the Greek Financial Crisis Inspired a Startup

Author: Sandra Ionescu Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

The second Enterprising Women lunchtime workshop hosted by the MPLS division, University of Oxford, featured a presentation by Dr. Denise Xifara. Denise is a co-founder of Nupinion, a startup dedicated to improving how people engage with the news. Starting her talk with her background as a statistical genetics DPhil student at University of Oxford, she detailed her transition from academia to entrepreneurship in an area outside of her expertise. The session provided practical advice on how anyone—regardless of their experience—can start building their own business.

At the beginning of her PhD, Denise was interested in pursuing an academic career. This all changed when the Greek financial crisis surfaced in late 2009. Skimming through the news to understand more about what was going on in her home country and speaking to friends and relatives both back home and abroad, Denise realised that journalism varies significantly by region. The headlines and sentiments back home did not match the stories put forth in the UK - in fact, they painted a sharply contrasting picture. This information bias catalysed her interest in regional differences in news story portrayal, and she began discussing the issue with her roommate, a postdoc at Oxford. Together, they designed and built an algorithm which essentially functions as a news search engine. The product of their work is the startup company Nupinion, which combines machine learning and big data to gain insight from global news content and improve media literacy.

Nupinion was formally launched in 2017 and its aim, as written on its website, is to let subscribers 'Stay informed and get a well-rounded view from multiple sources, find opposing perspectives, avoid fake news and pop [their] news bubble.' Transitioning from a career in statistical genetics to co-founding a startup focused on the world of news was a significant challenge for Denise, but she encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to take the leap and detailed some invaluable resources she encountered along the way. Knowing little about the business world and how to get a startup off the ground, Denise turned to the Saïd Business School for help. At the time, the business school was hosting an enterprise course for science DPhil students, which helped participants develop the necessary skills to understand how to approach the commercialisation of their research, and provided access to management and marketing expertise. It was there that Denise found her mentor, Mike Ventresca, whom she still sites as a pillar of her success. The business school still runs a similar scheme called Ideas to Impact (for more information: https://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/faculty-research/entrepreneurship/our-programmes/ideas-impact-i2i)

Denise told us about a few well-known startups founded by people outside of the tech world looking to fulfil an unmet need. These included Slideshare, which was started by a postdoc who realised there was a need for an effective slide-sharing platform, and Experiment, a Kickstarter assisted initiative for science projects founded by a frustrated scientist who could not acquire funding for her own research. Borrowing from her experience and from well-established methods for innovation, Denise went on to give us tips for a successful business. She stressed the importance of having a good business model, establishing a wide network, and—perhaps most importantly—being able to tell your story clearly in a way that gets people excited about what you are doing.

Denise cited the 'feedback loop' which she uses to guide her decision-making. The loop is formed of three main stops: build (experiments), measure (metrics), and learn (pivot or persevere). This means that change in a business should be incremental and should be reflective of the outcome of previous experiments. As a business owner, you need to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of your customers, departing from your envisioned plan when necessary. Do not let go of what you believe in and see your passions and ideas through, but be data driven and make decisions with the product user in mind. As an example, we were introduced to the website Buffer, where people can mock-launch their business and see if it garners consumer interest. It is an 'experiment' in the feedback loop to see if people are interested in what you're selling and can be an informative first step to launching a new startup.

Denise also outlined some of the challenges she faced when starting her business. She decided to use Kickstarter over VCs for initial funding because it served the purpose of both acquiring funds and gaining hype for her Nupinion service. Her main issue when assembling a business model was keeping the news service completely free. The current solution relies on having two product tiers: a basic news service that is free and an advanced news analytics product that requires a subscription fee. Denise mentioned having to pivot and re-brand her news service because the Nupinion website initially reached consumers who were already news-savvy, while her goal was to improve media literacy in a wider audience. Her new aim is to turn it into a social network for news, which she described as a chimera of Twitter, Pinterest, and fact-checking.

Towards the end of her talk, she compiled her advice for people wanting to start a business into the concise list below:

1)    Focus - set clear goals for what you want to achieve

2)    Prioritise - don't try to do everything at once

3)    Accept imperfection

4)    Experiment - be data driven

5)    Focus on the user interface

6)    Put the customer first

Denise graduated from Oxford in 2014 with a PhD in statistical genetics and has now left her job to pursue Nupinion full-time.

For more information on future events and services hosted by the MPLS division, please visit: https://www.mpls.ox.ac.uk/support-services