In celebration of International Women’s day
Innovation Director, Oxford Innovation Ltd
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we wanted to put the spotlight on our Innovation Director Wendy Tindsley. With a wealth of experience in business development and a passion for technology, Wendy supports, inspires and empowers businesses in our centres to reach their full potential.
How did your journey in business development begin, and how has it influenced your current role?
With a scientific background, my career has covered various sectors from sales to management, as well as running my own businesses in agriculture and the hospitality sector. There wasn’t the support for start-ups like there is today, so I developed these businesses with no support and probably made every mistake in the book. It was whilst looking for business advice that I found a role supporting businesses. That was 20 years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve been working for Oxford Innovation for over two years, supporting four innovation centres in Oxfordshire and it’s an absolute privilege to work with so many exciting businesses who are starting out on their journey. I know how they feel, I’ve been there and am now in a position whereby I can help them to grow and succeed.
Where are the Innovation Centres and how do they differ?
The Oxfordshire centres are all very different, but I provide a similar service across them all. I’m based at Heyford Park Innovation Centre, the former American RAF base in Cherwell. There’s office space and shared lab facilities and we’ve produced some significant bio-tech companies out of here. Culham Innovation Centre is situated on the UK Atomic energy site, so is very secure. Companies based here are predominantly life sciences and hi-tech engineering companies and seem to start very small and grow quite quickly. We’ve then two Oxford Trust Centres, The Wood Centre for Innovation, which has lab based companies, as well as co-working sites and is set in woodland with top sustainability standards. Our other Oxford site is the Oxford Centre for Innovation, right in the heart of Oxford and is home to tech companies as well as a quantum cluster. It’s an exciting time to be developing businesses.
Oxford is increasingly becoming known for innovation. Does this help your role?
Absolutely. Oxford has a vibrant business community and the two universities are the engines that are at the heart of that. Even if you’re not spun out of a university you still absorb all the excitement and energy that surrounds them. Our centres are predominantly local entrepreneurs, but some are satellite companies that actively want to be in the heart of the innovation community.
How would you describe the support that you personally offer businesses?
I offer support to all the businesses housed within four our Oxfordshire centres, this can be as much, or as little as they like. This may take the form of 1-2-1 support, really getting to know the individuals behind the business, as well as the business objectives and plans. When I understand their requirements I can directly help them with relevant support, for example if I think they’d benefit from a mentor I’ll use my contacts across the UK to match them accordingly, or it may be that a tech company has a brilliant product, but no idea about running a business or commercialisation. I also like to describe myself as having binoculars, scanning the horizon for opportunities for individual companies, this may be financial, collaboration or skills exchange. From my conversations with businesses I try to plug any skills and knowledge gaps as they grow, which may include onsite clinics and events. I also facilitate building a supportive community, linking businesses together to share experiences and concerns.
It's clear that you provide vital support to the centres, but what would you say is the main benefit for these start-ups?
I think that I am in a privileged position to be able to take an impartial helicopter view of their businesses. In the world of business, especially start-ups, it can be difficult to speak to someone who is genuinely impartial and so often end up taking advice from experts who are not from an independent angle. For example if you speak to a marketing expert, the questions will be tailored to marketing. You can then very easily end up going down the wrong route and going completely off track with the wrong expert. However, once you’ve found the right expert for the right solution, the company will perform better and this is where I can help through my experience, connections and contacts. There is no financial incentive to me connecting people, it’s genuinely in the best interests for the individual and their business. I expose founders to a raft of experts, drop-in clinics, small workshops or events with relevant people. For example, they may speak to a HR consultant, emotional intelligence expert, situational leadership and from there they can see where their weakness is and where they need to concentrate.
What are the key challenges that start-up businesses face?
If you ask most early stage customers what they need more of, they will usually say it’s money or customers. It’s my job to diagnose what they actually need. It’s like being a GP. Somebody will present to you with a burning need and if you do a proper diagnostic you often discover that’s not the actual need. The beauty is having a lot of experts on hand and helping someone see what’s right for them and why. It’s about the independent diagnostics, helping them make a choice that’s right for them and the benefit they will see and if that justifies the cost. Start-ups also face the challenge of not generating enough of a margin to grow their business. Growing a business requires working capital and you can only get that by somebody either injecting it in, or by generating it. I have been working with a business that didn’t want to go down the investor route and so were trying to do that latter. But the working capital was getting sucked up and they didn’t have enough margin, so they ended up working 24/7, not being able to afford to outsource or grow the business and ultimately were stopping themselves from growing. What they thought they needed to do was to sell more to make more money, when in fact what they needed to do was to consolidate what they did and all the services they were giving away. After looking at what was taking their time and resource that wasn’t paid for, they worked out how to turn this into a product and create some slack to grow the business. It worked.
What is it that you enjoy most about your role?
I love the technology, there’s no denying it – it excites me. It’s also exciting to watch a company scale and grow, doing the diagnostics and bit by bit it’s putting the pieces of the jigsaw together so that they become a strong company and have thought about things from all angles and a lot of that is about challenging trains of thoughts and seeing where it takes us. I try as much as possible to do it from a coaching angle, as the entrepreneurs have most of the answers but are just not sure how to get it out. I also build strong relationships with the individuals behind the companies, as although I may start by coaching the founder and the company from a commercial point-of-view, you inevitably end up needing to coach the individual. It’s the individual make-up and beliefs that impact on the business and so you need to support the individual. The typical thing is that someone will have a really bad day, have a coaching sessions and I’ll help to organise their thoughts. It can be really lonely for them at the top, and often people don’t get a pat on the back and so I make sure I congratulate them too.
As Innovation Director, what are your three pieces of advice for an entrepreneur just embarking on their journey?
Firstly, I’d say check the market; is there a market their product or invention it fits into? A lot of people desperately try to bang that square peg into a round hole. You have to be truthful to yourself and question if people would be prepared to pay for it? Secondly, I’d encourage founders to allow time to stand away from the business. As the business gets bigger you need to spend more time away from the business. As you grow you need to step away more. And finally, devote time to understand how to manage people. This is a skills gap I have seen a lot, and as a business grows and employs more people it becomes critical to performance and culture.
This year’s International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women’s achievements and calling out inequality. Do you think there are still barriers for women working in innovation?
I actually think there’s lots of opportunities for women in innovation and I do work with several women founders, but they are still in the minority. I think this is because of the nature of businesses that we work with, as women do still face challenges in the tech industry which is still dominated by men. However, there are some stand out women, who are doing exceptionally well and I find that that many of the conversations I have with these women are around delegating and slowing down, because they will simply burn out if they try to do it all. The beauty of our centres is that they are inclusive and welcoming. Everyone is on a similar journey and it’s all about building a supportive community where everyone can thrive and benefit from a mutual desire to be successful, so I really hope to see more and more female entrepreneurs join us over the next few years.
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