Oxford is generating demand for new business leaders as never before. Helen Massy-Beresford looks at why alumni are prime candidates.

Psst! Wanna run an Oxford startup?By Helen Massy-Beresford

Wanted: Oxford alumni with an entrepreneurial streak to help bring the University’s research and technological breakthroughs to a wider audience.

Isis Innovation, Oxford’s research and technology commercialisation company, is on the hunt for candidates to lead the spin-out businesses it creates from the University’s academic research.

From hi-tech medical devices to software analytics, spinning out companies from the university’s research findings is big business — Isis Innovation has spun out eight companies so far this year, double the number it achieved in 2013, and raised £18 million in first-round investment.

And to ensure these fledgling businesses achieve their potential, it wants to attract further talented Oxford alumni who have some business experience under their belt and are hungry for new challenges.

Isis Innovation doesn’t limit its search for suitable spin-out CEOs to former students. It advertises to other potential candidates through the start-up website Workable and through LinkedIn, and already receives CVs every week from prospective CEOs.

But it wants to broaden the range of skills represented in its pool of candidates by attracting more businesspeople who are ready for a challenging role that combines academia and business. For this, says Isis Innovation seed investment manager Andrea Alunni, a connection to Oxford can be an advantage.

Isis also provides intellectual property licensing, as well as access to academic expertise through Oxford University Consulting. It has the largest portfolio of patents in Europe, with 15–25 spin-outs being launched at any one time.

Why hunt for chief execs among alumni?

‘It appeals to alumni because clearly if we’re asking people to work for 12 months pro bono they need to feel some attachment. In this business it’s difficult to pay anyone. It’s not really a job, more of an adventure — and it appeals to entrepreneurs with that burning flame of wanting to do something from scratch,’ Mr Alunni said.

Dr Michalis Papadakis began his studies in London, moving to Oxford for postdoctoral research in 2005 before taking on the role of CEO of Brainomix, which makes automated medical imaging tools.

Dr Papadakis agrees that a connection with the University is important for prospective CEO candidates. ‘Being part of the University — closely linked with Isis Innovation and the business experience and background they have, that often academics don’t have — is very important. When you are taking research that could potentially change people’s lives from the lab to the wider market, it’s essential to have people who are part of the ecosystem and understand the technology.’

He added: ‘It’s been a fascinating experience, moving from the world of academia into this position, compared with life in the lab, which is much more focused and isolated. Here I am exposed to all of the elements of running a business.’

Isis Innovation has this year generated three new start-ups through its software incubator, which was set up three years ago to take advantage of a growing sector, and allows developers to put forward intellectual property in the form of copyrights. Software skills are some of the most in demand for would-be CEOs.

Adrian Neal, CEO of Oxford Biochronometrics, which helps companies protect their digital content from fraud and was launched through the software incubator, came to the role after a career in IT and banking and a Masters in Software Engineering. He also believes Isis Innovation and the Oxford alumni it recruits provide a vital link between the worlds of business and academia.

‘Oxford is very academic and Isis Innovation has really pushed the bounds. The business school has also helped to change the culture a little. Recruiting alumni is perfect because they are in a position in life in which they understand the University as well as the wider world and are best-placed to bridge the gap.’

Mr Neal is enjoying his CEO role but said he was initially surprised at what it involved. ‘It’s been quite interesting because it was not exactly what I was expecting. I thought it would be more about research but it is much more about running a business. In the business world you lose all the certainties of the academic world and enter the world of risk-taking.’

Other high-profile spin-out success stories include games developer Natural Motion, led by Torsten Reil (which was sold to Zynga for half a billion dollars), medical device maker Organox and engineering spin-out Yasa Motors.

‘It’s a great opportunity for alumni wishing to reconnect with the University,’ Mr Alunni said.

Image by Benjamin Ellis via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.