Hamilton Forth Managing Director Ali Shaw talks to Dr Olga Kozlova, Director of Innovation and Industry Engagement at the University of Strathclyde where she is leading on enterprise, commercialisation and investment functions for the university and the development of the Technology and Innovation Centre Zone within the Glasgow City Innovation District.
Before moving to Strathclyde, Olga was the founder and director of Converge Challenge – the leading company creation programme aimed at students, graduates, and staff of all Scottish Universities. Olga started her career as a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellow. She then moved on to become a founder and a CEO in a biotechnology start-up company and afterwards worked in business development and knowledge exchange in life sciences sector. Olga is an experienced mentor and non-executive director, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Trustee of Young Enterprise Scotland, and a Board member of Scotland 5G Centre.
What were ambitions when you left university?
When I finished my PhD I realised that I didn’t want to be a lab scientists and I was much more interested in applied research. My dream job at the time was taking research and turning it into real world products and services.
I started pro-actively seeking opportunities to move into the world of business and was fortunate to win an Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh that enabled me to start a biotech company. This opened a world of opportunities for me and was the best learning experience I have ever had.
Your career has entrepreneurship at its heart. Tell us more about some of your achievements?
Securing the Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship kick-started my career. It taught me about intellectual property, product development, finance, business development, negotiations, and investment.
Though the business was not ultimately successful (the core technology of genetic manipulation was then very costly) it provided me with a springboard to move into the field of entrepreneurship and innovation. I worked at a number of universities, supporting industrial engagement and commercialisation, which ultimately led me to Heriot-Watt University where I supported high growth spin-out companies with fund raising, team building, and business development.
My experience culminated in the creation of Converge Challenge – now the largest company creation programme covering all Scottish universities. I founded and ran Converge for eight years, achieving over 250 applications per annum, high incorporation rates and over 80% survival rates. For every £1 of funding that Converge received our participating companies raised an additional £7.5 of further funding.
In 2018 I moved to the University of Strathclyde to lead their entrepreneurship, investment, industrial engagement and to lead the development of the Glasgow City Innovation District – the first innovation district in Scotland.
I am very passionate about entrepreneurship and believe that it should be available to everyone. I joined the board of Young Enterprise Scotland in 2015. It is a great organisation providing enterprise training and access to young people across Scotland and particularly targeting the areas of deprivation.
Throughout my career I have continued to work with the Royal Society of Edinburgh first through the Young Academy of Scotland and then I was elected a Fellow in 2021. I have led the work on the Entrepreneurial Education published in 2015 and more recently looked at the future of the Enterprise Fellowship Scheme.
You are involved in so many things, how do you manage your time and what does a typical day look like for you?
My currently role at Strathclyde is exciting, diverse and demanding-all at the same time. I lead the Innovation and Industry Engagement Directorate that I created over the last three years. We have grown from 15 staff to 30 in this period and are working on the key strategic initiatives of the University such as our sector leading entrepreneurship strategy, Strathclyde Inspire, and Glasgow City Innovation District (GCID).
Within the GCID, the University is developing the phase two of the Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) Zone, which is one of the most vibrant innovation ecosystems in the UK, sited by the UK Governments Innovation Roadmap. The TIC Zone hosts companies, leading researchers, and an unprecedented mass of innovation support organisations such as Catapults and Innovation Centres.
My days are generally filled with meetings with my staff, other colleagues across the university and many external organisations. Working from home means that meetings often happen back-to back and I do miss that break you would get when walking from one venue to another. I think my record was 13 meetings in one day!
In the last two years of the pandemic there have been many challenges, particularly home schooling, as I have two children. It really helped that the University of Strathclyde introduced rest days on Fridays during the lockdown, which helped me manage my workload. I also am very fortunate to have a great team that helped and supported each other during this difficult period.
Juggling the work and helping my six-year-old with her assignments has given me and my husband many new grey hairs, but we approached it, as always, as a team.
We established some routines that I still try to stick to. I always aim to drop off our daughter at school and pick her up from childcare. This provides some fresh air. I aim to spend the weekends with family, doing things rather than catching up on work. And having dinner together is sacred. I do not think for a minute that I have achieved the work-life balance and sometimes I do feel that it’s an unattainable illusion, but I firmly believe that striving to improve it is what is important.
Tell us more about the University of Strathclyde’s focus on Entrepreneurship.
The University of Strathclyde is home to one of the UK’s most dynamic and successful ecosystems for the creation and spinout of innovation-driven enterprises and is consistently ranked in the UK top 10 for company creation activity. The University is home to the world-renowned Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, the leading university-based centre of entrepreneurship in Europe and is the only University to be named the Times Higher Education University of the Year twice (2012 and 2020).
Through Strathclyde Inspire, our institution-wide entrepreneurship strategy, we have developed an approach which positions Strathclyde as the partner of choice for entrepreneurial students, inventors, founders, and business leaders at every stage of the entrepreneurial journey.
We have designed a pathway for all Strathclyde staff, students, and alumni to have the opportunity to unlock their entrepreneurial potential and for those with the propositions, vision, and motivation to continue on their entrepreneurial journey, including becoming investment ready. We have created a joined-up package of stage-gated support depending on the needs of our entrepreneurial clients and the impact and potential of their propositions and ventures.
How does this tie in with the Glasgow City Innovation District?
Glasgow City Innovation District’s is the first innovation district in Scotland. The objective is to develop Glasgow’s Tech Ecosystem through its hub for entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaboration. Its development and its growth are supported by each of its founding partners – Glasgow City Council, Scottish Enterprise, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, and Entrepreneurial Scotland.
With city-wide strengths in Creative Media, Digital Technology, Design & Manufacturing, Financial Services, Life Sciences and Low Carbon, we recognise the importance of developing an inclusive, open, and progressive tech sector for Glasgow and Scotland.
Strathclyde is an anchor institution for GCID and the University has done a lot of heavy lifting during the early stages of GCID’s growth and development.
What would success look like for these plans?
I often have this picture in my head that I am on the plane flying somewhere warm on holiday (after 20 months of the pandemic, it is quite high on my agenda) and I flip through an in flight magazine. Often there are features in those magazines about cities and I see Glasgow being featured and, in the article, I read about Glasgow City Innovation District being a leading Innovation District in the world.
All joking aside, our aim is that when people talk about Innovation Districts and ecosystems and mention Barcelona or Singapore, they also talk about Glasgow as a great place for entrepreneurs to live and work offering great quality of life and access to the best talent and research expertise.
How can we capitalise more on the innovative spirit that has always been present in Scotland?
Innovative spirit is alive and well in Scotland and I see every day in my work just how inventive we are. However, I do think that we could do more about getting our innovations making an impact in the real world. This could be done in various ways.
My first thought is that we need to build better teams around our innovators. I always like that example of Ireland where they bring back expats from all over the world to build businesses. Scotland could work to do the same. Now living in the post pandemic world, it is possible to build the teams that are not necessarily located in one geographical location.
My other point is that we need to simply create more companies. In his STER review Mark Logan talks about creating 5,000 start-ups to generate one unicorn. I don’t think that we should focus too much on the billion-dollar companies, but we certainly need to up our numbers of start-ups. Scotland is a great place to live and potentially we should aim to attract people from all over the world and get them to establish a business in Scotland.
What advice would you give to a tech entrepreneur starting out in Scotland?
If I have to pick one point, then it would be about raising their ambitions. I think too often in Scotland founders limit their vision for a business to fit the funding climate or available resource. There is also a fear of raising private investment with lots of stories of how investors take control of a business.
We are lucky in Scotland to have a lot of support and grants available. It’s incredibly useful at an early stage, where entrepreneurs can receive training, build up a network, and get some early stage funding.
However, there is another side of the coin here where founders delay seeking private investment and instead move from one accelerator or competition to another. The danger with such an approach is that by chasing grant funding entrepreneurs takes their eye off building a business. There is a lot of information out there about how difficult investment is and all the pitfalls and risks, but we don’t talk enough about the benefits of having investors on board and therefore I would encourage founders to be ambitious and bold, raise private investment, and focus on building impactful companies.
You’ve been hugely successful and sit on different boards, in your opinion what can be done to ensure more women sit on boards?
In my view there are many things that could be done to increase the number of women on boards. One is education of the founders/leadership teams about the benefits of having a gender balanced board. The other issues we have are that generally we are looking at the ‘usual suspects’ on boards and as speakers at conferences and that’s where importance of sponsorship vs mentorship comes in.
Mentorship is great and organisations such as Changing Chemistry and Women on Boards are incredibly important and provide general help and support for women wanting to join the board. But one step further would be for those who are asked to join many boards to nominate another, perhaps more junior woman for the role. Getting this first Board position is absolutely critical and if we could get both women and men to nominate others rather than adding to their own portfolio this could makes a real difference, enabling Scotland to build capacity among women with Board-level experience.
Finally, if you could invite two people to a dinner party (living or deceased) who you choose and why?
David Attenborough is a true legend, I’d love to hear his stories of all the places he has been and creatures he has seen. Also Alice Roberts – I watched her TV series Incredible Human Journey and found it fascinating.
They both have exceptional talent for science communication and we need this now more than ever to ensure that science is understood by general public.
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