I first arrived in Scotland over 20 years ago. I had £75 in my wallet and a scholarship offer to do a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Sometimes I think that I was way braver then or perhaps the ignorance of youth was on my side. I didn’t know where I was going and knew virtually no one in Edinburgh. LinkedIn and Facebook didn’t exist, nor did WhatsApp or Skype, email correspondence was a bit sketchy, and international calls were prohibitively expensive. It now feels like a different lifetime.
I finished my PhD in applied microbiology and biotechnology three years later, and realised that I didn’t want to be a lab scientist. I was more interested in applied research, and commercialisation of university research was increasingly getting attention in Scotland. My application for an Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh was successful and this programme was aimed at helping create technology ventures.
The fellowship kick-started my career, enabling me to start a biotech company – LUTESS. It was the best learning experience I have ever head, teaching me about intellectual property, product development, finance, marketing, negotiations and investment. It was also, probably, the most stressful and lonely experience, as I was trying to navigate a mostly male-dominated commercialisation and investment ecosystem.
After five highly stressful and exciting years of working to build a company and having multiple business cards, from technical lead to chief executive, LUTESS had to close and I was equally upset and relieved, having learnt a couple of lessons. It is never too early to speak to a customer, and being a lone founder makes things that much harder.
Though the business was not ultimately successful (technology readiness and market fit were not right at the time) it provided me with a springboard to move into the fields of entrepreneurship and innovation. I have worked at several universities supporting industrial engagement and commercialisation.
During this time, my son was born and financial security became really important, considering my entrepreneur husband was running his own business – and all the ups and downs that it comes with. However, I could not ignore the entrepreneurial bug that had definitely established itself in my head and heart. The outcome was the creation of Converge Challenge – now the largest company creation programme covering all Scottish universities. I was driven by my vision to give any student or member of staff at all Scottish universities a chance to explore the commercial potential of their ideas.
I thought about how hard it was for me to engage with potential customers at an early stage when I didn’t know how to pitch or even how to reach the right person within a multinational company. Converge really became the second business I founded. Now operating as a unit within Heriot-Watt University, I had been on an entrepreneurial journey with Converge, from becoming a minimal viable product (MVP), to raising money and building a team and a board.
It went on to grow and accept over 250 applications per annum. With 50 per cent being female, I learnt how important having a woman in a leadership role was, as it had encouraged many female founders to come forward. And when it started to properly scale-up I felt it was time to move on. For eight years, I lived and breathed Converge and I gave it everything I had. It was now up to someone else to take it into the new chapter.
In 2018, I moved to the University of Strathclyde to lead their entrepreneurship, investment, industrial engagement and development of the Glasgow City Innovation District – the first innovation district in Scotland. My role 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 doubled our headcount from 15 to 30 in this period and are working on the key strategic initiatives of the university. It is very different from Converge, where we were such a small, focused unit. There are different challenges associated with a large organisation, including its multitude of stakeholders, procedures and processes.
Looking back, I am really pleased with what I have achieved to date. I had a chance to make a real difference and I am absolutely delighted seeing Converge alumni companies, including education technology firms Estendio and Robotical, grow from strength to strength. I met so many interesting people, learnt about amazing groundbreaking innovations and every day of work I know that I help bringing those innovations into the real world.
I have watched Scotland’s tech ecosystem continue to grow year after year. It is often called complex and difficult to navigate, but I think that it is better to have more than less. And we have some really exciting years ahead. Recently, we ran the first Glasgow Tech Fest conference, bringing together founders and investors. The buzz in the room and the quality of presentations demonstrated how far we’ve come. We have a real chance to make Scotland the place to do innovation, and I am looking forward to playing a part in it.
Let’s all rise to the challenge!
Olga Kozlova is Director of Innovation and Industry Engagement Directorate at Strathclyde University and founder of the Converge Challenge