I recently went to Oxford to find out more about the startup scene and get in touch with some of the great companies in Oxford. I have written about my time in Oxford here. After my visit to Oxford I interviewed Roy Amin & Jon Horbaly two of the founders of Oxford NanoSystems. here is the full interview:
First of all can you guys give a little background about yourself?
The usual response we give when asked about our backgrounds:
Roy Amin (Chief Executive Officer) has a background in engineering and business. He has founded several businesses, has skills in corporate finance and manufacturing business development, and has created a business providing surveillance solutions for corporations.
Jon Horbaly (Chief Operations Officer) is trained as a finance professional having worked in the Structured Finance Group at KPMG. He is the President and CEO of the Great American Tee Company which was incorporated in the state of Delaware, United States in 2003.
To expand a little bit, both of us are east coast Americans who came to Oxford to pursue an international MBA while exploring potential career choices. Having had prior success with our personal ventures, the entrepreneurial bug stuck with us across the pond and we’ve decided to pursue an opportunity sourced through local alumni.
Tell us more about Oxford NanoSystems:
Oxford nanoSystems is the opportunity mentioned. In a nutshell, we’re developing coatings using nanoparticles (nanocoatings) that will improve heat transfer efficiency.
With a little imagination, I’m sure you can see that such a product would be valuable in several industries from a cost savings perspective. Think HVAC, domestic boilers, etc. Both manufacturers who can use improved efficiencies to reduce part sizes, and consumers, who can benefit from more energy efficient products, stand to benefit from our nanocoatings.
It seems a difficult industry to get into with high barriers to entry, how did you start this?
As alluded to before, we were able to join this project thanks to local entrepreneurs in Oxford. One of these is Peter Dobson, the national advisor on nanotechnology to the UK’s research councils. He’s also the Director of the Begbroke Science Park. Without his expertise, I doubt we would have even tried to enter the nanotech industry. Luckily he’s one of our founders so we actually feel that we’re on the inside, looking out toward everyone else telling them that they’re the ones who have to deal with high barriers to entry.
With regard to how we began, Roy and I are part of a new movement if you will to combine local experts who have innovative ideas and industry connections with opportunity seeking MBA students who are qualified to launch a start up. After we were approached to write a business plan for our four founders, we joined the team as executives and are looking forward to continuing our journey.
What were your biggest challenges when starting this? ...and how did you overcome this challenge?
Many of our challenges were mitigated by having four founders, all of whom have started their own companies before. In essence, Roy and I are backed by a bit of air support which has been an essential component in our ability to get to our current stage. Some of our obvious challenges initially were, will the technology work and who will buy our product? Backed by Peter Dobson and several academic research papers, we established that the technology will be successful because conceptually we know it works and our role is really to optimize the proper formula. In terms of finding customers two of our founders have connections in Formula One and boiler manufacturing and we were able to cultivate those relationships into potential clients. We have already received multiple letters of support, offers for free testing, and even delivery of sample components.
How did you fund the company at the beginning?
Speaking of challenges, I think fund raising is always a challenge for any company but especially a start up. We’re in a unique position where we’re working with really innovative concepts but focused on a non-flashy industry in boiler manufacturing. Initially, we looked to grants and awards as means of obtaining finances. We’ve had a string of achievements in terms of reaching the finals of several competitions from the Shell Springboard Competition which recognizes transformative technologies to the Santander Universities Entrepreneurial Challenge which focuses on young companies with true business potential. We were also in the finals for the Oxford Venture Fund as well as Tata Idea Idol, both hosted at the Saïd Business School. Our biggest win however came from the European Space Agency, where we are currently located. We successfully applied for a grant which offered funding, office space, engineering expertise, and business advice.
Have you raised any funding? If so, how did you find that process?
Many of the competitions we entered allowed us to meet potential funders. We mentioned Tata Idea Idol and the best outcome from that event was that we were put in touch with an angel investor. Over the past few months, we have gone through the process of due diligence, negotiating, etc. and are currently going through the paperwork to finalize the deal. The process is great because you really have to make sure that you understand your business so that you can answer the many types of questions an outsider may have. The answers to these questions usually turn out to be really important to your success. We think the only downside to the process is the time it takes between agreeing to a deal and actually putting it in ink. You get extremely excited but then have to wait until the dull, but extremely important, documents are drafted. We’re looking forward to getting the money in so that we can get into lab space and develop our prototype as soon as possible.
How do you manage the sudden influx of money into your business?
We try to plan as much as possible in terms of understanding where money will be spent but inevitably there are too many moving parts to cover everything. The important thing is that we know what needs to be done so we should be able to manage the influx of money sensibly. It will be tempting to expend our cash quickly in order to get to our prototype but you can’t just solve a problem by throwing money at it. We really need to watch our burn rate and make sure that we’re spending on the right things and at the right time. There’s no point in purchasing materials in September that we won’t use until March for example.
What are the future plans?
Right now we are trying to achieve three things. The first is to get all of the operational aspects of starting out of the way. This covers anything from closing the investment deal to obtaining insurance to outsourcing a company secretary. The second is to develop a prototype that our customers can test. And the third is to search for new clients in new industries so that we can really generate revenue once we prove our concept.
What advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneurs?
Tempo is extremely important in all types of businesses. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to realize that sometimes things will not occur as quickly as you’d like because they involve large corporations or the government. On top of that, it’s easy to continuously ramp up and down in order to sync with those organizations. But as an entrepreneur, there’s always something you can do and if you stick with a plan to be productive, you can switch from one thing to the next without frustrating yourself when you’re waiting for things.
The other thing worth noting is to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page. It really does help to put things down in writing, from contracts to business plans.
What do you think of the Oxford startup scene?
The Oxford start up scene is on the upswing. Incubators are popping up, there are several drinks events that are scheduled, and many of the Oxford University’s entrepreneurial clubs are growing. Companies such as Oxford Nanopore are doing a great job of bringing publicity to the local scene and we’ve heard of more than one deal for organizations to come in and support the development of start-ups.
Has being based in Oxford helped? What about the proximity of Oxford uni, has it been beneficial?
As University students, it has been extremely useful to connect with local alumni as well as the internal entrepreneurial offices at the business school. For example, Barbard Diehl and Dorothea Ringe of the Centre for Entrepreneurship were instrumental in connecting Roy and I to our current founders, all of whom are local to Oxford. I don’t think one can understate the value for a start-up to be around active entrepreneurial communities as Roy and I are constantly meeting people who can offer something to Oxford nanoSystems whether it’s a potential client or just a different perspective.
Roy and I both understand fully the benefits of being a business school student at one of the best all-around universities in the world. We are surrounded by brilliant ideas and cutting edge innovation and realize the potential this lends itself to. The best part about Oxford is that there are so many individuals who have specialized expertise. When building a team, one doesn't have to look far to locate an individual who not only has the specific skills and talents that are needed, but also is one of the best in their field. As has contributed to our success, we've learned that starting a company founded on the right team is almost more important than the idea itself.