30 Years of Oxford Innovation

B4’s Richard Rosser sat down to chat with Jo Willett, Managing Director of Oxford Innovation, to talk about how far they’ve come, the challenges they face and their hopes for the future.

Interview by: Richard Rosser. Words: Alice Salive & Ambre Poibeau . Photography by: Studio8

What does thirty years of Oxford Innovation mean to you?

Well I think it was just a really nice opportunity to celebrate some of the things what we’ve done over the last 30 years, and in particular focus on some of the companies that we’ve supported. So, it was a nice opportunity to create a load of case studies of some companies, that we’ve helped across the country. It was a really nice opportunity to have a great social event, to have a bit of a celebration. We’ve supported some companies in developing countries through some charity work that we did at the same time, so I think it was just a nice way of reflecting on why we started as a company, which was essentially about helping interesting start up companies, and it reminds ourselves and others that’s what we do. And so I think for me it was about coming back to a point where we’re true to and understand what we’re trying to achieve and what we do as a company.

And that celebration also coincided with a new role for you as MD of Oxford Innovation, didn’t it?

It did, yes. That was really nice. I guess the timing worked quite well and serendipitously, but I’ve been with the company for 17 years so I’ve seen it evolve and grow over that period of time and I am immensely proud to be Managing Director. When I joined 17 ago and opened Culham Innovation Centre, I never believed in my wildest dreams that I’d someday be MD. It’s just such a nice company and I love what we do.

Some of the companies that we’ve helped start, support and grow and seeing now the number of people and the jobs that they have created and wonderful devices that change our lives that have been created it’s just so exciting. That’s the thing that makes me most proud actually, seeing the companies that we’ve helped do so well.

You’ve just opened your 25th centre. Can you give us a bit of an idea of the footprint of all Innovation Centres that you’ve got?

Yes, we’ve opened our 25th centre and it’s in Bordon in East Hampshire. It’s a regeneration project; the building is owned by Homes England and we’ve been involved right from the start really. It’s an ex-MOD site and there aren’t many jobs there, you can imagine when the military goes a lot of the infrastructure and pretty much everything disappears in the area, so that’s about creating new job opportunities for people and I guess that’s the thing that runs through a lot of Innovation Centres that we run. Some of them are in big vibrant cities like the one we’re sitting in today in Oxford, but others are in places where traditional industries are in decline, like in North Nottinghamshire where it was coal mining communities, and in parts of the south coast where it’s a peninsula with not a lot of industries other than ports that again have been in decline.

And I guess what’s really nice about our Innovation Centres is they’re changing people’s aspirations. They’re opening up people’s eyes to being an entrepreneur, being in a community with other entrepreneurs around them and that might help them thrive and grow and so there is a real mix of buildings and a real mix of locations, and that’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on. Because it’s not just a box and everyone is the same, they’re all different, and they all have their own local personalities.

You’re ambitiously looking to double in size, is that correct?

That’s right. We’re just working on our 5-year strategic plan and if we’re successful it would see us double in size over the next 5 years. We all know that there’s been a proliferation of flexible work locations, and we’re just expanding all the time. You know entrepreneurs need flexible space, we know that there is more demand than ever before for what we do, and we like to think that we’re different to others – we are recognised as the leading Innovation Centre operation in UK, with a study done by Nesta that confirms that. And we are seeing more and more opportunities, both with private building owners, with the public sector and with charities and universities for us to open more Innovation Centres across the UK. I’m really confident, we are in a growing market, we have a product and a service that we know delivers what entrepreneurs need and we help local authorities create jobs.

Fantastic. And how is your partnership with The Oxford Trust looking?

Really good. We’re really excited about opening another centre within the ring road in Oxford. There is so much demand for space for small companies in Oxford, and there are very limited opportunities to have a new building right in the city centre. The site at Stansfeld is absolutely stunning. I grew up in Headington and I had no idea there was a 15-acre nature reserve at the bottom of what is essentially Shotover Hill, so the first time I was on site I was amazed. And thinking about the lifestyle and the environment of that as somewhere for young companies to work and grow, it’s just lovely being able to walk around at lunch time and be able to enjoy the the surroundings and the quietness, but still be in a city and be well connected. I think it’s a fantastic location and we are really excited about it opening. In fact, we’re starting to talk to some companies interested in space there already and it’s not even built yet.

If you could pick any people, alive or deceased, to support you in your business who would you choose?

I was going to say Margaret Thatcher. We were talking about our Myers Briggs personalities yesterday, and I am the same personality type as Margaret Thatcher and so that was the first person that popped into my head. Do I think she made a good advisor? No, I think she was awful at times, and I remember being a child, you know “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher” and I remember as a student, marching when she took away our student grants. So, I can’t possibly want her on my advisory board, except she made really tough decisions in a really tough time. She was a female leading a country, and I am a female leading a company. There aren’t that many female role models that I could draw from and that I could talk to and ask advice like “how do you deal with these situations”.

I think it’s interesting what we’re seeing in the entertainment industry at the moment with women fighting for equal pay and saying it’s not ok for you to touch us or treat us in an inappropriate way. Women have had a tough time. One of the nicest things for me when I was made MD was all the emails that I got from my colleagues, female colleagues saying how inspiring it was to have a female MD.

Hm, who else? Maybe Barack Obama. I saw an interview the other night with David Letterman and he is just such a personable, enigmatic man and the ease with which he can talk to seemingly anybody, is impressive. I saw him on Bear Grylls as well and you just got a real sense of the man. Even if you don’t agree with his politics, to be able to be that articulate, that funny, that unassuming and just a nice guy is great. I’m sure behind close door he is not always that nice, he isn’t always that articulate, but you know he just seems like a nice guy. He’s balanced his work, life, family nicely. I’m sure he would have some things that I would benefit from hearing and learning about.

Thatcher, Obama… Trump?

No! Could you imagine anything worse? The man can’t even speak properly! The worst thing is, I was in Texas when it was the elections and even the Texan Republicans were embarrassed about Trump. Who were these people that voted for him?

We will never know. Anybody else?

Maybe a local one: Andrew Smith, ex labour MP, and his wife Val. I started my career in Oxford at that time I worked for a community project in Blackbird Leys and that was where they lived – They didn’t move out to some big posh house and they were so active and caring and vocal about the challenges of Blackbird Leys, but also realistic about what could be achieved. And I remember when I moved back to Andrew’s constituency, and it was the time of the election and he was the only one of the candidates that came and knocked at my door and spoke to me and was actually interested in what I was saying. Now at the time I wouldn’t have necessarily been a Labour voter, but I voted for him not because of his politics but because of the man, and because I wanted that man representing me, because I knew he really understood the challenges of his constituency and really understood what it was to be a good local MP. So, for that reason I would pick one or both of them. Val, sadly, has died but I think they were both role models for what it is to be a good public servant.

Thank you very much for you time today

Pleasure, thanks Richard.

Watch the full interview on the B4 YouTube channel here:

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