Aoife Taylor: from PhD to CEO
Three years ago Aoife was a PhD student in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, now she is the CEO of a STEM startup. We caught up with her to find out more about becoming a businesswoman.
When we last sat down with Aoife Taylor she told us about her experiences of being a woman in STEM, what it was like carrying out a PhD during the pandemic and how she tackled her impostor syndrome. Now she is the CEO of DeakinBio, a startup that has its roots in the MIB, and that is producing a sustainable alternative to ceramic tiles. We thought it would be an good time to catch up with her and find out more about her new role.
Trust in yourself and be determined. It will pay off in the end.
Enna: Hi Aoife, nice to see you again, it’s been a while! And so much has changed since we last spoke. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re up to now?
Aoife: Sure! And yes, so much has changed. I’ve handed in my PhD thesis and I’m now working full time at DeakinBio as their CEO. It’s quite a nice change from before as I’m now on the business side of things rather than the science side.
E: Nice! So how did you make that transition from PhD to CEO? From scientist to businesswoman?
A: So weirdly it started with an art-science collaboration. I went along to a para-lab exhibition, really loved what they were doing and wanted to get involved. Aled was already working with them using his materials so I decided to join his team along with Sunny (artist) and Helen (scientist). We started to investigate adding chlorophyll because I was studying a chlorophyll pre-cursor as part of my PhD and I was making interesting hues of green and blue when synthesising it. So, we started experimenting with spinach! Eventually we got to algae which we found made the composite a really attractive colour. It also happened that the algae improved its strength too, so it had a practical application we weren’t expecting.
We thought about other additives that might improve the properties of the material and graphene was one of them. So, we entered the Eli Harari competition to see if this was an idea worth pursuing. We won the first prize (£50,000) and that really gave us the means to do some serious material investigation! After that we were able to secure a number of other grants and have been working at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) under the Bridging the Gap scheme. Being at the GEIC is great because it's a start-up hub and everyone is happy to help each other out.
E: That’s amazing! What’s it like being on the business side of things rather than the science side?
A: I love it, it’s a really great opportunity to expand my horizons and after my PhD I was fed up with being in the lab. I’ve also found that I feel more confident in this role and setbacks don’t knock me like they used to. So, for example, when I was doing my PhD, it would really knock my confidence if I didn’t get the results I wanted and I hated presenting my work to people. But with this I’m happy to get up and show off what we’re doing and even if we get setbacks like not getting a grant, it doesn’t worry me as that’s just part and parcel of it isn’t it?
E: That’s great to hear! So, had you had any business training before taking on this role? Or has it been provided on the job?
A: I’d never had any formal training in terms of courses or anything like that, but I have taken part in quite a few competitions and events that are aimed at developing business skills in scientists. The University has actually been really great at providing those kinds of opportunities so obviously I took part in as many as I could find! One of the most helpful ones was BiotechYes, it’s a competition where you come up with an imaginary business, a product, and then put together a pitch deck and present it to the rest of the group. As you’re doing that you get support and feedback from businesspeople, it was a really useful learning experience. One of the things I learned that was particularly helpful was how to present a business case (asking for money), which is very different from how you’d present your research findings.
E: So, last time we talked we touched on your feelings of impostor syndrome. How do you manage that now? Is it better now that you’re in a role you feel comfortable in?
A: So, I definitely still have it, but I don’t struggle with it in the same way I did while I was doing my PhD. I find it much easier to rationalise the little problems and work my way through them rather than going into self-destruct mode. I’m also comforted by the fact that many start-up CEOs start with no experience, so I’m not alone on that front!
E: How do you find female representation now you’re on the business side of things? We spoke about this last time; do you think representation has got better?
A: All of our advisors are men and I don’t work directly with any female business leaders. There are women around but they’re always super busy, so I guess that impacts on their ability to offer mentorship. But I have been to some events where there have been women-led panels and there’s schemes for women where they take you through important business skills or topics. They’re all really helpful.
E: Do you find people interact with you differently because you’re a woman in a traditionally male-led field?
A: Yeah, I think sometimes. I am conscious though that most of the people we interact with on a business-front are men, potential investors, mentors and the like. I am interested to see if they’ll treat me differently because of my gender. But, so far, it hasn’t been a big problem which is nice! And actually, our team is evenly split, and the men in our team are very supportive so there’s no friction there.
E: And what do you think the future holds for you?
A: I’d love to see us grow and DeakinBIO turn into something great. Hopefully we’ll get some investors and we’ll be able to go to market. If not, then at least I’ve learned business skills, and I can look for similar opportunities elsewhere. But I really believe in our product and that we can do some good in the world. So I’m going to learn, practice, iterate and try my best to make this work!
Biotechnology is one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons – exemplars of interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-sector partnerships that lead to pioneering discoveries and improve the lives of people around the world. For more information, head to The University of Manchester’s Biotechnology page.