From a UK venture capital perspective, I have a pretty unconventional background having started out as a career academic and then going on to set up my own tech business. I was born in Liverpool to a Greek Cypriot father and English mother who ran a fish and chip shop which gave me an entrepreneurial outlook. We moved to near Stratford when I was 12 and I became the first in my family to go to university, studying for a BSc and then a PhD in Chemistry at Imperial College.
I remember feeling that I didn’t fit in when I first went to university, but as soon as I relaxed and started to enjoy it, I did much better. It taught me that it’s important to step back and look at the bigger picture but more important to have fun, as life becomes much easier when you’re not taking yourself too seriously.
After an academic stint at the University of California, Berkeley in the San Francisco bay area, I was awarded a Royal Society research fellowship at the University of Oxford and, four years later, together with three friends, launched a spin-off business, Opsys, that pioneered OLED display technology. We had to attract investors, at one point raising £20m to set up a pilot production line to demonstrate the product to Asian manufacturers. We learnt that investors look for transparency and honesty – often, they embark on a journey with a business which takes many years, so mutual trust is vital.
Working with my co-founders showed me that people must be incentivised; equity drove us, together with the excitement and shared vision of building the business. Trusting one another and being open is also key to running a business. We succeeded in growing the company to 70 people and established it as one of the leading companies in its field.
When we came to sell Opsys in 2002, I started to appreciate that academic training is not particularly useful in the business world and I made a note to myself to set this right. We also saw the value of intellectual property – having filed our own IP and picking up more along the way, this proved to be the value creation part of the business – and capital efficiency, where the pilot line we built was a necessary but ultimately very dilutive equity activity.
Having discovered that it was more exciting to be part of a start-up rather than being an academic, I acted on my mental note and went to business school at Stanford University. Stanford is based in Silicon Valley, the heart of venture capital. I went to Stanford to learn business skills but found that the most transformative classes were the ones about interpersonal relationships, understanding your impact on other people and their impact on you.
Returning to the Oxford in 2005, I moved into venture capital, joining Oxford Capital Partners where I spent three years effectively undergoing an apprenticeship in venture investing. As an entrepreneur, I believe in seizing the opportunities that come your way and over time this has provided a transformational journey for me. But, having to go out and raise capital for investments put the management of the portfolio of assets in a different light as I had to own the outcome. I gained experience of investing in deep tech companies across the UK and realised that this can be done well if you have deep tech knowledge, but that the tech is only part of the story. It’s also important to maintain some distance – be supportive – but retain a healthy skepticism and focus on the business opportunity.
I moved to pan-European investor Wellington Partners as a venture partner in 2011 where I worked with a fantastic team exploring investment opportunities throughout Europe and then in 2013 I joined Cambridge Innovation Capital, where I was CEO for almost four years. CIC, which is a preferred investor for the University of Cambridge, was established to commercialise the best technologies coming out of the University of Cambridge and the ecosystem surrounding the University, in what is known as the Cambridge Cluster. CIC is one of the best deep-tech and early-stage lifescience investors in the world as far as I am concerned, and it was an amazing experience growing that business from a startup itself to what it is today.
I was attracted by YFM’s great reputation and its breadth of regional support as I believe there are exciting opportunities to take our offering to tech focused businesses across all regions of the UK. With my background in deep technology and growth investing, this is a fantastic opportunity to use my skillset to add to the capabilities of the YFM team, shaping this new role and really making a difference. I am particularly looking forward to working as part of such an inclusive and collaborative team.
The main thing I bring is lots of practical experience through setting up my own businesses, being an entrepreneur and then investing from the other side of the table, so to speak. The perspectives you get from both ends of the telescope have given me a real understanding of what it’s like to ‘walk the walk’. It’s very unusual in the European venture industry to have someone with an operational background; I want to use what I’ve learnt as an entrepreneur to support entrepreneurs in overcoming the challenges facing young businesses. Bringing in my personal experience informs my investing strategy and my relationships with entrepreneurs, helping me to engage with them in a more meaningful and productive way.
In all of my previous roles, I have been involved in mentoring and building businesses and I believe that the skillset I have developed can be employed to take YFM forward. The rapport and alignment of views I feel with the firm means we can get off to a running start.
Believe in what you’re doing, be dogmatic and determined – entrepreneurs with real passion are the ones investors like YFM want to support – but also be nimble and self-aware. These are often incompatible attributes but successful entrepreneurs are brimming with these characteristics. Rapid business growth requires excellent execution and fantastic communication. It is important to listen and respond to the market, to hire the best talent available and provide an environment in which those people can flourish. As a business becomes more successful and impacts competitors, the journey becomes tougher and management teams need support along the way. Other team-members, board members and investors can provide this support. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t run out of money; always keep a close eye on the cash!
Many digital businesses are thriving in the current landscape as social distancing increases the need for online products and services. It’s important to think about how a business can be re-invented – be nimble and understand what opportunities can add value. Also, make sure to lift your head out of the day-to-day issues and look at the bigger picture, you may actually be able to capitalise on some of the changes, creating jobs and improving the economic outlook. It takes confidence to change and look for new opportunities and ways to adapt, but making that change can be hugely rewarding.
In terms of venture capital, it’s likely to be a tricky time for investing as we navigate through this current period. Investors are looking more critically at how the world is adapting, but like others we are receptive to new ideas and opportunities. All investors will be focussing on supporting their existing portfolio, but there’s no doubt that there will be some great opportunities for the bold to look at new business investments – I believe that a good business can always find good capital. The most successful entrepreneurs are those who make the most of the situation they find themselves in.
I love being outdoors, hiking or cycling – I enjoy exploring the wild, pottering around and photographing what I find.
I also get great pleasure from being with my wife and 12 year old son – lockdown gave me more time at home with my family, playing football and basketball and just spending time with everyone. I also have to admit to one little vice; I love making a mess in the kitchen. I haven’t forgotten my chemistry background and I take every opportunity I’m allowed to experiment in the kitchen, sometimes even with edible results.