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Ready for take-off

Posted on 19/07/2017

How early-stage investment can get start-ups airborne.

Angel investor and infocus: Women in Innovation senior business mentor Philip Windred on the ingredients for successful entrepreneurship.

With a degree in Physics from Cambridge University, Philip Windred worked in the technology sector for many years – including as Head of Future Programmes at Airbus – before becoming an angel investor in 2016.  He is one of 22 senior business mentors supporting the infocus: Women in Innovation programme. Here, he shares his thoughts on what makes a strong business proposition and why support for STEM subjects at school is critical to encouraging future female entrepreneurs.

What is an angel investor?

“Angel investors provide investments typically at the £500,000 level, usually through a consortium – and as well as providing the money, they provide support. There will always be at least one of the angels – or possibly two or three – who will be actively involved in the business. So you’ve got the package of experience, support, and money. We invest in early-stage businesses that have achieved some level of proof of concept, but have not yet achieved proof of feasibility, so there is still a very high level of risk.

“Angel investors provide the earliest money that innovative businesses can access, and that enables them to go and get venture capital or debt finance later on. And most of the grants require matching funding – few offer 100% grants. That means that the business needs the angels to provide the matching financing. The angels provide an endorsement that allows Innovate UK and others to provide grants with more confidence that the money will produce strong returns.”

What do you look for in a company that wants your help?

“I pretty much only support businesses whose end goal I think is going to help society and make the world a better place. There have been a number of business opportunities that have been floated at me, and they just don’t meet my criteria for being worthwhile. While I regret that we chose Brexit, I think it’s now important that the UK focuses on its ability to compete, and that requires an innovative strategy to create new businesses and to create new value-add. I think the UK is really good at this, and I live in Cambridge, and the Cambridge cluster is particularly good at this. I just find it hugely exciting.

“To create something new, to do something new which benefits society, benefits the customers, but also creates a brand-new business out of nothing that will hopefully go on to employ hundreds of people, and create a lot of wealth for this country, which will then go into schools and hospitals, for me, that’s an incredibly worthwhile way of spending my life.”

What is the most important piece of advice you give to innovators as they progress towards commercialising their products?

“My observation when I interact with these businesses is that [because] they’re people who come from a science or technology background, they always put too much emphasis on product development, at the expense of understanding the market and the customers. Of course, the technology is crucial, and of course, we all want to understand whether that widget is going to work, but it’s even more important to be clear that there is demand for this product – that the product is optimised to meet the needs of the customer, and you’re not developing a white elephant. So I’m helping to direct their thoughts into how they can understand the market better.”

“To create something new, to do something new which benefits society, benefits the customers, but also creates a brand-new business out of nothing that will hopefully go on to employ hundreds of people, and create a lot of wealth for this country, which will then go into schools and hospitals - for me, that’s an incredibly worthwhile way of spending my life.”

How can we get encourage more women to get involved in innovation?

“I’m a very strong believer in diversity, which is why I was very happy to get involved [as a mentor]. I have no doubt at all that diverse teams are more effective, and I’m seeing a lot of all-male teams. I think that’s a real shame, because I know that men and women are different. I think each bring different qualities, and having both perspectives makes the business more robust, and more likely to succeed.

“I operate in the technology sector, and I see roughly as many female-led businesses as I see women in technology. I think the key problem here is in schools, where girls give up science and engineering subjects from the age of 14 onwards, and by the time they’re 18, they’ve ruled out these options. Given that most innovative new businesses are depending on the technology angle to achieve something new, you need that background in the STEM subjects. For me, the reason there are so few women in innovation is because there are so few women in STEM, rather than because there are extra obstacles.”

-Interview by Katharine Rooney

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