Oxford’s greatest entrepreneurial minds go head-to-head at Tri-Innovate

Profile

Launched as a collaborative effort between Hertford, Pembroke, and Wolfson in 2015, Tri-Innovate is an initiative which aims to encourage graduate and undergraduate students to try their hand an entrepreneurship. Teams must develop an innovative commercial or social enterprise and pitch their idea to a panel of judges with £8,000 on offer for the winners. The competition began in Michaelmas 2017 and drew to a close in April. All teams demonstrated real entrepreneurial potential and presented business ideas with real futures. Profile caught up with this year’s competitors to hear more about their plans.

2018 Tri-Innovate Winner, Veratrak

Veratrak, led by Jason Lacombe, aims to revolutionise the world of drug production and security within the pharmaceutical industry. Their initiative intends to provide “greater efficiency, security, and auditability” to the process by which medicinal drugs are developed.

Lacombe explains that “as drugs move through the supply chain… there are many processes and companies involved. The companies must work together to ensure that patients receive high quality and cost effective medicines”. Currently, the majority of data transfers between companies in the pharmaceutical industry are done by relatively insecure methods like email, fax, and even post. It is from this demand for greater security that Veratrak developed. In the modern age, where the threat of data hacking is increasingly prevalent, there is real potential for a platform like Veratrak to play a key role in ensuring security in the pharmaceutical industry.

The team plan to use their £8,000 winnings to continuing expanding their enterprise. Lacombe told us, “we have some upcoming sales and investor pitches in the US. The money [will] fund those trips, as well as go towards the salary of a new software engineer”. He went on to say that there is definitely “a long-term roadmap for this product, evolving to offer additional value”.

we’re working to provide ‘greater efficient, security, and auditability’ to medical drug production

Although Veratrak clearly has business potential, what seems to motivate the team most is the genuine potential Veratrak’s secure data-sharing platform has to help; Lacombe admits that part of the inspiration for Veratrak was “my background as a health economist [and] working for the Canadian government”, explaining that this “gave me insights into how inefficiencies in the pharma supply chain impacted the quality of care patients receive”. During Lacombe’s pitch at the Tri-Innovate finals, it is this emphasis on the real human impact of Veratrak which stands out. It is ultimately this – Veratrak’s effortless blend of commercial viability and concern for the individual – which makes it entirely deserving of its victory.

2018 Runner-Up, Greater Change

Greater Change, led by Alex McCallion of Jesus College, is a social enterprise which has taken a radically new approach to combating homelessness. The initiative aims to help people overcome homelessness by providing an online platform in which facilitates “direct cashless giving” to personalised progression funds. The idea is simple: people struggling with homelessness establish saving goals, such as to meet a certain rent deposit, which others can see through their app or website and directly contribute to.

The team told us that their enterprise aims to overcome what they saw as the main obstacles to homeless donations, in particular of “people worrying about what [the] money would be spent on”. Through this initiative, contributors know exactly where their money is going. The group think that it is only right that as the way we use money changes, so should our philanthropic platforms: “The use of cash is decreasing, [while the] use of mobile payments is increasing. According to survey data, many people would give more if they knew money was going to long-term [goals]”.

many people would give more if the knew money was going to long-term [goals]

They intend to use their £4,000 winnings to improve their software and their platform, making it “more and more helpful for people experiencing homelessness and [scaling] it up geographically and in terms of the numbers of people who use it” so that they can assist as many homeless people as possible.

Undried Ink

Hertford’s College’s James Caplan leads the youngest team in the competition – comprised entirely of first year students – and presents ‘Undried Ink’; a bid to re-invent the publishing industry in an attempt to ‘democratise the publishing process to open it up for ‘the little guy’’.

Undried Ink is an exciting venture which revolves around ‘crowdsourcing the reviews of unpublished books to assist aspiring authors on the path to publication’. The team explains that their internet-based enterprise ‘could be used to disrupt the stagnant publication industry’ which they see as ‘skewed against independent and first-time authors who find it notoriously difficult to get their foot in the door with big publishing houses’. They believe there is real potential for this kind of platform. By enabling a limited online readership to access the works of would-be authors, it means that ‘rather than simply a few [publishers] with shared backgrounds and shared experiences reading the book’, new authors have access to a range of ‘unique and diverse opinions’ from ‘people from a vast array of backgrounds’. This can ‘genuinely make an impact on an author’s works’ by providing insight into what readers want and can create a network of reviews which could benefit first time authors in their attempt to gain recognition by big publishing houses. One only need think of J.K. Rowling, whose much loved Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times before finally being published, to realise the impact Undried Ink could make.

[we want to] democratise the publishing process to open it up for ‘the little guy’

The team seem very excited by the prospective success of their venture. They explain that, should they win the £8,000 prize, they would begin to develop their company straight away: ‘we would like to develop the digital infrastructure and build up our community of readers and aspiring authors’. Further to this, they believe Tri-innovate ‘is a great learning experience for our future aspirations’, as although ‘we have all experienced start-ups or consulting businesses, [we] have never started our own company’. Their optimism for the potential of Undried Ink is inspiring, as is their very clear ambition: ‘we would all love to be able to work in start-ups due to the autonomy, thrill and potential growth, both on a personal level and on a business one’.

Ultimately, the team hopes to find success for their venture both to gain personal experience in the business world, but also, and more pertinently, to revolutionise the publishing world.

(Stem)Cellfie

‘(Stem) Cellfie’ is led by Di Hu, a DPhil candidate in Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Jesus College. The group’s idea? Personalised medicine, possible through the generation of stem cells specifically tailored to each individual patient. Hu talks about how although turning a generalised stem cell into an individualised one is feasible, it is not without its challenges: “…this is a laborious and time-consuming process in the lab that requires specialist operation. Furthermore, the current challenge is that different genetic backgrounds, i.e. different patients, will require varying levels of these ingredients.”

As she explains, the ingredients are all in existence already, and are being used within the scientific community. The issue is streamlining and eventually popularising what is currently a complex and tedious process. The company’s solution is thus: harnessing existing “microfluidic single-cell platforms” alongside a machine learning algorithm to transform “patient induced stem cells” – which, as Hu reminds us, is a Nobel Prize winning discovery, with contribution from Oxford academics – “into the cell type the patient needs”. Their algorithm is key, as it is able to identify the differing requirements needed for each individual patient throughout each step of the cell generation process. Hu says, “it will use known quality control visual and gene expression indicators as checkpoints, which will serve as a blueprint for creating the best cell the patient needs.”

The funny thing, as Hu points out, is that no one is doing this: “most business people in the field are not aware of the fundamental sciences required to make it happen with the best quality. That’s the Oxford advantage – that we have both the basic sciences and the basic business leads to combine forces to develop a truly personalised cure.” Indeed, their team is wholly diverse, comprising of entrepreneurs and researchers with different backgrounds specialising in everything from computer science to developmental biology. This ensures that their work is split and nothing is left unsupervised. Teamwork therefore seems central, and the group is propelled by their shared drive to make personalised cures a reality; as Hu says, they “just need to combine forces in order to actualise this endeavour.”

we have both the basic sciences and the basic business leads to combine forces to develop a truly personalised cure

They clearly have their work cut out for them, but Hu is optimistic about the future of ‘(Stem) Cellfie’, expressing her certainty that the team will persist even if they aren’t successful in the competition. The team is genuinely invested in achieving their goal, and Hu cites the sheer importance of such an idea as theirs to be made reality. When asked about potential difficulties in working in a team as varied as theirs to complete such an arduous task, Hu simply states, “our individual differences are negligent in light of our greater vision.”

RADiscovery

Muhammad Kasim is the team leader of RADiscovery, the group of entrepreneurs from Wolfson College determined to change the landscape of radiation therapy. They plan to speed up the treatment planning for radiation therapy while lowering its risk.

Although the group has no prior entrepreneurial experience, their background in research provided them with knowledge of computer programmes that allow them to input data and model solutions with high efficacy. With this tool in hand, Kasim explains, it was just a question of  “looking for problems in society that we could solve”. After a few months of searching, it was radiation therapy that struck them as a process in need of their expertise. Treatment involves a lot of manual tasks that could be automated, saving time for healthcare professionals and lowering the risk to patients. Yet such a field also appealed to the group’s ethos, combining a passion for research with a drive to solve meaningful problems in society: “Radiation therapy impacts a lot of people”, notes Kasim, “especially the cancer patients [themselves]”.

Radiation therapy impacts a lot of people… especially the cancer patients [themselves]

Kasim said that this is definitely a project he wants to continue into the future. However, he is highly conscious of the difficulties facing university based entrepreneurial projects: “I see the number of entrepreneurs that spins out from university research is increasing at the moment, especially in Oxford. The problem of the spin-out research is that there is little guarantee the product would work and it needs more funding for proof-of-concept to direct the research for the market needs”. Consequently, academic research projects are far less appealing to investors compared to ideas that involve only app/web technology.

Boresha Technologies 

Boresha is a financial technology company led by Oxford student James Thorogood. The company aims to make loans more accessible for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is achieved by partnering with commodity aggregators, which link farmers with marketplaces, to provide a simple, secure and, a low-cost way for farmers to access credit.

Their idea was inspired by James’ experiences working alongside aggregators in the Kenyan Dairy Sector. While there, James “saw the potential to address difficult supply chain management problems through a simple digital platform while also expanding lending to thousands of farmers in need of credit”.

What makes this initiative so exciting is the potential impact it could have on small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Boresha team told us that, as it stands, there is £50 billion of unmet demand for loans by small-farms in the region. “It is broadly acknowledged,” they continued, “that one of the largest barriers to farmer productivity, increasing their incomes, and improving their livelihoods is a lack of access to credit”. These farmers are often isolated and so find it difficult to access those micro-finance institutions which are available. Aggregators are able to act as a “link” between the farmers and these sources of credit. By providing access to such credit, Boresha provides the opportunity for farmer to improve both the income and standard of living of themselves and their community.

we have a dedicated, passionate, skilful, and committed team who really believed in the potential of this idea to make a difference

The team says that they already have the interest of important stakeholders and are being supported by the Oxford Foundry, which aims to promote entrepreneurial initiatives led by Oxford students. There is more work yet to do to get this initiative off the ground: “We currently need to build out our network of field staff who can work closely with aggregators”. But the team is certainly optimistic about the future of their company: “We have a dedicated, passionate, skillful, and committed team who really believes in the potential of this idea to make a difference”.