cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Poonam Malik

Poonam Malik is a passionate advocate for investing in and supporting women-founded companies, a message she is able to spread as the head of investments at University of Strathclyde and through several other appointments, including a board position at government-owned economic development agency Scottish Enterprise.

She joins us to discuss the importance of overcoming unconscious bias in investments, what gives Strathclyde an edge and why Scotland is big enough to attract international interest.

She also talks about her journey from growing up in a small village in India to becoming a scientist in the UK before moving on to angel investments and eventually landing at Strathclyde.


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Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome Poonam Malik, in person as well. You are my first in-person guest in years. Poonam, thank you so much for joining me today.

Thank you, Thierry. Lovely to be here and thank you. It is a pleasure to meet you face to face, obviously after the Zoom world of the last two years and at this global venture conference, it is a great opportunity to be here and be here in person.

It is very nice to have you here in person, and as you say, to see you in 3D. 

Actually, indeed.

My first question is hopefully an easy one. Can you give me a bit of an overview of what you do at Strathclyde, where you fit into the university structure?

PM: Thank you. So, Strathclyde is a wonderful place. A place of useful learning and a world-class technological university. The university’s culture has been very much steeped into its community and society, and with the global outlook to tackle on the real-world challenges, which is why business is very much a fibre and the DNA alongside the scholarly knowledge that is generated because that is making it useful. And I had the investments into the university. A new Strategy Strathclyde Inspire was launched in middle, early 2020. As part of that the university has been balancing in its own spinouts since 2012, but as part of the strategy, it was decided to have an enhanced function and now with that the team was formed.

It is a three-pillar strategy in terms of, and then we are in the growth phase where we are trying to work with the startups, spinouts and spin-ins, which is a new category, I am sure we’ll talk about it. We invest in them, manage our portfolio, manage investor relations, and manage the companies to make them and look for successful exits, but being a university and the place of useful learning, the impact is a much bigger agenda. So, we look for commercial return on investment, like any successful organisation, but the bigger picture is developing the entrepreneurial community and that is the focus of the role.

As you said, a three-prong approach, spinouts, startups and spin-ins. Why the focus on these three?

So, in terms of the universities, Scotland has world-class universities, and we always are in the top five, top 10, top 20,15, the world, and locally are very well recognized, very well respected. Our world-class research published. What is the need, as I said, in terms of translating that knowledge from publications, from research inventions into an innovation that is useful and adopted by the community and something which is paid for by customers, and that is the journey of commercialisation. So, in that, and as the Kauffman Foundation and World Economic Forum said that in the next two years, in this time of day and age, when the economic crisis and covid, post-covid, the most new jobs will come from entrepreneurial activity.

So, in that case, we are basically managing and focusing on all three aspects of it. So, startups are basically, the companies are businesses that are started by our students, alumni, who can be a recent alumni or previous alumni who have any association with the university. So that is the startup, we have an accelerator team working with them. The spinouts are universities own intellectual property, which is again, translating from that patent or intellectual property into a spinout company where it can be translated into a product or services, and that is for our academic staff. And both these have been traditionally worked by most organisations. What I am more excited about is that the university’s code and investment committee last year, we worked together, and they encouraged us to look at more in terms of our, have a relook at what the investment function may mean. What in that we are doing is that our position is that we take our stand as a value-add investor. So, we do not like to compete with the private sector, whether it is the angels or the corporate ventures or venture capital. What we are offering in this case area is enhancement of companies that are outside the world, whether they could be as association by previous staff or alumni who are no longer with the university, or no previous relationship, but the company may be looking to move into Scotland or Glasgow within the investment opportunity or looking to work internationally also, who are working with our academics, where we can provide innovation capabilities, de-risking of their technologies, or even product market fit or testing of the research and innovation aspect.

So, that is where as an academic higher education institution, we have that additional capacity, which the other venture and investors do not. In that case, that is where we bring that value to the table, but to put a confidence, we dip our hands in the pocket, and we put money on the table alongside for working with that. But it is a win-win situation for that. These are the spin-ins in which are not prior university’s intellectual property, but we work alongside, invest in them, grow the innovation and commercialization journey together and basically support the companies in that.

What has the uptake been for spin-ins? Have you had a lot of customers or investees in that area already?

So, that is an interesting point you raise there. Since I started, you asked about my role, so my background has been life sciences, biomedical sciences in the actual research on the other side of the bench, and then working supporting the startups, both mentoring, advising and strategically working with other organisations on their governance level.

I started this role with Strathclyde as part of this wonderful culture of entrepreneurialism, and that starts from the leadership with Prof Jim McDonald, as the principal of the organisation, he has always been business focused and supporting the entrepreneurship aspect and investment. So, in this case, we have very positive relationships and visibility and engagement with the industry. So, since starting out last year and yet to complete the anniversary, we have done four spin-ins. In which case, we basically had relationships and we get approached and we work alongside them. The industry engagement and investment team makes relationships inside with academia, academics who are on the top of their game.

They have that expertise, domain expertise or wider industry expertise, making links. And as a result of them, we bring that additional. But each time we are working with the new investor group, so we enhance our own pipeline of investment opportunities, and this is a long-term relationship we are looking at. We are a patient investor, so we do not put any conditions on them. We are always looking to leverage the private investor money in there. So, filling in the gap, which no other pure investor group can do. So, that is why it is more of a collaborative relationship on commercial terms and looking for that innovation aspect.

You managed to touch on a few topics there in your answer that I wanted to talk about more in depth, one of them being the support from the executive leadership at the university. Is that something that you have seen change recently or has there always been a willingness in Scottish universities to be pro-business and pro-investment in companies?

That is an exciting and interesting point of view and question, in that case. What I would say I have been an academic, I have been on the other side. So, in my early days, when you are researching at the bench and you are an academic, you look to the industry and work with them. What our world-class research, which is published in leading international journals, our reputation in there is there, but what traditionally has been happening is that the commercialisation aspect was lacking.

We are not up there compared to some of the European or US universities, because they tend to have more cohousing of business and startups and industry on the same campus. US academics sometime have a 10-month contract, so two months they engage with the industry. Traditionally, what has been happening in the UK, overall Great Britain ecosystem is that the academic aspect of it, publication grants, student supervision, blue sky research has been excellent.

What was slightly not as much promoted or looked at was tackling the real-world challenges, making product, because that was always the job of a business and industry aspect. Some universities were doing well in it. And I would say Strathclyde has always been a technological university, has always had an excellent relationship with industry and excellent reputation and visibility, which is why it is a leadership culture. But it was not part of it because it is not the structure of the academic progression root into professorship or progression from lecturer to senior lecturer. It was not a special component of it.

So, as a result recently, since the research excellence framework exercise in 2014 and before that, when it started that impact aspect and a more industrial strategy from government came out, that made every academic organisation have a re-look at it in terms of how they are engaging, what is their impact on the society. Not just the purely academic aspect, but bigger societal, economic, and longer-term impact, which could be ecological, environmental, social, and as a result of that now, because it is a requirement to get funding as part of the REF exercise, which has been happening now too, so it is a 33% component, it is has become integrated into that certain organisation, like Strathclyde, to always have this professor of practice or inviting more business-focused real-world people.

But otherwise, if they run parallel, that is when the challenge can come, that it is not as deeply inbuilt, but in the last five, six years, I think most organisations are realizing the value of tackling questions and working for developing solutions and academics do what they do best, supporting company, and then there are business people who run business better, and there are organisations which are innovation organisation, or you can call them tech transfer offices in its previous iteration. They help that commercialization journey.

Does that mean the concept of commercialization has become less of a dirty word amongst academics because now they have to think about impact even before they start the research?

That is the take, I would say. Bringing my previous academic hat or working with in the strategic partnership role that I have worked. Now, I have worked with the top three universities in Scotland, two universities in England as well, and I have worked with universities in India, academic organisation. So, it is just mostly the academic world was considered very pure, very noble, and you are not interested in the financial gains aspect of it.

You do research funds or research grants purely to advance the knowledge, scholarly knowledge, whereas business world was always seen, and it is a change, which was always seen more for profit, more for shareholders. So, the changes there in both side. Businesses are also realizing the importance of stakeholders, which are more than purely out of their shareholders, academic institutions, public government bodies, and other stakeholders. Similarly, academia is realizing knowledge is not useful until, and unless, it is applied and it is benefiting somebody. Which is why there is this drive to work together to find, because today we are standing, whatever is happening in the world, whether it is the covid or it is the Ukraine, Russia crisis or economic financial crisis.

All that requires innovative thinking, innovative products and even the biggest climate change… So for that, the solutions need to come from somewhere and the knowledge, deep tech, deep knowledge is sitting in the university. So, that is why they need to come together. So commercialization, those who are advanced enough to realize for them, it is not a dirty word. Those who are more altruistic, it was thought that why should we do it?

Which is why it is a question for people like me who can understand both sides, the culture, the language, and interfacing them and the wonderful people in the organisations of innovation, organisations of Strathclyde and other organisations that we have in Scotland and other universities who work with academics and businesses to say this is what is the journey and then they basically interface the two sides. That is when the beautiful innovation happens. Companies that grow with that support and think the product gets scaled up.

As you said, you are sitting at the interface, you are a scientist. You are also a woman, I am stating the obvious here. You have a minority background. In the UK at least you count as a minority background. How do we get more people like yourselves on the asset allocation side of this? How do we get more women into venture funding?

You have touched on a point close to my heart, but a sore topic for lot of people in lot of field. So, it is the intersectionality aspect of these things you said. So, women in investment, scientists, female academic, and working in all of these sectors are predominantly male-dominated. So, the percentage of women professors in the universities, or percentage of women CEO, or C-suite executive level or the MD level, or in the boardrooms and at the other end, in terms of ethnic minority investment for women-founded company itself is 2.6% overall, globally.

I mean, considering we are giving 97.3% or 7% to only purely male-dominated companies or startups that are there. And similarly, the FTSE100, or let us say 500 companies, board of directors, 10 years ago, they were hardly any, you could count on fingers how many companies had female board of directors and there has been drive and there have been changes. Again, I think it was counted and said that it will take us 220 years to even reach parity in that situation. Who has that kind of a time? And it is an issue that we have been talking for so long.

So, I think it is a journey. But the challenge here is that we have been talking about it and a lot of people think we have crossed that bridge we have reached, but the dial has not shifted very much and that is the worrying thing. So, when we are talking about now is the time to take concrete steps in that the reason women founders do not get enough funding is that the allocators, as I am talking about asset allocators, investors, whether they are angel investor, whether they are venture capitalists or CVCs, there are not women in there as well. So, it used to be 4% in Scotland, angel, despite it is being one of the world’s big angel investment communities. Seem similarly among… we have here CVC, you can see what is the proportion in the room in global corporate venturing.

It is very homogenous.

So, you can see the same, it is the reality. So, until and unless more women come into the investment leadership roles, investment allocation roles, where they have the influence who can make decision and understand the models and the way women startup founders propose a case, the risk manage their ambition and fem tech area where predominantly it is considered women health technology.

So, I do not understand this particular area, so I will not fund it. Which is why you need more women. And if you talk about the intersectionality of ethnic minority, bring it into the mix, the number is even 0.6% of funding. So where would you take? Even if you go by the last census, the ethnic minority mix is 4%. So why are we not even representing that? And that is the challenge that whether it is the inherent unconscious bias, which all of us have it in some form or the other, or whether it is the educational awareness aspect, but I think the solution to that is we have talked about problems too long. It has become old news. Now the new news should be that what are we doing to deliver the outcomes? So, I think in that case, it is the building pipeline.

And it is from starting from early stage, starting from the women and girls in Scotland, there is a new national strategy for economic transformation as a result of Mark Logan’s stellar report, which is Scotland’s ecosystem technical review. In that case, the computing science or technological subject should be given priority in the schools. They should be recognized as a subject. A lot of funding has been given from government, £50m is being earmarked for women. And asked us to start doing a review similarly for the state of women, and I work with the organisations for last five to six years, investing women angels, which is trying to, I am a member of it, which is trying to support female founders as well as increasing the angel investors community.

So, I think lot of initiatives happening, organisations their national bodies working towards it at university level, our own team and the Strathclyde university, Strathclyde inspire is trying to work at the department level with professors, with the postdoctoral researchers and students to say, how can we encourage more women who are in early-stage research to take on the commercial project if they are interested? Why is it that always men who take the research, and want to commercialize it? So how can we increase that? Because the pipeline numbers, they need to come through there and then only they can challenge. So, there are few points in there, basically.

It is just to summarise, you have to work through the pipeline, but what comes in front of you, then you need to work with them to increase basically by supporting the funding and wrapping around support of advisory network, which they may not have naturally access to because they have not been going around in the same circles.

I have discussion sometimes with people where I ask them what they do to increase diversity numbers. And occasionally you have people who say they are aware of the problem. They obviously do not discriminate against women, and that is still sometimes where it finishes, which I mean, that is the whole discussion about like, it is not enough to not be a racist, you have to make an active choice and you have to kind of try and push the numbers up because if you leave the status quo as it is, as you say, the pipeline will stay full of the same kind of person that comes through.

Absolutely, it is a numbers game. So, basically if more are coming through of similar kind, they will get picked up, but there are awareness and education raising on both sides. So, those of us who are in the decision-making capacity on the other side of the table, as you say, as allocators, either as startup founders who choose them or investing in them or support.

Everybody needs to be aware of their own unconscious bias because people like to work with people like themselves and that is a human nature, but we need to be judging it on the basis of merit and we also need to understand that is why you need role models to showcase even to women founders, startup company owners, and researchers to think that yes, I can also aspire to do that. It is not unthinkable.

And when they are explaining to somebody on the other side of the table, endorsing that challenge, problem or business model or that risk approach that women founders tend to take. Once they get money, there is not any reason, or there is not any research to support that there is any sort of difference between how these startups can grow. It is the question that they just never make it through that door, and then they never get that level of funding to grow, and which is what is needed to do and once it is like success breeds success.

When there are more of women founders around, more will come through, and this is a leadership and management experience which will support more of them. So, in fact, in that case, my plea always with the male colleagues is involve and sponsor women founders, but also look in different places when you are looking for people to support them as an advisory or mentoring or NXD, non-exec director, for these things because sometimes that different, diverse viewpoint is needed.

I think you are right. I have spoken to female-founded businesses where when they finally got investment, and I know that there are hundreds of reasons why a VC might not invest in a company, but when they finally got investment, it was always a woman sitting across them at the table. Even if it was not, as you say, fem tech, I always find it a bit weird when old white men start talking about fem tech, but I guess also women’s healthcare is an issue for everyone.

So, it is not wrong, but yes, there seems to be something in women understanding other women better perhaps, or not having that unconscious bias that makes them go, I do not want to invest in this, even if it is a clean tech company or something that does not really have to do anything with gender.

Yes. I think inherently there are multiple approaches and multiple reasons for it behind everyone of that has research has proven umpteen times that each of us have unconscious bias in ourselves. We make decisions or impressions about people in the first six or 30 seconds about somebody entering the room. The solution here is to be aware of your own inherent, everyone may have differently.

And also, the affinity to work with people like us rather than people different. Whereas the research has also shown that the diverse viewpoint in any company or in any organisation’s room or board or team enhances performance and manages risk better, whether it is a lived experience, whether it is a different career experience or a subject matter view or a cultural experience, you may not have. But from the funding side of the things, also, if it is the sector thing, then people, as you say, there are not very many in technology, science, engineering, background, women coming in, then the pipeline is small and as a result, one or two that come through, they may not shine.

Whereas if there is, and there are things that maybe women ask for less money, so they do not come across as ambitious, or they probably tend to be slightly softer approach in how they are pitching, that can be perceived wrongly as a lack of confidence. So, if you are the allocator, you need to be aware of that. Or somebody need to be on the table to counter that when their decisions are making, because it is a question of flipping in two seconds about saying, yes for that or no for that in the short pitching. In the longer term, it is just working with them to ask more questions.

And there are obviously the other situation that happens is that women tend to get asked more prohibitory questions in terms of probing, because there is doubt about their capabilities because there have not been many of people have not seen and if they have seen they have not noticed it, whereas men tend to get asked sort of positive questions in terms of how will they deal with the growth, how will they manage, whereas women, how would you manage risk.

Both sides, who is making the decision and who is actually answering them, need to be aware of how to tackle the questions and how to come across and shine a light and that is where I think we all have a role to play.

I should ask perhaps an obvious question. How did you end up in this career? How did you become an investor?

Interesting point. I do love my role and I do enjoy what I do thoroughly, as you can see, I can probably go on for hours about it. So, I always loved science and science subjects. So, it was at that time, I did not think about it, just went through it, chose the career. Then I was interested in research, and I wanted to do research which was important. So, health was a natural affinity and viruses at that time were basically a fascinating thing because you cannot see them, but they are so deadly and Kaposi sarcoma associated herpes virus was just discovered in 1994 with the molecular biology technique hybridisation and I got the opportunity to work on this at in the University of Glasgow. So, the question then from there with the research molecule was always drug target and it was conserved across the family of humans and animals. It was not always a drug target from industrial point of view.

And what I realised during that time that our research was grant funded by Medical Research Council, but we had not as much engagement with the industry and I always thought it was the industry pharma that is making. When we go to the US, the conferences there will always be industrial engagement, industry funded research, industry funded studentship. We in the UK were not as closely associated. So that I started to think about it. Then I realised that if you do one, it takes 20 years to take a molecule to the drug, which is normal trajectory. But I started shifting more and more by working with other people where you can do. It is that impact aspect of it by working with other people, you can make bigger change, more change.

And that took me out of the academia to work first into research management and strategic partnerships with academic health science networks, NHS, and then slowly working directly with the startups or spinouts, which are making the change. And when you are working with the founders, you realize everything at the bottom of it, technology, one aspect is technology and the other critical is funding. If you need to provide right funding at the right time to take that technology and make that commercialisation successful.

Slowly again, as you say, that expertise, knowledge, which is domain expertise, but a broader business advisory and guidance. Basically, it was more of an angel investor journey that started so I moved towards that, started providing that and then more and more working with the investors syndicate. And at the same time, I started on the board of our national economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise, where we are having a broader investment into people, into places, into startups, into innovation and programmes, and that you can influence as a result a bigger strategic point of view.

Since then, it has been always a passion to see that if you provide the right investment, as you can say, can take the example of children nourishing and growing, or you can take the example of a seed saying it becomes a big strong tree, and it is the wonderful range of founders that you meet and they are so passionate about it and being a founder, co-founder myself, I suppose that is the entrepreneurial aspect. So, a long answer to your short question is that there is no single path. There are multiple paths whichever way you take, but it is the working and realizing various stages and the models and how we manage and try to choose the winning companies and support them.

Is there anything, any nugget of wisdom or any advice you would give to someone who is starting out in this world?

There are, I would say, three aspects to it. From the academic side, yes, research is useful when it is applied commercially. So, if you are in that, keep your commercialization, and if a product can solve a real-world challenge, it is a wonderful thing or a service. So do not be afraid or shy of exploring that aspect. Be open to that, can it be a business idea rather than just a research paper? And that is a choice that we all make as early career researchers at the business level. And from the organisation’s point of view, obviously everything centres on the people, people are the core of what we do. So, in the university’s innovation departments today is a seller’s market. It is very difficult to resource and get the right support of people. But your businesspeople, if you are working with these startups who are cutting edge innovation, they need to be top of their game.

So, they need to be having relationships in the right place with the right values and organisational values are built from the top, so getting that support. So, I think your organisational support is a critical aspect of it, and we are lucky to have it that the Strathclyde culture is fantastic and supporting businesses, working with academics and merging the two, marrying the two.

And those who are outside, who are starting the startup journey from the business aspect of a startup or a founder, I would say I support both men and women, so there is no difference there, but in terms of women where there is less support, I would say, seek to help out, do not be restrictive. With the social media nowadays, this help is much easier. And if you ask openly, if people are busy, they might still divert you and direct you to somebody else.

And just do not think nothing is unachievable because unattainable, if someone like me who was born in a small village in India with only a school up to eighth class could move from there, study science and got a Commonwealth fellowship, came out to the UK to do a PhD and then made use of the best available system here with the best support and people around it.

I think relationships are very key, how we respect and treat people, but give them the flexibility to mould themselves. So that is what I would say. Look out for those opportunities, but respect and value people around you. And if you give good, good comes back to you.

I think that is very sage advice. I had not quite realized that your school career was that short initially as well. So, that is very inspirational. Like as someone who entered school when he was five or six and came out the other end when he was 23 or 24 or however old I was, in my mind, I often think of people just being in education until they are an adult and then they come out. That is amazing. We are almost out of time. We have actually got to run to our panel in a minute.

But is there anything else that you wanted to mention or any point that you wanted to stress?

I would say this is the wonderful time to be an entrepreneur, and there is a lot of focus on supporting the right entrepreneurs and scaling. One challenge I see is sometimes missing. There are three critical aspects I said is about people. The right kind of a people, both talent within the organisations, both at startup or big business organisations, but also the management and leadership aspect.

So, the more companies that we see exit, the more liquidity floats into the ecosystem, which is what the Scottish ecosystem would be good to have and the more management who is expert, who has been there, who has done that, or who has seen the companies grow and scale and exit, the more of that is there that that support can be there.

So, I think we need to have more venture capitals, more CVCs looking at wonderful innovation and startups that are coming there. Now, how we do that, as I said, even at the GCV, I have always spoke to James and say, look at Scotland PLC as a single entity where we have wonderful universities of Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen. Together there is so much innovation coming out. There is enough research strength to attract the big investors and if they start looking at that pipeline of startup support to scale up, I think that would be really good for the local economy, for people and globally, because these challenges and the times that we live in, we have to make use of that.

And we have to be united in terms of attracting but offering, and we just need to turn the wonderful people, innovative ideas into these global businesses.

Poonam, thank you so much for chatting to me today. It has been a huge pleasure and I look forward to the panel. I will be speaking to you more in 10 minutes’ time, but for everyone else, thank you so much for listening to us.

Thank you, Thierry. It was a pleasure.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).