New NSIV CEO & President, Chris Ilsley (say “ills lee”) has been with us for just over a month. We briefly introduced him to you in last month’s newsletter, but now it’s time for a bit more in-depth look. To help us get acquainted, he recently sat down for a Q&A. Find out about his interest in working with entrepreneurs, why he’s excited to join NSIV, his thoughts on mentoring, and his vision for the future.
NSIV: Let’s kick this off by asking: where did your interest in working with entrepreneurs and startups come from?
Chris: The aspect of working with startups and entrepreneurs that most excites me is ‘the buzz’. It’s engaging with individuals and teams who have the attitude and belief that they are going to move the needle in making the world a better place. That’s something I enjoy seeing, look to support and foster.
You could say that the desire to support entrepreneurs and help startups internationalize comes from my career with UK Trade and Investment in Cambridge. However, I think it comes from how I was raised by my family to support and help others wherever you can.
Also, I’m a geek. I still remember the names of my high school math, physics, chemistry, and biology teachers (quiz me any time). In addition, my parents, grandfather, and uncle all worked for what was the ICL, International Computers Limited — early-stage PC and large mainframe manufacturers in the UK. ICL also received the license to produce in the UK the BBC home computer which was being put into people’s homes and schools.
However, let’s be clear I don’t think innovation is always technology driven. I think there is plenty of social innovation. And that the power of entrepreneurship is not just economic gain but also improving the life of others.
NSIV: And what sustains your work in the startup and technology community today?
Chris: This goes back to the first question: helping others and seeing a concept move from a napkin to an actual product in the hands of the end user.
NSIV: So why join NSIV? What excited you about leading the organization at this moment?
Chris: Greater Boston is awash with a great number of initiatives, institutions, and programs looking to support innovation driven entrepreneurship. There are centers for startups that are known around the world and are magnets for people and organizations wanting to tap into this dynamic ecosystem.
What the vast majority of these initiatives and centers miss out on, however, is community. Not just being part of a crowd, but a unique, individual company with an active and supportive group of peers around them providing the support — physical, commercial, and personal — that entrepreneurs and startups need to launch and scale up.
I’ve been impressed with NSIV for a while. They recognize that you need more than just a desk and lab bench.
My vision for leading the organization as we look forward to the next ten years is to amplify our innovation-driven community engagement, as well the level of support we provide.
I want to do this for new members and potential sponsors. I want to do this regionally, nationally, internationally, and in both the life science and cleantech sectors.
NSIV: What are some of the ways that you envision ensuring NSIV meets this mission?
Chris: We need to be relevant to our members, supporters, sponsors, and cheerleaders. Not just the ones we have now, but also those we are looking to have join us as we begin to write our new chapter.
Our offer needs to reflect the needs of these constituents. Don’t get me wrong, I think we are doing a great job now. But, we need to think about what life sciences and cleantech might look like in five years especially with innovations in AI, robotics, design, blockchain, 5G, etc. These changes will impact us as patients and consumers as we engage with tomorrow’s healthcare and the environment. NSIV must support members who are active in these convergent areas.
NSIV: At other times you’ve mentioned, that it will be important to continue to strengthen the NSIV community, building our identity as a region as well as a cluster. What are some ways you’ll be able to do that?
Chris: I think this can be achieved several ways.
First, making sure that partners, advocates, ‘competitors’ (I prefer the term co-opetition), investors, and policy makers fully understand who we are, what we do, and where we add value and opportunity to the ecosystems we are engaged in. I’m a firm believer that we are an asset to the life science, cleantech, and North Shore communities we look to serve. We need to make sure that people understand and support us in our mission and that that the power and impact of innovation development isn’t just for Boston and Cambridge. It’s also the efforts of Beverly, Watertown, Waltham, Worcester and the other communities of the commonwealth.
Which leads me onto my second point: NSIV’s Soft Landing (International & National) Program. For good reason, Greater Boston has become an international magnet for talent and ideas. What we need to articulate is that there are plenty of good ideas and talent throughout the North Shore as well as other parts of Greater Boston that these inbound companies could benefit from partnering with.
I don’t see this as a numbers game (e.g., rent is cheaper). What is more important to me is the sense of community and opportunity we have to offer.
If we take a look at NSIV now, we’ve had 50 companies, 18 different nationalities, speaking over 12 languages, all of who are looking to help you if you ask and need it. That’s significant if you are looking to enter the US market place.
NSIV: One of the many ways you’ve been actively involved in entrepreneurship is as a mentor. What has this taught you about the role of mentoring in building an entrepreneurial cluster or community?
Chris: Mentorship is critical. Rather than just a single mentor, NSIV utilizes a pool of mentors that are relevant and appropriate for the company and the situation.
I’ve had a simple mantra for a while now, that I adopted after reflecting on this and after working with one particular entrepreneur. Mentor the “company”, coach the “leaders or individual”.
Yes, I’ve provided advice and support with commercialization and development of technology. But equally if not more important has been coaching leadership teams to believe in themselves and what they are capable of achieving.
Also, you need to be sympathetic and listen. I was told years ago in a business development role use a 2:1 ratio of ears to mouth. In other words, listen more than you speak.
Mentors are resources and mentors introduce entrepreneurs to people, customers, and ideas. Mentors know the community and mentors know the transformation entrepreneurs need to go through to become successful. Any region needs engaged and involved mentors.
NSIV: You’ve also been involved in what I’ll call corporate match-making – lots of introductions between people from Britain and the states. How do you see that playing into your vision for NSIV?
Chris: Match making or tech-scouting I think will become and is an important opportunity for us at NSIV. Again, I think we need to vocalize our successes to date, profiling the companies that are here and have graduated. We have great stories to tell to potential new members, partners, and investors.
I would certainly like to see us growing our role as a feeder for the next round of funding for our members, whether that is with angels, foundations and family funds, corporate VC, and eventually larger VC firms. Introductions to customers are always key. But we can’t do this unless they know who we are, what we do, and the success we have had to date.
NSIV: You’re now the person in charge, does that give you more empathy with the entrepreneurs NSIV serves? How would you advise yourself?
Chris: I am more empathetic to our members and will look to support and advocate for them wherever and whenever I can.
But, on the flip side, I want to ensure that members listen and take on advice from the team and our mentors. Collectively, we have years of wisdom and insight into the sectors we look to serve and hope that the teams take that onboard as they look to develop and scale up.
As for advising myself, remember, they are not your companies — you can’t tell them what to do. Only look to advise, support and encourage, which is something I’m learning to do with my two young daughters. Yes, it is tempting to do things for them, but they need to learn how to do things themselves, ultimately.