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7 Questions with Aline Miller
7 Questions with Aline Miller
Name: Aline Miller
Current title: Founding CEO & Professor
Current organisation: Manchester BIOGEL & University of Manchester
Aline is currently CEO and Founding Director of Manchester BIOGEL, which is a leading biomaterials company focussed on the design and manufacture of 3D synthetic peptide hydrogels that are redefining cell culture for life science. As CEO she leads on all aspects of the business, with particular focus on developing and implementing strategic plans and budgets to scale the business, identifying, building and mentoring a capable, competent and motivated team, accelerating sales growth and strengthening the R&D pipeline through in-house development and cultivating partnerships. Over the past 7 years Aline has raised over £2.5M in Venture Capital, Angel and Private Investment and won two Innovate UK grants. The company is revenue generating and doubled its annual turnover each year, for the past three years. Aline is also Professor of Biomolecular Engineering and has recently taken on the Associate Dean role for Business Engagement and Innovation for Science and Engineering at The University of Manchester. Aline’s current research interests lie at the life-science interface with emphasis on designing materials through self-assembly for biomedical applications. In this area she has published over 100 refereed papers, authored 5 patents and has won > £8M from research councils, EU, charities and industry to support her research group. She has won several awards including the 2014 Philip Leverhulme Prize for Engineering. She continues to be passionate about encouraging women and girls into science, engineering and leadership roles and regularly mentors’ others and gives outreach talks and demonstrations within the local community.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?
In recent times, I found suddenly moving from leading a team I could meet and communicate with face to face on a daily basis, to only being able to see everyone is virtually very difficult to adjust to. It led to me making sure I spent time with everyone together and individually to ensure everyone was working on the same page, and also they were keeping well and a healthy work-life balance. I'm sure this will resonate with many. Further to this, one of the most challenging things I found as a leader was switching from an academic to a commercial environment. Leading a team in academia, usually means leading students and research fellows in your research group. All members are usually driven by their desire to publish their research and obtain their PhD. They are usually highly motivated, and self-sufficient. I also line managed 15 academics previously, but again, it is very different as academics vy the very nature of their role, need to be completely independant and it is very rare to find many actually work together on a common goal. I had to start at the beginning when building my company tea. I needed to learn that people were motivated by different things and had different ideas of what success meant to them. I also realised I needed to motivate people to come together and communicate and function as a team, all pushing to achieve the same company vision. This was a challenge for me, and I made a few mistakes along the way, but I am very proud of the team we have in Manchester Biogel and that every team member is contributing to our achievements and growth.
2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?
After spending almost 20 years of working in research in The University of Manchester with my collaborator, Professor Alberto Saiani, we realised we had the foundation of a platform technology that had commercial potential. We tested this out with a few end users and this led us to building a development plan and founding our Start-Up company, Manchester BIOGEL in 2013 (previously known as PeptiGelDesign). One of our partners through an EU 7th Framework grant decided to take the plunge and start the company with us. Once we received seed funding however, and started to sell our materials I took sabbatical and subsequently leave of absence from the University to run the company in 2017. This allowed me to really focus on our endeavour, work out how to scale product manufacture and build our sales and marketing team. I really enjoyed seeing our technology out in the market, being adopted by academic and industrial researchers and delivering real scientific impact.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Every other day I get up early and go for a run, mainly to relieve stress and get my thoughts gathered for the day. I then have breakfast with the family and drop my three boys off at school before heading into the office at Alderley Park, Cheshire. We often have a team meeting first thing to set our agendas for the day and then crack on with customer meetings or planning our product development and company strategy. I try to leave the office by around 6pm so I'm home for dinner, which I must admit my husband typically cooks. Evenings are filled with taxing the boys to their various sports training and squeezing in an hour or two of email catch ups before heading to bed.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Delegation and empowering the team. This doesn't come naturally to me to be honest, but I have learnt that when individuals in the team are given the responsibility and the tools and resources needed to successfully manage or lead their own projects, they not only tend to deliver high quality results, they also work toward their goals and drive their own career, the benefits are endless.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
One of the most recent books I have read in this area is Happy Sexy Millionaire: Unexpected Truths about Fulfilment, Love and Success. This has been a great inspiration about leading a successful company, yet remaining focussed on what motivates me and my overall life fulfilment. It helped inspire me to continue to drive the success of the company, but at the same time reminded me to keep perspective and to always be mindful of what success and fulfilment means to me.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?
On one level it is easy within a small team, as everyone has their own area that they are responsible for, so it is easy for them to take ownership and make it their own. We are now embarking on our growth journey, where we are building departments with more than one person in them! Delegating responsibilities to a designated team lead is the first step we are taking, but the whole department/team contributes to the development of the Key Performance Indicators and Results document, so they have bought into the goals that they have set and can take pride in delivering.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?
Making that transition from academic thinking to commercial thinking; pivoting my business pitch from academic research to solving peoples problems, i.e. properly defining and testing my value proposition and winning £1.5m in VC investment