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Dr Phil O’Donovan

Dr Phil O’Donovan (BSc Electrical Engineering Science, 1971) is a successful entrepreneur and angel investor, providing support and financial backing for startups and other entrepreneurs.

Among his successes, as founding MD, he helped to grow Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR plc) from a nine-person startup in 1998 to the Bluetooth chip market-leader and FTSE 250 public company employing more than 2,000 people in 2015. In his spare time, Phil is an advisor and speaker on entrepreneurial topics, including at Warwick Business School.

Why Warwick?

I’d studied Physics and Maths at A-Level and was always interested in Engineering - I chose Warwick because it was one of the few universities at the time where you could study Engineering, Physics and Maths in a common first year. I visited three universities and I liked the feel of Warwick. I wanted to attend a new Plate Glass university in green fields where there was a lot of excitement and traditions were being developed from the bottom up. Engineering was vibrant at Warwick, the staff were stars and I was particularly impressed with the facilities including the cavernous Engineering Test Equipment Hall.

Your favourite Warwick memory?

I had a fantastic time at Warwick. The 1960s were a time of real optimism, excitement and change. Outside of my studies, Germaine Greer gave an enthralling vacation lecture in 1968 on Godwinism in the 18th century (anarchism in the modern age). It wasn’t a theory I was aware of, but she spoke passionately and very engagingly on the subject.

The late Professor Hugh Clegg, who created the School of Industrial Relations and Business Studies in 1967, was influential and helped add a "people and society" dimension to my thinking. Warwick has always had strong relationships with industry, and he initiated that culture. And, of course, this was also the time of JB Butterworth, Warwick's first Vice Chancellor and a great builder of university-business relationships. I still have my copy of "Warwick University Ltd"!

How did your time at Warwick aid your personal and professional development?

Warwick was, and still is, a great place to study Engineering. I loved the breadth of topics covered and enjoyed the course on magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), which was delivered by the renowned Professor Arthur Shercliff, who founded the Department of Engineering Science in 1964. I was first introduced to semiconductors in my second year, and I’ve been involved with chips and communication systems ever since.

The theoretical aspects of the course provided me with the foundation to do whatever I wanted to do next. My time studying lumped systems analysis at Warwick was extremely valuable too. It enabled the application of generic techniques to the study of a variety of systems including electrical, mechanical, and fluid.

What skills or attitudes have helped you to succeed?

The ‘who dares wins’ attitude I honed at Warwick has helped me to succeed in business. It provides a supportive back-drop to grasping opportunities as they arise as well as learning from, rather than, fearing failure.

Role-models are also important, not just people but companies and business models. At Cambridge Silicon Radio, we noticed the success of Arm Ltd, who were also based in Cambridge, and they motivated us to succeed.

What motivated you to start giving your time and expertise back to universities?

As mentioned above, it’s important for entrepreneurs to have role-models. I hope that, by explaining to students how I’ve enjoyed a successful career in engineering-based companies and become a founder of a startup that became a global market-leader, a few might relate and be inspired to become entrepreneurs themselves.

Giving talks is something I wasn’t naturally comfortable with when I was younger, but it’s a skill I’ve developed and now thoroughly enjoy, especially as I’m able to talk to students about being an entrepreneur, a subject I have a real passion for.

What do you enjoy most about working with startups?

I work with a diverse range of people and companies and, as a business angel, I mentor and coach founders to prepare them for their first round of funding. Getting to know their company helps me too as it informs my decision about whether I want to invest in their business.

The realities of working with startups can be tough – more than 50% fail within five years and of the remainder, less than 10% produce a good return on investment for their founders, investors, and staff. So it’s exciting and rewarding to help others succeed and, if I invest, I succeed too.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur?

Start early. You can create a business at any time of your life and, while industry experience helps, it isn’t mandatory. Look at Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Neither followed the general rule that says: ‘you need experience before you can create a world-beating company’. Yet both have had incredibly successful careers. My only regret is that I didn’t co-found a company like CSR earlier.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to continue doing what I’m doing now, searching-out emerging companies, speaking at universities and business schools, mentoring startup founders, and investing as a business angel. I don't see myself retiring to sit on the beach any time soon!

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