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Features: Faculty Insights


The Cambridge Mathematics departments are delighted to welcome Dr Ewan Kirk as our first Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence. As a Mathematics alumnus, technology entrepreneur, early-stage investor and philanthropist he brings a wealth of experience to this exciting new role.

"I like to describe [entrepreneurialism] as a kind of fractal approach to things that are important." Ewan Kirk

The Royal Society’s Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR) scheme enables universities to partner with successful entrepreneurs and business leaders to develop projects that build the entrepreneurial skills of staff and students. The Entrepreneur in Residence post will be embedded within the Mathematics departments for two years, for an average of a day a week. 

Ewan Kirk is outstandingly well suited to take on the role. "My journey has been from mathematics through commerce and finance," he says of his own background. Following Part III at Cambridge, he gained a PhD in General Relativity. His career path took him from being a partner at Goldman Sachs to co-founding and running what he describes as "an exceptionally geeky hedge fund", Cantab Capital Partners. He is a non-executive director of BAE Systems, and also brings his experience of supporting research mathematics both as a philanthropic funder and as Chair of the Management Committee of the Isaac Newton Institute.

Inspiring innovation

As a groundbreaking new initiative for the Mathematics departments the EiR programme is itself an exciting startup, and Kirk is keen to see it develop and evolve over the two years. "This is a bit of an experiment, and if one thing doesn't work then we'll do something else - that's also an entrepreneurial trait," he points out. The scheme has a wide aim and remit, including growing staff and students’ confidence and understanding of business and entrepreneurship, mentoring and advising students and academics about setting up a company or developing collaborations with industry, and advising and signposting staff and students on where to access funding, investment and further expertise.

The initial plans include a lecture series, to be open as widely as possible. Kirk hopes to help attendees by "going through the basics - what do you need to know, what are the key headings". The lecture series will include practical advice - for example how to develop a pitch presentation, discussing the fundamental steps and skills needed to turn an idea into a business, fundraising, and demystifying some of the terms that surround funding and growing a new enterprise. "I think part of the job is to describe the pathway", says Kirk.

As Entrepreneur in Residence Kirk also plans to offer regular open office sessions, where staff and students can discuss ideas. "There are ideas which might not work or need some tweaking, but there's no such thing as an idea you should be embarrassed about. Part of being an entrepreneur is how to validate an idea. I always say that I have had more bad ideas in my life than I can count but one of the skills that I have learned is to triage those ideas and try to get rid of the egregiously bad ones." To provide additional support, Kirk is keen to embed the Mathematics departments more firmly within the Cambridge entrepreneurial ecosystem, building stronger links with Cambridge Enterprise and the various entrepreneurship societies and clubs in the colleges and in the University, as well as external links.

Kirk also hopes to draw on the accumulated experience of others to explore routes from mathematics to industry, business and innovation. "Over the two years one of the things I'm hoping to do is to get people who have been mathematicians for their first degree or PhD, or been a professional mathematician for a while and then gone on and done something else, to come back and have a fireside chat. Their experience of that process will, I think, be illuminating."

Fractal approaches and flexibility

Kirk has first-hand experience and a deep understanding of what entrepreneurialism is all about, and when discussing its key features his mathematical background comes to the fore. "I like to describe it as a kind of fractal approach to things that are important," he says. "You've got to have your big vision – 'This is where I think we want to go', 'You know, I think we can do this' – but it's got to break apart into lots of different bits. You've got to be quite good at working at different levels, from the business strategy to fixing the coffee machine."

Flexibility, the willingness to try new strategies and resilience are key problem-solving traits that are central to entrepreneurialism too. "The phrase that's used in the community of course is 'pivot'," says Kirk. "Entrepreneurs tend to have a sense of going towards a big goal but the good ones are also very good at saying 'This isn't working - let's do something else'."

Kirk stresses the importance of developing people skills. "I suppose at a deeper level it's about being a little bit self-critical – it's about being able to understand your own weaknesses," he says. It's essential to learn how to hire and work with good people, and how to build and be part of a successful team. "Working in an entrepreneurial environment is stressful… So you've got to be able to work with people in quite a small pressured environment," he points out. "That's a real skill – it's something you have to learn."

When we think of entrepreneurialism we tend to think of the huge tech success stories such as Google, Facebook or Steve Jobs at Apple. But Kirk points out that the skills involved are useful in a range of contexts. "There are people who are going to come out of University with an idea and start a firm and in 10 years time it's worth a billion pounds, but actually there's a lot of other people who are going to end up being semi-professional mathematicians like me."

Kirk hopes that the new EiR partnership will benefit all staff and students. "My contention is that if you have entrepreneurial skills you will be more successful even if you're not in what would be considered a traditional entrepreneurial environment," he says.

Transferable assets and problem-solving tools

Mathematics graduates are highly employable, and not only because of their specialised subject knowledge. Kirk points out that sometimes you can’t foresee which parts of your degree will be most useful. "Most of what I have done in my commercial career has been about stochastic differential equations and statistics and I did almost none of that in my degree," he says. "So the direct things you learned become less important - that's not true for everyone but it was certainly true for me. I was a good mathematician and a good programmer but not great in either, but I could just do a lot of stuff."

However, mathematicians’ major transferable assets are thinking and problem-solving skills.  "What mathematics brings is a way of thinking about things - it's a way of understanding what is definitely true," says Kirk. "I think that one of the things that mathematics also gives you is the ability to really concentrate on something."

Kirk pinpoints mathematicians' problem-solving approach. "You work your way through a proof and you think hard about it, and you're thinking about all the different techniques that you could possibly use in this situation to get you from this line to the next line of the proof. 'I've got a toolbox and I've got a problem - which tool do I take out to get from this line to the next line?' That's a very common mathematical approach to problem solving."

Focus is another enormously valuable transferable skill. "The mathematicians that I know that are successful, they can just focus on one thing really hard, and sometimes that's really important," says Kirk. He has found this useful at many levels in his own career, including literally being able to tune out distractions. "When I worked at Goldman Sachs I worked on one of the largest trading floors in Europe - I mean it's like a football field," he says. "Everyone's shouting all the time, and I had my metre of desk with my computers and I was trying to price some complicated derivative, and the fact that I could just focus on that was quite a good thing. I think it was a little bit of a skill that often people don't learn."

Giving back and funding the future

As well as giving his time and expertise, Kirk has also been a strong philanthropic supporter of mathematics at Cambridge. In 2015 Cantab Capital Partners gave £5 million to establish the Cantab Capital Institute for the Mathematics of Information. "A huge number of my employees had come out of this building and had come to Cantab, so we felt we wanted to give something back," says Kirk. He believes that for both altruistic reasons and impact: "Mathematics should be something that we as a society decide to fund not entirely for purely commercial reasons."

Taking mathematics in new directions shares similarities with entrepreneurial innovation, including exploring new opportunities or untapped potential in sometimes unexpected ideas. Kirk is a keen advocate of funding for fundamental blue-sky research. "I do understand that for every pound spent in mathematics we can look at the effect that that has on the economy, and the multiplier effect is huge," he says. "But the problem with that is then funding gets funnelled exclusively to those areas which might actually make a difference or might actually generate startups or entrepreneurs."

He cites AI as an example of how specific areas of mathematics can suddenly find applications that nobody expected. "Ten years ago funders might have said ‘Why are mathematicians spending time on working out how to multiply matrices fast? Isn’t that a bit useless?’ but it turns out that's fundamental to AI. We can't really know what is going to be important in the future," says Kirk. "One of my favourite examples is quaternions which, by any standard, are a fairly esoteric branch of pure mathematics. However, it turns out that they’re fundamental to three-dimensional computer graphics. Mathematics makes films like Toy Story possible!"

From a philanthropic point of view Kirk also points out that mathematics is a very cost-effective investment. "You get a lot of bang for your buck, and that is pretty cool too!"

Kirk is enthusiastic about setting up the new Entrepreneur in Residence programme within the Faculty, and believes the environment gets things off to a head start. "Cambridge and Cambridge Mathematics in particular is an astonishing machine. It's an incredible place to be a mathematician and attracts some of the best mathematicians in the world," he says. "Whether those are proto-mathematicians coming in to do Part I maths, or heads of departments and lecturers and professors, it does attract some of the smartest, brightest, most amazing people."

"If you're going to start doing something like this you need to have some raw materials," Kirk says."And you might as well have the best concentration of the best raw materials - mathematicians - before you get started, so this seems like a good place to do it."


You can watch the full interview with Ewan Kirk in this video feature.