Spotlight Series: Interview with Dr Cathy Craig, CEO and co-founder of INCISIV

02 Mar 2022

Cathy Craig spotlight

Hub Member and Enterprise Fellowships alumna Dr Cathy Craig is the CEO and co-founder of INCISIV, and a Professor of experimental psychology at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Over the last 20 years she’s been looking at how we move, why we move and why sometimes we can’t. This has involved studying the movements of elite players in a variety of sports but also children with autism, older adults and people living with Parkinson’s disease.

In your own words what is INCISIV and how does it work?

INCISIV is a Virtual Reality (VR) analytics company. Our mission is to use our scientific know-how to develop solutions to help people move better so they can perform better. We use VR to control what the brain can see and analytics help us understand why the brain responds as it does. Our algorithms quantify something we are calling ‘neural fitness’ - an ability we call ‘Action Intelligence’ (AQ). This deep knowledge of how the brain controls movement forms the bedrock of our products.

Engineering is all about solving problems. What problem is your innovation solving?

There are human behaviours we want to try and understand but we don’t have the technology to do it. At INCISIV we are trying to develop a platform that allows us to probe the brain in a new way, so that we can understand it and then try to improve performance.

What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity”?

I have been using VR for over 20 years. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg was probably still in high school when I started using VR. In those days VR headsets were clunky and cost around £10k. Now Oculus (Meta) have a headset that costs £299 and can do so much more. That was when I realised VR could become more mainstream opening up the possibility of developing content and solutions on the hardware.

Wading into unknown territory can be unsettling – what were you most excited by and what was most challenging for you when starting out?

The most challenging but also the most exciting thing was making the decision to leave a very well-paid job at Queen’s University Belfast where I was both Professor of Psychology and Dean for Postgraduate Education to start a company in my late forties. It was terrifying and exciting at the same time.

How did you go about building your team and finding your first team members?

Starting a company is, without a doubt, the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. It is an emotional rollercoaster, with highs and lows in the same day, but I am very lucky in that my husband Adrien is also my co-founder. Our first employees have tended to be people we have had the opportunity to work with previously. Making sure the team has bought into our vision is really important.

Women are unfortunately, still underrepresented in academia and in the engineering startup sector. As an academic who’s spinning out their research, have you faced any challenges so far in your career?

Following my PhD I took up my first lectureship in France. Eight years later I realised (and one of my male colleagues had made very clear to me), as a female academic, I had hit the glass ceiling in terms of career progression However, when you accept that the cards are stacked against you, you can either become bitter and unhappy with the world or channel your energies into something positive and move on. So I took up a Senior Lectureship at Queen’s University Belfast in 2006 and managed to get promoted to professor without too much trouble in 2011. It then became apparent that universities were quite happy to promote female academics but that the discrimination was at the level of pay. I fought very hard to ensure the gender pay gap was reduced.

In the startup world things are much worse. It is well known that female founders receive less than 5% of all VC funding and let’s just say we haven’t taken any VC funding yet. That being said we can’t just complain about it, we just have to show VCs that investing in female founders is smart and that they will get a better return.

How do you think women representation could be improved?

When I was at Queen’s we received a Athena SWAN Gold Award, as we were big advocates of having female role models. That’s what we need now in the Startup world -plenty of female role models. The other problem is that everyone talks about being the next unicorn, which is like saying every academic should aspire to win a Nobel Prize! Excellent businesses still exist that aren’t unicorns. They are the heartbeat of any economy and should not be overlooked.

What motivates or inspires you to keep going with INCISIV?

I can safely say that it is the most exhilarating thing I have ever done. Academia can become very staid, and you can give your lectures in your sleep. At INCISIV I am continually learning new things and constantly feel out of my depth. That’s how you learn and develop as a person. My father once told me “in life there are no dress rehearsals - make the most of it”.

Is there something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started?

Being a founder is a bit like becoming a parent. It is all consuming – it can be very rewarding but also very frustrating. You love it but sometimes you wish you had never done it!

I make a lot of notes when I’m listening to other founders/investors talk. What I find now is that I re-read these notes and things I wrote three years’ ago now resonate with me but at the time the pearls of wisdom went completely over my head

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business? 

The Enterprise Fellowships programme is great - particularly for academics who want to spin out their research and start a company. Coming from an academic background, commercialisation and thinking in a business-like way are very alien. The programme provided fantastic one to one coaching and mentoring that have really helped me understand and, more importantly, start to become comfortable about asking people to pay for our products!

Their network is also unrivalled. The number of outstanding businesspeople that the Enterprise Hub has connected me with and I have had the privilege to speak to has been amazing.

Have you got any tips for potential applicants?

Just do it. If you don’t apply you will never know if you will get accepted. It has really changed my life and I have absolutely no regrets.

 

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

Anne Boden – CEO of Starling Bank – we are big fans of Starling Bank and the service they provide.

Tell us a random fact not many people know about you

I played out-half for Ulster women’s rugby team.

When I was a child, I wanted to be… A vet

Programme I am currently binging on Netflix/Prime… Not watching anything at the moment but I did love Ted Lasso and Call my Agent - I can’t wait for the new Formula 1: Drive to Survive documentary to come out.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Try and make money while you sleep!

Conversely, what has been the worst piece of advice?

Don’t know – as an entrepreneur everyone is always giving you advice – I think it’s great people are always trying to help but sometimes you need to know when to ignore it and do what you think is right.

If you were an investor, which Hub Member would you invest in?


Iris Kramer from ArchAI

 

If you had to start all over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

No – I have learnt so much and I think the mistakes I have made (of which there are many) are all part of the journey.


To follow INCISIV's progress, you can check out their website and follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also learn more about the support we provide through our Enterprise Fellowships programme and sign up for programme opening alerts.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.

We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.

The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.

Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.

The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 270 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £9.5 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £575 million in additional funding.


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