Professor Fiona Murray CBE (1986)
Professor Fiona Murray CBE has a vast number of strings to her bow. She is Associate Dean of Innovation & Inclusion and William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT School of Management, and Co-Director of the MIT Innovation Initiative; she is also an associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Since 2014, she has served on the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, whose members advise the Prime Minister on policy issues in these areas. In 2015, Fiona was made a CBE for her services to innovation and entrepreneurship.
All this began with Merton. Fiona came up in 1986, from school in Sussex, to read Chemistry, and stayed on for her Master’s. She then crossed the Atlantic to Harvard, to do a PhD in Applied Sciences, before returning to Oxford to take up an appointment as Lecturer in Management at the Saïd Business School and a Fellowship at St Catherine’s College. Since 1999, Fiona’s professional home has been the MIT School of Management back in the USA, where she has risen through the ranks from Assistant Professor to her current position as Chaired Professor and Associate Dean of Innovation & Inclusion. She also sits on several boards, including Prime Coalition, a not-for-profit organisation supporting climate impact-focused start-ups, and MassChallenge, another not-for-profit which supports entrepreneurs tackling global issues.
Today, Professor Murray is a leading policy expert on the transformation of investments in science and technology into deep-tech start-up ventures that solve significant global challenges and create national advantage – from defence and security to health, food, and water security. Her expertise includes understanding new funding approaches for innovations that arise from scientific research, and educating the next generation of technical leaders to build effective ventures. She also works with public and private sector leaders to drive their strategic goals by linking to external innovation ecosystems.
As one of the creators of the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, Fiona has engaged over 50 regions around the world as they consider their own economic comparative advantage and build inclusive innovation ecosystems. With her PhD students she has been designing and evaluating policies and programmes that support strong innovation economies, from competitions and accelerators to Intellectual Property rules and commercialisation incentives. She is particularly focused on how regions can build more inclusive innovation ecosystems that allow diverse innovators to focus on their most significant challenges and build on their strongest advantages.
In recent years, Fiona’s focus has shifted towards supporting science, technology and innovation by public sector leaders in organisations with critical challenges in security and defence. With so many of the novel sources of ideas coming from academia and start-ups, these organisations face special challenges in ensuring that they can engage effectively with the outside world and develop successful strategies. As part of this focus, she has joined the Ministry of Defence Innovation Advisory Panel to support its work on science, technology and innovation and the European Innovation Council Joint Expert Group.
Fiona keeps her feet on the ground by interacting with Executive MBA students at the Sloan School. She teaches IDEA (Innovation-driven Entrepreneurial Advantage) Week, and most recently developed a new joint course with MIT’s School of Engineering to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers to become Chief Technology Officers. She has also set up an ‘Innovation Engineering’ course which offers students practical and academic insights into effective leadership of innovation in start-ups, large corporations and the public sector.
In Fiona’s most recent research, she and her colleagues and students have examined the ways in which women and other under-represented groups are engaged in or excluded from innovation. To give an example, her research showed that even when women and men presented identical start-up pitches, the women were scored as less persuasive and less competent. In more recent studies of scientists, even under anonymous evaluation, female scientists were 16% less likely than men to score highly on grant proposals. Fiona’s research, published in a 2019 paper that made headlines, revealed that this could be explained by their communication choices. There will doubtless be plenty of well-chosen words to interest us at the upcoming Merton in the City Association event, as Fiona is a panellist, alongside The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP (1993).
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a student, what was your first impression?
I was overawed by how pretty it was but happy I had chosen a college that was small (even though the gardens were large and the walk from Rose Walk seemed very long on cold mornings!)
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
I remember as a fourth-year chemist doing my Part 2, getting a knock on the door and the Senior Steward (Mr. McCrostie I think, although I never did know how to say his name), came to tell me I would be the Senior Postmaster in Formal Hall and I would have to read the College Grace. I wondered what had happened to all my illustrious ’86 classicists and other friends. But I made it through somehow. The other memory is a rather challenging chemistry tutorial with my close friend and tutorial partner Simon Ancliffe (1986) when I asked a question and got a rather withering look and a retort reminding me that “protons are assumed”. It was a bonding moment!
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I am not very good at these sorts of questions. Most of you won’t know I am now devoted to my bernadoodle puppy, Cloudy McCloud, who was meant to be a ‘mini’ but is now 70lbs (5 stone/30+ kilos) and leaps around in the background when I am teaching online or having serious Council on Science and Technology meetings (which are often a 4:00am start for me as I live in Boston).
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?
Worry less about what other people think about you. Be comfortable with saying that you ‘don’t know’ the answer to a question (a tip that is especially useful when you are teaching). And recognise that unexpected opportunities can arise in a career that you cannot plan for, but you can remain open to possibilities especially if you seek out interesting problems and questions to work on.
Describe Merton in three words.
Challenging, warm, friendly.
Professor Murray was in conversation with her fellow alumna The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP (1993) at the 2021 Merton in the City event, held on Wednesday 23 June. They discussed the United Kingdom’s place in the world now it is outside the European Union – and specifically how entrepreneurial talents can be put to better effect in developing trade in the coming decades. Our two speakers have a multitude of experience in roles which are highly relevant to the development of UK trade and economic development, which ensured a fascinating exchange of views.