Audrey and Martin Wood met at Cambridge and married in 1955. Martin was an engineer whose early passion had been mining – he had spent time as a Bevin boy in the Welsh coalmines and (briefly) became a management trainee in the vast inefficient battleground that was the British coal industry of the mid-1950s. Martin was fascinated by industry and his experience with the Coal Board made him question how the industrial experience could be improved.
Shortly after their marriage Audrey and Martin moved to Oxford, where Martin began work as a senior research officer in the Clarendon laboratory -working on high-field magnets. He was soon working in the niche area of superconducting magnets – which would later be used in MRI scanners the world over – and his expertise in the design and production of such magnets plus demand from physicists around the world led to agreement with the university that he set up a commercial business.
Oxford Instruments was formed in 1959 – the University’s first spin-out company – and went on to become a huge commercial success. In 1983 it floated on the stock market.
Their experience of creating and growing a spin-out company from scratch enabled Martin and Audrey to appreciate the challenges that faced any young entrepreneur at that time. In the early 1980’s there were still no science parks or innovation hubs. They saw how hard it was for potential spin-off companies to find suitable premises in Oxford within easy reach of the University.
The Wood’s established a ‘science nursery’ on a site called Middle Way in Summertown where Oxford Instruments had once resided –providing basic working space for four lucky young companies to thrive: including Orbit Precision Machining, Oxford Medical and Oxford Lasers.
This model was hugely successful, so when an old builder’s yard on the Oxford Instruments site at Osney Mead, complete with a variety of brick, wooden and temporary buildings, became available, Audrey and Martin bought it to create a more substantial innovation centre. Audrey named the site the STEP Centre: STEP for science, technology enterprise project. It provided small office units for people setting up in businesses, although the offices were far from glamorous:
A new way of thinking
This move got the Woods to thinking about other ways they could support small high-tech companies in Oxfordshire. There was a need for office space, but also a deficit of real management or legal training support for these burgeoning science businesses, or sound financial advice.
As a school governor, Audrey had also spotted another challenge facing the scientific landscape – there was a distinct lack of good quality, enthused science teachers in schools and the number of students studying science was decreasing rapidly.
So Audrey and Martin decided to create a new charity – the Oxford Trust – with a mission to encourage the pursuit and application of science.