Bench to Boardroom

The life sciences sector in Cambridge is now more healthy, diverse and driven than ever before, with huge potential for entrepreneurs to transition from a scientific background into a leadership role, but what is the reality for those making the move from the bench to the boardroom?

Bailey Fisher Executive Search talked to three highly experienced entrepreneurs in the sector about what inspired them to make the move, the challenges they have faced and how they measure success.

Jonathan Milner founded Abcam in 1998 after completing his PhD in Molecular Genetics at Leicester University.  With the help of co-founder David Cleevely, Jonathan built Abcam into Cambridge’s largest biotech company, breaking the celebrated $1billion mark.   An experienced entrepreneur and investor in life sciences and high-tech start-ups, Jonathan has been involved with over 30 companies and assisted with three IPOs on the AIM market. Jonathan resigned as CEO of Abcam last year but remains involved as Deputy Chairman.  Jonathan’s other board roles include Chairman of Axol Bioscience Ltd and Non-Executive Director of Horizon Discovery Group plc and Frontier Developments plc.

Andy Richards has a track record as founder and active investor in more than 20 innovative healthcare and life sciences companies over the past 12 years.  Currently Chairman of Congenica, Abcodia, Ixico plc and Cambridge Temperature Concepts, Non-Executive Director of IESO (formerly PsychologyOnline), Arecor and founder and special advisor to Vectura plc, Andy is also Non-Executive Director of Cambridge University Hospitals, Babraham Bioscience Technologies and Cancer Research Technologies, and a founder member of Cambridge Angels.  A Cambridge University graduate with a PhD in Enzyme Chemistry, Andy spent his early career with ICI (now AstraZeneca plc) and PA Technology.  He founded Chiroscience Group plc in 1991 and remained as an Executive Director until the sale to Celltech Group plc in 1999.

Mark Treherne was appointed Chief Executive of the UKTI Life Sciences Organisation in 2012. A research scientist with a PhD in Pharmacology from Cambridge University, Mark has more than 25 years’ industrial experience in the discovery of novel treatments for diseases of the nervous system. Mark founded Cambridge Drug Discovery in 1997 and served as CEO until 2001, when he sold the company to BioFocus. Previously he was responsible for research into neurodegenerative disease at Pfizer. Mark has served on the boards of more than 15 private and public biopharmaceutical companies around the world.

Who or what inspired you to move away from the bench into a leadership role?

Jonathan “I was lucky enough to be in Cambridge and to meet by chance and serendipity David Cleevely, one of the biggest entrepreneurs, investors and mentors in the region.  I had a passion for business but I was inexperienced and David was the key person who inspired me.  He also introduced me to Stephen Thomas, at the time CEO of Geneva Technologies, which later sold to Convergys.  Stephen was incredibly helpful and became one of our early investors.” 

Mark “For me the inspiration was wanting to take new opportunities in research and basic science and do something practical with them.  I wanted to take the excitement of science and do something therapeutically useful, and to do that you need to bring lots of people together to build much bigger integrated programmes.     

In terms of inspirational individuals, one of the main figures in the field of drug discovery was Sir James Black, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 for work leading to the development of the drugs, propranolol and cimetidine, that made a difference to a huge number of people’s lives.

Andy Richards is a great enthusiast and has had key input into various businesses that I have been involved with over the years.  Also, Ian Kent who was my Chairman when I moved from Pfizer to set up Cambridge Drug Discovery.  Ian helped enormously with the transition from a scientific commercial environment to practicalities of running a small business.” 

Andy “I should say that I have never planned my career, but have taken advantage of opportunities that have presented themselves.  When I moved from the academic world into business I was influenced by a good friend who had moved from academia to ICI, now AstraZeneca. I joined an ICI R&D department looking at where you could apply biotech across the business, often in wacky areas.  It was great fun and I learned a lot.  I came to the conclusion that what makes something a success is not the science, it is what I call the techno-commercial aspects; the market, who is driving it, who are the champions, is it the right time? So I moved from ICI to PA Consulting convinced that the techno-commercial interface was where I wanted to be. I was working with corporates but increasingly US start-up ventures, and I loved that “band of brothers” mentality, that close knit attitude of you against the world.   In terms of mentors, there were plenty, particularly in the West Coast start-ups, such as the team at Affymax with John Diekman.  I loved their can do attitude.”

What are the main difficulties that you have faced when starting a new venture?

Jonathan:When you are a research scientist, you don’t realise how lucky you are in that you can focus exclusively on one area.  You are in the zone, focusing on your science.  The biggest challenge moving to running a company is the bewildering number of different things that you need to concentrate on and the speed with which your brain must switch from one to another. You may be dealing with customers, then employees, talking to lawyers, working on cash flow, then trying to recruit.  If you force yourself to practice you can do it, but it is a difficult thing for a scientist to do. I see a lot of young entrepreneurs who are scientists and want to continue to focus on the science.”

Mark: “Then as now raising money is sometimes a challenge.  It is quite easy to come up with a good idea, but less easy to persuade other people to invest in that idea.  Getting investors on board and getting people aligned with your vision can be challenging.”

Andy: “It is not that hard to start a new venture. The hard thing is making a new venture fly.  That is the challenge.  Things have changed since 1991 when I set up Chiroscience, but the key to success is still having a great team. When you have that it is very compelling.

Leadership is really hard. Being a CEO is a tough, often thankless role. I have seen lots of different leadership styles that work successfully, the ones I like best are those that have a leadership team with complementary skills and attitudes but who together still gel.

For me the challenge in Life-sciences, but also the fun thing, is doing stuff that’s difficult – the intellectual challenge of developing new strategies in constrained value chains. At the moment I am particularly pleased with IESO, a very interesting business model and one that we seem to have got right.  We have succeeded in getting new technology into the NHS and benefiting UK patients. Everyone told us that was impossible but we have done it.  Likewise with Congenica and Abcodia, formulating new models that no one has quite tried before, and in both cases the team are exceptional. The really good thing about great teams is that they know how to change a business model.  Almost every successful life science company has changed its business model.”

How and when did you learn the new skills to lead and grow a company?

Mark “For me it was mostly learning on the job, learning from others on a day-to-day basis.  When I moved from the academic world and to Pfizer, they had a great formal training programme, but didn’t prepare you for setting up small companies, where you are learning on your feet. I have learned that you must be prepared to draw on your board and don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it.”

Andy “In my case it was very organic.  Of course I did management training at ICI, but then I came to Cambridge to join PA Consulting, which was like doing an MBA on the run.  I saw lots of different working styles and cultures; I learned how to manage projects and how to sell.  In striving for the “band of brothers” attitude of the West Coast start-ups, I have learned organically as I have gone along. I have learned from my weaknesses and my strengths.  I have learned that however difficult it may be, you need to work with people who complement you.”

Jonathan: “There is so much overlap between entrepreneurship and leadership.  In my case, the seed from which the leadership grew was the ability to articulate the vision of the company and get people to buy into that vision. If you are very entrepreneurial and passionate about an idea you will naturally persuade other people to want to be a part of that and to invest money.  If you have belief in the project and the company and can communicate that, people will want to follow.”

What motivates you?  Is it peer recognition, financial return?

Jonathan: “It is not financial return. The entrepreneurs I know are not primarily interested in financial return. The most successful entrepreneurs are obsessive with almost a sense of injustice that the world doesn’t provide the service they want.  True entrepreneurs get immensely frustrated with the world. At the moment there is huge potential in genetic testing and it is not being applied.  I feel huge frustration about this.

Peer recognition is a great motivator. Entrepreneurs have an ego and like that to be recognised.  Financial return comes as a consequence of these things, but is not the motivator.”

Andy “What I do now is build leadership teams and try to evolve new business models.  That is very satisfying. The motivation is succeeding in doing something hard. The satisfaction is doing that with a great team and then watch those individuals, often together, succeed again and again.

My main motivation is doing something that is really meeting an unmet medical need, where the output is likely to genuinely benefit lots of patients I am now much more focused on that. If I get that right, financial success and recognition should follow and for that, if I am working with other people, there needs to be a win/win alignment.  I hate to gain from the loss of others.”

Mark The motivation is taking an idea and turning it into a commercially viable proposition which produces better healthcare outcomes.  We are facing huge challenges with an ageing population and ever increasing chronic disease burden. We need more disease-modifying therapies. Financial return for shareholders is important, of course, but the real motivation is enabling better healthcare outcomes.”

What does success look like to you?

Jonathan: “That is a good question.  One thing that I have found in really driven and successful entrepreneurs is that they don’t think they are successful or that they have made it. They are always looking for the next challenge.  Always want to be fighting and battling to get things off the ground. For me personally, I like to see companies that prosper and are making a difference in the world.  And that is a difference for all the stakeholders, including the customers and the employees.  To see happy, remunerated employees is a great thing. There is also the satisfaction of contributing to the larger UK economy.”

Mark “Success for me is producing a therapeutic product – or a service that enables a therapeutic product to work, by benefiting patients, whilst also making sure that it is a commercially viable proposition for the shareholders.  If it’s not, they will not want to be involved a second time.”

Andy “For me success is patient benefit. Arakis and Vectura achieved this with Seebri and Ultibro;    now really helping COPD patients in large numbers across the world. 

IESO no helps people with mental illness in the UK and has the potential to do this internationally.  Its technology can make a difference to fine people living wretched lives because of mental illness, depression or anxiety, and success is being able to tick off the increasing number of patients being helped.

Recently I have joined the board of Cambridge University Hospital Trust, to help understand how to translate healthcare innovation to UK NHS patients. It is frustrating when I see some of the innovations I have worked on being used elsewhere in the world when often UK patients are the last ones to benefit.”

How does the life science market differ now to when you were moving away from the bench?

Mark “When I moved from a large company to start a small business in 1997, it was still seen as a risky thing to do.  Four of us moved from Pfizer with no support and no money to start a biotech company and that was still seen as unusual.  People thought we were a bit crazy.  In those days people either worked in academia or in larger companies. Now the small company route is seen as more of a regular career path.

The Cambridge cluster is special.  In my view it has been a privilege to work in this great cluster.  It is not the only one, but it is one of a number of great clusters in the world.  It is that concentration of people, ideas and enthusiasm that make it special.”

Jonathan: “The difference is that the sector today is by an order of magnitude more exciting and with more opportunities than ever before. That is because success breeds success. In 1998 things came together. Alec Broers, Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely amongst others set the scene.  There was still quite a battle to get away from the old model – we are academics and don’t sully ourselves with money issues. But that has changed enormously with companies like ARM, Abcam, CSR and Horizon. People now see the opportunity to start their own business.

Despite massive infrastructure and traffic problems, Cambridge is attracting people to relocate to the city and we can now get the commercial individuals to live here; the CFOs, the marketing & sales people.  These people are now coming across from the West Coast of the US to be in Cambridge. 

I can’t stress too highly the importance of having mentors. The people who have been there, done that and are then willing to give back the time. What goes around comes around.  We now have that critical mass in Cambridge.” 

Andy “The Cambridge ecosystem is fantastically more diverse, driven and healthy than ever before, and that is a joy. 

Diversity is very important and this is something that has happened quite recently in the sector. The biotech models were all about therapeutics and financing companies then flipping them to big pharma. That model works, although it has its challenges, but it is a narrow model.  Now there are many more diverse models of building businesses and helping patients.  The personalisation of medicine is coming and that is as much about data and software as it is about very targeted genomics medicines.

The great thing about the flexible ecosystem in Cambridge is that titles don’t matter so much; the team can be virtual or part time. Pulling those things together is now so much easier that it used to be, and there is a pool of people here who have done it before.  But, as a life science sector we have all got a bit old, our progression will be enhanced by bringing in youth alongside serial experience, and that will keep regenerating that pool.”

Bailey Fisher Executive Search is an independent executive search firm specialising in building boards and leadership teams for ambitious companies in technology, life sciences and healthcare.

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Our guest speaker is Edwina Dunn, Co-founder of dunnhumby, creator of the Tesco Clubcard, an innovation that transformed Tesco, doubling its market share in little over a year, and changed retailing forever.  Edwina’s desire to drive change and create impact led to the growth of dunnhumby over 12 years from a team of 2 to 1500 employees reaching 350m customers in 25 countries.

Edwina is a Trustee of the Science Museum Foundation and received an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from the University of Derby in 2012. She is also a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge and Chair of Your Life –  a campaign to ensure young adults in the UK have the maths and science skills needed to succeed in the current competitive global economy. It looks to inspire young people, to study maths and physics as a gateway into wide-ranging careers whilst also triggering employers to recruit and retain this talent.

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