We were delighted that Sir Christopher Evans, often described as the ‘founding father’ of the Cambridge biotech cluster, opened Bench to Boardroom this month.
He had (as you would expect) bags of enthusiasm, motivation and drive and he left the auditorium gasping with his insights and revelations about what it takes to get ‘From Bench to Billions’.
Here are his key themes:
The UK Life Science industry
Some of the British science base, I think we have some brilliant basic science and brilliant ideas coming through, but there is so little money in the science base. If I hear about anyone thinking of cutting the science base or restricting its budget, I get depressed and think, “Jesus, now is the time when we should really step up the investment in British science because it’s this science that leads to enterprise, enterprise to small businesses, small businesses to the growth of the economy, jobs, revenues, profits, cash, value and excitement.
But whilst Britain has got some fabulous basic science and brilliant breakthrough ideas, they are not making it into new spin outs and start ups because they can’t as there isn’t the cash to back them. Also there is a real dearth of management, really good smart entrepreneurial management. And actually we don’t have the American flair, that’s always been an issue for us for exploiting those British scientific ideas.
The British life science industry is thwarted by lack of financial investment with a slow regulatory process which is impeding its development. If you are doing clinical developmental work rather than research (the research is fine, we are quite good at regulating research), when you start clinically developing something serious from that research, you run into a new raft of regulations.
Britain is slow at interpreting these regulations, we are just too slow. We get in the way of exploiting the novel things and it costs money to be held up all the time. So all these new companies, year after year they spend spend spend, and then waiting, waiting, waiting for some mandarin or some do-gooders who think they know it all to make the wrong decision. They don’t always listen to logic or see the bigger picture.
The UK versus the USA
When asked about comparisons between opportunities in the United States and Britain, Sir Christopher explained “At the moment when they create young companies, and I often get shown the very young companies, they are far more advanced, the young companies have got a lot more stuff in them, the scientific proofs of principle have gone through a lot more phases than in the UK labs by the time they are offered to you, and that’s why a lot more venture capitalists keep piling in to the American companies while they are not considering the British companies. It seems to me that the Americans have far more cash in the university system, well they have, we know that for a fact. They have learned to take things secretly and quietly a lot further in the laboratory and then bang, they create ‘Go-faster Inc’, and they show it, it’s very impressive to investors looking for real evidence of a breakthrough.
The Right Team
The key attributes for an entrepreneur, according to Sir Christopher, are intuition, commercial sense, opportunism, risk taking, persuasiveness and leadership – all skills and characteristics which you cannot teach, but are inherent.
Sir Christopher’s advice is to ignore glossy CVs when considering your Management Team. Employ energy, intelligence and enthusiasm, that’s something I have learned, not people with great CVs, who may have a fantastic background but are boring dullards. If they are smart, they can do anything, if they are energetic, they will do anything, if they are enthusiastic, they set fire to everything and everyone around them, and that is what makes things exciting in a business.
The next Big Challenge
He concluded “I’m always looking for a big challenge, I always tell people you need a bit of vision. I have to have some for myself and I have set myself a big vision for this year, a huge project which I am not going to tell you about – maybe next year if it is successful. I’m really going for it, I have to raise a huge amount of money to back up a huge array of research projects all at the same time and try and take this entire machine forward. I will apply all my rules best I can, assuming I can raise all of the cash, which is the biggest amount of cash that I or anyone like me has ever raised for a start-up but I am going for it. I’ve built companies worth £10m, £100m and £1bn but never built anything for ten billion, and very few people in the biotech world have actually, and nobody in Britain has ever built a biotech company from nothing to ten billion; for me that’s a pretty big challenge!
Who’s the Rising Star?
When asked to name a “rising star” company in Cambridge, Sir Christopher’s answer was Abcam. The most exciting company, the best business that I am not involved in is Abcam, a fantastic company it will go on to be worth billions. It is run by smart people and that is a business I would loved to have set up with them. I think they could grow that into a very, very big, a very profitable company. That is my number one business around here.
This article has been produced by Ellee Seymour (of Ellee Seymour ProActive PR) with the expressed permission of Professor Sir Christopher Evans
The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.