Friday, 27 February 2009

Professor Chris Abell speaks on Astex Therapeutics

It would seem that in most countries and in many cultures – there is a clear separation between good science and business. It is almost heretical in the so-called traditional institutions for eminent Professors to engage in enterprise! Well – Cambridge, being among the top Institutions on a global basis has clearly demonstrated that such a schism in thinking is medieval!
The University of Cambridge is celebrating its 800th year birthday and the 200th year of Darwin – all in 2009! And within this context it is refreshing to see and hear a speech that flicks eminently between deep science – stuff that gets published and cited in journals of the highest standard and enterprise that results in raising some $100m venture capital while creating a pipeline of deals with the pharma industry worth over a $1 billion!
How did all this happen? First and foremost – have a big idea – even if it is not entirely clearly articulated or developed. Secondly – gather up the world’s leading scholar – stardust in academic terms. Talk to investors who understand your science and the big idea and set about helping you to shape the big idea into a proposal that can be made to happen.
So – is there luck in this? Maybe – if you think about timing and the economic environment. After all you have to have a bubble you can ride on to raise money relatively easily. But in reality so many great companies have been formed in a downturn – it would seem that a big idea and a great team are far greater influencers of success.
What did a scientist learn from “doing it”?
Starting small in a little office, and funds form Abingworth (venture capital) to fund a number of top quality post docs – got a “soft start” underway.
Started without any IP – and managed to get money for the idea and that the technology would develop and IP generated as a result of further good science in an enterprising environment
Interviewing in a fast growth business is hard and far more time consuming than you can imagine – and it is the scientist who has to engage in this along with other colleagues. It is such a crucial step.
The lab spaces get as cluttered as the University – it is the same mind set of scientists who are employed – but this makes people feel comfortable and “at home”.
Having people who are good economists around enables the company to see the cold winter approach in 2002 and so the burn rate was slowed to ensure that the company can survive any form of economic downturn.
Building the IP portfolio and publishing in top journal has been very satisfactory – giving the people and the company credibility in both environments.

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