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27 October, 2020 - 21:31 By Tony Quested

University mourns death of Cambridge dontrepreneur Chris Abell

Chris Abell Cambridge University

Noted Cambridge dontrepreneur Professor Chris Abell, who co-founded global life science company Astex among other corporate gamechangers, has died at the age of 62.

A biological chemist, Professor Abell was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor of Biological Chemistry and Todd-Hamied Fellow of Christ’s College.

He was a pioneer in the field of fragment-based drug discovery, a successful entrepreneur, a founding director of Cambridge Enterprise and the university’s first Director of Postdoctoral Affairs.

A major focus of his highly interdisciplinary research in the Department of Chemistry was to understand the mechanisms of key enzymes and develop approaches to their inhibition, an approach that could lead to new treatments for diseases such as tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis and cancer.

The advances he made in fragment-based drug discovery led him to co-found Astex, a world-leading company in this area, in 1999. Fragment-based approaches are now adopted throughout the pharmaceutical industry and in many academic laboratories.

He also made major contributions to the development of microfluidic microdroplets as a platform for experimental science, with applications in cell biology, chemistry and materials science. This interest resulted in the co-founding of Sphere Fluidics in 2010 and Aqdot in 2013.

Chris was an undergraduate and postgraduate student at St John’s College, Cambridge, before conducting postdoctoral research at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was named a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2012 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016.

Business Weekly chief executive Tony Quested interviewed Chris, a son of the soil, for our Cambridge Torchbearers book in 2015.

We wrote: “Brought up on a farm in Yorkshire, Chris Abell has proved true to his stock by ploughing fertile territory as one of Britain’s most successful life science entrepreneurs. 

“As co-founder of the globally respected Astex Therapeutics, Akubio, Sphere Fluidics and the exciting young venture, Aqdot – all from a springboard within academia – Professor Abell is also one of Cambridge University’s most assured ‘Dontrepreneurs.’

“His first foray into the world of business came In 1999 when he co-founded Astex, which used fragment-based drug discovery technology to discover cancer therapeutics, with Sir Tom Blundell and Harren Jhoti.

“In 2001, Chris co-founded Akubio, which developed biosensors for detecting bacteria and viruses; it was acquired by Inverness Medical Innovations in 2008. Then, in 2010, he co-founded Sphere Fluidics to develop microdroplet technology and two years later Aqdot, a company developing a new microencapsulation technology.

“Take a deep breath and consider this statistic: He has so far published more than 200 papers. And his research interests cover a broad church – vitamin and amino acid biosynthesis as targets for the rational design of antimicrobials; fragment-based approaches to enzyme inhibition; bacterial and plant riboswitches; reactions in microdroplets; and biological nanotechnology.

“Chris had a high work ethic from his youth. He says: ‘I was brought up on a farm in Yorkshire so understood how a business works from an early age. Forming my own business had been an ambition for several years before a real opportunity arose. My main motivation – frustration – was that I wanted to do more ambitious science than was possible with standard research grants.’

Chris was a Reader in the Department of Chemistry, Cambridge, carrying out research in mechanistic enzymology and was about 40 when he and his co-founders “made the decisive move” by forming Astex.

They secured funding from Abingworth and Oxford Bioventures (working together) and Chris observes: “We were fortunate to be starting a company in the late 1990s.

“The due diligence process certainly seemed to go on for a long time. Each successive fund raising was stressful. Fortunately for me, Harren as a founder and the first CEO dealt with most of the issues and many frustrations. It helped that we made some excellent early recruits and were very thoughtful about what we did.

“I have been particularly pleased by the way Astex has combined commercial success with high quality science, much of which has been published very well.

“There were several times in the evolution of the business when it seemed the fate of the company was too far outside areas I considered my comfort zone. These mainly related to financing.

“But the founders had each other to lean on when times got tough and we also received a lot of support from some key individuals in the industry as consultants and/or non execs.”

He acknowledged in our interview that, given his time again “there are numerous ways in which one might do things differently, but I am quite happy where I am now. 

“It would have been great to float Astex after six to eight years but the markets at the time precluded that.”

Looking at the prevailing environment in the UK for founding new enterprises, Chris believed attitudes and systems governing funding needed to be revised. 

He said: “I have found investors take a rather simplistic view about types of companies. For example, they do not seem sufficiently sensitive to different ‘service’ models. There also seems to be a shortage of investors who will come in at the £1-2 million range.

“There is often talk about whether enough of our entrepreneurs are sufficiently ambitious to scale their companies as we did with Astex. I disagree. 

“There appears to be a systemic weakness in the system and I think the problems are in part due to the funding mechanisms available. Most entrepreneurs I know do not lack ambition.”

• Professor Chris Abell (1957–2020): A digital condolences book has been set up at: www.remembr.com/professor.chris.abell

Picture credit – Royal Society

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