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13 November, 2019 - 11:34 By News Desk

Cambridge biotech luminaries deliver masterclass on hiring and investment

Dr Jane Osbourn and Dr Andy Richards are two of the most prominent biotech names in the Cambridge life science cluster, writes Sarah Brereton.

Dr Osbourn, a scientist, chair of the BioIndustry Association, and most recently appointed as chair of Cambridge-based cell therapies company Mogrify, has more than 30 years’ experience in biologics discovery and development. 

Awarded an OBE this year for services to drug discovery, development and biotechnology she has made a significant contribution to the discovery and development of eight marketed drugs and over 40 clinical candidates.

Dr Richards, a founder, director and active investor in more than 25 innovative healthcare and life science companies, has an enviable track record as an entrepreneur specialising in healthcare and life sciences. 

He is chairman of Arecor, Congenica, Abcodia and Closed Loop Medicine as well as being a director of Owlstone Medical, Ieso Digital Health and Cancer Research Technology (the commercial arm of CR-UK).

Dr Osbourn and Dr Richards also sit on the Babraham Bioscience Technologies board. BBT shapes, develops and manages the Babraham Research Campus.

I spoke with Dr Osbourn and Dr Richards on the first day of the 2019 [email protected] accelerator programme in front of an audience of the five winning science startups, (CCBio, MicrofluidX, Reflection Therapeutics, Shift Bioscience and TropoFour Therapeutics) about their personal experiences, the evolution of the Cambridge Cluster and their advice for today’s startups.

The 2019 [email protected] winners

Surprisingly, both Andy and Jane confess to not having a career plan when they first started out. 

“In the mid-eighties, the whole culture and world of innovation was different,” said Andy. “No-one talked about entrepreneurs, no one went on entrepreneur courses, no one aspired to be an entrepreneur. 

“I never had a plan; I just did what seemed like the right thing to do at the time. My biggest worry back then was that biotech was all going to be over, and that I had missed the bus.

“I got absolutely obsessed with the culture of the American startups that were occurring mostly on the West Coast at that time and became interested in the fact that things succeeded not because the science was great or the research was great, but because they were the right thing at the right time with the right team and hit a market need.

“Within three months of leaving my first biotech success, Chiroscience, I had thrown myself into four start-up companies and that was because people came to me with great ideas and ambition and wanted to do great things. 

“That’s what I’ve been doing ever since; as an investor, as a friend, as a mentor, as an adviser. Now it’s more than 30 companies and it’s still about the people and the opportunity.”

The sense of not having a plan mapped out is echoed by Jane who came to Cambridge as an undergraduate: “The nearest I came to a plan was ‘I’m going to learn molecular biology’, and I believed I would have an academic career. 

“I never really thought I would go into biotech. Now, I am really passionate about the UK as a centre for biotech and want to make sure that we are doing the best to develop the Cambridge cluster’s work. This is a fabulous place with great opportunities.”

But it wasn’t always like that, says Andy: “In the 80’s things were very siloed. There was academia, there was industry and there were investors, but not many. 

“Nothing was open and no one talked across silos. But in Cambridge at that time there were a couple of things that were different. First, there was always lots of scientists around. Then one or two places like the Babraham Research Campus started offering space to some of the early biotech companies. 

“And technology companies were growing here, like Cambridge Consultants, with a bunch of staff who learnt how to market and sell. So, the combination of the science and technology knowledge and the space and business development skills led to the formulation of the early tech and life science companies.

“I saw a whole set of companies trying to do really ambitious things elsewhere and I was inspired. Not so much by the ambitious things that they were trying to do, but the style and outward energy with which they did it. 

“It was really infectious and I had the realisation that when you got those teams right, the companies were fantastic.”

Cambridge Cluster

Jane came into the academic environment in Cambridge in the mid-eighties and says R & D back then was very purist: “There was pride in it being academic and it was a slight to associate it with business and making money. There wasn’t that entrepreneurial mindset and I wasn’t aware that there was a Cluster. The connections weren’t yet made and there weren’t the success stories either.”

Gradually, she started to make connections and saw the nucleus of the Cluster start to expand: “The thing that really struck me as I went through that journey was that actually people were very open to having conversations and making those connections and being very generous with time. 

“That’s the thing that has stayed constant throughout the development of the Cluster - people being generous with ideas and thoughts. There’s a genuine thirst for knowledge and for doing something long-term that actually makes a difference, and I think that was there in the beginning but it was just not very well understood.

“The biggest influence on me was moving from academia to Cambridge Antibody Technologies where the whole leadership team had this shared sense of bold ambition and a really clear objective coupled with people driving the pace at every level in the organisation. There was a sense of urgency and it was real. 

“We had phases where we had three months money in the bank and if we didn’t deliver we weren’t going to exist. That sense of pace and ‘every second matters’ when you are in a commercial environment was a big influence.”

Cambridge Antibody Technology

Both Jane and Andy agree that there were growing pains for the sector in the early days.

Andy says: “The pioneers were very driven, the type of people who could sell visions. Selling visions is great, but these people needed to have people sitting next to them to tell them not to go too far. 

“But because it was so new, no one knew what ‘too far’ was and so you ended up with sets of very charismatic people who often had all sorts of flaws, as well as strengths, in an environment that didn’t have the checks and balances and constraints. Well, read ‘Bad Blood’ about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes to understand what can happen!”.

Jane experienced the flip side of this but says there’s a good middle ground: “From my experience, we didn’t always sell ourselves as competitively as we should. Perhaps a slightly modest, British approach which would underplay the research, for example ‘we think our technology is probably worth about three million’ and it turns out that these people would have actually paid ten times that!

“It’s about having the right, balanced team. You need the charismatic person but then you also need the lab expert and that buffering middle management which is essential when you start scaling. It sounds a bit prosaic but, good management is really, really important. Hire the best you can.”

Andy agrees: “In the early days of my first company, when we started scaling, the one thing we did brilliantly was hiring good people and we gave them responsibility. 

“When we got to 200 staff I remember sitting down with CEO and CFO and realising there was now a set of 15 people who actually ran the company. We’d empowered them to make the decisions and that was really important and something to aspire to. Build a company with people who are better than you.”

Cambridge has since become home to one of the most successful biotech clusters in Europe and has attracted world-leading companies to set up operations here.

Jane says: “The cluster has evolved because of those serendipitous interactions in an interdisciplinary environment that only happen because of the close physical proximity. Cambridge has an impressive R & D base, a strong university, some great consultants and lots of talented scientific, technical and commercial people who work in a spirit of generosity. 

“If you talk to Sir Hugh Pelham or someone at the LMB (the MRC laboratory of Molecular Biology), they would say the reason they have generated so many Nobel Prizes is that they give people the time and space to have a long-term vision and ambition. That’s indicative of the sector as a whole; it’s motivated by a genuine interest in science and doing something that makes a big impact long-term. 

Andy adds: “This is the best place to work in life science because it’s concentrated, dynamic, ambitious and full of high-performing people. The cluster is a low-risk environment for an individual to take a high-risk which goes hand in hand with the fact that clusters are tolerant of failure. 

“You end up with a lot of recycle which is really important - the recycle of talent, ideas, technology. It’s also competitive but supportive; people are unbelievably generous with their time. Don’t abuse that generosity but exploit it to the maximum and give it back when people ask for your expertise.”

Compared to elsewhere in the world, there’s one thing about the Cambridge  cluster that Andy and Jane say needs to improve. 

“The pace is slower here than in some other clusters,” says Andy. “That’s partly due to the pace of the people but it’s also slower here because we are ingrained in an ‘it’s going to take you six to 12 months to raise money’ and that’s the norm. 

“Meanwhile, companies are raising money in three months on the West Coast of the US and that changes things - you are out-competed by pace. It’s the same in China and that’s who you are really competing with.” 

Jane’s experience leads her to the same conclusion: “There is a bit of complacency in our cluster. We are all now working in a global market and you have to benchmark what you do against other leading clusters worldwide, not just in the UK. 

“It is a real eye-opener going to China; we need to learn from them, collaborate and keep up to be competitive.”

Babraham Research Campus


So, where do Jane and Andy think the focus will be in the next decade? Jane says it’s about looking at the biggest unmet needs: “The big challenges are neurodegeneration, keeping well and self-therapies. 

“I am converted to the idea that what we need to focus on is staying well. If you can understand the mechanisms of why some people don’t get disease, the better chance you have at a more successful intervention. 

“A lot of the data collection and understanding of how people evolve from being well to moving into a diseased state is all there at our fingertips now, and if we can’t make the most of that over the next five to ten years then I don’t know when we will.

“I think cell therapies and cell reprogramming are areas of growth along with gene editing and there is great opportunity of the intersect between the tech and the bioscience - digital health – which has the prospect of being truly disruptive.”

On the subject of digital health innovation in Cambridge, Andy is optimistic and says Cambridge is perfectly positioned: “At Cambridge station, the first building you see has three floors of Amazon and they are doing healthcare; the next building is the Microsoft Research Centre and they’ve got labs in their building; at the end of the road is Apple and they’re doing healthcare research, as is Samsung. 

“The concentration, the high level of performance and the interaction between the tech and the life science community is all here. I am hugely enthusiastic about this, but I worry about those people who don’t open their eyes to the way that business models are going to change around healthcare and innovation because of this.”

Jane adds: “They are going to do something disruptive, whether we, from the life sciences community or classical perspective like it or not. We had better damn well partner with them and work out how we do something genuinely creative and meaningful together.”

Looking to the future of the Cambridge Cluster, Andy and Jane are clear about the direction of travel, particularly to affect that pace of change to create and deliver tangible societal benefit.

“I think we’ve intellectualised entrepreneurialism into an ‘MBA style’ book of how a biotech company grows,” says Andy. “We tend to draw our business models and plans and financing strategies in a linear way and it’s not the way that companies really succeed.

“Companies are being formed in Boston and within three years they have raised three hundred million, floated on NASDAQ and have five programmes, two of which are in phase two in the clinic - they have not done that in a linear fashion. We mustn’t get trapped into the linear model which is slow and exacerbates that pace problem.”

Societal benefits 

Jane is particularly passionate about making the most of the opportunities we have on our doorstep: “We need to talk about the societal benefits better and the impact our work has. We need to talk about the medicines we make and the benefits to patients and build relationships and engagement with the broader societal areas around Cambridgeshire.

“We have to start explaining that we are here to make people better, here, in the local area. We mustn’t sit in this Cambridge bubble of hi-tech science. 

“The investment that we are making in R & D in Cambridge needs to be translated into healthcare benefits for people who live in surrounding towns and villages, and that’s how we’ll end up being more encompassing socially. 

“The absolute turning point in my career was that first time I met a patient whose life had been changed by a drug we’d made. 

“It’s the most rewarding thing and that’s the thing to focus on, the end game, and that’s why I’m passionate about that patient engagement piece.” 

This patient-centric approach is also endorsed by Andy: “If you are in healthcare innovation, it’s important to engage with patients and the NHS to bring that whole loop closer together and help make the NHS a hub of innovation.

“That’s one of the advantages of being a small company - you can engage with patient groups in a way that big companies have a problem doing as they have all sorts of regulations around doing that.

“Whenever I get involved in new therapeutics, I always go and see the patients. You never know actually what matters until you’ve talked to patients. It really transforms the way you think about what the whole point of this is.”


On hiring

Jane: “Hire people that you like and that you can work with, and that are technically really, really strong. Hire people with a sense of humour, with a positive attitude who can bring ideas and challenge you a little with an open mind. As you scale, then you need to think about more tailored skills.” 

Andy: “You need a set of complementary skills and personalities that can work together. Someone has to be able to sell, it doesn’t matter who it is, it could be the finance person or the chief scientist; someone has to be able to project manage; someone has to be able to tell people ‘actually, no, this isn’t going to work’; and someone has to be able to keep the humour level up when everything really seems bad.” 

On investors

Andy: “The bad investors are the investors that don’t have any money and aren’t investing and there are lots and lots and lots of those. Be very careful of people who tell you they’re an investor and actually aren’t investing, because they waste an enormous amount of time. 

“The biggest challenge of small companies and the investor world is that there is just a mass of different investors doing it for different reasons with different views on life. The key thing with investors is to understand them individually. 

“You want investors who are on the journey with you rather than being ‘I invested in that business plan and stick with that business plan’. That’s a danger. The worst situation is to have sets of investors who are not aligned with each other which can lead to investor warfare.”

On boards

Jane: “The boards have to be a robust but helpful challenge to the management team and ask those really bold questions. They should also help to create new connections and business opportunities.”

Andy: “The board is important, but the board doesn’t run the company. Its contribution in the early days is different to the contribution as it scales up, and different to the contribution it makes when it gets big. 

“Sometimes, there are people that are the right people to stay all the way through that journey, but very often it’s a very different board you need at that point. What we aspire to is having the one that pushes you as a critical friend.” 

On failing

Jane: “Good failures are important and we should talk about them a lot more. You get rewarded for delivering a product to the market, but you should also be rewarded for creating the knowledge that enabled that. You may run 10 projects and eight of them fail but, the two that succeed only succeeded because of what you’ve learnt about the eight that failed. 

“The key is sharing the learnings and having good decision trees. I’ve been a champion of projects that supposedly failed and occasionally I’ve managed to resurrect them. Create a culture where it is celebrated that you have reached a milestone of ‘actually this mechanism is flawed’ or ‘there is this off-target issue’ and embrace that. 

“Create an environment where you are enabling that decision tree and always have a mitigation plan if that decision tree doesn’t work out. It’s all about brave decision making. The worst thing you can do is not make a decision.” 

Andy: “If I look at things that have failed it’s more often been timing; timing is everything. I have historically been ahead of the wave and done things which failed because they weren’t the right thing at the right time and subsequently someone has done them brilliantly later. Understanding timing as an entrepreneur is a really key thing.”

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