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3 April, 2019 - 13:49 By News Desk

Cambridge bio cluster has talent – now we need more ambition, says Chiswell

David Chiswell

Dr David Chiswell, who recently retired as CEO of Kymab, has an enviable record in the bioscience industry having worked at Amersham, founded Cambridge Antibody Technology, been chair of the UK’s BioIndustry Association and served seven other biotech companies as chairman or director. 

Most recently he was CEO of Kymab, (a spin out from the Wellcome Sanger Genome Campus) now based at the Babraham Research Campus. 

Sarah Brereton spoke to Dr Chiswell – scientist, businessman and pioneer in the development of therapeutic antibodies – to discuss the Cambridge biotech community, how it stacks up against Oxford and Cambridge Massachusetts and the beauty of a startup.  

Is the UK life sciences industry well equipped to support both startups and established ventures?

I think we are now, yes. We have always been OK on the start-up side but there has been concern as to whether we can scale that up. There’s still a limitation there and we need more successes that we can claim as our own. The problem is not the type of companies or the financing environment; what we need is more ambition and less parochialism. 

When CAT was founded (in 1989) at the Babraham Research Campus, we were essentially in a garden shed left over from war-time prefabs which then grew to become one of the UK’s biggest success stories in biotech. At Kymab, our ambition was to grow up into a proper commercial company. We didn’t know how long that would take but that was our goal. Sometimes you feel companies don’t have that ambition. 

In the United States, you can grow companies and the chances are you’ll be bought. But a number of things have happened since my days with the BIA. I don’t think that’s necessarily always the best thing to do; if you have a platform then why not try and be comfortable with it yourself? 

During my time at the BIA we published the Cooksey Report and the first page of that was: if the UK was going to be successful then the big companies, which were CAT, Celltech and others, are going to have to be successful otherwise you don’t pull the rest through. And we were successful, but not successful enough. We were acquired. So, we didn’t grow into the big beast. 

We have the people and infrastructure in the UK now, and the biggest change is in financing. US markets used to be very twitchy about taking European companies and now they don’t care. The attitude is: “What are you doing? Can we make money out of that? Fine”. You don’t need to move your base to the US to get the next level of money so that’s a good thing. 

What is the UK’s USP in terms of life sciences? 

Without the academic infrastructure we’d be nothing. I don’t think we necessarily need to be unique, we just need to have all the facilities in place alongside the academia. 

We have the so-called golden triangle, which is a bit too far-fetched to be honest even with a new road. But certainly, Oxford to London and Cambridge to London aren’t geographically far off Silicon Valley in terms of size and there’s a high concentration of people and talent at all levels. The presence of bigger companies does help as well because they bring more seasoned people into the talent pool. 

Kymab is a good example of this. We began essentially as an academic group, and then added people from big pharma who had formal development backgrounds from the UK, Europe and the States. If AstraZeneca wasn’t here there would be fewer people to choose from. 

What makes Cambridge so successful, both in terms of nurturing the start-ups and attracting the big pharma companies?

Cambridge has always had a good science base and reputation. It’s beaten Oxford for some time on the science, and I think that’s showing now. I’ve just come back from Stockholm seeing Greg Winter get his Nobel Prize, and that’s not a rarity in Cambridge. I think that sort of thing helps enormously. 

If you look at what AstraZeneca said publicly about why they wanted to move to Cambridge, they wanted to change their culture and become much more integrated into a local academic and biotech community. I think the attraction is the hub of people here and you don’t have to persuade anyone to live and work in this city.

It’s less intense here than in Cambridge, Boston. The house prices are even worse there than they are here. People move around, it’s almost like they take their three-year options and move on to the next company. It’s actually quite difficult to recruit, and of course there’s a local pressure on salaries. I’ve been going to Cambridge MA for decades. And while the infrastructure is always going to be better over there, do I think our own infrastructure is limiting us in Cambridge? Not yet. 

We might just need to change our view of what constitutes ‘Cambridge’ because it’s always been focused on the science parks around Cambridge city. What’s the distance between Melbourn, Granta Park and Chesterford Research Park for example? It’s only a couple of miles. So, we probably need to be more inclusive.

What do you think makes the Babraham Research Campus so special?

It’s a nice site and location is a factor – people like working here. The campus is attractive and there is many an off-road cycle path to get you here! The environment makes it a nice site to be based with places to walk or have meetings on benches outside or if it’s raining in The George, an 18th Century Coaching Inn only five minutes’ walk from the perimeter.  

The offer here is really good – fully fitted out labs – and it’s a decent price for what you actually get. It’s an exciting time for Kymab with a major cancer study started and lots of new molecules coming forward. I think everything is here to be successful, including the people – every time you recruit there is an upgrade and that’s going to help in the future. 

What was it like when CAT first started at the Babraham Research Campus?
We were in The Daly lab which doubled up as an office as well. We had Australian investors and they called it the Chook Shed! Enzymatics (one of the first companies setup by Prof. Sir Chris Evans) were here too so it was a buzzy thing to do and there weren’t many of us doing it. 

Babraham had that ambition to build a science park of some sort, but they didn’t have the wherewithal to do it early on. So, I think the grant that begat these buildings was the transformation. 

Personally, founding CAT was the career role I’ve enjoyed the most. It was everything from doing the dishes to doing the deals and the experiments as well. When you have a role like that, you probably can’t ever really replicate it. There are people who I have recruited into CAT who are probably in a lot of buildings on this site and I’m proud of that.

What advice would you give to a young startup?

I could say, make sure your technology is really robust, but then we started without anything, we just developed it. So, I think the advice is “do it”. Even if it’s not the right one at the beginning, it’s more experience for the next one. Don’t expect it to be the only one that you do. There is learning all the way.

Growing companies with products in the clinic ought to be going public. Once you are public you can be a bit more expansive with your plans. Because then you aren’t spending VCs’ money which is always more expensive than public money.

What has been your greatest challenge from a career perspective? 

How do you get your first CEO role? Not everyone can establish their own company. We founded CAT because we were working with Greg (Winter) and Amersham made us redundant. We had always been looking for it and here was the opportunity to do it. 

The early days of funding were really difficult; too difficult. I’m sure it still is, but there are more people to talk to now. 

And then the challenging science-based questions; have you got the right drug line molecule? Have you put enough work into it to actually switch that and is it the right drug in the end? 

Should we wait? Because once you start having the tall poppy, it sucks all your cash. And if it’s the wrong one, then it’s going to be a fight. But of course, the funders don’t want you to do that; they want you to move to the next stage of the company. Which I think is always a challenge for science-based people. 

You can see why companies tend to be smaller because of that and you do tend to take the risk on the first product and then make sure you have got something else waiting in the wings. But you have got to move forward. 

Would you have done anything differently? 

Well, you can’t! The beauty of starting up is that you haven’t got a clue what you are doing. So, you can’t go back on it can you? Even when I left CAT after 12 years, it was the right choice at the right time for me. There are reasons for doing everything.

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