Britain’s battle to make life science count

Life Sciences
| The European | 11th September 2014
Nathan Nagel, CEO, LifeScience Ventures Ltd and Health E-Games Ltd

Nathan Nagel, CEO, LifeScience Ventures Ltd and Health E-Games Ltd

Winning in a multi-party competitive landscape can be achieved through a non-zero sum strategy. However, the mean intellect of humans globally has not yet evolved to a point where people truly co-operate on a large scale, as achieved through non-zero sum strategies and behaviours.

Meanwhile, we continue to compete/fight with each other on many fronts. Economics is a good example. It is well accepted that nations stand or fall on their economic health status, which can only thrive with a sustainable strategy whereby the people of the nation contribute to the country’s net wealth.

The UK has a variety of sectors contributing to the economy. One of the rising stars is the life science industry. This sector needs to rapidly become self-sustaining. In the UK, the financial industry is the major cash cow. Although undeniably central to the UK economy, at times some of the major players in this industry do appear to demonstrate signs of developing “mad cow disease”.

Investment strategy

The life science sector needs the right environment and a fresh (more collaborative) approach, and all the ingredients, to grow and thrive. I am not suggesting throwing more money at the problem. This would be no different to expecting a starving man to survive by just giving him a fish; he needs to be taught how to fish. The current situation within the UK life science industry is that the government gives out plenty of grants (ie fish) but currently the UK life science sector is generally not as successful as it is in the US at fishing and landing big fish investors.

“Invest in our company, between six of us we have 10 BScs, 20 honorary BSs, 12 MScs, 6 PhDs, our invention has no competition and we don’t need any help with our business plans.” This of course is not how every UK life science company approaches fundraising, yet maybe as a nation if we are really honest with ourselves, it might be how a fair percentage of UK life science start-up companies operate.

The current life science events and media talk about, “lack of funding in the UK” yet the investors (angels and VCs), hold a dichotomous view. They say that there is, “lack of investment in worthy companies in the UK”.

By this, the investment community is not implying that the UK does not produce exceptional science (the UK is a world leader in life science research) but rather that the science is just one of many factors that makes a company worthy of investment.

Although the investment criteria, motives and style of engagement, often differ between business angels and VCs, they do share the common ground of wanting to make a multiple of 5-10 return on their investment within 3-4 years. So why is there a huge disconnect between the investment community and the life science community? You will of course have your own theory, but please allow me to offer mine:

The disconnect exists because of a culture clash that has evolved over time. The first UK university was established around the 1200s and the concept of investing capital for gain began in the 1900s with wealthy individuals, seed business angels, investing in theatre productions for pleasure and profit. Towards the 1930s family fund investing started to take place and was led wealthy families such as the Wallenbergs, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Rockefellers, and Warburgs. A little later, in the 1950s, the Venture Capital industry was born in the USA, ushered in by two American companies: American Research and Development Corporation and JH Whitney & Company. With this couple (the university and the investor community) the 700 year age difference means that there may be a need for a Google translator app! The two parties are thinking, speaking, and behaving in a totally different manner to each other – they exist in different cultures and are influenced by different values.

One could argue that the UK life Science community values qualifications above all else, as that’s what the UK have always been good at. However, let’s remember that not all science is equal when measuring its contribution to national economic growth. In 2013 UK University scientists Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford, David Roberts, and Colin Morgan won the IG award where they spent research funds on discovering that “the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again”. Now forgive me, if I sound cynical, but it sounds like another case of mad cow disease setting in again.

On a more positive note, there are many examples of world-leading research in the UK. For example, Professor Shankar Balasubramanian’s work in the applications of chemistry to biological and medical sciences; he is also the principal inventor of the next generation DNA sequencing methodology. There are many more examples of scientists making significant contributions to the UK economy. These include, Dr Alan Gibbs, Dr Hermann Hauser, Professor Andy Hopper, Reverend Ron Lancaster and Professor Alison McConnel. In addition, Oxford and Cambridge are third and fourth in the 2013-2014 Times Higher Education World University Rankings in Life Sciences. My point is that some science makes for great journal reading but has little prospect of being translated into useful products. There needs to be more awareness of the importance of translational research so that life science knowledge is efficiently and effectively translated into IP and commercially viable products. This will create wealth for the UK and (hopefully) help society and the world at large. This of course is not an article against basic science, but when we have a national economic deficit, it follows that we should focus on using our world leading talent on scientific endeavours with a clear benefit and economic return.

Pitching for business

It is clear that one of the UK’s strengths is its world leading academic capacity, yet the very use of the word “selling” would have academics’ mortar boards falling off their heads in fear. “Selling” is often classed as a dirty word in the UK. I suspect that when a large number of British people hear the word “sales”, they imagine the scenario of a door-to-door gas and electric sales rep propping a pensioner’s door open with his foot while signing her up to switch gas supplies in an electric-only bungalow. By contrast, in the USA, the word “selling” has the respect it deserves. Let’s remember that pitching for investment is selling a concept that if the investor invests their money, they will get a return on their investment in the future. As any good sales person will tell you: when selling you don’t just focus on the product details but the whole package, which is analogous to selling a balanced team. At this point you may think I am trying to teach academics how to sell, which I am not, but hold your thoughts and I will continue. In a highly war-like competitive environment like sales / pitching for funds, perhaps the UK culture could take a few lessons from the ancient Chinese culture embodied at its peak by Sun Tzu and captured in his book The Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun Tzu’s teaching could be used to help the UK’s life science ecosystems. This includes the imperative psychosocial cultural shift in accepting that pitching for funds is selling and maybe, just maybe, the chief scientific officer is not the best person to lead the commercial charge. For success in this competitive world, academic prowess is not sufficient and other, equally important, abilities need to be deployed.

There is room for improvement. Most PLC corporations know that a company is a melting pot of people with a variety of skills and abilities. Successful companies know the importance of a balanced team. In utilising the skills of HR and Talent Leadership specialists, such as Stephen McCafferty from LifeScience Ventures Ltd, they weave together the kaleidoscope of values and cultures to create successful ecosystems inside companies. As the UK media talk about “UK plc” maybe it’s about time to connect with the engagement specialists and craft a culture where the deep scientific values embrace the value of “management, management, management” so that as a fishing nation the UK can attract big fish investors to UK shores.

About the author
Nathan Nagel is the CEO of LifeScience Ventures Ltd and Health E-Games Ltd. His career spans: Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology, Diagnostics and digital health. He was self-employed in his teens and started his first limited company at 28. Nathan does not hold a BSc, MSc, MBA or a PhD, but has achieved eighteen successful years in business at the age of 35. Nathan now speaks at universities on entrepreneurship.

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